• The Problem with Yahweh #3 (Reply to Jayman)

    Jayman, occasional Christian commenter here has replied to my post, The Problem with Yahweh #2. That itself was a second part to the series started here. As a result of Jayman’s comments, I have critiqued his criticisms.

    In Deut 32:7-9 we have evidence that Yahweh was one of many gods. . . . The god most high gives the 70 nations (as they believed) to his divine sons, or council, of which Yahweh is a member.

    The Bible equates Yahweh with El Elyon (Gen. 14:22; 2 Sam. 22:14; Pss. 21:7; 83:18; 91:9; 92:1) so it is not possible to maintain that the deity El Elyon gives a separate deity, Yahweh, a nation. The divine council consists of heavenly beings but they are not equals with Yahweh (e.g., Ps. 29:1; 89:6-7).

    Well, this is pretty much the point of the original post. The question is this: What would you expect to see if you saw a religion evolve and assimilate rival religions around it? Exactly what we see in my posts about Yahweh. This is not what we would expect to see if the Judeo-Christian understanding of the Old Testament, as set out in the Bible, were true in the sense understood by biblical literalists or maximalists. After all, Yahweh does not appear until Exodus and, strangely, the god Baal is entirely absent in Genesis (which must raise questions as to why these issues arise in different books and at different times, confusingly).  The two have much in common since, as with Yahweh’s name, the real name of the Canaanite Baal (Hadad) must not be spoken. Prof. Herzog of Tel Aviv University reaches the conclusion that ISH.KUR = Hadad = El Shaddai = Baal = Yahweh – the evolution is evident within the Bible itself, as well as piecing together actual evidence from archaeology.

    As one commentator states in analysing the work of Prof. Herzog:

    This indicates, as does Herzog’s work, that the Jewish people evolved from polytheism to monotheism with the promotion of a god who had been known by a variety of names, into one supreme God, Yahweh (whose real name must not be spoken), and that they adopted for this purpose, not the supreme God of the Pantheons, El, but his son – ISH.KUR, Baal, Hadad, El-Shaddai, an entity who was in open revolt against his father El, and ultimately aided in this revolt by his mother and consort, Asherah, (also known as Baalat, Ashteroth, Elat).

    This female entity was later merged by Greek and Roman traditions into Aphrodite and Venus, and known earlier to the Egyptians as Isis.

    Once we understand this, the etymology of the name Israel – Is (either Isis or tomb) Ra (Head of the Egyptian Pantheon) El (Lord – Baal) – makes far more obvious sense than the convoluted “Yisrael” yarn from the Hebrew faith.

     The idea is that Yahweh had co-opted for him Ba’al stories. Daniel Sarlo in his essay “The Storm God versus the Sea” states:

    In a number of biblical passages, Yahweh is described as a typical ANE storm deity. The most notable comparisons have been drawn to the Canaanite god Baal known from the texts at Ugarit. Like Baal, Yahweh is a warrior who descends from his mountain-home riding a chariot of clouds. His voice is thunder and his weapon is lightning; the earth quakes and the skies release rain at his command. In primeval times he asserted his authority by defeating the sea, becoming the ruler of the skies.

    These parallels are certainly no accident;however they are unlikely to be the result of literary borrowing. Rather, they are due to the emendation of ancient texts to reflect later Israelite reforms. In short, Yahweh became the hero in certain myths that were not originally written about him. There is sufficient evidence that in the early history of Israel, Yahweh and Baal were worshipped simultaneously. Prior to the first millennium BCE there was no distinct ‘Israelite’ religion – it originated as one of many local variants of the Canaanite religion,2 a polytheistic model with Yahweh as a minor deity. Around the time of the Monarchy, the Israelites began to develop their own unique religious identity, 3 but it was not until the ninth century BCE that Baal worship became a concern to the cult of  Yahweh and kings actively sought to suppress it. This marked the beginning of the Israelite trend of rejecting their heritage, and led to the fabricated notion that their religion was the antithesis of the Canaanite religion.4 Some biblical authors like Jeremiah linked the worship of Baal to the fall of the Northern Kingdom in order to gain exclusive support for Yahwism. The cult of Baal was eventually eradicated, but not until 621 BCE with King  Josiah’s reform.5

    Jayman continues in looking at part of my last post by saying:

    Eventually, these two gods get combined, and Yahweh ‘consumes’ El Elyon’.

