I read an interesting theory about the origin of God’s name “YHWH” in the Hebrew Bible. I am not enough of a scholar to know all the pros and cons, but for it’s worth, I present it here.
Many secular historians, as well as the Bible itself, agree that at the time of Moses (around 1200 BC), the ancient Hebrews worshipped many gods. There are several instances in the Bible of Moses warning his followers about worshipping false gods, and many other instances of various misfortunes on the Hebrew people being blamed on the fact that they worshipped other gods besides YHWH. Archeological evidence shows that this practice of worshipping multiple gods continued very late.
Archeological digs of sites as late as the 6th century BC (right before the Babylonian captivity) have revealed thousands of statues of various gods. Written inscriptions from the period confirm this as well (there is a well-known tomb inscription from the 8th century BC saying “blessed be <this dead guy> in the name of YHWH and Asherah”. Asherah was the old Canaanite mother goddess. It’s hard to judge the prevalence of such beliefs from archeology alone, but it seems certain that not all of the Israelites were monotheistic at this time – they worshipped other gods as well. It’s only after the Babylonian captivity that they underwent a radical change. After this period, statues and mentions of other gods disappear from the record.
The assumption among Biblical scholars has been that YHWH was a popular god at the time, but one among many. The Hebrews made their contract with this one god, and decided to worship him alone and no other. However, the name YHWH only appears in the Hebrew Bible. It does not appear in any Canaanite text or inscription of the period. So where did YHWH come from? What people worshipped him at the time?
The first non-Biblical mention of the Israelite people comes from an Egyptian stele – the Merneptah Stele, which is inscribed with the victories of the Pharaoh Merneptah in his campaign against Libya. Although much of the inscription is about his victory over the Libyans, it does contain this one line:
Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.
This stele, dated from 1208 BC contains the first non-Biblical mention of people called the Israelites living to their east, in Canaan. So if we take the Biblical account as true, this was after Moses led them to the Promised Land, and therefore after the exodus.
The question of when (and if) the exodus happened is difficult to settle, since there is no historical or archeological evidence of it. However, on the North Wall of the Temple of Karnack, there is an inscription describing the victories of Seti I (the father of Ramses the Great, who many believe to be the pharaoh of the exodus). One of the victories mentioned by this inscription is over a people called the Shasu, who lived in southern Canaan (today the region of Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia). These people had a town, mentioned on the inscription as “Yahoo”. In those days, towns were often named after gods; so historically, “Yahoo” is considered both the name of a settlement, and a god (the local god of that town).
In Hebrew, for lack of vowels, “Yahoo” is written as YHW. The Bible also mentions the Shasu, whom it refers to as the Midianites. This is especially interesting for a couple of reasons:
- After Moses killed the Egyptian overseer, he fled to Midian, where he lived as a shepherd for 40 years (this was before the exodus). There he was hired by the Midian priest Hobab (also known as Jethro) to look after his flocks, and he married Hobab’s daughter Zipporah. It seems likely that living with a Midian priest, he would learn something about Midian gods.
- The incident of the burning bush where Moses had his first encounter with god happened in Midian.
After these 40 years in Midian, Moses went off to have a word with the Pharaoh, which led to the exodus. As he led his people out of Egypt, Moses made his way back to Midian, to Mount Sinai/Horeb, where he had first encountered the burning bush. There he stayed for 40 days and 40 nights, while god gave him the 10 commandments. However, when he came down from the mountain, he saw his people worshipping the golden calf, and that made him mad, so he smashed a couple of the tablets. Then god offered to give him a copy of the two tablets he had smashed, so he went back up the mountain for another 40 days and 40 nights, and finally brought back the 10 commandments that were later put in the Ark of the Covenant. Then Moses and the Israelites spent another 40 years wandering the desert, after which they finally came to Canaan. As you can see, the ancient Hebrews liked the number 40.
When Moses brought the 10 commandments to his people, he explained to them that their god was YHWH, and they better not have any other gods before him. This is an interesting connection, seeing that these events happened in Midian – the same Midian of the god YHW (or “Yahoo”). Further, there are other interesting associations. Right about this time, who should decide to join Moses, but his old buddy and father-in-law, Jethro/Hobab, who brought along his daughter (Moses’ wife) Zipporah. If you recall, Jethro was a priest of Yahoo, the Midianite god. He apparently had some hand in setting up the Old Testament religion too. The Bible mentions that when Jethro saw Moses holding courts and passing judgment, he suggested that Moses delegate some of this work, and this is how Moses came to appoint Judges.
Admittedly, this is all circumstantial, but it makes for a pretty solid case. The name YHWH had to come from somewhere. It was not a local Canaanite name; none of the Canaanite texts mention it. But there WAS a god YHW nearby in Midian, the same place where Moses lived for 40 years, working for a priest of YHW, marrying his daughter. The same place where Moses saw the burning bush, and later received the 10 commandments. So I call it a good working hypothesis.
Of course, nothing good lasts forever. In time, Moses got angry with the Midianites, and attacked them. This is one of the great massacres of the Bible, with god telling Moses:
- NUMBERS 31:2 Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.
- NUMBERS 31:3 And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the LORD of Midian.
Again, the mention of “avenge the LORD of Midian” seems suspect. The “LORD of Midian” was Yahoo. Did Moses think the Midianites had been naughty towards their god, so the god needed avenging? Who knows. It is certainly suggestive. The war did not go well for the Midianites:
- NUMBERS 31:8 And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
- NUMBERS 31:9 And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
- NUMBERS 31:10 And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
- NUMBERS 31:11 And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
After which, the Lord rewarded his own:
- NUMBERS 31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
- NUMBERS 31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
- NUMBERS 31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
- NUMBERS 31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
That’s how the lord was, sort of a finicky fellow. With you one day, out for your blood the next. Anyway, perhaps we are closer to settling on his name. The lack of written vowels in old Hebrew has always made the pronunciation of “YHWH” a bit of a mystery. But now that we have a phonetic spelling from the Egyptians, I propose that we tentatively start calling him “Yahoo”.