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God: God in the Hebrew Scriptures


The God of Israel is the major character in the Hebrew scriptures. Although he is not mentioned in the Book of Esther or in the Song of Songs, God appears in all the remaining twenty-two books of the Hebrew Bible. Within these books God is depicted as creator, provider, and lawgiver. Most of the writers assume that he is just, that he has a special relation with the people of Israel, and that he hearkens to prayer. But because the Bible is not a systematic theological treatise and because not all internal contradictions were removed by its editors, we find major disagreements among the writers about the crucial elements of Israelite faith, including concepts of God.

Biblical Terminology of the Divine

The proper name of the God whose exclusive worship is demanded by the biblical authors is written consonantally as YHVH. This tetragrammaton, attested more than 6,600 times in the Bible, also occurs on the Moabite Stone (ninth century bce) and in several ancient Hebrew letters and inscriptions. Vocalized biblical texts do not preserve the actual pronunciation of YHVH. Instead, they direct the reader to pronounce the divine name as though it were the frequent epithet adonai, meaning "lord." (It was the misunderstanding of this scribal convention that gave rise to the English form Jehovah.) The original pronunciation of YHVH is generally reconstructed as "Yahveh" or "Yahweh," on the basis of early Greek transcriptions. A shorter form, YH, generally considered secondary, is found 24 times in the Hebrew scriptures. In proper names, the theophoric element is never written as -yhvh but as -yh or -yhv.

The name YHVH occurs frequently in the compound yhvh tsv't (yahveh tseva'ot ). Usually translated as "lord of hosts," its exact significance is uncertain. Most likely it means either "creator of the [heavenly] hosts" or "Yahveh is the [armed] host of Israel." YHVH is also sometimes combined with elohim, the most common generic word for "god," in the form Yahveh Elohim. The term elohim appears some 2,600 times in the Hebrew scriptures, and, although in form the word is plural, it is often construed with a singular verb. Most commonly, Elohim refers to the God of Israel and is thus synonymous with or interchangeable with Yahveh. Certain writers, in particular the author of the so-called Elohist source of the Pentateuch and the composers of certain Psalms, preferred Elohim to Yahveh as the proper name of the God of Israel.

Even when Elohim refers to the God of Israel, it can be treated as a plural (Gn. 20:13). Most frequently, however, the plural references are to gods whose worship by Israelites is condemned by the biblical authors. These are referred to as elohim aerim ("other gods"; Ex. 20:3, Dt. 5:7) and elohim adashim ("new gods"; Jgs. 5:8). Similar are expressions in which the plural construction is employed. Examples are elohei ha-nekhar ("foreign gods"; Gn. 35:2, Jos. 24:20) and elohei nekhar ha-arets ("foreign gods of the land"; Dt. 31:16). It must be noted that the Hebrew writers employ the singular sense of elohim even when illicit divinities such as Astarte, Milcom, and Chemosh are meant (1 Kgs. 11:5, 11:33).

Because elohim is antithetical to anashim ("people"; see Jgs. 9:13), it can include gradations between the two categories of divinity and humanity. Among these are ghosts (1 Sm. 28:13, Is. 8:19) and minor divinities (Gn. 32:29, 48:1516). The term can also serve in adjectival expressions of might, power, and the like. Among such examples are ruah elohim ("mighty wind"; Gn. 1:2), nesi' elohim ("great prince"; Gn. 23:6), naftulei elohim ("violent struggles"; Gn. 30:8), ittat elohim ("terror"; Gn. 35:5), erdat elohim ("panic"; 1 Sm. 14:15), kis'akha elohim ("your eternal throne"; Ps. 45:7), and har elohim ("majestic mountain"; Ps. 68:16). In addition, elohim can mean "happenstance," as in etsba'elohim (Ex. 8:15), and, frequently approximates "nature" in the late book Ecclesiastes.

Related etymologically to elohim is the shorter form eloah, construed solely as a grammatical singular. Most of its occurrences are in the later books of the Hebrew scriptures, although it is found also in the archaic poem in Deuteronomy (32:15, 32:17). The word occurs almost exclusively in poetry and never with the definite article. With the exception of two passages in Daniel (11:3839), eloah, in contrast to elohim, does not refer to foreign divinities but has the virtual status of a proper name for the God of Israel.

