Reviews of

A Question of Beginnings, a Debate without End

In De Gruyter, HB/OT, Jürgen van OORSCHOT, Kurtis Peters, Markus Witte, review article, Uncategorized on January 11, 2018 at 9:33 am


2018.01.01 | Jürgen van Oorshot and Markus Witte (eds.). The Origins of Yahwism. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft 484. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017.

Review article by Kurtis Peters, University of British Columbia.


Among the long-standing controversial subjects in biblical studies the discussion surrounding the geographical and cultural origins of Yahweh worship sits comfortably. Once the traditional view had been jettisoned, scholarship saw the rise in prominence of the so-called Kenite hypothesis, whereby Moses learned of Yahweh through the Kenites/Midianites to whom he was related by marriage, according to biblical tradition. This hypothesis, too, earned a sidelong look from many scholars, especially once archaeological evidence began to surface, notably the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. Since then the majority of scholars maintained the general tenets of the Kenite hypothesis, but have sought early Yahwism more generally somewhere in the south, and point to such texts as Habakkuk 3, Judges 5, Deuteronomy 33, and Psalm 68 – the southern theophany texts – as corroboration. Whether or not this came through the Kenites/Midianites at all remains uncertain at best. But not all see this modified Kenite hypothesis as satisfactory, and see these texts just listed not as among the earliest biblical witnesses, but rather late in the literary history of the Hebrew Bible and thus not to be trusted for reconstruction of early Yahweh worship. Instead, the so-called Berlin Hypothesis posits that Yahweh’s earliest knowable identity is to be compared with the Syrian storm god, and his origin, therefore, is to be sought in the north, not the south. This debate, between the southern and northern locale of early Yahwism, constitute the conversation of the present volume, edited by Jürgen van Oorschot and Markus Witte.

As Oorschot and Witte note in the introduction, the source history of this work begins with seven articles originally published in German in 2012 in Berliner Theologischen Zeitschrift. These form the heart of the volume, but have since been translated to English to reach a broader readership. Several other articles have been commissioned, and one article previously published in Vetus Testamentum, also in German, has been translated and republished here. The attempt of the editors is to provide a comprehensive picture of scholarship relating to the origins of Yahweh worship as that scholarship stands today.

Summary of Articles

The first contribution is Josef Tropper’s 2001 essay on the nature of the Tetragrammaton. The editors felt that the original publication did not receive due attention and they hoped that republishing it here would bring it that attention. Tropper takes a posture of resistance to the dominant opinion that the divine name comes from a verbal root hwy in proto-Semitic meaning “blow” (9). Instead, he argues that the Tetragrammaton does not derive from a verbal root at all, but from a yet-unknown nominal form. His argument, with extensive evidence from comparative Semitic data as well as Yahwistic name formations, is that the original name of YHWH would have been yahû (from *yahw) and that the form is often used in a frozen status-absolutus. This status-absolutus form, he suggests, maintains an -a case ending, resulting therefore in yahwa. It preserves the –a ending in the same way that Hebrew typically marks a final –a vowel, that is, with a mater lectionis h, thus giving the written form YHWH for yahwa (13ff). This –a case vowel for the status-absolutus also accounts, Tropper argues, for the final –h on the name of Asherah in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscription. Therefore, instead of “Yahweh and his Asherah”, with the exceedingly strange possessive suffix on a proper noun, Tropper instead holds that it should simply be the absolute form, “Ashera” (18-19).

Mark Smith’s contribution, the second in the volume, is characteristically cautious. He remains cautious about the sources used for reconstruction and about scholars’ ability to do the reconstructing. He suggests in more than one place that Israel’s knowledge of their god’s early history may have been quite limited and thus we should not expect to see a great correlation of the various data sources we have available, Egyptian, archaeological, or textual (43). Perhaps this contributes to the fact that YHWH is variously likened to El, Ba‘al, and Athtar, all of whom exhibit different divine profiles.