    Since you already admit that Yahweh is El Elyon in some passages of the Bible, how do you know Yahweh is not El Elyon in all passages of the Bible? None of your examples require that Yahweh and El Elyon are different deities. It sounds like you came up with an hypothesis to explain away the problems with your interpretation of Deut. 32.

    Firstly, this doesn’t explain the plurality of gods mentioned: the council and Elohim, a grammatically plural noun (for example, Elohim states, “Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness). Let us continue to look to the Bible itself for further evidence.  The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows:

    When the Most High (‘Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
    When He divided up the sons of man,
    He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
    According to the number of the sons of El
    But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
    Jacob His own inheritance.

    What is fascinating here is that any normal grammatical reading of this piece will clearly show that El and Yahweh are separate entities. The use of “but” separates the two entities out here. The problem is that if one has to forego the rectitude of these claims in some way; if one says that the language is metaphorical or that they do have hints of cultural context, but that this does not invalid

    The interaction of Yahweh and his followers in the context of Ba’al is complex, and detective work is required to piece together all of the information. Tim Callahan’s voluminous The Secret Origins of the Bible is a superb critical analysis of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. He states:

    Let us now apply the evidences found in the Bible, along with preserved documents and archaeological finds, to get an overview of the religion of ancient Israel. As a result of the conquest of Judah by the Chaldeans, culminating in the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, many Jews fled to Egypt. Eventually, during the Persian period, some of the Jews of the Egyptian Diaspora were settled in a military colony at Elephantine, south of Thebes near the first cataract of the Nile. There they built a temple where they worshiped Yahweh— along with the goddess Anath and two other deities called Eshem and Herem. That the worship of Yahweh was not separated from that of other Canaanite deities in some cases even after the Exile is significant but hardly surprising given evidence from the Bible itself…

    The reference to the “bull-calf Yah” at Samaria is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. First let us consider the name. Since Semitic alphabets did not originally have vowels, the name Yahweh was written, if transliterated into Roman characters, as YHWH. This is the Tetragrammaton, the unspeakable name of God. In fact, the name as it usually appears in Judah is YHW, or Yahu, and this is how the community at Elephantine wrote it. In Israel it is found as YH, read either as Yo or Yah. In other words, the golden calves (or more properly young bulls) set up by Jeroboam I—the act so excoriated by the Deuteronomist historian in 1 Kgs. 12:26-33—were representations of an aspect of Yahweh. It was common to add “Yah” or “Yahu” to the end of proper names in ancient Israel and Judah. The fairly common name Abdi, recently found on a seal identifying its owner as the “servant of Hoshea,” the last king of Israel (see Lemaire, 1995) would have been in full “Abdiyo” or “Abadyahu,” which is rendered in Protestant Bibles as Obadiah (“servant of Yahweh”), the name of both a courtier of King Ahab and one of the minor prophets.

