YHWH, God of Israel

Biblical literature pivots around the relationship between YHWH and Israel. By “YHWH” I refer to the name of the biblical Israelite deity that, in its shorter forms yah and yahu (Greek IAO), appears in numerous theophoric names, such as Hizki-yahu (“IAO is my strength”) and in expressions of praise (hallelu-yah). There are other divine names in the Bible, including those associated with the patriarchs of Genesis (“God of Abraham,” “Strong one of Isaac,” “god of my breasts,” etc) and most importantly variants of el/eloah and elohim, an abstract plural noun often used interchangeably with YHWH. In Ugaritic sources, el refers to the chief god of the pantheon. The notion of the high god of a pantheon is also indicated in the term elyon, i.e., “the Highest.” In the Bible, the mythological pantheon remains relatively undifferentiated. El might appear in the council of gods (see Ps 82:1), but the lesser gods or “sons of god” remain unnamed. They are a generic lot, with one exception: “YHWH, el of the Hebrews” (Ex 3:18), “el of Isra-el” (Ex 32:27 and often). In this case, el is the function, while YHWH is the persona taking on that function.

YHWH particularizes Israel as the nation of YHWH. The same is the case with the national gods of neighboring communities. National gods of other people see, e.g., Chemosh of the Moabites in Num 21:29, Jud 11:24, and cf. 1 K 11:33. In speaking of YHWH as elohenu (“our god”), Israel particularizes itself in relation to a divine being that is theirs. YHWH tseva’ot (LORD of Hosts) is invoked in conjunction with the Ark narrative in 1 Samuel 1–7 and in a number of psalms. In some psalms, YHWH appears to be associated with the north (zaphon), in the Song of Deborah and Barak he appears from the south (teman). He sometimes bears the very epithet rider of the clouds that Canaanite sources associate with Ba’al, a male fertility deity of the kind YHWH likely resembled at the beginning of his divine career. The epigraphic evidence from the Sinai oasis of Quntillet Ajrud attests to YHW’s antiquity as a deity revered by proto-Hebrew tribes.

The pre-history of this deity involves the passage from a local numen with fertility-related characteristics (characteristics of a male deity with a female counterpart) to deity of the Hebrews more broadly, and ultimately a god whose exclusive veneration is a matter of party politics (see the stories about Elijah and the purge staged by the Israelite usurper Jehu; 2 K 10:28) and eventually a matter of state (1 K 22-23) in the late Judahite monarchy. What interests me here is the long duration of YHWH’s intermediate position between the Highest and among the other “sons of God.” Traces of this original way of differentiating between YHWH, the god of Israel, and el elyon can be found, though they are not always obvious, especially when we approach biblical literature with the assumption that YHWH was always consistently identified with the Highest.

Consider the following passage from the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:8-9 LXX):

When the Most High apportioned the nations,

When he seeded out Adam’s sons,

fixed the boundaries of nations

according to the number of divine messengers,

that’s when Iakob, his people, became the lord’s portion,

Israel the measured part of his inheritance.[1]

The meaning of these verses is clear. The poem urges the listener to inquire of the elders about the days of old, the very beginning, when the Highest divided unified humanity into a multitude of nations “according to the number of” divine beings. The verses introduce the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel, a desert foundling (32:10MT), pampered and elevated by YHWH, much as Jerusalem is described in Ezekiel’s poem about Jerusalem (Ez 16). As “Jacob ate his fill and Jeshurun grew fat,” Israel “forgot the god who gave you birth” and turning to other gods, caused YHWH to become jealous and angry, etc. Much like Isaiah’s song about the vineyard (Isa 5), the Song of Moses reviews the benefactions Israel received from its god only to abandon him later on, causing YHWH to threaten the Israelites with “being scattered” (meaning of Hebr. Uncertain) and their memory to be obliterated. But then YHWH reverses himself for fear of Israel’s perdition being misinterpreted as the victory of Israel’s adversaries rather than YHWH’s actions (vv. 26-27). This sequence, which, as mentioned, follows a familiar prophetic pattern, is followed by a section that is more reminiscent of wisdom literature (vv. 28-38) and concludes with a section (vv 39-43) reminiscent of Isaiah 45, with its more exclusivist rhetoric. The Greek version of the Song of Moses culminates in a call to the Heavens, the “sons of god,” “angels of god,” and the “nations” to rejoice “with his people” over his avenging of the blood of his sons.