Manfred Krebernik then explores the character of YHWH against the backdrop of ANE polytheism. His three main categories of inquiry are: affinity to other ANE deities, makeup of YHWH’s entourage, and cult-geographical and linguistic aspects of YHWH’s provenience. In the first of these, Krebernik refrains from making any strong conclusions, but merely catalogues the available comparisons of YHWH to El, Ba‘al, Dagan, and Enlil. In discussing entourage he evaluates Asherah as a potential consort in the Judah cult, but perhaps Anat as consort in the Elephantine cult (55). The cult-geographical data are also rather complex, as most ANE deities had an ancient city connection, even if they later expanded to preside over vast regions or empires. YHWH was certainly not the ancient city god of Jerusalem. Moreover, epigraphic evidence variously places YHWH as god of Samaria and god of Teman. Finally, Krebernik argues that the linguistic situation of the southern Levant, as indicated by the epigraphic evidence, did not change drastically between the Amarna period and the early 1st millennium BCE. This, he maintains, speaks against a military conquest of Canaan by non-Canaanite tribes. This, held together with the non-Hebrew traits of the name of YHWH, points to a non-sedentary people group already present in the southern Levant as the early worshippers of YHWH. The people group that fits these criteria is none other than the Ḫab/piru (64-65). While this is admittedly possible, Krebernik strings together too much disputable (and disputed) evidence to make this a sound conclusion. This should not, however, detract from the overall quality of Krebernik’s article, most of which is valuable.

Following Krebernik is Angelika Berlejung’s essay exploring the iconographic evidence of YHWH’s origins and beginnings. Berlejung sets out the problem of YHWH’s iconography clearly and soberly. There is no iconographic evidence that can clearly be attributed to YHWH (67). Perhaps this is due to aniconism, but the problem is not necessarily with the YHWH cult, but with the difficulty of matching any iconography with any deity. We may indeed have visual representation of YHWH in extant archaeological finds, but we do not have the ability to say with any certainty that it is YHWH who is there represented. With these important caveats, Berlejung sets out to offer possibilities for YHWH’s iconography. There are two major postures of male anthropomorphic deities, one being that of a Ba‘al/Hadad type wearing a short skirt and in a dynamic striking pose and the other being of an El type seated with long robes. If these are the two main possibilities and YHWH, according to most scholars, absorbs identities of both, then either of these options are likely for early Yahwism. Which of the two is earlier depends on other data and whether YHWH was originally a storm god or an El-type god. Berlejung continues to offer further iconographic suggestions, namely that YHWH was unlikely to be represented as a bull in early Israelite worship (79), that the ark would have signified YHWH’s martial characteristics (80), that it is unlikely for YHWH to have solar attributes before the 8th century BCE (81), that YHWH’s imagelessness does not mean no visual representation and could quite probably have included standing stones, stelae, or baetyli (88), and that one should not expect uniformity in YHWH’s visual portfolio, but rather that the YHWH of the north likely had a very different iconography than YHWH of the south (89-90). Berlejung’s contribution to this volume is significant. She offers sober expert judgments on the use and misuse of iconography in scholarly construals of YHWH’s identity while at the same time insisting that the visual evidence is equally important as the textual evidence.

Faried Adrom and Matthias Müller together address the use of the Tetragrammaton in Egyptian sources. Many of the arguments about early Yahwism cite the Egyptian sources, including several in this collected volume. Some scholars cite the evidence with little critical evaluation. Adrom and Müller work to amend this. They remain cautious about applying the hieroglyphic sequence Y-h-w at Soleb and Amarah-West to some Israelite or proto-Israelite group. That the Shasu are connected to this Y-h-w term is clear, but whether one can hang a southern origin hypothesis on such information is highly dubious. Finally, Adrom and Müller assert that one cannot with certainty determine whether Y-h-w refers to a tribe, location, or a settlement. In sum, these two Egyptologists try to rein in some scholars’ out-of-control speculation of early Yahwism based only on seeing what they want to see in the evidence out of Egypt.