    That Yah was not only represented as a bull-calf but that the god was not solely the god of Israel is attested to by a number of ancient artifacts and records. Among these is the inscription by Sargon II of Assyria dating from 720 BCE that he had captured Ya-ubi’di, king of Hammafh, an Aramean city north of Damascus. Ya-u-bi’di means ” [God] Yah is my help.” Thus Yah was being worshiped outside of Israel and Judah. Since we know from both the Bible and history that one of King Ahab’s contemporaries was the Aramean king of Damascus, Ben-Hadad3 whose name means “son of Hadad” and that Hadad was a storm god of the western Semitic pantheon, it is obvious that Yah was one of many gods worshiped by the Arameans and part of the pantheon worshiped by the Arameans and possibly Canaanites. In fact in 2 Kgs. 8:7-15 the Yahwist prophet Elisha is consulted in Damascus by Hazael on behalf of Ben-Hadad to see if he will recover from an illness. Elisha instead tells Hazael that Yahweh has shown him that Ben-Hadad will die and that Hazael will be king in his place. Hazael acts to help fulfill the prophecy by smothering Ben-Hadad with a damp blanket. The Amorite city of Mari on the Euphrates also has inscriptions of such personal names as Yahu-Ili and Yahwi-Haddu. These names probably do not have anything to do with the worship of Yahweh, however, since his name means roughly “he who brings into existence.” Thus Yahwi-Haddu could mean “the god Haddad causes (this child) to be.” But the same cannot be said of place names, and an Egyptian list of place names in Edom south of ancient Israel, dating from the reign of Amenhotep III (1417-1379 BCE), includes the name YHW, which would probably read out as Ya-h-wi. In fact the worship of Yahweh seems to have originated in areas south of Israel, whence it was brought by whichever tribes actually did take part in the Exodus (and these were far fewer than the 12 tribes of the initial confederation). Perhaps the most striking evidence of Yahweh being worshiped by others than the Jews and being part of a pagan pantheon is an artifact which, like the temple at Elephantine, demonstrates a late survival of the way in which Yahweh was viewed before the Exile. It is a coin from fourth century BCE Gaza which depicts Yahweh, with the inscription YHW, as a bearded man holding a hawk and sitting on a winged wheel, much the way Sumerian and Babylonian deities were portrayed (see fig. 1). These gods were essentially exalted humans much like the Olympians of ancient Greece. Further, the Sumerians had a rather technological view of how the gods could do miraculous things. How did the gods fly? Unless they were specifically represented as having wings—and most of them were not—they could not do this by themselves. Instead they had winged chariots. The graphic short-hand for a winged chariot was a winged wheel on which the god sat. The Canaanite gods were themselves often variants of Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Ashtart (Astarte) is the western version of Ishtar, and Baal is the western version of Bel. Again, this coin is a late survival of the way the Jews had viewed their god before the Exile. We must remember that Gaza was a Philistine city and that the Philistines had, even during the period of the Judges, accepted the Canaanite pantheon. Since they were not exposed to the pressures of the Exile, which forced the Jews to transform their view of God, the Philistines depicted Yahweh as he was originally viewed by the Canaanites, although the way in which the figure was dressed indicates a Greek influence. This is not surprising, since there was both kinship and political interaction between the Philistines and the Ionian Greeks. Some scholars say mat the Hebrew characters on the coin have been blurred with age and that it actually  transliterates as YHD or Yehud, the Persian province of Judah, rather than YHW. However, the posture of the figure is that of a Greek god, and the winged wheel remains a graphic shorthand for a flying chariot. Thus, even if the inscription reads “Yehud” rather than “Yaw” what is clearly represented on the coin is a deity, and the most likely identity of that deity is Yahweh, the god of the Jews. (Callahan, pp.18-20)

    In relation more precisely to what Jayman was claiming, Callahan continues:

    That Yahweh’s worship had its orgiastic aspects is not its only tie to Canaanite paganism. Yahweh is also referred to in the Bible as El, or its plural Elohim. The name El can merely mean a “god,” or can mean the specific deity. Along with being called Elohim, God is also referred to in Genesis as El Shaddai (“God Almighty” or “El the almighty” or “the god Shaddai”) and El Elyon (“God most high” or “El the most high” or “the god Elyori”). It was this latter name that was used by Melchizedek, the Canaanite priest-king of Salem who sacrificed to him on Abraham’s behalf. El was a sky god, creator and the gray-bearded patriarch of the Canaanite gods. However El was also sometimes referred to as “Bull El” in Canaanite texts. Thus we see another tie to Canaanite religion, since “Bull-calf Yah” could be equated with “Bull El” and both could be considered variants of Baal, who was also associated with bulls. Baal’s sister/lover was Anath, one of the deities associated with Yahweh at Elephantine. She is represented in Ugaritic texts as slaughtering the enemies of Baal and wading in their blood. She was also called Astarte or Ashtart in her role as a fertility goddess who was associated with Baal. Given that Anath was worshiped with Yahweh at Elephantine, and that Tammuz was the lover of Astarte, it is not surprising that women were weeping for Tammuz at the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

