The God of Israel is referred to by a number of names in the Old Testament. The two most significant are “El” (with its variants) and “Yahweh”. Thanks in large part to the religious libraries uncovered among the ruins of Ugarit, a Bronze Age city-state to the north of Israel, we now know a great deal about El as a distinct Canaanite deity who was regarded as the most high god in Ugarit, as he would be later in Israel.
It is generally understood that the cults dedicated to Yahweh and El originated independently of each other before their eventual merger — a process still not completed when much of the Old Testament was written. But determining how Yahweh came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah is not so simple. The lack of archaeological evidence has required Bible scholars to rely mostly on the text of the Bible itself.
The theory known as the Kenite hypothesis is one that has been around since the 19th century, initially proposed by the theologian F. W. Ghillany in 1862. According to this view, Yahweh was originally the God of the Kenite tribe prior to the Israelite settlement of Canaan. The Kenite hypothesis lost momentum as modern biblical studies undermined some of its key premises, but it seems to be making a comeback thanks to newer findings and a reassessment of the biblical texts.
Meeting Yahweh Again, for the First Time
There are places in the Old Testament where the author is clearly aware that the Israelites hadn’t always worshipped Yahweh, and various attempts are made to explain how and when the divine name came into use. One such passage occurs in Exodus 6, where Yahweh reveals himself to Moses for the first time in the Priestly narrative (‘P’):
God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. To Abraham and Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai; I did not make myself known to them by my name Yahweh.’ (Exodus 6:2–3)
This stands in tension with the non-Priestly narrative (‘J’) in Exodus 3, according to which Yahweh had previously revealed himself to Moses at Mount Horeb:
There the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in the shape of a flame of fire…. ‘I am the God of your father,’ he said, ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ (Exodus 3:2a, 6a)
Genesis takes the worship of Yahweh back even further, to primeval times:
A son was also born to Seth, and he named him Enosh. This man was the first to invoke the name of Yahweh. (Genesis 4:26)
Jethro and Yahweh: The Midianite Connection
In the Exodus story, Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, is a priest of Yahweh (Exod 18:7-11) even though he is not an Israelite. By combining this observation with Moses’ “discovery” of Yahweh in Midian and other passages we will look at below, many scholars concluded that Yahweh had originally been a Midianite god whom the Israelites learned about from Jethro via Moses. Furthermore, the father-in-law of Moses is named “Hobab” in Judges (1:16 and 4:11), where he is described as a “Kenite”; this could be harmonized with the Exodus account if the Kenites were a branch of the Midianites. This view of Yahweh’s introduction to Israel became known as the Kenite or Midianite hypothesis.
When this theory was originally in vogue, Moses was still believed to be a historical character, and the exodus from Egypt a historical event that had occurred more or less as described in the Bible. However, we now know from the archaeological evidence that the Israelites originated as Canaanites; and the evidence of the Bible itself shows that the exodus story, whatever its origins, is a complex text containing many different traditions (some quite late) that, combined into their present literary form, cannot be regarded as a historical account. These problems severely weaken the old Kenite hypothesis. As Karel van der Toorn puts it,
The view that, under the influence of Moses, the Israelites became Yahwists during their journey to the desert…neglects the fact that the majority of the Israelites were firmly rooted in Palestine. The historical role of Moses, moreover, is highly problematic. …It is only in later tradition that he came to be the legendary ancestor of the Levitical priests and a symbol of the ‘Yahweh-alone’ movement; his real importance remains in the dark. (van der Toorn 245)
Without a historical Moses and a historical exodus from Egypt, is the Kenite hypothesis still viable?
Yahweh’s Origins Elsewhere in the Bible
Outside of Exodus, a variety of biblical texts associate Yahweh with the regions south and east of Judah, mountainous areas generally associated with Midian and Edom.
Yahweh comes from Sinai.
He dawns upon us from Seir.
he shone forth from Mount Paran. (Deuteronomy 33:2)
God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
…I saw the tents of Cushan under affliction;
the tent-curtains of the land of Midian trembled.
Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom… (Judges 5:4a)
Who is this that comes from Edom,
from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
…“It is I, announcing vindication,
mighty to save.” (Isaiah 63:1a,c)
Seir is a synonym for Edom, personified as a Horite whose descendants live in Edom in Genesis 36:20. Teman can refer vaguely to the area south of Israel, or more specifically to the area around the Edomite capital of Bozrah. Paran was the wilderness area south of Israel and west of Edom.
Such texts often associate Yahweh with a mountain and locate Sinai in the same area. These are probably earlier traditions than the one we find in Exodus, which would require Sinai to be more directly between Palestine and Egypt — somewhere in the peninsula that now bears its name. (And it should be said, no one today knows with any certainty which mountain was supposed to be Sinai.)
Extra-biblical Evidence for Yahweh
Archaeological evidence for the name Yahweh is comparatively sparse. The earliest epigraphic evidence (inscription) from Palestine that refers to Yahweh is the Mesha Stele from about 840 BCE. In it, king Mesha of Moab boasts of a campaign in which he devoted the “vessels of Yahweh” to Chemosh after conquering the city of Nebo from Israel.
Two Egyptian texts, however, mention “Yhw in the land of the Shasu (nomads)” in lists of toponyms around Edom. These date to the reigns of Amenophis III (14th century) and Ramses II (13th century). It is generally thought that Yahweh must have originally been associated with a mountain of the same name in or near Edom.
The ruins of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai peninsula, which may have been a shrine in the late 9th and early 8th centuries BCE, have inscriptions that make reference to “Yahweh of Teman” and “Yahweh of Samaria” along with El, Baal, and Asherah. This is further evidence that Yahweh was worshipped in Edom (Teman) and in Israel (Samaria) from an early date. (On the existence of regional versions of Yahweh, see my earlier article “Yahweh and the Shema”.)
