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.