Characteristically, Henrik Pfeiffer, representing the so-called “Berlin Hypothesis”, rejects the status quo and sets out to undermine its very foundations. Instead of asserting YHWH’s southern origin, he argues that YHWH resembles rather a Syrian storm-god and it is therefore to be concluded that Yahwism is a northern phenomenon that later travels south. To arrive at this conclusion, Pfeiffer holds that the Sinai pericope as a whole is a later insertion into the Exodus tradition and thus is not to be trusted as an early witness. Moreover, the four texts typically cited for early knowledge of YHWH (Judges 5, Habakkuk 3, Deuteronomy 33, Psalm 68) do not come from early Israel (125-126). The relevant section of Judges 5 is a late redaction of an early poem, and the other three texts are, if not dependent on Judges 5, nevertheless later. Therefore they also are not to be trusted. The whole of the Exodus tradition, whereby a group of Israelites came out of Egypt, is equally suspect and cannot be used as evidence for a southern origin. The Midianite/Kenite texts demonstrate that they cannot be of a pre-literary tradition and may, in fact, be quite late in the literary tradition itself. They too are jettisoned. The epigraphic data from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud do not satisfy Pfeiffer either. YHWH of Teman, or YHWH of Samaria, does not indicate the deity’s origin any more than Ishtar of Nineveh would have (139). The Egyptian evidence is itself far from conclusive. What Pfeiffer does find persuasive, however, is that the early Psalms (he chooses Psalm 29 here) point to a storm-god analogous to Ba‘al-Hadad of Syria-Palestine. This, and not any of the other evidence, is what passes Pfeiffer’s test and leads him to see YHWH marching not from the south, but from the north.

Jörg Jeremias takes the reader in a very different direction. Here he examines three different theses on Israel’s early history. The first is that the biblical text suggests that there was an original cult of El in the land, which was later joined/supplanted by the cult of YHWH. These two cults are represented in the ancestral narratives by the two matriarchs, Leah for the older El cult and Rachel for that of YHWH (147). The early settlement stories of the Hebrew Bible clearly favour the Rachel tribes – a feature which is supported by the overwhelming percentage of new settlements in Iron I being in the stated territories of the Rachel tribes.  His second thesis is that the biblical narratives are divided, with strongly contradictory approaches to the nation of Edom. He holds that there is a clear enmity toward the Edomites, but that there are also texts that speak of a strong bond, including the Jacob-Esau brotherhood and the special place of Edom among non-Israelite nations in Deuteronomy 23. Jeremias’ third thesis is founded on joining his first two together. While the older Leah tribes represented the established El cult, the Rachel tribes adopted the worship of YHWH from the brother nation, Edom. This, he argues, would explain the ambivalence towards Edom, as well as the references in older texts to YHWH coming from the south. This southern origin, however, is not in Edom itself, but further south yet and passes through the land of Edom. Jeremias ends with a very brief note in challenge to Pfeiffer’s essay and seeks to discredit the assumptions on which Pfeiffer’s argument rests.

Sensing perhaps the tension of the previous two pieces, the editors thought it fitting to include Martin Leuenberger’s essay in the next position. Leuenberger provides a feeling of calm after the strong rhetoric of Pfeiffer and Jeremias. Though by no means impartial in the debate, Leuenberger lowers the tone and begins with a short survey of the recent history of research. He then evaluates the two theses, northern and southern origin arguments for early Yahwism. In evaluating the northern hypothesis by several factors, Leuenberger concludes that the thesis rests almost entirely on negative indications, distrusting all the sources that the southern hypothesis employs, but for its part has no meaningful positive indications to buttress its own conclusions. Leuenberger, rather, finds the cumulative data from Egypt, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, and the Hebrew Bible, all of which he evaluates here, to be quite strongly in favour of the southern origin hypothesis.