    The myth of Ishtar and Tammuz was transferred to Greek mythology as the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis. The Greek name Adonis was actually a variant of another name for Tammuz, Adon or Adonai, which simply means “My Lord.” In fact, when Abraham and other biblical personages refer to God as “Lord” the word often used in Hebrew is Adonai.4 The Adonai version of Tammuz, meaning Lord, is not the only name of a Canaanite god that has a general meaning that could be appropriated by any deity. Just as El could mean simply “god,” the name Baal could also be variously interpreted as “master,” “husband,” “lord,” or “prince.” In 2 Kgs. 1:2 the Israelite king Ahaziah sends a messenger to inquire of Baal-zebub (or Beelzebub, literally “lord of the flies”), the god of Ekron, whether or not he will recover from an accident. The name is most likely an insulting distortion of the god’s actual name, which would have been Baal-zebul, either “Lord of the divine abode” or “Princely Lord.” Thus it is more accurate to refer to the Baals or Baalim than to one god called Baal, and though the term is used in biblical texts to refer to foreign gods, the generality of the term could as easily encompass the god of the Jews. This is illustrated in the name of Saul’s youngest son, Ishbaal. This can be translated as “man of Baal,” but, considering that Saul was a worshiper of Yahweh, it probably means “man of the Lord,” referring to that deity and not to Baal.

    Another common appellation of a god was “king,” a word represented in the Semitic alphabet by letters equivalent to M- L-K, M-L- Ch or M- L-C. It is part of many western Semitic names such as Elimelech, Abimelech, and, of course, Molech (also spelled Moloch), that dread god to whom the Phoenicians supposedly sacrificed their children. In other variants of the name vowels were not always inserted between the L and the Ch (C), as in Melchizedek and Milcom. The latter was the god of the Ammonites. If Friedman is right, and the P document dates from Hezekiah’s reign (715-687 BCE) rather than the Exile, we must assume that sacrifices of children to Molech were common enough at that time that the author of Leviticus had to specifically condemn the act (Lev. 18:21, 20:1-5). The admonition in Deut. 18:10 that “There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or daughter as an offering” shows that the practice was still a problem in the time of Josiah (640-609 BCE). That child sacrifice was not something clandestine and effectively outlawed in pre-exilic Judah is further attested to in 2 Kgs. 16:3, where we are told that King Ahaz (735-715 BCE) burned his son as an offering. Hezekiah’s son and successor Manasseh (687-642 BCE) not only erected altars to Baal, made an Asherah and worshiped the “host of heaven,” i.e. the stars and planets (2 Kgs. 21:3), probably as the result of Assyrian influences), but burned his son as an offering as well (2 Kgs. 21:6). Another possibility, however, is that the sacrifices were not for Molech as a foreign god. According to Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from Sicily who lived in the first century BCE, human sacrifice in the eastern Mediterranean was limited to Kronos, the Greek equivalent of El. Thus, the god Molech, meaning “king,” could be an epithet for El, and neither Ahaz nor Manasseh would have seen anything wrong with the practice of sacrificing their sons to him. The condemnation of the practice by both the prophetic party and the Aaronic priesthood can be seen as a civilizing movement in the nation’s religion, a doctrine stating that human sacrifice did not honor God. Indeed, Lev. 18:21 says:

    You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD [or “I am Yahweh”].