Another important scriptural designation of divinity is el, whose function corresponds generally to that of elohim. The word has numerous cognates in the classical Semitic languages and is attested some 230 times in the Hebrew scriptures in the singular as well as the plural, elim. Like Elohim, El can substitute for Yahveh as a proper name for the God of Israel, its most common use (Nm. 12:13, 23:8, 23:19; Is. 8:8, 8:10). The Hebrew word el can take the definite article and appear as ha-'el, "the god" (Gn. 46:3, Ps. 85:9). It can also refer to pagan deities in such forms as el zar ("strange god"; Ps. 44:21, 81:10), el aer ("other god"; Ex. 34:14), and el nek-har ("foreign god"; Mal. 2:11, Ps. 81:10).

Unlike elohim, el has clear antecedents in older Semitic languages. Early documents from Ebla (modern-day Tel Mardikh) in central Syria and from Mesopotamia show that the closely related ilu was used in Akkadian for "god" as well as for the proper name of a high god. Chronologically closer to first-millennium Israel are the texts from Ugarit in northern Syria, which employ el for "god" in general and also for the head of the Canaanite pantheon. El was known for wisdom and beneficence as well as for his exploits with sex and alcohol. He was a healer and creator god who was sometimes depicted as a bull. Some biblical passages that mention el refer to this god (Is. 14:13, Ez. 28:2, Hos. 12:6).

Because the Yahveh cult appropriated the name of El to its own object of worship, we cannot always tell whether an el reference in a biblical text is to the Canaanite El, to Yahveh, to a blend of both, or to another divinity entirely. Among the problematic occurrences is el ro'i, "the god who sees me" or "El who sees me" (Gn. 16:13). The name El Bet-'El (Gn. 31:13) is even more problematic, because a divinity named Beth'el, doubtless the hypostasis of a shrine, was worshiped in Samaria in the eighth century (Hos. 10:15, 12:5), in Tyre in the seventh century, and at Elephantine in Egypt in the fifth century. Similar difficulties attend the proper understanding of el shaddai (Gn. 17:1, 28:3; Ex. 6:3), which occurs as well in the form shaddai (Nm. 24:4, 24:16; Ez. 1:24; Jb., passim ). Earlier attempts to connect El Shaddai with the Amorite Bel Shade ("lord of the mountains") have been disproved. Recently published texts in Aramaic from Deir 'Alla in Jordan refer to shaddayin divinities. Whether this discovery will shed some light on the biblical el shaddai remains to be seen. There has been a great deal of scholarly discussion of the name El 'Elyon (Gn. 14:18; Ps. 78:35). It is uncertain whether the name should be rendered "God most high" or "El most high" and whether the name itself is a blend of two originally distinct non-Israelite divinities. Finally, a divinity named El Berit had a temple at Shechem (modern-day Nablus). The name might be translated as "god of the covenant" or "El of the covenant."

Biblical View of the Origins of the Worship of YHVH

The original meaning of the name YHVH is unknown to modern scholars. Only one biblical writer, the author of Exodus 3:14, attempted an explanation, by relating the name to the verb hayah ("be, exist"): "and YHVH said say unto the children of Israel: 'I am' hath sent me unto you."

The biblical writers differ among themselves as to when the worship of Yahveh originated. According to Genesis 4, Eve knew God by the name Yahveh, and her two sons, Cain and Abel, brought him sacrifices. Verse 26 of that same chapter tells us that in the days of Enosh (Hebrew for "person"), grandson of Adam, the name Yahveh began to be invoked. In other words, God was worshiped as soon as there was a human community. In contrast, the author of Exodus 6, commonly identified as the Priestly writer (or the P source) denies that Israel's ancestors knew God by this name (Ex. 6:3). Instead, he asserts that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew their God as El Shaddai and that the name Yahveh was only first revealed to Moses. Though most scholars regard the P source as one of the latest documents, there is something to be said here for its reliability. It is unlikely that the writer would have originated the claim that the ancestors did not know the proper name of the ancestral god. At the same time, the writer might have wished simply to glorify Moses.

