Yahweh, Genesis, and the Kenite-Midianite Hypothesis

One of the scholarly arguments for the origins of Yahweh is that the deity of that name isn’t part of the Canaanite pantheon but originates further south, among the Kenites, near or outside of the lands of Midian and possibly even in the Arabian peninsula. There are a number of prominent scholars who hold to this position. There are also prominent scholars who reject it. We need not worry about these arguments here, but we will offer a presentation of how the Kenite-Midian hypothesis affects one’s understanding of Genesis.

The documentary hypothesis of the Torah and larger Hebrew Bible holds that that Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, is an editorial composition of many differing “document” (oral-to-written) traditions that were eventually brought together during the period of the Josian reforms which culminated in the centralization of the Temple in Jerusalem. This explains the priority of the Temple and the emphasis on Jerusalem interwoven in the Old Testament text. Part of the documentary hypothesis sees Genesis as having multiple strands, the two most famous being the Yahwist source and the Priestly source. The Yahwist source is older than the Priestly source.

The early chapters of Genesis are a composite of these traditions. Genesis 2:4b-Genesis 3 is the Yahwist account of origins. Genesis 1, through the early verses of Genesis 2 prior to the Adam and Eve story, is considered part of the Priestly tradition. Genesis 2 and 3, however, tell a very interesting tale in light of the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis.

If Yahweh, the name of God in Genesis 2:4b-Genesis 3 originates as a god of the nomadic tribes around Midian or the Arabian peninsula, a god of wanderers, then the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden serves as the origin myth of the wandering peoples who worship Yahweh. Furthermore, the oasis-traveling Midianites coming out of the desert would have a positive mentality of gardens, a desire to belong to a garden paradise but who have been “expelled” from it and therefore tend to wander the desert.

Because Yahweh isn’t part of the Canaanite pantheon, or isn’t presumed to be, then the origins of Yahweh belong elsewhere. If the origins of Yahweh begin outside the Canaanite mythos, which belongs to a sedentary civilization, and is indeed found among nomadic wanderers who revealed their god to the Israelites, this alters the understanding of the Edenic Genesis narrative. After all, it is Moses’s meeting with the Midianite Jethro where the name Yahweh reappears in the Old Testament text (Exodus 3:1-10) during the theophany of the Burning Bush (though later in Exodus 6 El Shaddai is given as the name of God as known to the Abrahamic patriarchs (El was a Canaanite deity, the chief deity in the Canaanite pantheon). Moses’s meeting of Jethro leads to the inclusion of Yahweh into early Israelite deity worship, from which Yahweh will eventually become the chief god through war in the centralization of the Judahite state and transplants the Canaanite-Israelite deity of El (see this post about the Yahweh War God Thesis).

The story of expulsion, exile, and wandering that Genesis 3 ends with fits with the Midianite hypothesis from a psychodynamic perspective. Given that the Midianites were nomads, the fact that their ancestral lineage—in Adam and Eve—is based in exile provides the genesis of why the Midianites are nomads: Yahweh decreed it so for the transgressions of their ancestors. Further, this explains why the Midianites cannot stay in the oases they encounter in their nomadic journey: oases are the remnants of Eden from which they cannot remain permanently attached to. After all, the continuation of the Adam-Eve narrative, with Cain and Abel, reflect Midianite-nomadic themes: Abel is a shepherd, a nomadic wanderer, like the Midianites. Cain, who murders Abel, is likewise sentenced to expulsion and becomes the mythic father of the Kenites who bear his name. The Kenites, who were coppersmiths and iron workers, the tasks that Cain and his descendants end up undertaking after their expulsion, join with the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1:16) and the association of Yahweh as a god of conquest with the Israelites who achieve hegemony over Canaan begins.

While the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis is not universally accepted, the plausibility of the idea backed by the archeological and etymological data gives new meaning to reading the Genesis narrative of Eden and after Eden. If Yahweh belongs to a nomadic and wandering tradition, then it makes sense why Adam and Eve are expelled to a wandering exile—that is the very life that the worshippers of Yahweh live. It doesn’t make sense for an agrarian theology to take an anti-agrarian origin story for its theological beginning.

Thus, the Kenite-Midianite hypothesis also informs the editorial redaction of the Josian reform. The Yahwist tradition, coming from the older Kenite-Midianite (Edenic) tradition which gets ingrafted into Israelite religion as the biblical text seems to imply, gets stitched into the Genesis narrative with Canaanite patriarchs and the Priestly synthesis to provide a synthetic origin. The priestly/Josian redactors, seeing the Kenite-Midianite (Edenic) tradition as offering the earliest account of origins, therefore got placed where it did before the priestly editors provided a “preface,” so to speak, with Genesis 1-2:4a.


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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