Theology

From War God to Cosmic Deity: The Evolution of Yahweh

Yahweh was originally a war god. That is the general academic consensus concerning the nature of the national god of Israel who became the monotheistic God of the Bible and Abrahamic religions. But if Yahweh was originally a war god, how did this war god become the God of the cosmos?

I have briefly explained the war god thesis in this post. Now we will turn to the shifting understanding of Yahweh as time progressed in the Kingdom of Judah. It was in the Kingdom of Judah that Yahweh began to shed his warrior attributes and took on solar, cosmic, characteristics likely during the ninth and eighth centuries. The movement of Yahweh toward solar, cosmic, deity is testified in language as well as archeological iconography.

Various Hebrew names associated with the Judahite narrative tradition mean “light,” “shine,” and “lamp.” For instance, Uriah, in Hebrew (Uriyyah) means “flame of Yahweh” or “Yahweh is my flame.” The priest Neraiah (Neriyyahu) means “lamp of Yahweh.” The name Yw’r also means “Yahweh is my light.” Sometime during the compilation of the Deuteronomistic history, in which the Judahite narrative is composed, names take on a significance indicating Yahweh as a figure of celestial light. Some of the Psalms, too, invoke light and radiance imagery associating Yahweh with the sun.

Furthermore, the inclusion of the epithet Sabaoth means celestial or heavenly army/armies. While this retains the divine warrior inheritance, the shift toward army of heaven or celestial army rather than earthly army also implies the new celestial understanding of Yahweh. Yahweh Sabaoth literally means God of the heavenly armies. Yahweh Sabaoth is also part of the cosmic wrestling narrations of portions of the Bible considered part of the genre of cosmic chaoskampf.

There are two prevailing camps regarding the movement toward a celestial understanding of Yahweh chiefly centered on the language of light and cosmos.

The first is the recognition of the Egyptian and Assyrian influence over Judah. Judah, despite the pretensions of the biblical narrative, was often a vassal of other Near Eastern powers even during its independence. The change of Yahweh toward solar, cosmic, and celestial language and imagery occurs during a time of Egyptian vassalage and is, therefore, part of Egyptian influences in the Temple Cult and the understanding of Yahweh (part of the conflict between Josiah and Egypt is because Judah is an Egyptian vassal) or, alternatively, during a time of Assyrian vassalage (part of the conflicts between Judah and Assyria was because Judah was an unreliable vassal). Various archeological discoveries dated to eighth and seventh century Judah reveal iconography that is reminiscent of the astral, solar, and celestial iconography of Egypt and Assyria.

The other school of argument is that as Judah cemented itself and became peaceful, though often threatened by its larger imperial neighbors, the war-god imagery and language began to lose its potency. We must recall, in the biblical narrative, it is the northern kingdom of Israel that is engaged in all the heavy action leading to its eventual demise by Assyrian expansionism. (The imagery and language of Yahweh in the north remained associated entirely with the warrior motif.) Therefore, as Judah, in its relative stability and peace, continued to develop, a new understanding of Yahweh developed: God of the heavens which fit with Judah’s new sense of itself as the center of the world in the midst of a sea of turbulence (which also explains some of the cosmic chaoskampf language where Yahweh beats back Leviathan and the sea monsters). This school doesn’t preclude the possibility of influence from Near Eastern neighbors but offers a more fluid thesis of celestial imagery and language rooted in expanding Judean theological consciousness that may well have drawn, from the periphery, neighborly ideas and imagery.

A more peripheral school of internet “scholarship” which isn’t academically accepted is that the cosmic and celestial language are all late editions of the post-exilic period (some people may be familiar with this due to a lot of internet misinformation). This assertion is impossible for technical reasons relating to archeological and linguistic evidence, as well as period biblical composition, and is therefore large repudiated by real scholars. This is famously considered the Zoroastrian thesis, in which Judaism in the Exile borrows from Zoroastrian themes. While popular among illiterate internet conspiracy theorists, as mentioned, the archeological, linguistic, and also biblical narrative evidence do not support this position. Archeological discoveries show celestial imagery before the Exile, Hebrew linguistic terminology shows celestial meanings before the Exile, and biblical texts undisputedly written before the Exile also reveal celestial themes. To the extent we do find some Persian influences during the exilic period, it is largely peripheral and hard to substantiate in detail unlike the more mainstream positions summarized above. More likely, the existing strands of celestial theology predating the Exile found positive reinforcement form some Persian influences (the more serious academic strand of Persian-Jewish theological scholarship takes this position).

It is very probable, then, that the movement of Yahweh to celestial deity is a combination of both mainstream positions: some influence of Egypt and Assyria is exerted and become tied with internal developments of Yahwistic theology in Judah. Since Judah began to develop in a relatively peaceful period of its own history—thanks in part to its protection by the northern kingdom of Israel being the buffer to imperial pretensions and expansionism by Near Eastern empires, the security of Judah afforded it to move away from the warrior concept of Yahweh and toward a more expansive, cosmic, and centered vision of Yahweh which took on celestial and solar language and imagery as would have been common to any such primary god. Since Judahite security was also guaranteed by tributes to Egypt and Assyria, this entailed a greater connectivity with Egypt and Assyria and likely brought some of those Egyptian and Assyrian solar traits into Judah.

If Yahweh as war god cemented Yahweh as the national god of Israel/Judah, the relative peace and stability of Judah before the exile likely led to a shift in consciousness away from war and toward cosmic things. Furthermore, the failure of Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem likely influenced further development of Yahweh as the cosmic governor and deity exerting control over the world and other dark forces and spirits. Even though Sennacherib’s Assyrian invasion devastated much of Judah, the fact that Jerusalem was sparred was one of the central events of historical Judah: the salvation of Jerusalem led to a developed Jerusalem-centric theology prior to the exilic period.

In sum, then, the evolution away from strict war god was likely the result of the circumstances of history and the expansion of Judahite consciousness during a century of relative peace and stability. If the early history of Israel-Judah is saturated in war, the middle history of Judah, in which the language and imagery of Yahweh takes on celestial characteristics contra Israel which is still busy fighting wars, was one of relative calm and peace which permitted greater contact with neighbors (especially Egypt and also Assyria) and contemplative thought that turned away from war and moved toward heavenly matters. This celestial turn was subsequently reinforced by the post-exilic period in which a grieving diaspora community, seeking to make sense of things, drew on the existing celestial understanding of Yahweh and entrenched it in the lamentations and desires for restoration which are filled with all the rich language of God of Heaven, God of the Universe. There is only minimal Zoroastrian influence since the celestial imagery and language was already part of the Jewish tradition prior to the exile though the rubbing with Persian influences could have reinforced the desire for celestial comfort found in the exilic literature; the similarities, then, are incidental and not essential. After the exile, the pre-exilic celestial language married the exilic and post-exilic celestial language to form our contemporary view of Yahweh as God of the Universe, Lord of All, Master of the World. In time, especially as the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek which produced the Septuagint which was the de facto Scripture of Christianity prior to the Protestant Reformation, the celestial language and understanding of Yahweh took on universal prominence and then spread with the expansion of Christianity.

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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 Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. 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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