History Theology

How Yahweh Became God: The War God Thesis

The Old Testament has several names for God. In Hebrew, God’s name varies pending the authorial source. El and Yahweh are the two most common names for God, deriving from the Elohist and Yawhist sources of the Torah. But how did El, Elohim, El Shaddhai, El Elyon, become Yahweh? For that we have to look to the formation of the Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon as well as Moses and the nature of the god who revealed himself to Moses.

It is now generally accepted that the Israelites were a branch of Canaanites. The Canaanite pantheon included many gods, the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon being El. Modern biblical critics assert that the Elohist source carries with it the memory of the Canaanite heritage—hence the name of God being variations of El. Other gods in the pantheon included Baal and Asherah. Yahweh, however, may not have been part of the pantheon but became associated with the Israelites in their cleavage from Canaanite identity. So how did Yahweh become God?

Throughout the mature Old Testament narrative, God is constantly invoked as a God of War. When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the jubilant Israelites sing to God, calling him a “man of war”: “The LORD is a man of war.” The triumph of God in the Exodus narrative is battling with Pharoah’s army and defeating it—a characteristic of war god literature also tied to the Kenite-Midianite thesis of Yahweh’s origin as an Arabian war deity (Moses meets God in the direction of Arabia and his father is a Midianite, etc.). When the Israelites enter Canaan, Joshua is their warlord leader and most of God’s commands to Joshua and the Israelites are militaristic in nature, furthering the depiction of God inherited from Moses and the Exodus.

Egypt, the premier power in the southern Levant at the time, regularly raided and pillaged Canaanite villages and land. There are inscriptions on ancient Egyptian obelisks boasting of their victories over Canaan and Israel. Most historical critics believe that the Exodus narrative, while inflated, depicts a refugee Canaanite community escaping Egypt and entering—for the first time in their lives as the offspring of enslaved Canaanites—their ancestral lands. (The narrative sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

When Egyptian power deteriorated, thanks to the invasion of the Sea Peoples, Israel was ruled by the Judges—who were effectively warlords. The Judges narrative is one of war, not far removed from the late Exodus and Joshua narratives. (Gregory Mobley, one of my former professors at Yale, details the heroic-warrior archetypes in Judges in his work The Empty Men.)

What you begin to realize is the late Torah and early Old Testament historical narrative is saturated in war. The war narratives begin to diverge from the earlier (patriarchal) and older oral, memorial, and nomadic traditions which are generally part of the Elohist source (naming God as El and its many derivatives). Israel is not yet the kingdom of its biblical fame. That comes after the Book of Judges.

The northern tribes of Israel suffer repeatedly from invasion and attack. This is what prompts them to seek a king. 1 Samuel depicts the anointing of Saul, a military leader, and recounts some of his exploits before falling out of favor with God. Here enters the famous David, King of Judah and father of Solomon. David too, in the biblical account, seems to be a southern (Judahite) warlord brought into service to help Saul. 1 and 2 Samuel, according to modern scholars, honors the memory of the northern warrior tradition (Saul) but pedestalizes David (for having been the figure who united the disparate Israelite tribes under a single kingdom).

David’s rise to kingship is through war. “Saul has slain his thousands, David his ten thousands.” The most famous stories of David revolve around military matters: David killing Goliath, David’s adultery with the wife of a soldier (Bathsheba, wife of the Hittite soldier Uriah), and David’s conquest of Jerusalem. The unification of Israel is through war.

Given that the late-Exodus to Davidic narrative centers on the formation of a united kingdom in Jerusalem, whose Temple is dedicated to God, we must ask who is this god that the United Kingdom of Israel worshipped and credited for its emergence on the international stage (leading to marriages with the daughters of Egypt, Phoenicia, and others)? The Yahweh thesis rests on recognizing the emphasis of war in the formation story.

El was not a war god. He was simply head of the Canaanite pantheon. Given that our primary characters in the late Exodus through conquest and Davidic ascendancy are men of war, it is likely that they prayed to Yahweh, god of war. Joshua was a warrior. The Judges were warriors. Saul was a warrior. David was a warrior. As warriors, their primary deity would have been the war god. Since David achieved ascendancy and Jerusalem became the capital, David superseded his rival warlord from the north, Saul, and helped to unify Israelite social politics and theology through his son, Solomon, who commissioned the Solomonic Temple to be built.

