A few days ago I exchanged emails with Cris Putnam who blogs at Logos Apologia. The conversation was in regard to how Dr. Joseph Farrell had published certain ideas about the name Yahweh in cuneiform texts that people who are actually in this field (ancient Semitic languages) know were rendered invalid and dispensed with over 150 years ago.  The idea way back then was that the divine name was known in Mesopotamia before the patriarchal period or the earliest biblical writings. It seems it’s part of some misguided claim about Israelites being incapable of an original religious thought.  Cris posted a response to Farrell in which he uses part of our exchange.

If you have modern reference tools like Anchor Bible Dictionary (Anchor-Yale) or Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Brill), the entries on “Yahweh” are quite clear that the divine name is known outside Israel (in Semitic texts) from shortly after 1000 BC (i.e., well into the biblical period itself). That’s no surprise given the geo-political interaction described in the Old Testament and sources like the Mesha Stela (“Moabite Stone”). The Mesopotamian “evidence” Farrell touts is nowhere in view since, like I said, it was slapped around and resigned to the dustbin of bad cuneiform etymology 150 years ago.

But don’t take my word for it.

Contemporary cuneiform expert Stephanie Dalley (you may have her anthology of Mesopotamian literature) addressed exactly what Farrell has in his book (you can see the pages at Putnam’s link) in a 1990 journal article. She wrote:

There is no reason from cuneiform material to question the view that the worship of Yahweh began in Sinai or southern Palestine in the very late Bronze Age and spread northwards around the turn of the millennium.1

Why is Dalley so confident (other than her own expertise in cuneiform)? Because she isn’t ignorant of the history of scholarship on this matter like Farrell is. Dalley references an 1885 essay by S. R. Driver, an eminent Semitist in his day, that debunked the work of F. Delitzsch (the guy whom Farrell quotes) on the matter. So effective was Driver’s rebuttal that the matter ended then and there — which is unusual in scholarship. Basically, it was a cuneiform butt-whooping.

But again, don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Driver article, which is public domain (i.e., Farrell could have found this if he’d been interested in accuracy instead of promoting some personal agenda point).2

Since I also get email about Yahweh showing up in the Ebla texts and Ugaritic material (both incorrect as well), I thought I’d add the note below from another scholar trained in cuneiform, Karel van der Toorn. He writes in DDD:

The cult of Yahweh is not originally at home in Palestine. Outside Israel, Yahweh was not worshipped in the West-Semitic world—despite affirmations to the contrary (pace, e.g. G. GARBINI, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel [London & New York 1988] 52–65). Before 1200 BCE, the name Yahweh is not found in any Semitic text. The stir caused by PETTINATO (e.g. Ebla and the Bible, BA 43 [1980] 203–216, esp. 203–205) who claimed to have found the shortened form of the name Yahweh (‘Ya’) as a divine element in theophoric names from Ebla (ca. 2400–2250 BCE) is unfounded. As the final element of personal names, -ya is often a hypocoristic ending, not a theonym (A. ARCHI, The Epigraphic Evidence from Ebla and the Old Testament, Bib 60 (1979) 556–566, esp. 556–560). MÜLLER argues that the sign NI, read yà by Pettinato, is conventionally short for NI-NI = ı̀-lɩ́, ‘my (personal) god’; it stands for ilı̄ or ilu (MÜLLER 1980:83; 1981:306–307). This solution also explains the occurrence of the speculated element *ya at the beginning of personal names; thus dyà-ra-mu should be read either as DINGIR-lɩ́-ra-mu or as dilix-ra-mu, both readings yielding the name Iliramu, ‘My god is exalted’. In no list of gods or offerings is the mysterious god *Ya ever mentioned; his cult at Ebla is a chimera.

