Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Yahweh Is Not My Way

I was taught in Sunday School that Yahweh, the one true God and creator of the universe, revealed himself to the patriarchs of Israel, as described in (what Christians call) the Old Testament.

What I was not taught: ancient Israel was actually polytheistic, and this Yahweh has close connections with the gods of Canaan.

God is called by many names in the Old Testament. God's name, Yahweh, is the modern transcription of the tetragrammaton, YHWH. In ancient Hebrew, there was no notation for vowels, and in later times it became forbidden to say the name out loud, so "Yahweh" is simply a guess: "...who can say if they called him Yahweh, Yehowah, or even Yahu-Wahu?" (The Cartoon History of the Universe, I.152)

El in the Old Testament is basically equivalent to the English word "god." It is used of Yahweh, but also of other gods (Baal, Moloch).

Elohim is also commonly used to refer to God in the Old Testament. It is a strange form, though: it is a plural. Depending on the context, it is sometimes translated as "God" and sometimes as "(the) gods." From the Wikipedia article:

The form of the word Elohim, with the ending -im, is plural and masculine, but the construction is usually singular, i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective when referring to the Hebrew god, but reverts to its normal plural when used of heathen divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7)

"The LORD your God," a frequent phrase in the Old Testament, translates "Yahweh your Elohim." How this plural word came to refer to a singular God seems a bit of a mystery. At least, I have not read any explanation that is satisfactory. If you know of a good source for this term, please let me know in the comments.

In Canaanite religion, El is the is the creator and the father of all the gods. They are referred to as the "sons of El," as in this Phoenician inscription:

The Eternal One (‘Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.

Here we also encounter Asherah, El's consort. She is mentioned in the Old Testament, too, as we will see.

Of course, in the Old Testament as well as the New, God is creator and father. The "sons of El (God)" appear, too, as well as the council of the Holy Ones:

Who in the skies can compare with Yahweh?
Who among the sons of god can rival him?

God, awesome in the assembly of the holy ones, great and dreaded among all who surround him…
(Psalm 89:6-7. See also Job 1:6, where Satan is among the sons of God)
 It seems that Yahweh was originally one of the sons of El. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9, Elyon (the "Most High") assigns the various gods their appropriate peoples:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; [Yahweh's] own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

Exodus 6:2-3 reveals that the name "Yahweh" was an innovation:

"I am Yahweh. To Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them."
Historians interpret these verses as an attempt to merge the Yahweh cult with the El cult. (in addition to the Wikipedia articles linked above, see The Early History of God, by Mark S. Smith, and Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, by Frank Moore Cross.)

Next time I'll look at further indications of polytheism in the Old Testament.


  1. If you want a tip-off, the best verse for this is Amos 4:11

    NIV version hides and modernises:
    "I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me," declares the LORD.

    The real Hebrew is a bit more explicit: "I have overthrown some of you, as Elohim overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet have ye not returned unto Me," saith YHWH.

  2. Interesting! I haven't run across that verse before in this context - thanks!

  3. The New Jerusalem Bible, which I have been rather impressed with, has,

    "I overturned you as God overturned Sodom and Gomorrah, ... -- declares Yahweh"

    This seems fairly close to what you cited.