Unless you are Jewish or took a course in religion during your lifetime, you may not even know what the letters YHWH stand for. No worries. It is the name of God written in Hebrew in the Torah or, as Christians call it, the Old Testament. The word is composed of all consonants because the written Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. I’m sure you have seen those posts on Facebook where they ask you to read a jumbled sentence with letters out of order. Most of the time, you can still discern what it means. It’s like that in Hebrew. While there are some markers that can assist you, there are no written vowels. Sometimes this name for god is written out Yahweh so you know how to pronounce it. This is the name that morphed into the word Jehovah in English. The King James Bible used the word Jehovah extensively, but now most translations use the word Lord. Whew! That was a long intro. But this post is going to address the larger issue of where the original word may have come from. This is tied up with the theories of where the Israelites came from originally. And no, they were not there from the Garden of Eden onward.
Why is this important? Finding evidence for the origin of the Israelites places them in an historical context. It also links them to surrounding cultures of the same time period. Will this convince someone that Judaism was just one of many religions competing for people’s hearts and minds? Who knows. I remember that during my first religion class at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota the professor discussed the different oral strains contained in a linguistic analysis of the writings of the Old Testament that showed evidence of different writers. Looking back, I think it was the first chink in the armor that convinced me this book may have been written by ordinary men, not dictated by a supernatural power.
Not surprisingly, there are many competing theories regarding the origin of the Hebrews: the Bible states that Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and another popular theory claims that the Israelites were Canaanites all along who had simply moved from the coast where invasions were endangering them to the relatively empty highlands.
The problem with the first theory is that archeologists have found no evidence in the Sinai Desert for a sojourn that the Bible says lasted forty years. Also, the Egyptians were excellent record keepers. If they had imported and enslaved thousands of Hebrews and brought them into Egypt, trust me, they would have written about it. The second theory is interesting in that it is believed a loose confederation of tribes likely did invade Egypt during the 13th century BCE and also disrupted tribes in the Levant, i.e. the areas off the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean. References have been found during the reign of Ramses II of Egypt that mentions these “Sea Peoples.”
Andre LeMaire in his book, The Birth of Monotheism, puts forth compelling arguments, however, for a third hypothesis—an origin in the area of Midian. This ancient land was located on the Arabian Peninsula to the east of the Red Sea. The association of this land or set of tribes referred to as Midian or Midianites is plentiful in the Bible. Below is a partial list of references. Interestingly, Midian is also mentioned frequently in the Qu’ran. See here for a more complete list.
LeMaire’s hypothesis rests on the following references.
While this evidence is not conclusive and other scholars have suggested alternatives, LeMaire makes a compelling case for the association of YHWH with the Midianites. It is YHWH who becomes the lead god and then the only Israelite god.
This slow rise of monotheism, not only with the Israelites but with other cultures as well, is difficult for most Jews and Christians to accept. However, there are multiple references in the Bible itself that attest to their first concept of this god YHWH simply being one of many gods. Here are just a few of the references.
In addition to starting out as one god of many, the objects associated with this new god YHWH are very similar to those of other peoples of the region: an altar, a stela, and a sacred bush. There is more to tell about Moses, particularly his rescue from a basket of reeds (similar to Sargon of Akkad), but I will leave that for another post.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
December 2, 2016
 Andre Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archeological Society, 2007), 25.
 Andre Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archeological Society, 2007), 23.