Chapter 1: The Origins of Hebrew Religion
Gen_14:13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram.
Abraham is identified as a Hebrew very early in the book of Genesis. This is a designation that is neither introduced nor described. He is a member of a known people group, the Hebrews. This people group is recognized as far as Egypt:
Gen_39:14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.
The Egyptians despise the Hebrews, who they perhaps see as a feral people. The book of Genesis records that Hebrews are excluded from sharing meals:
Gen 43:32 They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
It is unclear if this practice is being presented as a general feature in Egyptian culture or relegated to the upper echelons of Egyptian society. This feature could be attributed to the Egyptian disdain for shepherds: “Gen 46:33…for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians”, but Pharaoh doesn’t seem to associate the Hebrews as shepherds in the very passage in which this disdain is described. This feature could also be attributed to the dietary practices of the Egyptians. Herodotus records that in the 5th century BC that Egyptians would not share meals with those who ate cattle.
Another option is that the Hebrews might have had a specific history with deep cultural connotations. In The Mythology of All Races: Semitic, Vol V, historian Stephan Hebert Langdon describes what he sees as the origins of the Hebrew race as well as the historic identification of their God.
The Hebrew deity El, whose character as a Sun-god has been repeatedly mentioned, and whose name occurs also quite regularly in the plural Elohim, but employed as a singular, is the god of the Habiru, a people who appear in various kingdoms and local city dynasties of Babylonia and Assyria from the twenty-second century until the Cassite period, among the Hittites, and as an invading warlike tribe in Syria, Phoenicia, and Canaan in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. I am entering upon debatable ground here when I assume that the Habiru and their god Ilani (plural always written ideographically) are identical with the Hebrews and their god Elohim. There seems to be no doubt at all but that this is the case; every argument against it has been specious and without conviction. Accepting this thesis, the Hebrews had served for six centuries as mercenary soldiers and traders among the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mitannians, and Aramaeans before they entered and occupied Canaan and, granted that their persistent use of ilani Habiri, ” the Habiru gods,” is, in reality, a singular like the Hebrew Elohim, it follows that it is identical with the Hebrew god El, Elah, Elohim. Phoenician also uses the word “gods” as a singular.
Langdon paints the Hebrews as a warrior race, used as mercenaries and who shared ideas about God with the surrounding cultures. He locates them as ancient as the 20th century BC. In this passage, Langdon pays particular attention to how in Semitic religion plural nouns were commonly used of gods and kings:
This is a common usage among Canaanitish scribes of the period of the Habiru invasions into Syria and Palestine. So, for example, Shuwardata of Kelte calls Pharaoh, ” my god and my sun,” in the text actually ” my gods and my Shamash.” A man of Qadesh in Northern Syria writes to Pharaoh attributing his defeat of the invading Habiru to the fact that ” his godhead ” and ” sunship ” went before his face. Here the plural ilanu is used as an abstract noun, as is also the word ” god Shamash.” In Hittite the Habirite god is called Hani Habiriyas, Habiries, ” Habirite gods. That the Habirites, or, as I assume, the Hebrews, in the days of their wanderings in Babylonia, from the days of Abraham ” the Hebrew ” and Hammurabi (Amraphel), had a deity known to the peoples with whom they came into contact as “the Hebrew god,” is proved by a list of nine gods and goddesses worshipped in the temple of Adad at the old capital of Assyria, in a text at least as old as the twelfth century. Here the singular, ilu Habiru occurs, which I take to mean not ” god Habiru,” but ” Habirite god,” or, if ilu is here, as in Hani Habiri, a specific name of a deity, i.e., El, the ” Habirite El.” The genitive and accusative of this gentilic word is Habiri and the nominative plural should be Hani Habiru or the ” Hebrew Elohim ” in the texts of the Hittite capital, Boghazkeui.
The Hebrews worshiped El, associated with both the plural “Elohim” and, within the Bible, the proper name “Yahweh”. In Josiah 22:22, this association is explicit. Mark Smith translates this passage as follows: “God [El] of gods [Elohim] is Yahweh. God [El] of gods [Elohim] is Yahweh…” El and Yahweh are used interchangeably in this fashion within the Bible, often within the same passage.