Extrabiblical data have not resolved the question of the origin of Yahveh worship. Similarities in the cultures and languages of first-millennium Israel and third-millennium Ebla, as well as second-millennium Mari, have led some scholars to interpret elements of personal names in texts emanating from these areas as references to Yahveh. These interpretations have not won general acceptance. The same holds for the fragmentary mention of a god called Yv at late second-millennium Ugarit. Perhaps the most promising clue comes from a location named Yhv' in the Negev or the Sinai desert mentioned in Egyptian sources from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries bce. These references lend some support to the Midianite or Kenite hypothesis that makes much of the biblical traditions that Yahveh revealed himself to Moses in Midianite territory (Ex. 3) and that the father-in-law of Moses was a Midianite priest (Ex. 2) who taught Moses how to administer divine law (Ex. 18).

The Historical Problem of Israelite Monotheism

Scholars are in agreement that Judaism was a monotheistic religion by the end of the Babylonian exile (c. 539 bce). Most also agree that Jewish monotheism was greatly encouraged by the preachings of the preexilic prophets. The Hebrew scriptures in their present form are colored by the belief that Yahveh was the sole legitimate object of Israelite worship from earliest times. In consequence, the biblical depiction of Yahveh worship presents the unusual situation of a people who seem to have disregarded for centuries what is in retrospect said to have been their official religion. The German scholar Julius Wellhausen ([1885] 1957) argued that the official religion of Israel had been originally polytheistic and that Yahveh had been a national god to whom every Israelite owed allegiance. In this respect, Yahveh did not differ from the Moabite god Chemosh or the Assyrian Ashur. The Bible notes time and time again that Israelites worshiped other gods alongside Yahveh. According to Wellhausen, no one viewed this as problematic until the rise of classical prophecy in the eighth century bce. Yahveh, proclaimed the prophets, would punish unethical behavior on Israel's part by bringing foreigners against them. In order to make this threat credible, Yahveh had to grow in power at the expense of all other divinities.

Only with the fall of Judah (in 587/6 bce), in Wellhausen's analysis, did the contrite Jewish masses begin to accept that the prophets had been right. The dispersion of Yahveh's people all over the world proved that Yahveh was a universal God and, finally, the sole God in existence. The exilic prophet "Second Isaiah" was the most articulate representative of this thoroughgoing monotheism. Under the influence of his and similar teachings, the bulk of the Pentateuch was composed, and the early prophetic and historical writings were reshaped. In other words, what the Hebrew scriptures present is largely retrojection of monotheistic beliefs of the exilic and postexilic periods onto true early Israelite religion.

In contrast to Wellhausen, other scholars, such as William F. Albright (1957) and, especially, Yeezkel Kaufmann (1970), argued that monotheism was Mosaic in origin and was Israel's official religion. These scholars generally accept the Bible's judgment that much of Israelite attention to other gods was sinful. Kaufmann, however, departs from this consensus. He argues that the prophets, in condemning Israelite idolatry, were in fact polemicizing against vestigial fetishism. The fact that their opposition was more often directed against "idolatry," the worship of "wood and stone," rather than against real gods was for Kaufmann highly significant. According to his theory, the monotheistic revolution fomented by Moses had so thoroughly eradicated polytheism from Israel that most Israelites no longer understood the myth, ritual, and magic practiced by their pagan neighbors. Aside from some government-sponsored or -tolerated exceptions, the Israelites were never guilty of more than leftover superstition. To the zealous prophets, however, these venial sins warranted Yahveh's harshest punishments. The correctness of the prophetic position was demonstrated, at least to the prophets, by Israel's political defeats.

Israelite monolatry

We have seen that the biblical writers (as well as modern scholars) disagree about the period in which the explicit worship of the one God began. There is no disagreement, however, that the Bible requires that the people Israel serve God exclusively. Various early formulations of God's demand for exclusive worship connect it with the exodus from Egypt, an event that, if exaggerated in magnitude, clearly has some historical basis (Ex. 20:23, Hos. 13:4, Ps. 81:1011). According to the Pentateuch, a covenant (berit ) between God and Israel was concluded through the mediation of Moses at the mountain variously called "Sinai," "Horeb," and "the mountain of God." This covenant bound Israel to Yahveh's exclusive service and carried with it the obligations that were understood as the Law. (Ex. 1924, 34; Dt. 5). An additional covenant to the same effect was made in the plains of Moab (Dt. 2930). Joshua 24 describes how Joshua caused his people to conclude a covenant for God's exclusive worship at Shechem (without reference to any Mosaic precedent). None of these covenant traditions insists that Yahveh is the sole god in existence, yet each maintains that Israel is bound to serve him alone.

