In my recent post about the Lost God of Peace, I discussed the linguistic origins and evidence of the Canaanite god, and briefly mentioned some of the others in the pantheon and their linguistic remnants in the Semitic languages. But there was one small deity in that pantheon that I may have overlooked (or intentionally passed over) whom you may recognize. Did you find him? He’s way down there almost at the bottom. Yup that’s him!
That’s right, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God worshipped by nearly 55% of the world’s population, once sat alongside Shalim as one of the minor gods of the Canaanites. While this is hardly news to any diligent theologian, it may come as a bit of a shock to casual believers. So how did this marginal, seemingly insignificant deity come to overtake his brother’s temple, marry his father’s wife, and completely redefine religion as the world knew it by becoming the one true god of monotheism? Once again, a linguistic analysis may be able to help us explain this.
Take another look at the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. Notice that almost all of them have a dominion that they ruled or oversaw, whether it be Yaw, the god of the seas and rivers; Ishat, the god of fire; or our guy Shalim, the god of the dawn. In determining the origins of the names of gods in polytheism, you often run into the chicken vs. egg problem. For example, it may never be known whether Shalim took his name from the Canaanite word for ‘dawn’ or vice versa. It can pretty safely be assumed that at one point the language was so primitive that the two probably shared a name, and possibly an identity. Keep in mind that in the same way that monotheism arose from monolatrism which in turn arose from polytheism, polytheism probably arose from an amalgam of animism and ancestor worship. Euhmerus theorized that all of the gods of Greece were named after distant ancestors who became deified over the generations, but he may have overlooked the fact that animism was an equally influential early religion, and many names of gods are derived from the common terms for natural objects. But what about Yahweh? It seems he was unique in this sense, as he does not have a natural phenomenon or an aspect of society that he supervises. A little digging gives us evidence that he may have derived his name from a location or cultural name of his followers. Probably the earliest mention of his name is in the Egyptian accounts of the ‘Shasu of Yhw,’ a nomadic tribe of people living around Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III (coincidentally the father of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to convert Egypt to monotheism… hmmmm….). Since the other shasu mentioned in the accounts are followed by location names, it’s safe to assume that this instance of ‘yhw’ referred to a location as well. Since these people were nomadic, we can hypothesize that they may have traveled south to Canaan and assimilated into the culture there, thus lending the god of their homeland to the Canaanite pantheon. From there, this fringe group of pseudo-Canaanites, who seemed rigorously intent on maintaining their cultural identity through their god, were either pushed north by outside forces, or were led there on the promise of finding a land of their own, as the Bible states.
Enter Moses, the founder of Yahwehism. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘But Logan, didn’t Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all come before Moses?” Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but anyway. Yes, these patriarchs of Genesis were the leaders of the Israelites before Moses. But notice the name for Israel. It has that pesky little -el suffix we discussed in the last post. Also the Hebrew name used for God throughout Genesis is Elohim, another derivation of El, the Canaanite’s father god. Clearly the author of Genesis meant for us to infer that during this time, the Israelites were still a sect of Canaanites. But when Moses fled Egypt, according to Exodus, he lived with the Midianites, which the Bible tells us were also a sect of Canaanites or ‘Kenites.’ It is also possible that the Midianites were the ‘Shasu of Yhw’ mentioned in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Either way, it would appear that the author of Exodus wanted his readers to make that connection, because it is while Moses is among them that he receives his most important message from YHWH.
When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he asks God his name, and God replies, “I am that I am.” In Hebrew this is three words: ‘Eyeh Asher Eyeh‘- eyeh being the singular present (and future) tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and asher being a general pronoun which can mean that, which, who, where, or even because. This simple phrase holds a vast amount of meaning, and is still regarded as one of the most important phrases in the Bible. Medieval Jews listed it as one of the names of God that held special significance. The author of Exodus, in an almost Shakespearean play on words, not only makes reference to the ‘yhw’ of the Midianites and the YHWH that his readers currently worshiped, but also states with power and clarity the meaning of Yahweh’s name. The phrase is most commonly translated into English as “I am that I am,” but it could also mean “I will be what I will be” or “I will be because I will be,” which implies his promise to prove to the Israelites that he is their god. But the most interesting possibility to me, is the translation “I am because I am” or “I am that which is,” implying that the author is intentionally separating the name YHWH from its cultural and geographic roots, and giving it new meaning which could be equated simply to ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ This perception of the name of God could have influenced Yahwism’s development from a monolatristic religion into a monotheistic one, since monotheism implies that God is all things and the cause of all things. God is found in every aspect of the universe and ourselves, and thus could easily be defined as existence itself.
While we may never know which of these meanings was actually implied by the author, since the language itself yields all of the meanings, it seems possible, even probable, that the author meant to imply all of them. This simple phrase would lay the foundation for one of the most important religious movements in history, and is still seen today as declaration of the nature of God and existence itself. It nullifies the debate of the existence of God by stating the God and existence are one in the same. No matter your religion, any person can see the divine nature of existence itself and the value of worshiping your existence and the existence of all things. That’s my bit. Shalim, and have a good day!