According to the Bible, the proper name of God had not always been known to the world. Genesis 4 records a distinct time the name of Yahweh came of use:
Gen 4:26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD [Yahweh].
Although “people began to call on the name of Yahweh”, some early Hebrews may not have adopted this use. The book of Exodus recounts that the patriarchs knew Yahweh as “El Shadday” (the “Shadday” is an enigmatic term much like the curious Greek conception of Zeus who holds the “aegis” ). The patriarchs did not know Yahweh by His proper name:
Exo 6:2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD [Yahweh].
Exo 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shadday], but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.
These features might suggest that although Israel (a specific subset of Hebrews) might not have used the name Yahweh, other Semitic tribes might have adopted the use. In Lewis Bayles Paton’s The Origin of Yahweh-Worship in Israel: II, the author describes some evidence that Yahweh was worshiped outside of Israel:
2. There is considerable evidence that Yahweh was known to other ancient peoples besides Israel. Delitzsch and other Assyriologists believe that the name occurs in documents of the first dynasty of Babylon (ca. 2300-2200 B. C.). This claim is disputed, so that it is better not to press the argument. Other evidence is clearer. A son of the king of Hamath in the time of David bore the name Yoram (Joram). This is certainly a compound with Yahweh. Three hundred years later a king of Hamath mentioned in the annals of Sargon, King of Assyria, bore the name of Ya-ubi’di, which is paraphrased elsewhere as Ilu-ubi’di. This also is unquestionably a Yahweh compound. In 739 B. C. Tiglath-Pileser III fought against a certain Azriyau (Azariah), king of Ya’udi, whose capitol was Kullani in northern Syria. This name is a Yahweh-compound of a familiar Hebrew type. Tobiah and Jehohanan, the Ammonites, mentioned in Neh. 4:3; 6:18, bear Yahweh-names. In all these cases it is arbitrary to assume that these theophorous names are due to a spread of the Hebrew religion in foreign countries. Of proselyting before the exile there is not the slightest evidence. It is more likely that Yahweh was known to other Semitic peoples besides Israel.
John Day adds in his Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan:
Most scholars who have written on the subject during recent decades support the idea that Yahweh had his origins outside the land of Israel to the south, in the area of Midian (cf. Judg. 5.4-5; Deut. 33.2; Hab. 3.3, 7)… Also, the epithet ‘Yahweh of Teman’ in one of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions fits in with this. References to the Shasu Yahweh in Egyptian texts alongside the Shasu Seir may also be cited in support. Though M.C. Astour has questioned this, claiming that the reference was not to Seir in Edom but to Sarara in Syria, on balance, however, the Egyptian Scrr still seems more likely to be a slip for S ‘r (Seir) than the name Sarara.
It is rational to assume that Yahweh was worshiped outside of Israel. This would make sense of the tension between Genesis 4 and Exodus 6, although the evidence is not solid. While references to Yahweh are found almost entirely in the Hebrew Bible, the name of El was common among the Semites. Most notable was the chief god of the Canaanites in the Baal Cycle. In the Baal cycle, El sits supreme. The other gods approach El to request permission to act. El is the creator of all.
The words “under El” which were put in brackets in my initial definition of the thrust of the cycle are here vitally important. But how can El be greater than the Baal who after his palace has been built calls himself “he that is king over the gods, that indeed fattens gods and men, that satisfies the multitudes of earth” (4 VII 49-52) or the Baal whom both Anat and Athirat in trying to persuade El to let him have a palace speak of as “our king, our ruler, over whom there is none” (3 V 32 = CT A 3 E 40-41; 4 IV 43-44)? And yet El has to be approached for permission to build the palace, and the fact is that for all that Anat threatens him with physical violence if he does not accede to Baal’s request, El is able to refuse it and the help of his consort Athirat has to be enlisted before he can be made to change his mind. In spite of Baal’s title as king it is not really in doubt, then, that El is in charge of the universe. He, not Baal, is the creator god of the pantheon, the “creator of creatures” (4 III 32; 6 III 5), the “father of mankind” (not in the Baal texts but see, in the Keret epic, 14 I 37), and the “father of years”, i.e. controller of the course of time (4 IV 24; 6 I 36). The title “bull” is always used with the first of these phrases and the title “king” with the third of them. Perhaps the most revealing reference is that contained in the speeches of Anat and Athirat just mentioned when, immediately after they have called Baal their king, they present Baal’s appeal to “the king who installed him” (3 V 36 = CT A 3 E 44; 4 IV 48) 13
The text both describes Baal’s supremacy and also shows that El is supreme over Baal, illustrating common idiomatic speech. Attributes, even incomparability, have their limits. Even in the Bible, Yahweh’s incomparability is found in passages specifically comparing Him to others. This flexibility in characteristics is evident in the text.