Some of the early prophets, such as Amos and Isaiah, do not employ the covenant theme explicitly, but they likewise insist on Yahveh's demand to be worshiped by Israel to the exclusion of all other gods. That demand is best described as monolatry, a form of worship in which only one god is served but the existence of others is not denied. Monolatrous worship is, in theory, compatible with polytheism.

Monolatry was not unknown in the ancient Near East. In the fourteenth century bce, Akhenaten, King of Egypt, had inaugurated a solar monolatry in which the royal family worshiped the Aton, the sun disk, to the exclusion of Egypt's traditional gods. Mesopotamian mythology describes the temporary worship of a single god in an emergency. In addition, ancient Near Eastern prayer literature regularly employed monolatrous language. A worshiper would approach various gods in turn with the declaration that each one was the only proper object of worship. Sometimes the suppliant went as far as saying that the other gods were no more than attributes or bodily limbs of the god addressed. Undoubtedly at the moment of utterance, these pious statements were meant sincerely, although their intent was not to invalidate the worship of other gods.

Yet the fact that monolatry was found outside of Israel does not explain why it was deemed so important in Israel. The books of the Bible agree that Israel's tenure in its own land depended on the exclusive worship of Yahveh. In spite of Yahveh's reminders tendered by his servants the prophets, the people insisted on worshiping other gods (2 Kgs. 17:723, Jer. 25:311), with whom they were supposed to have no relation (Ex. 23:32; Jer. 7:9). The fall of Samaria in 720 bce and the fall of Judah in 587/6 bce were caused, according to the biblical writers, by failure to adhere to the covenant with Yahveh.

The covenant, it must be understood, was integral to the very identity of the Israelites as a political entity. It was the god Yahveh who was credited with bringing out from Egypt those descendants of Egyptian slaves and native dissidents who were to constitute the people Israel. Through Yahveh, this new group was to acquire its own land, independent of the Egypto-Canaanite political system. This granting of land by Yahveh to his people was also described by the metaphor of berit, or "covenant," and was modeled after the international treaty formulas of the second millennium bce. In Israelite theory, all the land belonged to Yahveh, who assigned it to his people in terms similar to those found in Hittite suzerainty treaties, in which the "great king" demanded sole allegiance from his clients. In its religious adaptation, the covenant notion meant that Israel was to serve Yahveh alone. The Hittite kings demanded exclusive allegiance because they knew that their clients might turn to other kings. Yahveh's representatives, who acknowledged the existence of other gods with whom one might be tempted to make a similar covenant (Ex. 23:32), demanded analogous exclusive allegiance. In addition, the covenant with Yahveh served as the theological expression of the mundane political union between the Canaanite natives and the outsiders who together made up Israel, a process described in Joshua 24. It may be noted that the setting of this chapter is Shechem, the scene of successful and unsuccessful coalitions with Canaanites (see Gn. 34 and Jgs. 89).

God in covenant and history

Because it had emerged in historical circumstances, the covenant metaphor imparted to the Israelite cult a far greater concern with "history" than was found in the other cults of the ancient Near East. The "triumphs of Yahveh" (Jgs. 5:11), as they are called in the ancient Song of Deborah, were more focused on human life than were Baal's victories over death and aridity. It is not that the gods of the other nations were not concerned with history nor that Yahveh was not concerned with nature. Rather, the degree of emphasis was markedly different in Israel in that Israelite writers were more likely to produce tales of Yahveh's political triumphs than to produce tales of his cosmic ones.

