Yhwh, God of Edom

Goddess from Horvat Qitmit

I’m working on a portion of my thesis that discusses the earliest history of the Israelite deity Yhwh, and I think some of the material merits sharing. A lot of people may not be aware of the evidence that exists that Yhwh was originally a deity from the southwestern territory of Edom, on the west of the Arabah, a large valley running south from the Dead Sea down to the gulf of Aqabah. The evidence begins in the Hebrew Bible with a small number of early biblical texts that suggest Yhwh originated in that area:

Deut 33:2: Yhwh came from Sinai, and rose up unto us from Seir; he shined forth from mount Paran.

Judg 5:4–5: Yhwh, when you went out of Seir, when you marched forth from the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped; yea, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked before the presence of Yhwh, the one of Sinai; from before Yhwh, the God of Israel.

Hab 3:3: God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran.

Seir is understood to have been located on the east side of the Arabah, where the Edomites were originally settled. They would later expand into the west, displacing the Horites. Mount Paran is likely to be located near the wilderness of Paran, located west of the Arabah. No one knows the exact location of Mount Sinai, but guesses range from the south of the Sinai peninsula up and over the gulf of Aqabah into the east, Midianite territory. Given Moses stumbles upon the mountain while tending to his Midianite father-in-law’s sheep, it’s probably not too far from the eastern side of the Arabah. Teman is on the western edge of the Arabah.

Now, the exodus tradition has Yhwh first reveal himself in this territory to a man who just married into a Midianite priest’s family. That priest, Jethro/Reuel, calls upon Yhwh’s name and even presides over sacrifices offered to him (Exod 18:10–12). Could the Midianites and Edomites have worshipped Yhwh? The Bible warns the Israelites not to hate the Edomites, since “they are your brothers,” and there is no mention of an Edomite deity anywhere in the Hebrew Bible (nor can I find a reference to a uniquely Midianite deity). This stands in contrast to the polemic leveled against the patron deities of the other nations surrounding Israel, including to the south. It also stands in contrast to the approbation of violence perpetrated against the Edomites and Midianites elsewhere in the Bible. Phineas, for example, was championed for slaughtering an Israelite who brought a Midianite woman into the camp (Num 25:1–9), but Moses, who commanded the Israelites not mix with Midianites, was married to the daughter of a Midianite priest! This suggests the larger exodus tradition dates to a much later period than the tradition associated with Moses’ early family life, when the Midianites and Edomites were enemy peoples.

We also have non-biblical references to Yhwh’s location in Edomite territory. At Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a way station west of the Arabah, an inscription was discovered that calls the Israelite deity “Yhwh of Teman.” Some Egyptian sources also link Yhwh with the territory. Two texts, one from the fourteenth century BCE and another from the thirteenth century BCE, mention “the land of the Shasu, namely Yhw’.” This casts the Tetragrammaton as a toponym associated with the Shasu, who were nomads (the meaning of “Shasu”) located in the region of Edom, according to other Egyptian texts. Scholars generally agree that the Shasu contributed stock, if not the primary line, to the subsequent Israelite ethnos. That ethnos is first attested at the end of the thirteenth century BCE in a victory stela erected by the Egyptian Merneptah. That stela describes “Israel” as a people, and likely locates them in the central hill country of northern Israel.

This may all help explain why no other culture of Canaan worshipped Yhwh. Baal, El, and Asherah seem to be deities acknowledged and revered by multiple ethnicities in Canaan, but Yhwh is Israel’s alone. They were indigenous, he was imported. The conflict that is constantly highlighted in the Bible between Yhwh and Baal is intriguing in light of the complete absence of any such conflict between Yhwh and the Canaanite patriarchal deity El. Judg 5:4–5 gives us clues. Yhwh’s power is described with imagery associated with the storm deity motif. The same can be said of numerous other texts. Psalm 29, for instance, refers repeatedly to thunder and lightning as expressions of Yhwh’s glory. Baal was also a storm deity, and while deities performing the same function within the pantheon could be tolerated across national borders (see chapter 1 here), in the same region, there would be room enough only for one. Baal and Yhwh were thus in constant competition for devotees of the local storm deity. Yhwh did not bring imagery associated with the patriarchal deity to Canaan, but rather he appropriated that imagery, along with the station, from the local Canaanite patriarchal deity. There was no need to combat his influence.

Thus, an Edomite deity from around the Arabah was brought north to the central highlands around the end of the thirteenth century. At some point a federation or coalition of tribes dedicated to this deity coalesced, perhaps as described in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and developed into a state.

Here are some scholarly articles for further reading, if you’re interested in the topic:

N. Amzallag, “Yahweh, the Canaanite God of Metallurgy?JSOT 33.4 (2009): 387-404.

J. Blenkinsopp, “The Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah,” JSOT 33.2 (2008): 131-53.

J. Kelley, “Toward a new synthesis of the god of Edom and Yahweh,” Antiguo Oriente: Cuadernos del Centro de Estudios de Historia del Antiguo Oriente 7 (2009).

T. Schneider, “The First Documented Occurrence of the God Yahweh? (Book of the Dead Princeton ‘Roll 5′),” JANER 7.2 (2007): 113-20.

N. Shupak, “The God from Teman and the Egyptian Sun God: A Reconsideration of Habakkuk 3:3-7,” JANES 28 (2001): 97-116.

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21 responses to “Yhwh, God of Edom

  • YHWH: An Imported Deity? | Ex Libris

    [...] Yhwh, God of Edom | Daniel O. McClellan [...]