Mark Smith describes some other attributes shared between the Canaanite El and the Biblical Yahweh:
In Israel the characteristics and epithets of El became part of the repertoire of descriptions of Yahweh. In both texts and iconography, El is an elderly bearded figure enthroned, sometimes before individual deities (KTU 1.3 V; 1.4 IV-V), sometimes before the divine council (KTU 1.2 I), known by a variety of expressions; this feature is attested also in Phoenician inscriptions (KAI 4:4-5; 14:9, 22; 26 A III 19; 27:12; cf. KTU 1.4 III 14). In KTU 1.10 III 6 El is called drd, “ageless one,” and in KTU 1.3 V and 1.4 V, Anat and Asherah both affirm the eternity of his wisdom. His eternity is also expressed in his epithet, ‘ab šnm, “father of years.” In KTU 1.4 V 3-4 Asherah addresses El: “You are great, O El, and indeed, wise; your hoary beard instructs you” (rbt ‘ilm lḥkmt šbt dqnk ltsrk). Anat’s threats in 1.3 V 24-25 and 1.18 I 11-12 likewise mention El’s gray beard. Similarly, Yahweh is described as the aged patriarchal god (Ps. 102:28; Job 36:26; Isa. 40:28; cf. Ps. 90:10; Isa. 57:15; Hab. 3:6; Dan. 6:26; 2 Esdras 8:20; Tobit 13:6, 10; Ben Sira 18:30), enthroned amidst the assembly of divine beings (1 Kings 22:19; Isa. 6:1-8; cf. Pss. 29:1-2; 82:1; 89:5-8; Isa. 14:13; Jer. 23:18, 22; Zechariah 3; Dan. 3:25). Later biblical texts continued the long tradition of aged Yahweh enthroned before the heavenly hosts. Daniel 7:9-14, 22, describes a bearded Yahweh as the “ancient of days,” and “the Most High.” He is enthroned amid the assembly of heavenly hosts, called in verse 18 “the holy ones of the Most High,” qaddîšê ’elyônîn (cf. 2 Esdras 2:42-48; Revelation 7). This description for the angelic hosts derives from the older usage of Hebrew qĕdōšîm, “holy ones,” for the divine council (Ps. 89:6; Hos. 12:1; Zech. 14:5; cf. KAI 4:5, 7; 14:9, 22; 27:12). The tradition of the enthroned bearded god appears also in a Persian period coin marked yhd, “Yehud.” The iconography belongs to a god, apparently Yahweh.
The overlap between Semitic religions is apparent and not surprising. Israelite religion is not a unique enlightened religion among primitive religions. Instead, these religions share cultures and pantheons. The question of Israelite worship is not “what type of god” they will worship, but which particular god they will worship. The attributes of Yahweh are meant to set Him apart as uniquely worthy of worship rather than to paint Him as an entirely different type of being altogether.
Yahweh is not particularly exclusive to Israel, either. Other nations worship El, and the identification with El with Yahweh puts worshipers of El as accepted believers. Even within the Bible, foreign priests of El appear as true believers. The most famous example is that of Melchizedek. He was a: “He was priest of God Most High.” This title elyon El is used of the Canaanite El. The book of Hebrews portrays this priesthood in an approving manner.
Another foreign priest is Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who is described as a “priest of Midian” in several passages. His daughter, Zipporah, appears intimately familiar with circumcision rites in Exodus 4:25. She appears to know who Yahweh is and what Yahweh wants, which is likely as result of growing up in a priestly house. Furthermore Jethro performs a benediction in Exodus 18 towards Yahweh:
Exo 18:10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
Exo 18:11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.”
Given this evidence, Jethro could have held Yahweh as a god or the primary God in his priestly duties. He is not condemned, but accepted, in the texts which he appears.
[to be continued]