The relative space given in the Bible to God's "mythical" and "historical" deeds is very instructive. Several poetic passages refer to divine combat with a sea monster in which Yahveh vanquishes his foes in the manner of the Babylonian Marduk, the Canaanite Baal, and the Hittite Iluyankas (Is. 27:1, 30:7, 51:910; Hb. 3:8; Ps. 74:1314, 89:1011, 93:14; Jb. 26:1014). The first eleven chapters of Genesis contain accounts of God's creation of the world by fiat in the manner of the Egyptian Ptah, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the descent of the ancient heroes from the fallen divinities, and the great flood. Most of the biblical text, however, concentrates on God's relation to humanity and, especially, to Israel. The Bible is unique among the preserved literature of the ancient Near East in the extent to which a god is involved in human institutions. Thus although there are references to ritual instructions in Egyptian divine books and Mesopotamian accounts of the divine revelation of exorcisms and incantations, these are the exception. The well-known Code of Hammurabi of Babylon (17921750 bce) contains numerous parallels to biblical law, but it is the king, and not the god of justice, who claims credit for its composition.

The Bible claims divine jurisdiction over all areas of life in a more thorough and consistent manner than do all other extant ancient Near Eastern sources. Although Babylonian legal collections such as Hammurabi's Code or the Laws of Eshnunna, for example, show close parallels to laws in the Pentateuch, the context is different. Thus, Hammurabi claims that the gods had called on him to establish justice and so he, the king, enacted the laws. In contrast, in the Hebrew Bible the claim is made that all laws governing all Israelite institutions and all personal relations were divinely revealed to Moses at Yahveh's sacred mountain. Every human action, even when wickedly intended, such as the sale of Joseph by his brothers, is part of the divine plan (Gn. 45:5, 50:1920). Unlike the Akkadian speaker who could describe actions performed lā libbi ilāni ("without divine consent"), the Hebrew could refer only to divine disapproval.

The exclusive worship of Yahveh was the religious expression of the political and social factors that had brought Israel into existence. The demand to serve Yahveh alone came to the fore in the settlement of the land, in the formation of the monarchy under Saul (eleventh century bce), in the purge of the house of Omri under Jehu (r. 842815 bce), in the anti-Assyrianism of Hezekiah (r. 715686 bce), and in the expansionism of Josiah (r. 640609 bce). It reached its logical conclusion, monotheism, in the exilic preachments of "Second Isaiah" and in the reconstitution of the postexilic community of the fifth century bce.

The persistence of polytheism

At the same time, a number of factors undermined Yahvistic monolatry from the beginning. First, the people who made up Israel were themselves of diverse origin and could not easily forsake their ancestral gods (see Jos. 24). Second, monolatry does not deny the existence of the many divinities. As normality set in, the old gods whose existence had never been denied reasserted themselves; the international interests of the monarchy and of commerce also encouraged tolerance of other gods.

It should also be recalled that polytheism made sense in the ancient world. It was not until long after the Babylonian exile that such concepts as "nature" and "universe," which Greek thinkers formulated, began to make an impact in the Middle East. Israelite worship of gods and goddesses reflects the difficulty that the average person must have had in assuming an underlying unity in what appears to be a collection of diverse forces often opposed one to another.

Many Israelites must have resisted monotheism because of its difficulty in accounting for unwarranted suffering. To be sure, the problem of theodicy had been raised by Mesopotamian thinkers long before the rise of Israel, but because polytheists could always blame divine injustice on rivalry among the gods, the problem never became so pointed as in the late biblical writings Job and Ecclesiastes. These postexilic works were written by authors who took for granted that Yahveh was the sole god in existence. If that sole God was all-powerful and just at the same time, how could injustice persist? The author of Job answered that God was not omnipotent. The writer of Ecclesiastes answered that injustice was built into the system that God had set in motion.


The blending of gods and their characteristics is the salvation of monolatry and surely of monotheism. As increasing numbers of Israelites began to become consistent monolaters and monotheists, a process that took centuries, the figure of Yahveh began to absorb many of the functions and attributes of the older gods. We have seen that Yahveh assumed El's name in addition to that god's reputation for beneficence and wisdom. Yahveh likewise acquired Baal's thunderous voice (1 Sm. 2:10), his fructifying abilities (Hos. 2:10), and his title of "cloud rider" (Ps. 68:5).

