All Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in a single all-powerful deity that created heaven and earth. But if he was and is the only god, what for God’s name? The Bible directly tells us that God has one that indicates that it must be distinguished from other celestial beings, just as people use names to identify different people. Be that as it may, this is another matter. The Jewish ban on pronouncing the name of God means that his correct pronunciation has been lost. All we know is that in the Hebrew Bible it is written in the form of four consonants, known as the “tetragrammaton” from Greek to four letters, which are transliterated as Y-H-W-H.
The existence of God’s own name is the first sign that the history of Yhwh and his worship by the Jews is much more complicated than many understand.
In the gods we trusted
Modern biblical science and archaeological discoveries in and around Israel show that the ancient Israelites did not always believe in a single, universal god. In fact, monotheism is a relatively recent concept, even among the people of the Book.
Decades of research on the birth and evolution of the Yhwh cult are summarized in the book The Invention of God, a recent book by Thomas Rem, a world-renowned expert on the Jewish Bible and Professor of the College de France and Lausanne University. Remer, who last month held a series of conferences at Tel Aviv University, talked about this.
Stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral, showing tetragrammaton – the mysterious name of God, transliterated as YHWH. Credit: Oddworldly, Wikimedia Commons
The main source for studying the history of God is, of course, the Bible itself.
When it was the Jewish holy text that reached its final form, it is not known. Many scholars believe that this happened somewhere between the Babylonian exile, which began after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC (about 2600 years ago) and subsequent periods of Persian and Hellenistic rule.
Nevertheless, the Bible editors obviously worked with older traditions, says Remer.
Biblical texts are not direct historical sources. Römer explains the ideas, the ideology of their authors and, of course, the historical context in which they were written.
Nevertheless, he notes, you can have memories of the distant past, sometimes very confusing or very oriented manner. But I think that we can and should use the biblical text not so much as fictional texts, but as texts that can tell us stories about the origin.
What of God
The first clue that the ancient Israelites worshiped the gods, other than the deity known as Yhwh, is in their very name. Israel is a theophoric name, dating back to at least 3200 years, which includes and names the name of the defensive deity.
Walking by name, the main god of the ancient Israelites was not Yhwh, but El, the main deity in the pantheon of Canaanite, who was worshiped throughout the Levante.
In other words, the name “Israel” is probably older than the veneration of Yhwh of this group, called Israel, says Remer. The first guardian deity to whom they worshiped was El, or they were called Ishirach.
The gilt statue of El himself, from Megiddo, 1400-1200 BC. Comment: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons
The Bible seems to refer to this early worship of El in Exodus 6: 3, when God tells Moses that he appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai (today translated as “God Almighty”), but was not known by my name Yhwh.
In fact, it seems that the ancient Israelites were not even the first to worship Yhwh, it seems that they adopted him from a mysterious, unknown tribe who lived somewhere in the deserts of the southern Levant and Arabia.
God of the Southern Deserts
The first mention of the Israelite tribe itself is a victorious stele, built around 1210 BC. Pharaoh Mernethpach (sometimes called the “Israeli stele”). These Israelis are described as the people inhabiting Canaan.
So, how did this group of worshipers of El Canaanee come into contact with the cult of Yhwh?
The Bible speaks quite clearly about the geographical roots of the deity Yhwh, repeatedly linking his presence with the mountain wilderness and deserts of the southern Levant. Judges 5: 4 say that Yhwh left Seir and left the field of Edom. In Habbakuk 3: 3 it is said that God came from Teman, especially from Mount Faran.
All these regions and locations can be identified with the territory that extends from the Sinai and the Negev to northern Arabia.
The propensity of Yhwh to appear in the biblical narrative on the mountain tops and accompanied by dark clouds and thunder is also typical attributes of the deity that occurs in the desert, perhaps the god of storms and fertility.
Support for the theory that Yhwh originated in the deserts of Israel and Arabia can be found in the Egyptian texts of the end of the second millennium, in which various nomadic tribes, collectively called Shasu, inhabit this vast desert region.
One of these groups, inhabiting the Negev, is identified as Shasu Yhw (h). This suggests that this group of nomads may have been the first to receive the deity of the Jews as a guardian deity.
It is profoundly difficult to understand the haze of later layers in the Bible, but as far as possible, it remains the most plausible hypothesis for meeting Israelis with the cult of Yhwh, says David Carr, a professor of the Old Testament from the United Theological Seminary in New York.
Many faces of God
It is not known how Shasu merged with the Israelis or introduced them into the cult of Yhwh, but by the beginning of the centuries of the first millennium he was clearly worshiped both in the northern kingdom of Israel and in his smaller, southern neighbor, the Kingdom of the Jews.
His name first appears outside the Bible, almost 400 years after Merneptah, in the stealth IX century BC. E. Mesha, a Moabite king who can boast of the defeat of the king of Israel and accept the vessels of Yhwh.
Mesha Stela, telling in the Phoenician alphabet how Moab was subject to Israel, but eventually won, with the help of his god Chemosh. Original part number:
While the cult of Yhwhs was definitely important in the early period of the First Temple, it was not exceptional.
Jeremiah speaks of many gods of Judea, who are as numerous as the streets of the city. There was, of course, the worship of the female deity, Asher or the Queen of Heaven, said Haaretz. There was also the worship of the northern storm of the god Adad (Baal).
Many deities were such that in the inscription of Sargon II, which completed the conquest of the kingdom of Israel at the end of the VIII century BC, the Assyrian king mentioned that after the capture of the capital of Samaria, his troops returned (statues) to the Gods, in which (the Israelis) trusted.