εὐφράνθητε, οὐρανοί, ἅμα αὐτῷ, καὶ προσκυνησάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες υἱοὶ θεοῦ· εὐφράνθητε, ἔθνη, μετὰ τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐνισχυσάτωσαν αὐτῷ πάντες ἄγγελοι θεοῦ· ὅτι τὸ αἷμα τῶν υἱῶν αὐτοῦ ἐκδικᾶται, καὶ ἐκδικήσει καὶ ἀνταποδώσει δίκην τοῖς ἐχθροῖς καὶ τοῖς μισοῦσιν ἀνταποδώσει, καὶ ἐκκαθαριεῖ κύριος τὴν γῆν τοῦ λαοῦ αὐτοῦ.

Deut 32:43 LXX https://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/septuagint-lxx/read-the-bible-text/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/5/320001/329999/ch/0b89294002b40812b31018ccd0148821/


The “messengers of god” of verse 8 reappear in verse 43, where they are in parallel to the “sons of god” (υἱοὶ θεοῦ ). Given the composition as a whole, it is difficult to avoid the slippage from a song in praise of the intimate relationship between YHWH and Israel to a song that makes Israel the special inheritance of the Highest himself, namely, if we approach it from the assumption that YHWH is, in fact, none other than the Highest himself.

The Masoretic version disambiguates the identification of YHWH and Highest by replacing the sons or angels of god, according to whose number the nations were divided up in the beginning, with the phrase “according to the number of the children of Israel.” If we assume that the original version of the Song had the Hebrew equivalent of “sons of God” (b’ney Elohim), then the Masoretic scribes only needed to change one word, to remove the offensive meaning, by replacing Elohim with Israel. Even more intriguing is the difference between the Masoretic version of v. 43 and the Greek. The (later) Hebrew is much shorter and omits all reference to the Heavens, the angels, and the sons of god.

The textual transmission of the Song of Moses is thus quite complicated. The older version preserved in LXX seems to offer the more unabashedly mythological view, similar to what we find in other Israelite hymnic poetry, where YHWH is among the lesser gods without therefore losing any of his significance for Israel, while Israel remains entirely beholden to YHWH alone. In fact, the logic of this view is required in order for YHWH to air his grievance over Israel’s conduct in the sight of Heaven (= the Highest), the (other) sons of god, and the nations. Israel is a source of embarrassment for the god to whom this nation was assigned, who found and brought it up in the desert, lavishing care upon it so it grew into a strong and self-satisfied nation. The history of Israel reflected in these images corresponds to what we know about Israelite origins historically and from biblical narrative. The claim here added is that the Highest assigned YHWH to Israel from the very beginning, the days of old. In other words, it was the providence of the Highest, who makes arrangements for every nation (through the agency of his sons or messengers) ahead of time, who gives national identity its definition and duration, that assigned YHWH to Israel and Israel to YHWH.

The logic of much of biblical historiography is the logic of emergence of the dual monarchy of Israel and Judah as a fortuitous rise of a loosely defined tribal community of Hebrews out of the ashes of the collapse of late-Bronze Age upheavals. The normative prophetic tradition that become part of the Jewish canon of scriptures accompanies and punctures this rise with its poignant critiques. The historical books of the Deuteronomistic school shape this view into a coherent narrative based on the idea of a covenant that binds Israel to YHWH, and YHWH to Israel and makes the nation’s ups and downs readable in light of loyalty and disloyality of the Israelites (Judges) and their kings (Samuel-Kings) to YHWH alone. The obligation to worship YHWH alone is not originally tied to a written compact but serves as a symbol of national unity that, over time, meant different things to different groups, movements, and institutions. The rewritten history of the kingdom in Chronicles emphasizes loyalty to the temple and the Levitical priesthood. The prophetic historiographers of Samuel-Kings emphasized the personages of prophets and a few kings who hearkened to their voices. There is most certainly some influence of Assyrian imperial suzerainty treaties on the form of late-monarchy Judahite covenantal thinking. The notion that Josiah reformed the cult and based his reinauguration of a pan-Israelite state on a found “scroll of instructions” is either the case of a historically unprecedent royal act or a later invention that wants to anchor the logic of Israelite history as contingent on the nation’s obligation to worship YHWH alone in its last and perhaps greatest iteration, i.e., in the written Torah of Moses.