As with Pfeiffer’s earlier essay, so also Christoph Berner’s contribution employs the discipline of literary history to evaluate the origins of Yahwism. His aim is to discuss the role of the Exodus creed, “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”, and its variations, in the state formation of the northern kingdom and in the seeming parallel of 1 Kings 11-12. Again in a parallel approach to that of Pfeiffer, Berner pulls the rug out from under those who rely on the historicity of biblical texts. Unlike Rainer Albertz and others, Berner holds that we cannot assume that the golden calf stories (in Exodus and in 1 Kings) are sufficiently early to refer to any historically verifiable event. Perhaps there is a degree of historicity to them, but of that we cannot be certain. Given that 1 Kings 11-12 is part of the DtrH, and likely not of the earliest stratum, it must postdate the existence of the northern kingdom and therefore represents, most likely, retroactive religious polemic. It is improbable, then, that “the creed” would have been active in early monarchic Israel. This conclusion also undermines the attempt to date the Exodus tradition with respect to the so-called confession of 1 Kings 12.28.

Reinhard Müller brings less polemic and more data in his contribution to the volume. Here he surveys the content of the earliest psalms in the Hebrew Bible. These, especially according to Pfeiffer, constitute a reliable witness as to the nature of early Israelite Yahwism.  Müller here claims that these early psalms already represent a monolatrous tendency, similar to that of Chemosh of Moab and Milcom of the Ammonites (210). The character of monolatrous YHWH is that of a warrior storm-god as well as that of a divine king. This divine kingship is mirrored in the seat of the human king and thus what YHWH does, so also does Israel’s king, especially as it relates to defeating enemies. Finally, the early psalms also contain supplication of YHWH for deliverance from death or forces of destruction. In this survey, Müller highlights some of the foundational characteristics of early Yahwism as demonstrated by the earliest psalms. Accompanying his discussion is a wealth of ANE iconography that illuminates some of the otherwise obscure language of those texts. It is a welcome contribution, as it provides the material that underpins some of the arguments in other essays of the volume.

Ronald Hendel’s approach is substantially different from that which forms the basis for most of the other contributions in the volume. Rather than recreating a modern scholarly version of Israel’s religious history, he surveys instead what he sees as the so-called native histories of Israel’s early cultic expression. These histories are constituted by the various traditional pentateuchal sources, J, E, and P. These are the stories that the people told about themselves and they should not be rejected as unhistorical, but rather understood as cultural memory. Hendel then proceeds to reconstruct the three different versions of early Yahwism as told by these histories. In the J history, YHWH worship existed among all peoples in humanity’s early days and continues as the supreme, and perhaps only significant, deity in the world. In E the other gods are acknowledged, though it is made clear that these are not Israel’s gods nor should they be. They likewise have no individual agency. In P, the relationship to other gods is nonexistent, for those gods themselves are nonexistent. Here we find a true move to monotheism. Hendel concludes by suggesting that these histories, or their sources, may not have known one another but exist in the composite Pentateuch as reservoirs of memory. The question that remains, however, revolves around the purpose for bringing them together and why they were arranged as they were in the composite text.

Juha Pakkala carries on with a similar approach to Hendel and applies it to the Deuteronomistic texts. He begins by sketching the pre-Deuteronomistic history of Yahwism and takes a centrist approach. While there is some evidence that YHWH-worship may have originated in a southern locale, the most important features of YHWH by the time he becomes more well-known were related to weather and storm, thus making him similar to a Ba‘al figure. Pakkala then suggests that the rise of Yahwism in Palestine, inasmuch as can be ascertained, took place in the 9th century under Omri and Ahab (270-271). This Yahwism also rose in Judah and moved from polytheism to a form of monolatry by the end of the monarchy. But Pakkala does not see how a major reform, as ascribed to Josiah, could have taken place any time prior to the destruction of the temple. It was that event that catalyzed the move in the early Deuteronomistic texts (dated to post-587 BCE) toward stricter monolatry and foreshadows monotheistic tendencies. Later Deuteronomistic texts, or nomistic texts, take a step further toward what Pakkala calls intolerant monolatry, where the other gods are actively denied or attacked. Pakkala then concludes by demonstrating that the very latest Deuteronomistic texts exhibit the beginnings of monotheistic Yahwism, where YHWH is the only god.