When the cult of Yhwh evolved and spread, he was worshiped in temples throughout the earth. Finds of the early VIII century, found in Cuntilla Ajrud, probably belong to different gods and cult centers, referring to the Yhwh of Samaria, his Asher and Yhwh of the Teman and his Asher. Only later, under the rule of King Josiah at the end of the 7th century. BC, the cult of Yhwh centralizes worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Phoenician figure, probably from the Canaanite goddess Astarte (also known as Asher), VII c. BC. Original part number: Luis García
In ancient Israel there was also no invisible deity, which the Jews refrained from depicting in the last two millennia or so.
In the kingdom of Israel, as Hosea 8 and 1 Samuel 12: 26-29 tell us, he was often worshiped in the form of a calf, as was the god Baal. (1 Kings 12: 26-29 explains that Jeroboam made two calves for the sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan, so that people could worship Yhwh and not have to go to Jerusalem.) Ergo, at least in the north of Israel, Calves had to represent Yhwh).
In Jerusalem and Judea, says Remer, Yhwh more often took the form of the sun god or seated deity. Such images may have even continued after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile: the coin minted in Jerusalem in the Persian period shows the deity sitting on the wheeled throne and interpreted by some as the late anthropomorphic representation of Yhwh.
Remer even suspects that the Holy of Holies in the First Temple of Jerusalem and other sanctuaries of Judea contained a statue of God, based on the psalms and prophetic texts in the Bible that say that they were admitted in the presence of the face of Yhwh.
Not all scholars agree that the iconography of Yhwh was so expressed in Judea. Evidence for the anthropomorphic image is not strong, says Saul Olian, a professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Brown University. It is possible that the anthropomorphic images of Yhwh were eliminated at an early stage.
Reincarnation of ancient history: Celebration, then insult and burning, “golden calf”, Ein Hod, 2005. Authors: Ancho Gosh
The God of the Jews
In any case, many scholars agree that Yhwh became the main god of the Jews only after the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel around 720 BC.
How or why the Jews came to exalt Yhwh and reject the pagan gods, which they also adored, is unclear.
We know that after the fall of Samaria, the population of Jerusalem increased fifteenfold, probably because of the influx of refugees from the north. This made it necessary for the kings of Judea to put forward a program that would unite the two populations and create a common story. And this, in turn, may be the reason why biblical writers often stigmatize pagan cult practices in the north and emphasize that only Jerusalem resisted the Assyrian onslaught, thereby explaining the embarrassing fall of Assyria’s Israel while highlighting the fame and purity of the religion of the Judaites.
Religious reforms of the kings of Judea, mainly Hezekiah and Josiah, included the abolition of the occasional worship of the temple of Yhwh and the centralization of his worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the prohibition of worship of Asherah, the companion of Yhwhs and other pagan cults in the Temple and around it the capital.
Israelis do not keep faith
This transformation from polytheism into the worship of one god was carved literally on a rock. For example, the inscription in the tomb in Hirbet Bayt, not far from the citadel of Judea Lahis, claims that Yhwh is the god of the whole country; The mountains of Judea belong to the God of Jerusalem.
The reforms of Josiah were also fixed in the book of Deuteronomy, whose original version is believed to have been composed around this time and especially in the words of Deut. 6, which later forms Shma Yisrael, one of the central prayers of Judaism: “Listen, Israel, Yhwh is our God, Yhwh is one.
But while Yhwh, by the beginning of the VI century BC. E., Became our national god, he was still considered one of the many heavenly beings, each of whom defended his people and territory.
This is reflected in many biblical texts urging Israelis not to follow other gods, silently acknowledging the existence of these deities, explains Romer.
For example, in Judges 11:24, Jephthah tries to resolve a territorial dispute, telling the Ammonites that the land of Israel was given to the Israelites Yhwh, and their lands were given to them by their god Chemosh (“Will you not take what your god Chemosh is giving you? In the same way that whatever Yhwh our God has given us, we will possess. “)
A solar cart, a religious artefact of sun worship dating from the Bronze Age: the date of birth chosen for Jesus coincides with the date of the deity of the sun? Original number: Malene Thyssen, Wikimedia Commons
Tearing God out of the jaws of defeat
The real conceptual revolution probably occurred only after the conquest of Judah by Babylon and the burning of the First Temple in 587 BC. The destruction and subsequent expulsion of Jewish elites to Babylon inevitably cast doubt on the faith they invested in Yhwh.
The question was, how can we explain what happened? Says Remer. If the defeated Israelis simply admitted that the Babylonian gods had proved that they were stronger than the god of the Jews, the story would be completely different.
But for some reason, someone came up with another, unprecedented explanation. The idea was that the destruction occurred, because the kings did not obey the law of God, says Remer. This is a paradoxical reading of history: the defeated in some way says that his god is winning. This is a pretty clever idea.
The Israelites / Jews adopted the classical idea of divine wrath that could provoke a national catastrophe, but they combined it with the idea that Yhwh in his anger forced the Babylonians to destroy Judea and Jerusalem, he said.
The notion that Yhwh was pulling the strings of the Babylonians, forcing them to punish the Israelites, inevitably led to the conviction that he was not just a god of one people, but a universal deity that exercised power over the entire creation.
This idea is already present in the book of Isaiah, which is considered one of the earliest biblical texts compiled during or immediately after the expulsion. This is also how the Jews became elected people, because the biblical editors had to explain why Israel had a privileged relationship with Yhwh, although he was no longer a national deity, but the only true God.
Over the centuries, when the Bible was edited, this story was refined and strengthened, creating the basis for a universal religion that could continue to exist even without binding to a particular territory or temple. And, consequently, Judaism, as we know it, was established, and, ultimately, all other major monotheistic religions were also.