    It’s not altogether clear how worshiping Molech, a separate god, would profane the name of either Yahweh or El. If, however, Molech (King) is just another name for God, men committing an outrage in his name would indeed profane it. The same sense of outrage at a previously acceptable rite is embedded in the Greek myth of Tantalus, who boiled his own son and tried to serve the meat to the gods. They drew away from it in horror and sentenced him to eternal torment. Yet there is graphic evidence of human sacrifice from Minoan Crete ca. 1700 BCE (see Wilson, 1985, pp. 126-127). The Minoans seem to have been part of the same culture as that of the city of Ugarit, both sharing a Canaanite pantheon out of which were derived both the Greek pantheon and the worship of the God known as El, with whom the southern deity Yahweh became identified. (Callahan, pp. 21-22)

    OK, so that’s an extensive set of quotes from Callahan, but it is important to give more than just a flavour of the complexity of teasing apart integrated mythologies. Because that is what Yahweh is to those who do not buy into the idea that one can special plead one particular parochial god over a pantheon of others, just because, anthropologically speaking, he won out in the battle of culture and ideas. The Bible, at least to me, clearly indicates this, and to plead, as I think Jayman does here, is to take the possible over the probable; possibiliter ergo probabiliter.

    Jayman continues:

    These texts only make sense on the assumption that they (in contrast to other texts) assume there are other gods. To take the first example, Exodus 12:12, the judgment on the gods of Egypt consists of Yahweh having his way with Egypt. In other words, the gods of Egypt are no gods at all. Yahweh is God.

    It is also strange that Daniel 11:39 is supposed to be an example of polytheism. Even on a traditional dating this is an exilic writing. Skeptics are likely to date it to the second century BC. Such an interpretation undercuts the earlier claim that polytheism evolved into monotheism, for here we have an allegedly polytheistic text being revered by monotheistic Jews.

    I do understand and broadly agree with his point on Exodus 12:12, but one point is missed I feel. Here, for Gericke to some degree, it is the use of the biblical translation of “Lord” as opposed to “Yahweh”. If one uses “Yahweh” here, there is a sense that it is a personal affront to this Warrior Storm god that there are others who need stamping out.  It may only be very nuanced and subtle, but the point is about the language used to represent God/Yahweh which is often lost in translation into the English. This was a large part of Gericke’s point: readers simply do not realise the equivocation and word games going on in front of them, which is evident from the source texts but not so evident in the English translations.

    The point about Daniel is an interesting one and I will concede that, on critical (and accurate, I would posit) grounds, Daniel would have been written much later. Whether every element of polytheism had been lost by then, or not, is open to debate. As wiki states:

    The oldest writings of Judaism that survive directly date from the Hellenistic period. This includes Hebrew and Aramaic papyri with biblical fragments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Greek documents such as the Septuagint. Scholars contend that the development of a strict monotheism was the result of cultural diffusion between Persians and Hebrews, or as a result of the contact of Israelite and Greek cultures…

    …the re-interpretation of the gods of the earliest recalled period as the national god of the monolatrism as it emerged in the 7th to 6th century BCE in the Kingdom of Judah and during the Babylonian captivity, and further in terms of monotheism by the emergence of Rabbinical Judaism in the 2nd century CE.[35]

    The process emerged before, but it is not an immediate one by any means.

    That whilst these facts and claims seem to point to an obvious evolution of the Yahwistic notion of God, it doesn’t invalidate it per se.

    We need to distinguish between the teachings of the Bible and the practices of the ancient Israelites. The Bible itself makes it clear that the ancient Israelites engaged in idolatry. This does not mean the authors of the Bible endorsed polytheism at any point in time.

    Yes, granted. But given understanding of the Documentary Hypothesis, in some form or another, we know that the Bible, as an eclectic collection of disparate texts, evolved in conjunction with an evolving culture. As such, this evolution from polytheism to monolatrism (the worship of one god out of many without excluding the reality of the others) to monotheism is exactly what we would expect. The Bible and its confused claim is exactly what we would expect given naturalism. The Christian understanding of the Bible, with all its issues and contradictions, takes some good deal of mental gerrymandering to retain its meaning in its ‘intended’ form. Ockham’s Razor and all that.


    Callahan, Tim. The Secret Origins of the Bible, Altadena, California: Millenium Press (2002)

    Ze’ev Herzog, Professor of Archaelogy, University of Tel Aviv – http://archaeology.tau.ac.il/?page_id=1106


    Category: ArchaeologyAtheismBiblical ExegesisFeatured


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce