Tag Archives: Yhwh

SBL 2017 Paper Proposal

The calls for papers for most sections of SBL 2017 are up, and I recently submitted the first of two proposals. This paper will be related to my dissertation, but it’s also intended to help me flesh out some tangents I’d like to explore in other publications. I submitted the paper to the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section, which is focusing on theophany and the embodiment of God. My paper is titled “‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t’: The Vanishing of YHWH,” and the abstract is below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This paper will engage the problem of the development of YHWH’s invisibility on two fronts. First, it will examine passages from early biblical narratives wherein the identity of the God of Israel appears to have been conflated with that of the messenger of YHWH. It will argue that the word mal’ak was interpolated early in the history of those passages and was later accommodated to the biblical worldview through the conceptualization of YHWH’s name as a communicable vehicle for divine agency, with Exod 23:20–21 representing the clearest articulation of that conceptualization.

The second half of the paper will discuss the relationship of those interpolations to the development of YHWH’s invisibility. It will argue that the interpolation of the messenger was catalyzed by three interrelated factors: (1) the de facto aniconism of YHWH’s worship, (2) increasing concern for the dangers posed by looking upon YHWH’s glorious face, and (3) YHWH’s universalization. The first factor largely freed YHWH from semiotic anchoring in material media, rendering embodiment a much more open question. Factor 2 problematized the exceptions to the rule regarding seeing YHWH that were found in the interpolated passages. The third factor problematized YHWH’s physical interaction with humanity. These factors converged to incentivize authors and editors to obscure those interactions and restrict YHWH’s visibility to oblique visionary accounts of his form. The ongoing universalization of the God of Israel facilitated the further distancing of YHWH from human form and perception.

All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

Both 1 Chr 16:26 and Ps 96:5 state that “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (כי כל-אלהי העמים אלילים ויהוה שמים עשה). This has long been appealed to in scholarship addressing monotheism in the Hebrew Bible as an example of the text’s denial of the existence of the gods of the nations. They are idols, not gods. I recently ran across this reading in James Anderson’s new book, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal:

It is to Psalm 96 that one must turn to find a more pointed affirmation of Yahweh’s uniqueness: ‘For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.’ (Ps. 96.4–5) There, the onslaught against idols is complete with a clear statement that the other gods are no gods. The claim that Yahweh is the only god has to be backed up by the claim that he created the heavens. This massive theological claim was a novelty.

The problem is that “idols” is a terrible translation that completely obscures the rhetorical force of the verse and facilitates the incorrect interpretation of these verses as denying the existence of other gods. The word translated “idols” is אלילים, but that word does not mean “idols,” it means “worthless things.” It is a play on words that works because if looks and sounds so similar to the Hebrew word אלהים. It would become a lexical substitute for “idol” similar to the way “abomination” (שקוץ) functions as a substitute for “god” in places like Exod 8:26; 1 Kgs 11:7; and 2 Kgs 23:13. The text is not saying the other gods are not gods, it’s saying they’re worthless and powerless—and here comes the rhetorical hook—but YHWH made the freakin’ heavens! That’s how much more he is to be revered over all those puny gods. This is the rhetorical force this text was supposed to have, but too many scholars are too concerned about finding monotheism in the Bible to pay close attention to that.

YHWH is King: The Development of Divine Kingship in Ancient Israel

On the first day of the book exhibit at SBL I swung by the Brill booth quite early to gather up the complimentary journals and to look at new releases. I was exited to see Shawn Flynn’s new book, YHWH is King: The Development of Divine Kingship in Ancient Israel, was available a few months early, and then was annoyed to see someone had already reserved the one copy. The book is an edition of Flynn’s 2012 University of Toronto doctoral dissertation, When on High Yahweh Reigned: Translating Yahweh’s Kingship in Ancient Israel (PDF available at the link; the dissertation abstract is below). The book approaches the development of divine kingship in part through the lens of cultural translation (cf. Smith and Assmann), which sounds promising to me. Check it out, and if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

This dissertation identifies two distinct stages of YHWH’s kingship in ancient Israel: an earlier warrior king with a limited sphere of geographic influence, and a later, Judahite creator king with universal power and absolute rule. After identifying these stages, this dissertation proposes the historical context in which the change to YHWH’s kingship occurred. Articulating this change is informed by the anthropological method of cultural translation and studied via a suitable historical analogue: the change in Marduk’s kingship and the external pressures that lead to the expression of his universal kingship in the Enuma Elish. The Babylonian changes to Marduk’s kingship form a suitable analogy to articulate the changes to YHWH’s kingship in the Levant. Therefore Judahite scribes suppressed the early warrior vision of YHWH’s kingship and promoted a more sustainable vision of a creator and universal king in order to combat the increasing threat of Neo-Assyrian imperialism begun under the reign of Tiglath-pileser III.