The biblical writers did not, however, tolerate Yahveh's absorption of the attributes of Near Eastern goddesses. Instead, they condemned the widespread royal and popular worship of female deities. The mother of the pious king Asa (c. 913873 bce) had constructed an image of Asherah, and another representation of this same Canaanite "creator of the gods" stood in Yahveh's Jerusalem Temple until Josiah's time (2 Kgs. 21:7). In ancient Israel, Astarte remained popular in her classical form as well as in her Aramean-Mesopotamian incarnation as "queen of heaven" (Jer. 7:18, 44:17ff.). The biblical depiction of the popularity of female divinities is corroborated by external evidence. Recent archaeological discoveries at Kuntillet 'Ajrud and Khirbet al-Qum have brought to light Hebrew inscriptions referring to "Yahveh of Teman and his Asherah." It is possible that asherah in these inscriptions had become a common noun meaning "consort." Finally, the Jews at Elephantine in the fifth century bce knew a divinity called Anatyahu, an apparent androgynous blend of Yahveh with the ancient Canaanite goddess Anat.

Despite the popularity of female divinity, or perhaps because of it, biblical monolatry excluded the female presence. With rare exceptions (Isa. 42:14; 66:13), the biblical writers personify Yahveh with masculine traits, a reflection of the power structure in Israelite society. The northern kingdom of Israel never had a reigning queen. Athaliah, the only reigning queen of the southern kingdom of Judah (842837 bce), had come to power under highly irregular circumstances (2 Kgs. 11:13). There were some women prophets, among them Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and the anonymous wife of Isaiah (Isa. 8:3), but no female priests.

The Rise of Monotheism

The present state of the evidence suggests that monolatry arose early in Israel but that monotheism was a late development. Throughout the early first millennium bce, only a minority of Israelites were consistent in their exclusive worship of Yahveh. To this tenacious minority we are indebted for the henotheistic concept of Yahveh that informs the earlier biblical books. The narratives of Joshua 24 and Genesis 35 reflect what must have been the majority view: to engage in the cult of Yahveh while images of other gods were present was defiling. Jeremiah assailed his contemporaries for committing crimes and then proceeding to Yahveh's temple and declaring that "we have been saved" (Jer. 7:910). Baal worship is among the enumerated crimes. Presumably the priesthood required of all entrants to the sanctuary the declaration that they served Yahveh alone, which at the moment they did, fulfilling the Decalogue's demand that "you shall have no other gods in my presence" (Ex. 20:3). The Temple priesthood was generally consistently monolatrous, although royal toleration and active support of other cults would have applied pressure on Yahveh priests to be flexible at times (2 Kgs. 18).

Some biblical writers took the existence of other gods for granted, though all agreed that Yahveh was superior to the other gods (Gn. 1:26, 3:22, 6:2; Ex. 12:12, 15:11; Ps. 82:18). Other writers, such as the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, spoke of Yahveh as the only proper object of Israelite worship, as the only divinity in control of earthly and heavenly events. Among the prophets, Second Isaiah was the most consistent monotheist, insisting that Yahveh was the sole god in existence (Is. 43:1012, 44:68, 45:57, 45:1822, 46:9). In general, the biblical monolaters believed the worship of Yahveh alone to be both an Israelite obligation and privilege. Others might worship their own gods (Dt. 4:19; Mi. 4:56). The monotheists required all peoples to forsake their ancestral gods and to worship Yahveh alone (2 Kgs. 5:1718; Is. 44:620, 45:22; Jer. 10:1216; Zep. 3:9; Zec. 14:9).

Biblical Imagery of God

Although many verbal images of Yahveh are found in the texts, the Bible in God's name prohibits the physical depiction of all divine images (Ex. 20:4, 34:17; Dt. 4:1517, 5:8), even for use in the cult. Clearly, this prohibition was not universally observed (Jgs. 17:35). Some verbal divine imagery echoed Israel's roots in the Canaanite past. Yahveh was spoken of as a bull (Gn. 49:24; Is. 1:24; Ps. 132:2, 132:5), a further legacy from the Canaanite El, and was represented sculpturally as a bull or calf (Ex. 32:45, 1 Kgs. 12:28, Hos. 8:6, Ps. 106:20).