Yahweh was not known at Ugarit either; the singular name Yw (vocalisation unknown) in a damaged passage of the Baal Cycle (KTU 1.1 iv:14) cannot convincingly be interpreted as an abbreviation for ‘Yahweh’ (pace, e.g., DE MOOR 1990:113–118). . . . The earliest West Semitic text mentioning Yahweh—excepting the biblical evidence—is the Victory Stela written by Mesha, the Moabite king from the 9th century BCE. The Moabite ruler recalls his military successes against Israel in the time of Ahab: “And →Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel!’ So I went by night and I engaged in fight against her from the break of dawn until noon. And I took her and I killed her entire population: seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maid servants, for I devoted her to destruction (hḥrmth) for Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took from there the ʾ[rʾ]ly of Yahweh and I dragged them before Chemosh” (KAI 181:14–18). Evidently, Yahweh is not presented here as a Moabite deity. He is presented as the official god of the Israelites, worshipped throughout Samaria, as far as its outer borders since Nebo (נבה in the Mesha Stela, נבו in the Bible), situated in North-Western Moab, was a border town. . . .

There are two Egyptian texts that mention Yahweh. In these texts from the 14th and 13th centuries BCE, Yahweh is neither connected with the Israelites, nor is his cult located in Palestine.3 The texts speak about “Yahu in the land of the Shosu-beduins” (tʒ šʒśw jhwʒ; R. GIVEON, Les bédouins Shosou des documents égyptiens [Leiden 1971] no. 6a [pp. 26–28] and no. 16a [pp. 74–77]; note WEIPPERT 1974:427, 430 for the corrected reading). The one text is from the reign of Amenophis III (first part of the 14th cent. BCE; cf. HERMANN 1967) and the other from the reign of Ramses II (13th cent. BCE; cf. H. W. FAIRMAN, Preliminary Report on the Excavations at ʿAmārah West, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1938–9, JEA 25 [1939] 139–144, esp. 141). In the Ramses II list, the name occurs in a context which also mentions Seir (assuming that sʿrr stands for Seir). It may be tentatively concluded that this “Yahu in the land of the Shosu-beduins” is to be situated in the area of Edom and Midian (WEIPPERT 1974: 271; AXELSSON 1987:60; pace WEINFELD 1987:304). In these Egyptian texts Yhw is used as a toponym (KNAUF 1988:46–47). Yet a relationship with the deity by the same name is a reasonable assumption (pace M. WEIPPERT, “Heiliger Krieg” in Israel und Assyrien, ZAW 84 [1972] 460–493, esp. 491 n. 144).4

To be honest, I was a bit surprised that Farrell had put this sort of material in a book. Dr. Farrell has a PhD in Patristics (early church fathers – Greek writers, specifically, though that field requires Latin). He isn’t a biblical studies scholar or a Semitic languages expert. While he’s out of his element (as we all are when we stray outside our field of expertise), I have no explanation for the shoddy research that he published in this regard. When I see material that’s 150 years out of date, I expect a Zecharia Sitchin sighting, not Joseph Farrell.  It’s actually a bit disconcerting since I’ve found his research on WWII exotic science and Nazi survival mythology (or not) so interesting and (usually) well-founded (yes, I do cross-check what I read in any given place). I guess when it comes to biblical studies or Semitics or (some forms?) of Christianity he has some axe to grind. That’s no excuse in any regard. All I can say here is that if his work on “Yahweh” troubles anyone, it can safely be ignored.

  1. S. Dalley, “Yahweh in Hamath in the 8th Century BC: Cuneiform Material and Historical Deductions,” Vetus Testamentum 40:1 (Ja 1990), p 21-32, at page 22. Dalley is referring to the turn of the first millennium BC – ca. 1000 B.C. S=Other scholars disagree with Dalley’s argument in this article that Yahweh was worshipped in Syria in the 8th century BC.
  2. I don’t expect readers to be able to digest all the cuneiform and high-browed language discussion. I post the article to show readers that the rebuttal exists. Basically, Driver concluded then what 150 years of scholarship has since validated: the divine name occurs outside the Hebrew Bible, but Delitzsch’s ideas — and so, Farrell’s — have no merit.
  3. Note that this is no biblical surprise, either, as this name for the God of the patriarchs was first announced in the biblical story of Israel in Midian at the burning bush – Exod. 3:1-14; cp. Exod 6:3.
  4. K. van der Toorn, “Yahweh,” ed. Bob Becking and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 910–912.