The dedication of the Solomonic Temple to Yahweh makes sense. Solomon is the son of a warlord king, David. To honor the providence of the god who made this kingdom possible, Yahweh becomes the chief deity to a warlike people whose kingdom is established through military affairs. The shift in worship to Yahweh leads to the dissolution and synthesis of the El sources and the repudiation of the other gods who played no role in the formation of Israel (Baal, Asherah, etc.).

The war god thesis has largely been revived since the late 1990s. In trying to tease out how Yahweh became the sole deity of Israelite/Judahite worship, at least within the royal court, reliance on the Biblical narrative is key. And the Biblical narrative, as believers and critics alike recognize, is one centered around war. Exodus is filled with violence. Joshua is filled with violence. Judges is filled with violence. 1 and 2 Samuel are filled with violence. In other words, war is what led to the creation of a United Israel with the central cult in Jerusalem, a city conquered by David, whose son, the child of a long warrior tradition, dedicates the Temple to the “God of My Fathers” (Yahweh). Since this kingdom came into existence solely through war, the other deities (namely El, but also Baal and Asherah) become persona non-grata. Redactors following the Deuteronomic Reforms cast scorn on the other gods who were unimportant to Israel/Judah’s formation. Thus Baal and Asherah, most prominently, become idols to the Yahweh cult in Jerusalem. (Though Baal and Asherah are also militaristic deities as a side note.)

This is but one of the various theses concerning the supremacy of Yahweh in modern biblical studies (which I was steeped in at Yale for my graduate school studies). But it seems to me, from those studies and contemporary renaissance of books on ancient Israel, Judah, and David, that this thesis is the in vogue belief among the professoriate. Joel Baden (one of my professors at Yale) and his recent work The Historical David (2013), indirectly defends this thesis through his argument that David was a warlord from Judah who established the unified kingdom through his military knowledge and exploits. James Miller and John Hayes’s A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, originally published in 1986, indirectly laid the groundwork for reviving the thesis through its concentration on the war narratives when dealing with Saul, David, and Solomon. Thomas Römer’s The Invention of God (2015) lays out the most contemporary argument of the warrior god thesis with references to the longer tradition of scholarship also rooted in the Kenite-Midianite thesis which carries on into how the war god Yahweh became the sole God of the cosmos. Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid’s God is a Warrior offers a more “orthodox” understanding of the God as warrior thesis highlighting the narrative reality of Yahweh is a war god and how this narrative of the divine warrior carries forward into even the New Testament.

When dealing with how Yahweh became the sole deity to the Israelite-Judahite people, Yahweh as war god makes the most sense to people looking at how the formation of Israel and the central cult in Jerusalem emerged: through war. If you were a warlord and credited your success to the war god, what value or prominence would any of the other gods have for you? The only god that would have mattered was the god who helped you achieve victory. And that god was Yahweh. And as that god became centralized in Jerusalem, and as that Temple stood and was rebuilt in Jerusalem, that god became the sole god we now simply call God.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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4 comments

  1. Wow. What an interesting and insightful perspective, I love it dear.
    Now could it be argued that as per your take that Israelites were a branch of the Canaanites,would this be alluded to come from the Essau generation who settled in Edom or how does such argument unfolds sir?

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    1. The issue of the Israelites and their relationship to the Canaanites is actually very contested in nuances versus the broad generalizations often found online. What is not contested is that some Israelites were a branch of Canannites. Yahweh as war god, however, doesn’t seem to be related to Canaanite deities and their people (though this is also contested by a minority of scholars); this is the Kenite-Midianite thesis briefly alluded to in this piece wherein the introduction of Yahweh comes from a people migrating into the lands of Canaan and then Yahweh spread to the outlying Canaanite tribes that eventually formed the basis of Israel-Judah. As Israel codified itself, in war, Yahweh took on prominence and displaced the “idols” en route to Yahwism. There may be truth to the Edom thesis, but we can’t know for certain.

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