Did the Jews invent God? Is God Jewish, a mixture of El and Yahweh?
Did the Jews invent God? This question become popular during the 1800s by critics of both the Christian faith and Judaism. More recently it has been pushed by various groups as the conflict between followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity has intensified. The critics claim that the God of Judaism was actually the god of another nation initially, and that the Jews redesigned him. Therefore, we should ask, “Is God Jewish? We could also ask, “Where did god come from?” The critics claim that Yahweh or Jehovah God of the Old Testament evolved over time from a number of gods adopted from other nations. Therefore, is God really just a Jewish god?
The critics who say Judaism was initially polytheistic and later became monotheistic make claims they cannot support. It will be shown in this article that all such claims are speculative, hypothetical and not proveable. Even the authors who make these claims frequently reveal their uncertainty with statements such as “it seems,” “it is profoundly difficult,” “this remains the most plausible hypothesis,” and “profoundly difficult to sort through the haze of later layers.” These quotes will be repeated later. These critics are guessing and admit there is no solid historical or definitive archaeological evidence that El, Yahweh or El Elyon were borrowed from Canaanite or Arabic cultures or that the God of Israel evolved to become monotheistic. They simply want others to accept their opinions as truth.
What follows summarizes their viewpoint and then a response is given.
Did The Jews Invent God? — The Critics View
Those who claim the Jews invented God want us to believe that other cultures invented the El god as well as other gods and goddesses and that the Jews initially adopted some of those gods and worshiped them. These critics quote Old Testament passages that clearly reveal the Jews did worship foreign gods and goddesses at various points in time such as the Ashtaroth, Baal, Chemosh, Milcom and other gods (1 Samuel 12:10; 1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 23:13). The critic’s purpose is to convince their readers that polytheism was the official religion of Judaism. But they ignore the fact that Yahweh was already worshiped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and was the only God of Judaism (Exodus 20:1-7). They ignore the fact that any worship of foreign gods was considered a grievous sin (1 Samuel 12:10) and resulted in the Assyrian army invading the northern kingdom of Israel (Deuteronomy 28:62–65; 2 Kings 17:7-25) and later the Southern kingdom of Judah (2 Chronicles 36:11-21). That is, Judaism was never polytheistic. The primary message of the major and minor prophets was to warn the Israelites to stop worshiping foreign gods and goddesses and return to Yahweh (Hosea 3:11-13; 13:4; Amos 5:4).
Nevertheless, the critics claim that somehow the Jews connected with a group called the Shasu who worshiped Yhwh and from them the Israelites created a god called Yahweh. But, it will be explained later that there is uncertainty about the identification of the Shasu and the god they worshiped. The critics have different opinions as to how the Jewish God became Yahweh.
Then the critics claim the Israelites evolved from polytheism and over time became monotheistic. They believe someone edited the Old Testament to make it conform to their new god. The conclusion of the critics is that the god of the Old Testament is a redesigned god from another culture. They want us to believe the Jews invented God. Now we will look deeper into their claims.
Were El and Yahweh Borrowed From Other Cultures?
In addition to referring to Old Testament passages, liberal critics say that Judaism borrowed the El god and Yahweh from either the Canaanite or ancient Arabic cultures. One such example comes from the critic Ariel David in his article “How the Jews Invented God, and Made Him Great.” He writes this comment about the Jewish religion which he refers to as “the People of the Book.” The “People of the Book” is an Islamic term which includes at least both the Jews and Christians.
Modern biblical scholarship and archaeological discoveries in and around Israel show that the ancient Israelites did not always believe in a single, universal god. In fact, monotheism is a relatively recent concept, even amongst the People of the Book.
Decades of research into the birth and evolution of the Yhwh cult are summarized in “The Invention of God,” a recent book by Thomas Römer, a world-renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. Römer, who held a series of conferences at Tel Aviv University last month, spoke to Haaretz about the subject.
The book The Invention of God was written in 2015. The author, Thomas Römer, claims to provide a scholarly explanation for the origin of God as described in the Old Testament. But his claim is empty.
