The Origins of Yahweh: The Kenite-Midianite Hypothesis

In biblical studies, the origins of Yahweh have two schools of thought. The first is as the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, describes—with caveats. Yahweh was among the deities of the Canaanite pantheon who, as the Israelites took on a distinctive identity separate from their Canaanite brethren, eventually adopted Yahweh as their chief god. Another school of thought, however, asserts that Yahweh has no connection whatsoever to the Canaanite pantheon and that Yahweh’s origins lay south of the Levant and in the Arabian peninsula among the nomadic warrior tribes of the Kenites and Midianites.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ghillany, a German Lutheran theologian and Bible scholar of the nineteenth century, first proposed the hypothesis by maintaining that Yahweh’s origins lay outside the lands of Canaan. Subsequent generations of biblical scholars with new archeological and textual evidence open to them, began to flesh out the idea. By the mid-twentieth century, the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis becomes widely accepted in German higher criticism as well as among various American and English biblical scholars.

The basic idea runs through a reading of the Old Testament narrative, a re-composition of the Yahwist (or Jahwist) narrative, and other Levantine and Egyptian archeological and linguistic arguments. In the biblical narrative, the Old Testament god is generally referred to as El and Yahweh which give us the textual traditions of the Elohist (writings that use the term El or Elohim and its variants) and the Yahwist (writings that use the term Yahweh). In the Torah, while Yahweh is one of the names encountered in Genesis, in the Israelite narrative history the introduction of Yahweh isn’t until Exodus when Moses flees to the Midianites having killed and Egyptian and takes refuge with them. Through the meeting with Jethro, the Burning Bush, and Joshua’s declarations of the great works of God (Yahweh), the hypothesis asserts that these events represent the earliest inclusion of Yahweh to the Israelites.

The Genesis 2-3 narrative, dealing with Eden, Adam and Eve, then, are actually part of a nomadic Midianite mythology—we’ll talk about that another time.

Rather than see Jethro convert to Yahweh, the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis asserts that Jethro was always a patron of the Midianite deity and reaffirms his fidelity to Yahweh. Moses, then, is introduced to Yahweh through his seeking refuge with the Midianites, becomes converted to Yahweh among the Midianites, and returns to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt as a representative of Yahweh. Furthermore, in the biblical narrative that we have, Yahweh declares that the god known to the Israelite patriarchs was El Shaddai, this, for the proponents of the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis, not to mention the Elohist source material is what one finds in the Genesis patriarch narrative, is also a dead giveaway: Before the Burning Bush and Moses among the Midianites, God’s name was known to the Israelites and patriarchs as El (a Canaanite deity) but now, with Moses among the Midianites, a new god appears: Yahweh. Additional biblical texts are used to reaffirm this narrative: Deuteronomy 33:2, Judges 5:4, Habakkuk 3:3 and 3:7, and Isaiah 63:1 all mention the origins of Yahweh as coming south of Canaan.

Reading back into Genesis the Yahwist source is actually a textual redaction among the Josian editors who sought to include an origin story: the Adam-Eve Eden narrative is, then, a Midianite origin myth of how they became—and are still—wandering nomads. (Remember, at the end of the Eden story Adam and Eve are expelled to wander the earth just as the Midianites are nomadic wanderers who cannot enter a garden oasis.) We will look in fuller detail about how to understand the Eden narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 from the perspective of the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis in another post.

To summarize the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis, the named textual variants of God in the Old Testament represent different origins from different people groups who come to form the eventual Israelite-Judahite tribes that give us the Hebrew Bible. Because we have two different named traditions: the Elohist and Yahwist, these represent different deity traditions among the biblical authors and editors. The Kenite-Midianite hypothesis argues that Yahweh was a distinct deity separate from the Canaanite pantheon as evidenced by the Yahwist source in Exodus seen through the revelation of God’s name to Moses after he flees to the Midianites. This represents the first contact with Yahwehism and Moses becomes the prophetic disciple of Yahweh, thus incorporating the Midianite deity into the Israelite narrative tradition. That Yahweh is a deity of Midianite origins also seems to be verified by other Old Testament writings which acknowledge Yahweh as having come from the lands south of Canaan, among the Midianites and Kenites. The inclusion of the Kenites as part of the conquest force in Joshua also brings Yahweh as a war god into the picture. For archeological and linguistic reasons, affirmed both within the biblical text and extrabiblical source material, Yahweh was originally a god who was a deity among the Kenites and Midianites south of the Levant that got incorporated into the Israelite memory and oral traditions and then, through being a war god important to the war chiefs who united Israel, emerged as the chief deity of Israel-Judah.


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 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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