Yahweh

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Definition

The usual form, among scholars, of the personal name of God in the Old Testament, representing the most likely vocalization of the ‘sacred YHWH

Jehovah is its English and common European representation, since the 16th c., of the Hebrew divine name Yhwh. This word (the ‘sacred tetragrammaton’) having come to be considered by the Jews too sacred for utterance, was pointed in the Old Testament by the Masoretes with the vowels ' (= {a), {o}, {a}, of {a}d{o}n{a}i, as a direction to the reader to substitute ADONAI for the ‘ineffable name’; which is actually done by Jerome in the Vulgate translation of Exodus vi. 3, and hence by Wyclif. Students of Hebrew at the Revival of Letters took these vowels as those of the word Yhwh (IHUH, JHVH) itself, which was accordingly transliterated in Latin spelling as IeHoVa(H), i.e. Iehoua(h. It is now held that the original name was IaHUe(H), i.e. Jahve(h, or with the English values of the letters, Yahwe(h, and one or other of these forms is now generally used by writers upon the religion of the Hebrews. The word has generally been understood to be a derivative of the verb h{a}w{a}h to be, to exist, as if ‘he that is’, ‘the self-existent’, or ‘the one ever coming into manifestation’; this origin is now disputed, but no conjectured derivation which has been substituted has found general acceptance.

Description

Yahweh (הוהי) is the proper name of the God of ancient Israel. He is also called El, literally "God," and Elohim, also meaning "God," although the latter was originally a plural noun meaning "gods, pantheon." By a remarkable act of theological reduction, the complex divine hierarchy of prior polytheistic religion was transformed into the authority of a sole high god. However, Yahweh was not the only god in Israelite religion. Like a king in his court, Yahweh was served by lesser deities, variously called "the Sons of God," "the Host of Heaven," and similar titles. This host (the word also means "army") sometimes fought battles of holy war (cf. the battle of Jericho, where Joshua meets the divine "captain of Yahweh's army"; (Joshua. 5:13–15) and were also represented as stars (Judges. 5:20): "the stars fought from heaven;" (also Job. 38:7). These lesser deities attend Yahweh in heaven, as in the prophet Micaiah's vision: "I saw Yahweh seated on his throne with all the Host of Heaven standing beside him, to his right and left" (1 Kings. 22:19). At times they are also equated with the gods of other nations: "He established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Sons of God" (Deuteronomy. 32:8 with Qumran and the Septuagint; similarly, (Deuteronomy. 4:19). A third category of divine beings (after Yahweh and the Sons of God) consisted of messenger gods, called angels. The angels carry Yahweh's messages to earth, as illustrated by Jacob's dream vision of the angels ascending and descending the celestial staircase that links heaven and earth (Genesis. 28:12). In late biblical books, the Sons of God and the angels merge into a single category and proliferate: In Daniel's vision of the heavenly court, "thousands upon thousands serve him" (Daniel. 7:10).

The tripartite hierarchy of the divine world—Yahweh, the Sons of God or Heavenly Host, and the angels—derives from the earlier structure of Canaanite religion. According to the texts from Ugarit (c. 1200 BCE) and other Canaanite sources, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon was El, whose wife, the mother of the gods, was Asherah. The other gods of the pantheon are collectively called the Children of El and are subservient to El's authority, although some—particularly Baal, Anat, Astarte, and Resheph—are prominent deities. A third category consists of servants and messenger gods. This hierarchy is structurally equivalent to that of Israelite religion, with some striking differences. On the level of high god, El seems to have merged with Yahweh, who absorbs El's name and has many of his attributes. Asherah in Israelite religion becomes the name of a sacred pole or tree in local Yahwistic shrines, although there are hints in some texts that she was worshiped as a goddess in some times and places. The second tier of deities, the Children of El (bn ʾil), have the same title in Israelite religion (Sons of God; bene ʾel or bene haʾelohim), but in Israelite religion have been demoted into relatively powerless beings. Resheph, for example, rather than an independent god of war and disease, seems to become a personification of disease, accompanying Yahweh's awesome march into battle (Hb. 3:5). Yahweh replaces or absorbs the functions of all of the active gods of the pantheon, hence like El, he is the beneficent patriarch and judge; like Baal, he is the divine warrior; and like Asherah and her daughters, he dispenses "blessings of breast and womb" (Genesis. 49:25). Israelite religion, like Israel's language and culture, is a child of the Canaanite or West Semitic world.