While the following review from one Amazon customer, who purchased The Invention of God, does not prove that Thomas Römer is wrong, it is the first sign that the author does not present solid facts, speculates, and makes many assumptions. The customer wrote,
Way too many conclusions based upon way too many “maybes.” Good for the author’s resume but an anaemic analysis at best.
It was not surprising that the positive reviews did not state the book was filled with inconclusive statements and uncertainties. This is typical of critics of the Bible. Their own bias ignores the obvious—the facts. They are more interested in convincing others that they are right. This conclusion will be illustrated shortly.
Returning to Ariel David quote, it is important to note that he states the ancient Israelites were originally polytheistic and that the name Israel was derived from the name of the Canaanite god El, which was the chief deity of many gods.
The first clue that the ancient Israelites worshipped gods other than the deity known as Yhwh lies in their very name. “Israel” is a theophoric name going back at least 3200 years, which includes and invokes the name of a protective deity.
Going by the name, the main god of the ancient Israelites was not Yhwh, but El, the chief deity in the Canaanite pantheon, who was worshiped throughout the Levant.
His supporting evidence is Tomas Römer.
Römer says. “The first tutelary deity they were worshiping was El, otherwise their name would have been Israyahu”
That is, they claim the Israelites worshiped the Canaanite El deity initially. The worship of Yahweh occurred later.
Was Yahweh Known Before Exodus 6:3?
Then Ariel David states that Exodus 6:3 appears to reveal that the Israelites knew about El before Moses met God on Mount Sinai but not of Yahweh when he says,
The Bible appears to address this early worship of El in Exodus 6:3, when God tells Moses that he “appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai (today translated as “God Almighty”) but was not known to them by my name Yhwh.”
This claim demonstrates the author’s ignorance of the biblical text. For example, Exodus 6:2-3 reads as follows,
God spoke further to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them. Exodus 6:2-3 (NASB)
Ariel David claims that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew the name of El but not the name Yahweh until Exodus 6:3. But the name Yahweh occurs 196 times in the Bible before Exodus 6:3. Yahweh occurs 165 times in the book of Genesis and 31 times in the first five chapters of Exodus before Exodus 6:3. Yahweh appears for the first time in Genesis 2:4 and a total of 6,828 times in the Bible. The author is apparently not aware that Abraham called on the name of Yahweh in Genesis 13:4; in Genesis 14:22 Abraham pronounces the name of Yahweh. Isaac pronounced the name Yahweh in Genesis 27:20 and Jacob pronounced the name Yahweh in Genesis 28:16. It is an error to claim that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not know the name of Yahweh, but only knew the name El. It is error to claim that Yahweh was not worshiped before Exodus 6:3 since Abraham worshiped Yahweh in Genesis 13:18. Isaac worshiped Yahweh in Genesis 26:25 and Jacob worshiped Him in Genesis 35:14-15. The name Yahweh occurs in every one of these passages. Therefore, there is no biblical support that Israel worshiped the El god before they worshiped Yahweh. In fact, the Bible teaches that the Israelites worshiped Yahweh from the beginning. God’s name as El does not even appear until Genesis 14:18. Yahweh was mentioned multiple times in Genesis before the name El appears.
Elohim occurs 2,600 times and the first time the name appears is in Genesis 1:1. The name El appears only 235 times in the Old Testament and only 17 times in Genesis compared to Yahweh appearing 165 times in Genesis. Did the Jews over time invent God? The answer is no!
Did Ancient Israel Adopt Yahweh From the Shasu?
Ariel David and other critics then claim the Israelites adopted the name of Yahweh from a group called the Shasu. The next quote reveals this claim. But notice they admit the Shasu are an unknown tribe. In fact, the critics disagree about the identity and origin of the Shasu. This point will be further discussed later. In the following quote the term Levant refers to the Middle East territory.