According to one theory, no one could see Yahveh and remain alive (Ex. 32:23), but there were exceptions (Ex. 24:1011; Nm. 12:8; Is. 6:1, 6:5). God is often described as humanlike (Gn. 1:27, 18:2) and with a face (Ex. 33:20), a back (Ex. 33:23), arms (Dt. 32:40), and legs (Na. 1:3, Zec. 14:4; in Exodus 4:25, legs is a euphemism for Yahveh's genitals). As a warrior (Ex. 15:3, Ps. 24:8), God carries a bow (Gn. 9:13), arrows (1 Sm. 22:15), and a sword (Dt. 32:42). Second Isaiah says that Yahveh is indescribable (Is. 40:18, 40:25, 46:5) but dresses him in armor and a helmet (Is. 59:17). According to Daniel 7:9, God is old and has white hair. Other depictions refer to fire and smoke emanating from Yahveh's mouth and nose (1 Sm. 22:15) and to his thunderous voice (Ex. 20:1819, Ps. 29:39, Jb. 40:9), images borrowed from the figure of Baal, the thunder god.

God's kingship

In many passages of the Hebrew scriptures, God is spoken of as king. We may distinguish two basic usages, Yahveh as king of the gods and Yahveh as king of Israel. The first meaning is rare but is attested in the verse "For YHVH is a great god, a great king over all the gods" (Ps. 95:3). More common is the notion of Yahveh's kingship over Israel (Jgs. 8:23; 1 Sm. 8:7; Is. 41:21, 45:6) and over the world (Ps. 47:3, 93:1, 97:1). The gods of Assyria and Mesopotamia such as Marduk and Ashur were regularly spoken of as kings in relation to their own peoples and to the rest of the world. Like these gods, Yahveh as king was the divine enforcer of justice and equity, guardian of the rights of the defenseless widow and orphan. Like them as well, he controlled the nations of the world and regulated their movements for the benefit of the people to whom he was closest.

God's presence

Though God was generally not visible, he might manifest himself publicly in the kavod, a word usually translated "glory" but best rendered "person," or "self." The kavod of Yahveh showed Israel that Yahveh was present among them. Often this presence could be invited by cultic procedures (Lv. 9:6, 9:23). Frequently the kavod of Yahveh is associated with the wilderness tabernacle (Ex. 16:7, 16:10, 29:43, 40:3435) and with the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kgs. 8:11; Ez. 43:2). Among Yahveh's cultic titles were melekh ha-kavod ("the king himself"; Ps. 24:7, 24:10) and el ha-kavod ("the god himself"; Ps. 29:3). Like its Akkadian counterpart melammu ("sheen"), the kavod of Yahveh is of intense luminosity (Is. 60:12, Ez. 43:2) and is often shielded by a cloud (Ex. 24:16, 40:34; Ez. 1:2728). The kavod is sometimes spoken of as filling the entire earth (Nm. 14:21, Is. 6:3, Ps. 72:19).

God's transcendence

Yahveh is often described as qadosh. Similar terms are used to describe divinities a term Ugaritic, Aramaic Phoenician. Although scholars often ascribe to qadosh a basic meaning "set apart," it is best understood as a primary emotive category "holy," in the manner of its antonyms "profane," and "impure God is not bound by time, space, or form, nor by moral or ethical categories (2 Sm. 6:58). Yet because God serves as the guarantor of justice (Jer. 11:20), his divine justice could be questioned (Gn. 18:25, Jer. 12:1, and most of Jb.) and even denied (Eccl. 8:15).

Yahveh is frequently referred to as a jealous god (Ex. 20:5, 35:14; Dt. 4:24, 5:9, 6:15; Jos. 24:19; Na. 1:2). In these instances, the term employed is a derivative of the verb root qn'. In a Babylonian text, the goddess Sarpanitum is described by the identical term. What is unique to the description of Yahveh is the action that activates Yahveh's jealousy (qinn'ah ) most oftenthe worship of other gods. Sometimes Yahveh's jealousy results in unbridled punishment (Dt. 4:24, 6:15). At other times, it results in strict retributive justice and would better be translated as "zeal" (Na. 1:23). At still other times, "passion" or "ardor" would be better choices (Is. 9:6; Zec. 1:14, 8:2).

