Skip to main content

Where did that that name YHWH come from?

By Karen L. Garst -- The Faithless Feminist ~

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...
The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Unless you are Jewish or took a course in religion during your lifetime, you may not even know what the letters YHWH stand for. No worries. It is the name of God written in Hebrew in the Torah or, as Christians call it, the Old Testament. The word is composed of all consonants because the written Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. I’m sure you have seen those posts on Facebook where they ask you to read a jumbled sentence with letters out of order. Most of the time, you can still discern what it means. It’s like that in Hebrew. While there are some markers that can assist you, there are no written vowels. Sometimes this name for god is written out Yahweh so you know how to pronounce it. This is the name that morphed into the word Jehovah in English. The King James Bible used the word Jehovah extensively, but now most translations use the word Lord. Whew! That was a long intro. But this post is going to address the larger issue of where the original word may have come from. This is tied up with the theories of where the Israelites came from originally. And no, they were not there from the Garden of Eden onward.

Why is this important? Finding evidence for the origin of the Israelites places them in an historical context. It also links them to surrounding cultures of the same time period. Will this convince someone that Judaism was just one of many religions competing for people’s hearts and minds? Who knows. I remember that during my first religion class at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota the professor discussed the different oral strains contained in a linguistic analysis of the writings of the Old Testament that showed evidence of different writers. Looking back, I think it was the first chink in the armor that convinced me this book may have been written by ordinary men, not dictated by a supernatural power.

Not surprisingly, there are many competing theories regarding the origin of the Hebrews: the Bible states that Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and another popular theory claims that the Israelites were Canaanites all along who had simply moved from the coast where invasions were endangering them to the relatively empty highlands.

The problem with the first theory is that archeologists have found no evidence in the Sinai Desert for a sojourn that the Bible says lasted forty years. Also, the Egyptians were excellent record keepers. If they had imported and enslaved thousands of Hebrews and brought them into Egypt, trust me, they would have written about it. The second theory is interesting in that it is believed a loose confederation of tribes likely did invade Egypt during the 13th century BCE and also disrupted tribes in the Levant, i.e. the areas off the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean. References have been found during the reign of Ramses II of Egypt that mentions these “Sea Peoples.”

Andre LeMaire in his book, The Birth of Monotheism, puts forth compelling arguments, however, for a third hypothesis—an origin in the area of Midian. This ancient land was located on the Arabian Peninsula to the east of the Red Sea. The association of this land or set of tribes referred to as Midian or Midianites is plentiful in the Bible. Below is a partial list of references. Interestingly, Midian is also mentioned frequently in the Qu’ran. See here for a more complete list.

Midian is the son of Abraham. (Genesis 25:1-2)
Joseph was sold to the Midianites. (Genesis 37:28)
Midian is where Moses spent forty years in exile. (Exodus 2:11-15)
Moses married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:21)

LeMaire’s hypothesis rests on the following references.

1. The Mesha Stela is a basalt slab erected about 810 BCE by Mesha, king of Moab. It was made to give thanks to the Moabite god Chemosh for delivering his people from Israelite rule. Line 18 mentions cultic objects of YHWH. This is one of the earliest references to the Israelite God. Because the Amarna Letters (14th century BCE – correspondence between Egypt and areas it controlled including Canaan) do not mention YHWH, Lemaire believes that this deity arose between these two dates.

2. Biblical place names include areas in the Sinai Desert where the Midianites lived. “YHWH came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran.” (Deuteronomy 33:2). “The mountains quaked before YHWH, the One of Sinai.” (Judges 5:4-5) Early male gods in many early religions are associated with mountains, lightening, and thunder. YHWH comports with this common cultural theme. The word Sinai has meanings as a desert and a mountain and Seir is a mountain. And Moses is said to have received the ten commandments near Mt. Sinai.

3. An inscription of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1353 BCE) refers to “Shosu of YHW.” The Shosu are believed to be a southern nomadic people that the Egyptians encountered and battled with. The Shosu are also mentioned in conjunction with Seir, similar to the biblical references above. Thus YHW could be a place name and could also be associated with a deity of the same name.

4. Moses married a Midianite woman. Because the Israelites battled with the Midianites, LeMaire believes that this reference is good evidence that he did marry a Midianite. If the writers had invented his wife’s origins, they probably wouldn’t have made her come from one of their enemies, given the “founding father” nature of Moses.

5. LeMaire further claims that this YHWH was one of the deities of the Midianites. He posits that the marriage of Moses, the later leader of the Israelites, to a Midian wife, caused him to adopt this deity.

While this evidence is not conclusive and other scholars have suggested alternatives, LeMaire makes a compelling case for the association of YHWH with the Midianites. It is YHWH who becomes the lead god and then the only Israelite god.

This slow rise of monotheism, not only with the Israelites but with other cultures as well, is difficult for most Jews and Christians to accept. However, there are multiple references in the Bible itself that attest to their first concept of this god YHWH simply being one of many gods. Here are just a few of the references.

“YHWH is greater than all the gods.” (Exodus 18:10-11) Why would this need to be mentioned if he were the only god?

“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (Psalms 82:1) It is as if he is the chair of the board of the gods.

In addition to starting out as one god of many, the objects associated with this new god YHWH are very similar to those of other peoples of the region: an altar, a stela, and a sacred bush. There is more to tell about Moses, particularly his rescue from a basket of reeds (similar to Sargon of Akkad), but I will leave that for another post.