In fact, it seems that the ancient Israelites weren’t even the first to worship Yhwh – they seem to have adopted Him from a mysterious, unknown tribe that lived somewhere in the deserts of the southern Levant and Arabia.
. . . .
One of these groups, which inhabits the Negev, is identified as the “Shasu Yhw(h).” This suggests that this group of nomads may have been the first to have the god of the Jews as its tutelary deity.
“It is profoundly difficult to sort through the haze of later layers in the Bible, but insofar as we can, this remains the most plausible hypothesis for the encounter of Israelites with the Yhwh cult,” says David Carr, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
How exactly the Shasu merged with the Israelites or introduced them to the cult of Yhwh is not known, but by the early centuries of the first millennium, he was clearly being worshiped in both the northern kingdom of Israel and its smaller, southern neighbor, the kingdom of Judah.
Now notice that all of the statements in this quote reveal uncertainty: “it seems,” “they seem,” “mysterious, unknown tribe,” “suggests,” “profoundly difficult to sort through the haze of later layers,” “most plausible hypothesis.” With such incredible uncertainty why did the author even attempt to make these claims?
Did Israel Redact the Old Testament?
Since the Bible clearly teaches that God’s name is Yahweh and since this name occurs 6,828 times in the Old Testament, the critics have a problem convincing anyone that Israel was initially polytheistic. Therefore, Ariel David claims the Bible was redacted or edited in order to convert Judaism from a polytheistic religion into a monotheistic religion. That is, the redaction eliminated all evidence of the pre-existing polytheism. Once again his supporting evidence comes from Tomas Römer.
Over the centuries, as the Bible was redacted, this narrative was refined and strengthened, creating the basis for a universal religion – one that could continue to exist even without being tied to a specific territory or temple. And thus Judaism as we know it was established, and, ultimately, all other major monotheistic religions were as well.
In this quote, Tomas Römer would have us believe that the Old Testament had been redacted or edited a significant number of times in order to convert Judaism into a monotheistic religion. But where is the proof? He has no evidence of any redaction to the Old Testament, also known as the Jewish Tanakh, and no one else does either. There is no archaeological or historical evidence. It is pure speculation. It is designed to convince the uneducated. The scholarship of Ariel David and Tomas Römer is poor and unconvincing. It is shameless bias on display. They are false teachers!
In summary, Ariel David and Tomas Römer would have us believe that Israel initially worshiped El, the supreme god of the Canaanites, and later started worshiping Yahweh, the god of a group of people called the Shasu from the land of Egypt.
The Encyclopedia of Gods reveals that the critics are not in agreement about the identity of the Shasu god. Notice that this critic refers to Yahweh as the “Creator God” and then speculates that this creator came from the Atum. The author writes,
The creator god of the southern tribes of Israel headed by Levi and Benjamin. Possibly a copy of the Egyptian deity Atum (Aten), introduced by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV in the fifteenth century B.C.
That is, Yahweh was “possibly a copy of the Egyptian deity.” Notice the word “possibly.” Once again another critic is speculating about the origin of Yahweh. The critics simply do not agree on the facts, but they are convinced Israel adopted Yahweh sometime after 536 B.C.
Did The Jews Invent God? — The Facts
The critics fail to tell the reader that the name El was widely used across the Middle East. It was the common name for deity. Critics want people to believe that the name El in the Bible actually refers to the god of the Canaanites, but that is dishonest.
The name El (אל) is the most widely distributed of all names for Deity, being used in Babylonian, Aramraean, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic, particularly southern Arabic. It thus belongs to the primitive Shemitic speech before it became modified into dialects, though conceivably one or more of the dialects may have retained in use the root with which it is connected.
Merril Unger also makes the point that El was a generic name for god in the Middle East. The nations had various dialects of the root word.
The word el is a generic name for god in Northwest Semitic ( Hebrew and U garitic) and as such it is also used in the Old Testament for heathen deities or idols (Ex. 34:14; Ps. 81:10; Isa. 44: 10). The original generic term was ‘ilum, which dropping the mimation and the nominative case ending ( u) became ‘el in Hebrew. It was almost certainly an adjectival formation ( intransitive participle) from the root “to be strong, powerful” (‘wl), meaning “The strong (powerful) One.”
