Because the Bible narrates that Israel first encountered its deity YHWH at Sinai after having left Egypt and before entering the land of Canaan, the question of YHWH’s historical origins has long been a topic of inquiry among biblical scholars. The claim of a non-autochthonous origin for a national god is indeed peculiar in terms of the wider ancient Near East, but in the context of the Bible is prominently and repeatedly given expression. So is it possible that a germ of truth lies behind this tradition?
The tendency in modern biblical scholarship has been to assume that the story of YHWH’s southern origins is based on very early tradition, partly because of the distinctive association of Midianites with YHWH worship and the figure Moses, but also because of a few examples of alleged early Hebrew poetry that describe YHWH coming from Edom or Sinai (Jdgs 5:4-5; Deut 33:2; Ps 68:8-9; Hab 3:3-4). During the last half of the 20th century and continuing until today, extra-biblical inscriptions that mention the name YHWH and connect it to the general area of Edom/southern Palestine have gradually taken on a pivotal role in the discussion. They are widely understood to confirm the basic picture that YHWH originated in the southern deserts outside the land of later Israel-Judah.
However, in recent years this standard view has come under strong criticism from a variety of angles, primarily within German language scholarship. This minority perspective argues that recent literary-critical and tradition-historical investigation into the development of exodus and other biblical tradition undercuts notions about their high antiquity, problematizes the interpretation of the extra-biblical evidence mentioned above, and highlights biblical material suggesting that YHWH originated as a fairly conventional Syrian-Canaanite weather god linked to developed agriculture.
Interest in the subject of demonology in ancient Israel-Judah/early Judaism has grown in recent years, and the present work represents the most recent monograph contribution to the conversation. In Materiality Brian Schmidt, who has already made significant forays into relevant topics such as Israelite mortuary cult and religion at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (KA), returns to build upon and nuance his earlier work with a special focus on apotropaic magic as evidenced in archaeological, epigraphic, and biblical sources. The stated goal is ambitious, to establish based on historical and comparative analysis the “survival and viability of a previously unidentified, yet extant pandemonium in preexilic Israelite magic” (p. 13).
A revised version of my article “The Meaning of asherah in Hebrew Inscriptions” was published in Semitica 59
The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture by Jeremy Smoak is an in-depth study into the origin and background of the priestly blessing in Num 6:24-26. The argument of the book is fairly simple. Building on recent inscriptional discoveries, Smoak proposes that the language of the blessing stems from a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic formulae that were spoken and written down to protect individuals from demonic forces, and this illuminates not only the function of the blessing prior to being incorporated into the biblical text but also its meaning in its current narrative setting in the priestly source. Continue reading
My paper proposal “Reconstructing the pantheon of Judaean Elephantine” was accepted for the 2017 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the Social Sciences and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures unit. Here’s an abstract:
Despite the fact that documents recording aspects of the daily life and religion of the Judaean colony at Elephantine during the Persian period have long been known and available for analysis, no consensus has emerged about the number of gods worshipped in the local cult, to what degree the gods were Judahite-Israelite in origin, and especially how the gods were thought to relate to one another and to YHW. Were the gods conceptualized in the conventional model of a familial, hierarchically arranged pantheon as known from throughout the ancient Near East? This paper critically assesses the evidence for a pantheon at Elephantine by reflecting on the cognitive science of religion and its implications for reconstructing ancient forms of polytheism, offers a new synthesis of the data regarding the structure and coherence of the Judaean pantheon as it was apparently known there, and finally considers the relevance of the situation at Elephantine for questions about the nature of Israelite-Judahite polytheism more generally.
An updated form of my article “The Identity of the Standing Figures on Pithos A from Kuntillet ʿAjrud: A Reassessment” has been published with Brill at JANER 16: 121-191.
I have a new article up on the meaning of the verb qny in the divine epithet qny ʾrṣ, variously translated “Creator,” “Begetter,” or “Owner of the earth.” I argue that the verb never means “to create” in West Semitic and that all attested usages can be explained on the assumption that they derive from a single root with the basic meaning “to acquire, come into possession.” The correct translation of Hebrew qnh šmym wʾrṣ in Gen 14: 19, 22 is “Owner of heaven and earth.”
The cult of the god Gad in ancient Israel is at first glance obscure. As a god identified with good fortune (the word gad means “fortune, happiness”), the divine name is attested sporadically in the Bible as well as in personal names and inscriptions from the larger Syro-Palestinian region. The laconic quality of personal names provides few hints about his character and identity, while the single literary text in which the divine name occurs is highly polemical and of limited use (Isa 65:11). Further complicating matters is that not only was there a god in the southern Levant known as Gad, but the noun gad was also commonly used in personal names in its appellative sense to identify a particular god as a source of good fortune. During the first millennium it seems a variety of gods could be described as a source of gad, as reflected in the personal names gdmlqrt (“Melqart is fortune”), gdʿštrt (“Astarte is fortune”), gdnbw (“Nabu is fortune”), gdyhw (“Yahu is my fortune”), gdyʾl (“El is my fortune”), mlkmgd (“Milkom is fortune”), ṣlmgd (“Ṣlm is fortune”). Eventually the name gad was generalized and came to be used as a title for patron deities of cities, tribes, and localities in the Graeco-Roman Near East (Höfner 1965: 438-39; Lipiński 1995: 62-64; Kaizer 1997; Ribichini 1999: 340).
The discovery of two late Iron Age seals from Jerusalem has been announced, and though we await more detailed discussion of the seals in an official scholarly publication, Christopher Rollston has provided a valuable provisional analysis clarifying aspects of the reading of the inscriptions and their script, language, and date based on examination of the available photos, as well as a discussion on the use of seals more generally in the ancient Near East and the exceptional nature of a woman owning a seal.
For myself, what is most interesting is the content of the various names found on the seals. I have elsewhere discussed the significance of personal names as a window into the family and national religion of the peoples of the southern Levant (cf. Albertz 2012, Burnett 2009). As many names contain both a theophoric element (YHW, El, Baal, Kemosh, Milcom, Qos) and a predicative statement articulating some belief about the named deity, they tell us something about how these individual deities were conceptualized at both a familial and societal level.
I have put up a draft of my study on plaster wall inscription 4.2 from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which offers a revised transcription, translation, and commentary. If you are less interested in epigraphic analysis, then you are welcome to skip to the commentary further below. There I present the argument that in the context of Israel-Judah the name Baal referred to El, the head of the Israelite pantheon.