One of the distinctive features of Israelite religion is the absence of a wife or consort for Yahweh. Yahweh is a male god, but he is not depicted as a sexual being. It is possible, although far from certain, that some local traditions may have rectified this situation. Several inscriptions from the eighth century invoke blessings "by Yahweh and his asherah." The grammar of these invocations most likely indicates that "his asherah" refers to a sacred pole or tree rather than a goddess, because a proper name cannot have a possessive suffix, and sacred poles or trees called asherahs are mentioned in the Bible as features of local shrines. However, Asherah is El's wife in Canaanite religion, and she might be Yahweh's wife in these local cults, perhaps represented by the sacred pole or tree. In several instances in the Bible, the name Asherah clearly refers to a goddess: According to the Book of Kings, King Asa's mother made a statue of Asherah, which King Asa destroyed (1 Kings. 15:13); 400 prophets of Asherah were supported by Queen Jezebel (1 Kings. 18:19); lacking in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures); and a statue of Asherah was placed in the Jerusalem Temple by King Manasseh and later destroyed by King Josiah (2 Kings. 21:7; 23:6). Whether these statements are historically accurate or whether in some cases they are false accusations against "wicked" royalty (like Jezebel and Manasseh), they nonetheless clearly attest that Asherah could be understood as the name of a goddess. The symbolism of the sacred pole or tree called the asherah or asherim (the plural form is masculine in gender) remains suggestive but obscure. It may be a depersonalization of Asherah into a religious symbol of Yahweh worship, perhaps representing an attribute of Yahweh's divinity such as fertility or abundance (in the metonymy of the tree); it may signify that the goddess Asherah was worshiped alongside Yahweh; or perhaps more likely, the sacred pole or tree was subject to differing interpretations, with a floating symbolic register.

Early biblical texts seem to acknowledge that gods of other nations exist (Deuteronomy. 32:8). The nations each have their own god, but Yahweh is Israel's god. This seems to be the earliest sense of the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods beside me" (Exodus. 20:3). Yahweh is Israel's high god, who delivered his people from slavery and oppression, and therefore he is entitled to Israel's worship and loyalty. Moreover, Yahweh is superior to the other gods, as proclaimed in the early hymn, the Song of the Sea: "Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, working wonders?" (Exodus. 15:11). Other national gods exist, but Yahweh is Israel's god and he is the greatest god. The worship of Yahweh functions as a unifying agent of Israelite culture and religion. This type of worship is sometimes called monolotry (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others) or henotheism (belief in one god without denying the existence of others). A more thoroughgoing monotheism, which denies the existence of other gods, is a product of the prophetic and Deuteronomistic critique during the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE.

In addition to the major categories of divine beings, the human dead are also referred to as gods. When King Saul has a sorceress summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel, she calls the ghost an Elohim (1 Samuel. 28:13). Elsewhere the shades of the dead are called gods (Isaiah. 8:19) and "holy ones" (Psalms. 16:3). Although divination by consulting the shades of the dead is prohibited in Deuteronomy 18:11, it may have been a fairly common local practice. Statues called teraphim were also used for divination (Ezekiel. 21:26; Zechariah. 10:2) and are once referred to as gods (Genesis. 31:30). These were probably statues of dead ancestors who bestowed blessings on their descendants and could be invoked for divination. These practices indicate that the dead were not connected to the world of the gods as full-fledged deities, but as shadowy intermediaries between the world of the living and the divine realm. The world of the dead was the subterranean Sheol, not in heaven where Yahweh and his divine entourage dwelled, but somehow their shadowy existence was in some respects divine and included godlike foresight into the future.

On a different level the human king functioned as a quasidivine intermediary between the divine and human realms. The king is at times referred to as the son of God (Psalms. 2:7; 2 Samuel. 7:14) and the firstborn of God (Psalms. 89:28), and in one text the king seems to be addressed as Elohim (Psalms. 45:7). The language of divine kinship in these texts indicates that God adopts the reigning king as his earthly son, which corresponds to the king's role as God's chosen representative or intermediary on earth. As portrayed in the royal psalms, the king is the earthly guarantor of cosmic order, defeating the enemies—both human and cosmic—and establishing harmony and peace. The king partakes of the divine through the sacral office of kingship, which ideally ensures "abundant authority and peace without end" (Isaiah. 9:6). In the Second Temple period (536 BCE–70 CE), in the absence of a reigning king, the concept of the king as a quasidivine intermediary stimulated the expectation of a royal messiah, the future Davidic king, hedged with divinity, who will defeat chaos once and for all.

See also