El was the name of the parent god of baal or ba’al. The Holman Bible Dictionary also states that the name El is a simple or common name for God.
“El” occurs 238 times in the Old Testament, most frequently in Psalms and Job. The normal biblical usage is as a simple noun for deity. “El” is a synonym for the more frequent noun for God: Elohim.
Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible adds this comment,
The name El is one of the oldest designations for deity in the ancient world. It forms the basic component for the general term for God in Babylonia and Arabia, as well as with the Israelite people.
This means that the name El is like the English word god. Many other religions and cults also use the term god since it is the English word for god. But Christians change the English word to God and Jews eliminate the letter “o” and use the abbreviation G-d or Gd. Thus we should not be surprised the name El appears in the Old Testament in different forms in other Middle East countries. It was the common word used across the Middle East for gods and goddesses in a wide range of religions.
The Bible also reveals that El was a common term for the name of God and was used for the God of the Bible and for the false gods of other nations. One such example of El being used for a false god occurs in Isaiah 44:10, 15. Another example is Daniel 11:36. In this last passage, El is used in a broad sweeping term for every type of so-called god. Therefore, the Bible used the word as a generic term for god or for the God of the Bible. But the critics deceptively want to convince others that the Israelites worshiped the Canaanite gods or the Egyptian gods. This is dishonest and deceptive.
The critics will also argue that ancient Israel blended the El god and Yahweh into one god. But the fundamental problem the critics have is that there is no proof for their claim. It is easy to make speculative hypotheses, but as we have seen they lack definitive facts. Further, as we have already discovered, the term El only appears 235 times in the Bible while Yahweh appears 6,828 times and Elohim appears 2,600 times.
The critics’ theory that Israel adopted Yahweh from the Shasu is just that – a theory. There are no facts. It is important to note that Amihai Mazr, author of Archaeology of the Land of the Bible – 10,000-586 B.C., discredits the claims about the Shasu with the following two comments. First, he states that there is a theory that supports the concept that the Israelites emerged from a local unsettled Late Bronze group such as the Habiru or Shasu. But then he adds that there is no proof the group introduced Yahweh to Israel. Further, he states that “archaeology can contribute nothing to answering this question.” There is no evidence.
This interpretation can be linked with the theory that the Israelites emerged from local unsettled Late Bronze groups, such as the Habiru and Shasu known from the Egyptian sources. Such a theory perhaps explains the origin of most of the components of the Israelite confederation, but it still does not elucidate the identity of that confederation’s nuclear group, which initiated Y ahwism and was responsible for the traditions concerning slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, Mount Sinai, and the role of Moses. At present archaeology can contribute nothing to answering this question.
The second quote is stronger that the first quote. Notice that he admits that “Yahu” is not the same as “Yahweh”and then calls it a distortion. Then he states, “The archaeological evidence cannot prove or disprove these ideas.”
There are several points which led some scholars to identity the early Israelites as part of this body of Shasu: Some Shasu emigrated to Egypt, just as Jacob did. In one Egyptian document the land of Shasu is called “Yahu,” possibly a distortion of the name of the God of Israel. See Weippert in: Symposia, pp. 25-34; B. Mazar in: A. Biran (ed.), Temples and High Places in Biblical Times, Jerusalem 1981, pp. 5-9. The ideas of Mendenhall and Gottwald (see notes 29-30) concerning the emergence of Israel in the peasant communities of Late Bronze Age Canaan have become popular in recent years. The archaeological evidence cannot prove or disprove these ideas, as we don’t have any direct archaeological evidence to the proto-history of the Israelites. The archaeological evidence for the Israelite settlement which is presented in this chapter relates to a time when the Israelites were already settled in the hill country. The Canaanite traditions which can be seen in their material culture are general to the entire country in Iron Age I, and they do not necessarily point to the origin of the Israelites in Canaanite society.
