Yahweh is the name of the god of the ancient Hebrews composed of four Hebrew consonants (YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton) which the prophet Moses is said to have revealed to his people. As the name of the supreme being was considered too holy to be spoken, the consonants YHWH were used to remind one to say the word `adonai’ (lord) in place of the god’s name (King). Yahweh was a desert god who, according to the biblical Book of Exodus, led his chosen people from captivity in Egypt to the `promised land’ of Canaan. The meaning of the name `Yahweh’ in referencing the Hebrew deity has been interpreted as “He Who Makes That Which Has Been Made” or “He Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists”, though other interpretations have been offered by many scholars. In the late middle ages, `Yahweh’ came to be changed to `Jehovah’ by Christian monks, a name commonly in use today.
Like all gods of antiquity, Yahweh was a specific deity of a people and of a place - in this case, the desert through which the Hebrews traveled - but once they had settled in Canaan, according to the biblical narrative, the worship of Yahweh as the single supreme deity was instituted throughout that land with more, or less, success. It was commonly accepted in antiquity that every deity was only accessible in that region over which the deity presided. Isis of Egypt was not accessible in Athens, Greece and so an Egyptian traveler to Athens would simply pay homage to Athena there instead of Isis; the followers of Yahweh disregarded this belief and practice.
Canaan, populated by the Phoenicians at the time of the arrival of the Hebrews (or, at least, by the time the Hebrew Scriptures were written down), worshipped the many gods of their own pantheon, and the entirety of the scripture known as The Tanakh can be read as a struggle between the monotheistic belief of the scribes of Yahweh and the polytheistic religion of the indigenous people. This is not to say that every citizen of the region practiced either monotheism or polytheism, nor that there was anything like daily hostilities between factions, but simply that the authors of the biblical narratives felt so strongly about their subject that they framed the character of their deity against the backdrop of a polytheistic society at odds with their one, true god, Yahweh.
Yahweh, as the actual name of the supreme being, seems to have remained in use until the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE. At that time King Nebuchadnezzar attacked and defeated Judah (as the southern kingdom of what was once Canaan came to be called) and carried off the aristocratic and elite to Babylon. These captives were the intellectuals and artists, the doctors, teachers and the priests of the people. Instead of the temples in which Yahweh had been worshipped back in their home, the Hebrew priests gathered their people together in what became known as a synogogue (a Greek word meaning `to bring together’) where they would discuss the supreme being, receive religious instruction and, for the young, practice their native language. In this way the culture of the Hebrews, and the name of Yahweh, was preserved throughout the Exile.
About the Author
- Durant, W, Our oriental heritage (Simon & Schuster, 1954).
- King, J, Notes on Yahweh (unpublished)
- Nelson, T, Holy Bible, New King James Version (Thomas Nelson, 2009).