How YHWH Became God

The idea that the Hebrew god once had a consort, Asherah, was a shock to some biblical scholars.

How did a desert war god originally worshiped by ancient Israel’s southern neighbors become the God worshiped today in churches, mosques and synagogues across the globe?

Thomas Römer’s “The Invention of God” has a deliberately provocative title. And many of his arguments—his contention that the God of Israel originally shared a temple with a sun god, for example—will be scandalous to most traditional believers. Some of his claims, like his suggestion that the temple erected in Jerusalem originally contained a statue of YHWH, or Yahweh, will be controversial even among the guild of academic Bible scholars to which he belongs.

Clay figurine of the Canaanite goddess.


Mr. Römer begins in the Sinai Desert at the end of the 13th century B.C., among Israel’s Edomite neighbors, who worshiped Yahweh as a god of wars and storms. Yahweh arrived in Canaan, where the Israelites lived, brought by a group of his nomadic worshipers. In his early days, he was just another “tutelary deity,” that is, a tribal protector and patron. Those that worshiped him believed he would intervene in his people’s military battles and bring rain to fertilize their crops.

Yahweh initially had a consort, the goddess Asherah, who was also known as “the Queen of Heaven.” For biblical editors and modern scholars alike, the idea that a god who reigned supreme had a consort was deeply disconcerting, and yet Asherah continued to be worshiped for hundreds of years. Eventually, Yahweh became associated almost exclusively with Jerusalem, a view reinforced by the experience of an Assyrian siege of the city that was suddenly and mysteriously aborted in 701 B.C.: Yahweh’s worshipers were convinced that he had wrought a great miracle.


By Thomas Römer
Harvard, 303 pages, $35

As they often do, tragedy and devastation had a major impact on theology. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the geographical dispersion of the Israelites, there was no king, no Temple and no autonomous national entity. Yahweh could no longer be worshiped as “a national god or as the tutelary deity of a royal family.”

Israel’s humiliating defeat at the hands of a hated foe could have led it to abandon its God. It would have been natural to conclude that Israel had been defeated because the gods of Babylonia were more powerful than Yahweh. But the Bible’s authors chose the opposite explanation, insisting that the Temple had been destroyed because Yahweh had used the Babylonians to punish his unfaithful people. Mr. Römer explains that “if YHWH can make use of the Babylonians, that means he can control them; therefore, he is more powerful than the gods of Babylon.”gives rise to the monotheistic insistence that its God is all-powerful and universal. The history of theology sometimes takes wild and unexpected turns.


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.I trusted in the covenant. In normative Judaism, you ask not for belief; you ask for `Emunah,’ the Hebrew word, which is `trust.’ You’re asked not even to trust in God, in Yahweh, but in the trust, you’re asked to trust in the covenant between by Yahweh and yourself or between Yahweh and the Jewish people, which includes yourself.

ELLIOTT: And you no longer have that trust.

Prof. BLOOM: It seems to me that Yahweh could have been convicted of desertion and abandonment a very long time ago.

ELLIOTT: Explain.

Prof. BLOOM: All through the Hebrew Bible, the prophets perpetually proclaim that the Jewish people, that Israel, has failed to keep the covenant with Yahweh. Nowhere do they say what is palpably true on the basis of Jewish history and of human history in general, which is that Yahweh has failed to keep his covenant with the people. I say in the book again and again that when Yahweh, which is the name of the high god ultimately in the Hebrew Bible, that when Yahweh is asked by Moses to give Moses his name and in the Hebrew, Yahweh punning on his own name, massively says, `Tell them that (Hebrew spoken) has sent you,’ which is translated in the King James Bible ultimately as `I am that I am,’ which I translate in order to get it into an English that will make sense, `I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present,’ which also implies its rather frightening corollary, `And I will absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent.’ It seems to me that he has chosen to be absent throughout most of human history, including Jewish history.