Betsy M Bryan writes that
. . . the ethnic term Shasu could refer to peoples of either Palestine or Nubia . . .
The point of these three quotes is that there is no solid evidence that the Israelites are the Shasu or that the concept of Yahweh emerged from the Shasu.
The truth is, Yahweh was not common across the Middle East. The name uniquely appears in the Old Testament 6,828 times and in every book of the Bible, except for the book of Esther. It appears first in Genesis 2:4 and last in Malachi 4:5. It has always been the unique name of the God of the Old Testament. Those who propose another view cannot prove they are correct. They have different and conflicting views as to the origin of Yahweh and how the Israelites learned about God. The truth is, the critic seeks a theory that dethrones Yahweh, the God of the universe. The biblical text is the authority against their opinion. Did the Jews invent God? The answer is, “No!”
The questions with which we have been concerned are “Did the Jews invent God?” and “Is God Jewish, a mixture of El and Yahweh?” The critics claim to have insight or knowledge about ancient cultures. But they face a fundamental problem. They are not time travelers and do not have first hand knowledge of what happened thousands of years ago. Historical and archaeological findings provide only evolving evidence about the ancient cultures. Most archaeological data provides limited information and conclusions are sometimes proven false with more data. Therefore, it is an error to claim that archeological findings provide conclusive facts about past cultures. Sadly, the critics start with scant historical and archaeological data, if any, to create a theory and figuratively jump into a pool of error. Their conclusions are wrong and cannot be supported by solid data. Romans 1:18 summarizes the error of the critics of the Bible.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools . . . Romans 1:21-22a (NASB)
The Bible is more trustworthy than its critic. History and archaeological data has repeatedly proven the Bible to be correct. Its accuracy is confirmed by the hundreds of fulfilled prophecies about past and future events including the prophecies about Christ. Secular writers witnessed the life, death and resurrection of Christ, confirming the accuracy of the gospels.
Genesis 1:1 begins with God (Elohim) and in Genesis 2:4 we are introduced to Yahweh.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1 (NASB)
Yahweh existed before the world was created and before the Babylonian, Aramaean, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic nations came into existence. Genesis 11:1-9 tells us about the first false religion and that God scattered the people at the tower of Babel. They established the false religions of the Babylonian, Aramaean, Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic nations. We should not be surprised that they imitated the true God but in the process distorted Him. Yahweh existed before the world was created. He did not emerge out of some false, demonically inspired religion (Romans 9:20). Yahweh is in fact the El Elyon. There are no other gods.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me.
“I, even I, am the LORD . . .” Isaiah 43:10-11 (NASB)
I am the first and I am the last,
And there is no God besides Me.
Who is like Me? Isaiah 44:6-7 (NASB)
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me . . . Isaiah 46:9 (NASB)
1. Ariel David. “How the Jews Invented God, and Made Him Great.” Jun 13, 2016. Haaretz.
8. Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. Facts on File. Inc. 1993. p. 293.
9. A. B. Davidson. God. A Dictionary of the Bible Dealing With Its Language, Literature, and Contents. Charles Scribner’s Sons. vol. II. p. 198.
10. Merril Unger. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Zondervan Publishing Co. 1974. p. 170.
11. James Newell. EL.Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers. 1989. p. 404.
12. H. B. Kuhn. God, Names of. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Zondervan Publishing. 1977. vol. 2. p. 761.
13. William Lane Craig. “Jewish Beliefs About God.” Reasonable Faith. May 04, 2009.
14. Amihai Mazr. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible – 10,000-586 B.C. Doubleday. 1985. p. 355.
15. Ibid. pp. 367-368.
16. Betsy M Bryan. The Eighteenth Dynasty Before the Amarna Period. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 236.
Suggested Links:Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel?
Error or forgery on the Stele of Merneptah, known as Israel Stele
Merneptah Stele: Proving Israel’s 3,200-Year Existence
What are the high places in the Bible?