SBL Paper Proposals

I just submitted two proposals for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Here they are:

מלאך יהוה: The Textual Origins of God’s Divine Agent

Two theories are current regarding the earliest appearances of the mâlaḵ YHWH, in which his identity is not clearly distinguished from that of God. The more prominent theory is that the messenger is an aspect of God, a hypostasis, or some other extension of his identity. Alternatively, some scholars view the word mâlaḵ as a textual interpolation meant to obscure theologically problematic passages. There are later appearances of the mâlaḵ YHWH that are demonstrably original to their literary context, however, and even if the interpolation theory is correct, these appearances reflect the theological accommodation of the messenger as in some way identifiable with the God of Israel.

The present study will examine text-critical considerations that demonstrate the priority of the interpolation theory. It will then go on to examine the later biblical conceptualization of the relationship of the messenger to YHWH, emphasizing the concept of divine agency over and against that of divine identity. Textual, linguistic, and literary evidence will contribute to the conclusion that the messenger of YHWH was a secondary divine agent authorized to represent God and speak on his behalf in virtue of the indwelling of his name. The implications of this notion of communicable divine agency extend into Greco-Roman period Judaism and early Christianity.


YHWH and El: The Conceptual Blending of Their Divine Profiles

The point of departure for this paper is the theory that the patriarchal and exodus traditions represent originally independent traditions of Israel’s ethnogenesis. The most explicit—and perhaps original—attempt to link the two traditions and their concepts of God (Exod 6:3) acknowledges distinct divine names associated with the two traditions, namely YHWH and El Shaddai. Quite different theological profiles emerge from the disentangling of the traditions most closely connected with those names, but by the time of the composition of Exod 6:3, those profiles were fusing. Within the resulting composite view of Israel’s God, certain concepts associated with the earlier profiles were emphasized while others were marginalized. New concepts also developed out of the process and the socio-religious exigencies of the authors and editors. The complex and tensile conceptualization of YHWH found in the Hebrew Bible’s final form represents several centuries of conceptual blending and innovation against the backdrop of Israel’s scriptural heritage.

Scholars of early Israelite religion have dedicated a great deal of attention to the socio-religious impetuses for and results of the conflation of YHWH and El, but there is little that examines the cognitive processes that may have attended and influenced that conflation. This study seeks to fill that need. It will first isolate and schematize each tradition’s conceptualizations of its central deity, paying close attention to the centrality of the imagery to that deity’s representation. It will then evaluate the conceptual blending of the two schemas, highlighting the analogous and complementary concepts that facilitated that blending, as well as the conditions that contributed to the development of new divine conceptualizations. The fundamental goal is insight into why God was represented in the texts the way he was.

Footnote on Yhwh’s Origins

I’m reading through Alberto R. W. Green’s book The Storm-God in the Ancient Near East, and I came across a rather lengthy footnote that brings together representative publications addressing the question of the origin and meaning of the name Yhwh, and the emergence of Yahwism. Anyone interested in the topics might find something helpful in the footnote, even though many of them are pretty early (obviously some of the items have already been cited in Green’s book, so their shorter citations appear):