  • Brian LePort

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. This makes me rethink the identity of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who is a priest in Midian without any negative disclaimers to prevent us from understanding him to be a priest in a positive way.

  • Foundations

    Yah maybe more ancient/universal rather than being from Edom/Midian (even if were so where did the Edom/Midian one come from?)

    Possible cognates of Yah/Yhwh around ancient world:
    America – Jehu (inscription)? Yaotl? Teotl? Jacy? ‘-ihah’ (Mormon)? Taiowa (sun god Hopi)? Yocahu?
    African – Yayu? Xewioso? Jakomba? Yo?
    Italy – Janus? Jove? Jas (Abraxas)?
    Greek – Iao? Ievs/Zeus/Jeoud? Iacchus? Chaos?
    ["Cyprus"?] – Ia-dan?
    Egypt – Iahu? Yah/Aah (Thoth/Sin)? (Ja-)im-hotep (Wyatt)? Mosakayahu? Heh?
    Ethiopia – Yaro/Yero?
    Egypt/Shasu – Yhw/Jhw/Yahu [hill god, M Murray]?
    Arabia/Midian – hwhy/yhwh/yhhw/whhy (Lawz inscription, Cornuke)? Yaghuth/”Jeush” (time)? Yahya (John)?
    Israel – Jas/Jach/Yah/’-iah’ /Yhwh/Yahweh/Jehovah /Yod /Eyah (“speaker”/”I Am”, El/Adonai, Arad)? Yeshua? Eve? Jave (Cain)?
    Syria/Phoenicia/Canaan – Iao? Yaw? Yam(m)? Ya (Ebla)? Yeya (lord/god)?
    Gnostic/Kosmon – ‘Eee-A-O’/Iaoth/Yaoth
    Mesopotamia – Ea/Hea/Yav/en-Ki (Lochore//Massey)? Ya (Ebla)? Zu?
    Afghan – Dezau?
    Indus/India – Yaya (Hrozny)? Dyaus?
    China – Yao (Velikovsky)? Tao? nu-Kwa? Yi (Hrozny)? Yu?
    Maori – Io/Iho/Kiho? Atua?

    Not sure if the D-/T- versions (Dyaus/Zeus/Teotl) are related or not?

    * Cronus->Zeus ~ Elohim->Yhwh?

  • jasondulle

    Some thoughts and questions.

    Does the mere fact that the name of God, YHWH, predates Israel mean that they borrowed YHWH from the Edomites?

    And what reason do we have to believe that the YHWH the Edomites followed is the same YHWH the Israelites followed? Couldn’t they have conceived of this god differently (similarly to how Jews and Christians both speak of “God,” and yet have very different understandings about the nature and character of God).

    And I’m not sure how amazed we should be that someone else other than Israel might have a god named YHWH given it’s basic meaning (“He is,” or something similar). It could even be the case that YHWH revealed himself to the ancestors of the Edomites, and while they retained His name in their worship they perverted His identity through syncretism.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I’m not suggesting borrowing so much as migrating. Segments of the Edomite population who worshipped YHWH seem to have migrated to the north, taking their deity with them and making up a fragment of the earliest Israelite ethnos. The local deity would have been the Canaanite patriarchal deity El. It’s unlikely this is a different YHWH because there is no other attestation of that divine name except among the Israelites, and it appears just before the Israelite ethnos appears.

    • Stephanie

      I do agree….nothing new under the sun….serving the Most High in action is worship and not just using a name and calling him your own….good example: chritians and jews.

  • Scripturefocus

    So, Danny, how do your Mormon comrades like your thoughts?

  • Ron Den Boer

    The Book of Mormon contradicts the whole concept of the Nature of the Godhead and Nature of Jesus the way Joseph Smith taught and agrees completely with the Creeds of the 4th and 5th century. 2 Nephi 26:12, Alma 11:44, Mosiah 3:5 and 5:15 etc

  • Ivan Komotios

    Could Daniel O. McClellan produce some verses in the Book of Mormon to substantiate his finding ?

    “The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (T. of P.J.S., p. 194).

    He also said, “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none” (Ibid., p. 71). But, Smith’s successor, LDS Prophet Brigham Young, said, “There is the New Testament; you may leave out the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and follow the precepts of that book faithfully, and I will warrant you to arrive at salvation” (J. of D., Vol. I, p. 244). This is another example of LDS prophetic inconsistency.

    LDS Apostle Orson Pratt wrote a series of questions and answers in which he said, “Q. What will be the consequences if they (the United States) do not embrace the Book of Mormon as a divine revelation? A. They will be destroyed from the land and sent down to hell, like all other generations who have rejected a divine message” (The Seer, p. 215). The United States still has not embraced the B. of M. after more than 150 years, but they have not been destroyed either!

    Pratt also said, “Before this [the B. of M.] was offered to the world, the Lord confirmed it by opening the heavens in broad daylight, and sending down an holy angel, who descended in the presence of four individuals, three besides Mr. Smith, and the angel took the plates, and turned them over leaf after leaf, while, at the same time, the voice of the Lord out of the heavens told them it had been translated correctly, commanding them to send forth their testimony to all nations, Kingdoms, tongues, and people” (J. of D., Vol. II, p. 293).

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      My blog isn’t about Mormonism, so if you’ve got a contribution to make to the post, make it, but if you’re just here to spew belligerent sectarian nonsense, I’m not going to let you continue to post.

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