What YHWH was to Israel, Chemosh was to Moab, Milcom to the Ammonites, and the Ashtoret to the Sidonians (1 K 11:33). A nation owed veneration, obedience, sacrifice, and exclusive loyalty to their own national deity. What kind of a people would turn to “other gods,” and enter into covenants with them? The story of biblical kingship is bracketed by exactly that charge. At its inception, which –– according to the Book of Kings –– marks the high point of Israelite history, King Solomon is charged with abandoning the ways of his father David when he introduced the gods of others to Jerusalem. (See 1 K 11:7.33). At the end of that historical narrative, King Josiah of Judah is praised for having rectified the offense that led to the downfall of Israel, its partition into two kingdoms, thereby its weakening and eventual destruction, and the “evil” that king after king committed “in the eyes of YHWH.” (See 2 K 23:13) King Josiah’s measures, meticulously detailed in 2 K 23 aim at establishing a bulwark against further foreign domination. His economic measures include the elimination of cult centers outside Jerusalem and thereby the centralization of taxation, strengthening the royal household and enabling the king to pursue wars of conquest and consolidation. This fantasy of restoration created the hubris that eventually led to Judah’s demise at the hand of the Babylonians who mustered much greater resources after emerging from Assyrian domination.

From the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, a kingdom that had proclaimed exclusive loyalty to YHWH alone, emerged a refined, more sophisticated, more wistful culture that used elements of cultic purity, scribal arts, law, and wisdom to refashion and reimagine what it meant to venerate YHWH alone. In that process, and through encounters with new and more sophisticated civilizations, Jewish theology began to change. Prophetic poetry particularized Israel in a novel, more subtle way as the suffering servant of YHWH while YHWH began to be seen as the one creates weal and creates woe, who fashions light as well as darkness (Isa 45), who directs the fate of nations for the sake of his servant, Jacob. As “Israel’ turns into an increasingly fuzzy social body, as their god appears or allows himself to be venerated not just in the Land of Israel but also abroad, the god of Israel grows in stature and merges with the Highest. This new particularization of “Israel” as the covenanted people of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, compared to whom all other gods are mere idols and nothings, with no ears to hear or eyes to see, creates the jarring possibility of the disinheritance that was to be claimed by the nations: if the god of Israel is God, purely and simply, then what does God have to do with Israel? Through his only begotten son he reaches, teaches, and judges all nations. We can see how the Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures draws conclusions that are already prepared for in the trajectory of the history of the relationship between YHWH and Israel. But the Christians are not alone in offering a strong and plausible interpretation of Scripture. Jews, facing the challenges of Christian, and later also Islamic, interpretations of the Israelite legacy, found a variety of ways to reconcile their politically diminished status with the spiritual elevation of YHWH, god of Israel. These included the ways of halakhah and Talmud torah, the ways of custom, the ways of biblical interpretation and storytelling (midrash), the ways of mysticism and philosophy: Israel’s persistence in exile a proof for the existence of God.

Finally, over the last century and a half, the ways of politics and nation-building in an age of secularism have given the original sense of Israelite theology renewed relevance. If each nation has the political right to exist by virtue of the natural right to choose its national existence, then so does Israel. Stripped of metaphysical ballast, YHWH, god of Israel, has once again become readable as a national god among national gods, and Israel as a nation among others.

After all, the name YHWH means, I AM WHO I AM.

[1] Cf. New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/05-deut-nets.pdf. I significantly modified this translation based on the basic meaning of the Greek wording.

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