H. O. Thompson, “Yahweh (Deity),” ABD 6.1011-13; de Moor, The Rise of Yahwism, esp. pp. 108-36; T.N.D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); M. S. Smith, The Early History of God; G. W. Ahlström, Who Where the Israelites? (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1986), 59-60; E. A. Knauf, “Yahwe,” VT 34 (1984): 467-72; Z. Zevit, “A Chapter in the History of Israelite Personal Names,” BASOR 250 (1983): 1-16; Cooper and Pope, “Divine Name and Epithets in the Ugaritic Texts,” 337-42; C. E. L’Heureuz, “Searching for the Origins of God,” in Traditions and Transformations: Turning Points in Biblical Faith (Frank Moore Cross Festschrift, ed. B. Halpern and J. D. Levenson; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 33-44; idem. Rank among the Canaanite Gods, 49-70; M. Görg, “Jahwe: Ein Toponym? BN 1 (1976): 7-14; Cross, CMHE, 44-75 ;R de Vaux, “El et Baal, le Dieu des peres et Yahweh,” Ugaritica IV, 501-17; Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 168-72; J. P. Hyatt, “Was Yahweh Originally a Creator Deity?” JBL 86 (1967): 369-77; W von Soden, “Yahwe, er ist, er erweist sich,” WO 3 (1944-66): 177-87; A. Finet, “Iawi-ila, roi de Talkayun,” Syria 41 (1964): 117-24; Hyatt, “The Origin of Mosaic Yahwism,” in The Teacher’s Yoke (Waco, Tx.: Baylor University Press, 1964), 85-93; J. Lindblom, “Noch einmal die Deutung des Jahhwe-Names in Ex. 3:14,” ASTI 3 (1964): 4-14; H. Kosmala, “The Name of God (YHWH and HU’),” ASTI 2 (1963): 103-20; O. Eissfeldt, “Jahwe der Gott der Väter,” TLZ 88 (1963): cols. 481-90; idem. “‘aheyah ‘asar ‘aheyah und ‘El ‘Olam,” KS 4.193-98; Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” HTR 55 (1962): 250-59; S. Mowinckel, “The Name of the God of Moses,” HUCA 32 (1961): 121-33; R. Abba, “The Divine Name Yahweh,” JBL 80 (1961): 320-28; D. N. Freedman, “The Name of the God of Moses,” JBL 79 (1960): 151-56; R. Meyer, “Der Gottesname Jahwe im Lichte der neuesten Forschung,” BZ 2 (1958): 26-53; M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. (assen: Van Gorcum, 1957); M. H. Segal, “El, Elohim, and Yahweh in the Bible,” JQE 46 (1955): 98-115; A. Murtonen, A Philological and Literary Treatise on the Old Testament Divine Names ‘l, ‘lwh, ‘lhym, and yhwh (StudOr 18; Helsinki: Sociatas orienstalis Fennica, 1952).

Cosmic Kingship and Political Kingship

In a paper I recently wrote on Psalm 82’s form and function, I very briefly touched upon a distinction between a deity’s political kingship and their cosmic kingship. I haven’t seen this discussed much, but it seems to me an important distinction to make. Yhwh, for instance, is understood exclusively as the deity of Israel well into the exile (Ps 79:1, 6; Amos 3:2; etc.), but he is asserted to be the High God and king well before (Ps 18:13; 29:10). Even the name יהוה אלהים suggests his creation of the gods (according to some).

Many scholars equate kingship over the gods and heaven/earth with political universalization (see, for instance, Heiser, “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature,” 77), but I think this is a mistake. When Baal and Marduk accede to their divine kingships in the Baal Epic and Enuma Elish, respectively, there is no indication they do not remain national deities. Kemosh remained the national deity of Moab, and Yhwh the deity of Israel, even in the Mesha inscription, where Yhwh’s temple vessels are dragged before Kemosh. I would point out, too, that in the ancient Near Eastern pantheons there was nothing problematic about multiple “kings.” Baal’s accession to his “eternal kingship” (KTU did not undue El’s sovereignty.

For this reason I see nothing in the Hebrew Bible that undermines the conclusion that Yhwh was politically universalized during the Exile as a means of rationalizing Israel’s deportation and protecting Israel’s relationship with Yhwh and her national identity. Yhwh’s kingship over the gods in pre-exilic periods does not complicate that theory.

The Historicity of Josiah’s Reforms

In reading through scholarship on early Israelite religion, it seems to be taken for granted that the biblical account of Josiah’s reforms is accurate. From the priests to the high places to the polytheistic idolatry, there seems to be little thought given to the rhetorical nature of the biblical records. One of the papers I wrote for an archaeology class at Oxford dealt with the archaeological support for Josiah’s Reforms. It responded to the following essay question:


A conclusion I reached is that the account in 2 Kings 22–23 is more rhetorical than historical. I try to approach questions of early Israelite religion, insofar as they bear on Josiah’s reforms, with that in mind, and I’d like to see more of that in scholarship. The paper can be found here. As always, I am looking for ways to improve my work. Any feedback is appreciated.