Q. Who is the Yahweh of the Israelites?
A. Well as scholars like Frank Cross, Chris Rollston, Mark Smith and others have demonstrated and have known for some time, the earliest texts in the Hebrew Bible give a strong indication that the early conception of Yahweh was that he was an ancient Near Eastern tribal deity. As I argue in my book, following Rollston, the Song of Moses in Deut 32 indicates that Yahweh was believed to have been one of the children of the Canaanite deity El Elyon (God Most High). The song describes how the nations were originally formed, and what it says is that the peoples of the earth were divided up according to the number of El Elyon’s children (the junior members of the divine pantheon). Yahweh, Israel’s patron deity, was one of Elyon’s children.
The best evidence suggests that Yahweh did not begin as the “only true God” of later Jewish monotheism; he did not begin as the creator of the world. Yahweh began as a young, up-and-coming tribal deity whose prowess among other gods mirrored Israel’s aspirations vis-a-vis surrounding tribes and nations.
Q. You’re saying God evolves in the Old Testament?
A. Exactly. Surprise of surprises, as Israel aspired to greatness and sought to make a name for itself, surrounded by vast empires, Yahweh got bigger and bigger, until he became so grandiose in their theologies that it no longer made sense to refer to the other national deities as gods at all—so vastly superior was Yahweh to the gods of other nations, according to Judean propaganda literature.
Q. Tell us more about this evolution from tribal deity to monotheism.
A. Well as Chris Rollston argues, there are various stages in Israel’s progression from polytheism to monotheism. Yahweh begins as a junior member of the divine pantheon. This is the view during the tribal confederation period of Israel’s history. After Israel became a monarchy, Yahweh gets a promotion to head of the pantheon, taking his father Elyon’s place. (This parallels similar ideas in Babylonian literature, in which Marduk’s ascendancy to king of the gods mirrors the rise of the Babylonian empire.)
Over time, Yahweh and Elyon are conflated, they sort of merge into one god. At this stage Yahweh starts to be seen as creator-god. But in this period, Israel still believes in other gods; it’s just that they’re not supposed to worship other gods because they owed their allegiance to Yahweh, their patron deity. Of course, Yahweh was believed to have had a wife, Asherah, and it is clear that Israelites worshiped her as Yahweh’s consort.
This seems to have been acceptable orthodoxy until the seventh century BCE or so. At that point, prophets like Jeremiah began to polemicize other gods, calling into doubt their very existence. This idea that Yahweh alone is God is solidified during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century, for a complex set of reasons. This is when official Israelite religion finally became monotheistic.
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