God's emotions

At the same time, God is also spoken of as being slow to anger (Ex. 34:6, Nm. 14:18, Jl. 2:13, Na. 1:3), forgiving of sin (Jon. 4:1), and the receiver of the penitent (Hos. 14:2; Jer. 3:12, 35:3; Jl. 2:12; Zec. 1:3; Mal. 3:7). The different views of Yahveh reflect not only the temperaments of the individual writers but the vicissitudes of Israel's history as well. Because Yahveh was so embedded in Israel's political and social life and institutions, the changes in Israel's fortune provoked different aspects of the divine character. Paradoxically, Yahveh is at once the most transcendent god of the ancient Near East and the most human. This is expressed most sharply in the prophetic writings of Hosea and Jeremiah. God's love for Israel is like that of a husband for a wife (Hos. 3:11). Unlike God's love, which is constant, Israel's is fickle (Hos. 3:1, Jer. 2:25). Yet both Hosea and Jeremiah emphasize that God's love will be great enough to overcome Israel's inconstancy and that God's relation to his people is eternal (Hos. 2:21, Jer. 32:40).

See Also

Biblical Literature, article on Hebrew Scriptures; El; Henotheism; Israelite Religion.


Alberz, Rainer, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. Philadelphia, 1994.

Albrektson, Bertil. History and the Gods. Lund, 1967. A demonstration that the gods of the ancient Near East were concerned with history.

Albright, William F. From the Stone Age to Christianity. 2d ed. Garden City, N.Y., 1957. A classic synthesis of archaeology and biblical studies.

Freedman, David N., and David F. Graf, eds. Palestine in Transition: The Emergence of Ancient Israel. Sheffield, 1981. Essays that pursue various approaches to the "revolt model" of the formation of Israel.

Gottwald, Norman K. The Tribes of Yahweh. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1979. An attempt to apply sociological models in support of George E. Mendenhall's "peasant revolt" theory. Mendenhall, however, writing in the Freedman and Graf volume, listed above, distances his views from Gottwald's.

Gruber, Mayer. The Motherhood of God and Other Essays. Atlanta, 1992.

Hillers, Delbert R. Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea. Baltimore, 1969. A readable distillation of ancient Near Eastern and biblical covenant notions.

Hoftijzer, Josef, and G. van der Kooij. Aramaic Texts from Deir 'Alla. Leiden, 1976.

Kaufmann, Yeezkel. The Religion of Israel. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. Chicago, 1970. An abridgment of an eight-volume attempt to show that monotheism was Mosaic in origin and the religion of Israel from earliest times.

Knauf, Axel E. "Shadday." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, pp. 749753. Leiden, 1999. A good survey of the relevant material, but somewhat speculative in its conclusions.

McCarthy, Dennis J. Treaty and Covenant. Rome, 1963. The authoritative treatment of the concept of covenant in the Bible against its Near Eastern background. Contains an exhaustive bibliography.

Mendenhall, George E. "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition" and "The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine." In Biblical Archaeologist Reader, vol. 3, edited by Edward F. Campbell and David N. Freedman. Garden City, N.Y., 1970. The first article was the first study to utilize Near Eastern treaty formulas in an attempt to show the origins of early Israelite covenant theology. The second article is the first study to refer to the settlement of the Israelite tribes as an peasants' revolt.

Porter, Barbara N., ed. One God or Many? Casco Bay, Maine, 2000.

Selms, Adriaane van. "Temporary Henotheism." In Symbolae biblicae Mesopotamicae Francisco Mario Theodoro de Liagre Böhl dedicatae, edited by Martinus A. Beck et al., pp. 820. Leiden, 1973.

Smith, Mark. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. New York, 2001.

Smith, Morton. "The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East." Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 135147.

Smith, Morton. Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament. New York, 1971.

Sperling, S. David. "Mount, Mountain." In The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Supplementary Volume. Nashville, 1976. See pages 608609 for discussion of El Shaddai.

Sperling, S. David. The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible's Writers. New York, 1998. See pp. 6174 for a discussion of covenant.

Toorn, Karel van der. "Yahweh" In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, pp. 910919 Leiden, 1999. A balanced presentation of the evidence.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia, 1978.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Translated by J. S. Black. Edinburgh, 1885. Reissued as Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (New York, 1957). The classic statement of biblical criticism and its use in reconstructing the religious history of ancient Israel.

Wyatt, Nicholas. "Asherah." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, pp. 99105. Leiden, 1999.

S. David Sperling (1987 and 2005)

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