Friedhelm Hartenstein takes the volume in a seeming abrupt right-angled turn. He begins by casting doubt on the whole enterprise of searching out historical beginnings or origins. He relies heavily on modern philosophy’s suspicion of certain historiographical tendencies, especially favouring what is in the dark, remote past as an explanation of what comes later in periods for which we have more numerous data. He moves to consider further how this preference for origins has played itself out in the work of scholars interested in the history of Israel’s religion, as well as the scholars who opposed this preference. One of the most significant underlying factors in the debate about Israel’s origins, argues Hartenstein, is the scholar’s belief as to the particularity of Israel (and its religion). Pfeiffer, for example, in his late dating of the southern theophany texts and his association of YHWH with a northern origin, looks to see Israel as simply a nation like any other with an unremarkable religion (305). Hartenstein concludes philosophically, suggesting that any study of origins, such as those included in this volume, needs to clarify and lay bare its assumptions about the role that origins, as such, play in relation to later stages of development.

Reflection and Conclusion

Oorschot and Witte have accomplished something worth emulating in this volume. They set out to provide a balanced overview of scholarship on a controversial topic and they achieved their goal. If they privileged the voices from the southern camp, they can be forgiven, as they still gave the northern camp its voice, and because the southern camp represents a larger cross-section of scholarship. And if they privilege European voices over North American ones, that too can be forgiven, because the debate has been hottest in Europe, particularly in German-language scholarship. But in an effort to find regional balance, the entire volume is offered in English, despite most authors normally publishing in German, and the editors also invited two papers from North American anglo-scholars (Mark Smith and Ronald Hendel). They also expanded the conversation to include essays not concerned most directly with a south or north provenance, but with other related topics, such as the meaning and form of the divine name, the perspective of deuteronomism on early Yahwism, etc.

The reader is left with the clear impression that this conversation is far from over. The disparity between, for example, Pfeiffer and Jeremias is significant. Neither can convincingly persuade the other, but both are in good company of other like-minded scholars. Leuenberger presents his material in the most sensible manner. Though there are appealing features of both the northern and southern hypotheses, the norther rests almost solely negative assessments of the southern hypothesis, whereas this latter actually has a constellation of evidence gathered for its case. Pakkala likewise injects sound logic into the heated debate: whether or not YHWH originated in the south, the only substantial evidence as to his character comes from the Hebrew Bible, which seems to portray him as a storm-god. The volume, however, would have been tedious had it only included those directly involved in the south/north debate. Very welcome were the contributions of related material, especially that of Berlejung and the evaluation of iconographic evidence. Incorporating Krebernik and Adrom & Müller was also a very good decision. They bring expert opinions on Assyriology and Egyptology, both of which are cited by the other authors in this volume.

This collection of essays is a landmark study for the history of Israelite religion. In no one other place is there such a thorough engagement with this foundational question of origins. For those who wish, in the years to come, to contribute to the conversation, this volume will act as gatekeeper. This is achieved all the more securely because of the choice to have the entire volume in English. While the conversation has mostly taken place among German-language scholarship, there is now no excuse for anglo-scholarship not to be aware of the conversation’s intricacies. This must be an international dialogue. Perhaps with this widening of scope there will emerge a clear favourite, north or south, for YHWH’s origins.

There are not many drawbacks to the volume. Perhaps a clearer mise-en-scène to open the volume would have been helpful – something more extensive than the introduction currently offers. Also, the typographical and grammatical errors in some papers (not only those translated from German!) are distracting and could have been checked more closely. But these are very small clouds in an otherwise cloudless sky. Oorschot, Witte, and all the contributors ought to be thanked heartily for their contribution to furthering the discussion and providing scholarship with the standard reference volume on early Yahwism for years to come.

Kurtis Peters
University of British Columbia


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