The early extra-biblical evidence is thus consistent with the possibility that Yahweh was first venerated by nomadic Bronze Age tribes in Edom, and later adopted in Samaria to the north.
The Tribe of Cain
Chances are most readers of the Bible recall little or nothing about the Kenites. It seems to be an obscure clan that pops up now again in certain stories found in Numbers, Judges, and 1 Samuel. And yet, this tribe gets first billing in the Bible — before Jacob and Esau, and before any of the stereotyped twelve tribes are mentioned — through its eponymous ancestor, Cain.
It hardly needs mentioning that Cain and the other eponymous patriarchs in the Bible were not historical individuals, and those who invented and wrote their stories did not think about history the same way we do. The purpose of stories and genealogies written about such characters is to explain the nature and relationships of clans, priestly castes, and nations in the author’s own day.
The English spelling is deceptive, but “Cain” and “Kenite” are basically the same in Hebrew — Cain is Qayn, and Kenite is Qayn or Qayni. It is commonly accepted that the Cain of Genesis 4 was considered the patriarch and ancestral hero of the Kenite tribe (cf. Day 336). Like Adam, he is a type of First Man, having been begotten directly by Yahweh at least in some sense (the odd Hebrew of Gen. 4:1 says Eve begot a man “by Yahweh”), and in addition to founding a noteworthy city, his descendants are the progenitors of nomadic shepherding, music, and metalworking.
Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. (Gen. 4:20-22a)
It seems that this was how the Kenites saw themselves — an ancient warrior tribe of Yahweh devotees that lived in tents, played music, and worked metal. Their stories were part of Israelite lore. And then the author of Genesis changed everything: he turned Cain from a warrior to a murderer and reused the names from Cain’s genealogy to create a new genealogy for Seth’s superior lineage. Some scholars even think that in an earlier version of the story, it was Cain who was “the first to invoke the name Yahweh”, an honour now afforded to the obscure Enosh (Wyatt 86).
But that’s another story for another article. The point is, the Kenites’ own origin story saw themselves as devotees to Yahweh from the first, even if that fact is obscured by the present text of Genesis.
Judah’s Tribal Predecessors
Southern Palestine was quite sparsely populated throughout most of the Iron Age. For example, Broshi and Finkelstein’s survey of archaeological data estimates a total population of about 120,000 people for all of Judah in the eighth century BCE (Iron Age II) (see bibliography below). This is far less than what was estimated by a previous generation of scholars who relied on the biblical narrative of settlement and expansionism — an idealistic reinvention of Judah’s past, as we now realize.
Nevertheless, traditions about the original inhabitants of Judah and and its border regions can be found that closely associate various Edomite tribes with the settlement of southern Palestine — in contrast with the dominant narrative of Israelite conquest. For example:
- The Kenizzites Caleb and Othniel play a prominent role in the conquest of Judah and are portrayed as settling large portions of it. (Interestingly, it is Caleb alone and not Joshua who reconnoitres Canaan for Moses in the older non-priestly source, Num 13:30.)
- The heroine Jael, a nomadic Kenite, helps Israel defeat King Jabin in Judges 4–5.
- Areas in and around Judah are inhabited by Jerahmeelites and Kenites in the time of David. (1 Sam. 27:10, 30:29) The original capital of Judah where David is made king, Hebron, is also a Calebite city (Josh. 14, Judg. 1:20).
- Jerahmeel and Caleb are integrated into Judah’s genealogy by the Chronicler (2:9) via Hezron, who is Reubenite in an alternate tradition found in Numbers.
- The Kenizzites and Temanites are among the Edomite tribes (sons of Esau) listed in Chronicles 1.
- The Kenites and Kenizzites are listed in Gen. 15:19 as native tribes of the promised land.
- The background to the Baal Peor incident (Num. 25) appears to be a Midianite-Simeonite marriage alliance (Blenkinsopp 145). The Simeonites’ territory was entirely contained within what later became Judah.
- The Levitical clans of Korah and Heman are also listed as Edomite (Gen. 36:5, 14, 16, 22; 1 Chr. 1:35.)
From these and other references to Edomite and proto-Arabian tribes in Judah, many scholars have concluded that Judah was settled early on by a loose federation of semi-nomadic clans — Kenites, Kenizzites, Calebites, Othnielites, Simeonites, Reubenites, and so on — and that their settlement traditions were later attributed to Judah (Weinfeld 395). In fact, according to renowned Orientalist Edward Lipinski, there was never a tribe called Judah; the name comes from ’eres yehūdã, meaning “land of ravines” (Lipinski 367). In early biblical stories about the tribes (e.g. the Song of Deborah), Judah is conspicuously absent. Later in the biblical texts, Judah rises in prominence, while the tribes of Simeon and Reuben disappear — even though the fiction of “twelve tribes” is maintained (see my article “The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel”).
The archaeological evidence is consistent with this view of Judah’s late emergence. There is no evidence for a Judahite state based in Jerusalem until the 8th century; Judah’s first appearance in the historical record is a mention in an Assyrian clay tablet dated to 733 BCE.
Yahweh and Qos, the God(s) of Edom
The tribal god of the ancient Edomites was Qos, who is attested mainly through theophoric names dating back to the 8th century BCE and possibly earlier. Qos, meaning “bow”, was essentially a deified weapon; he was a storm-god and a god of war (see “Qos”, DDD) — just like Yahweh, who himself is associated with a bow in several Bible passages.
You brandished your naked bow,
sated were the arrows at your command. (Hab. 3:9)
Yahweh also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice.
And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. (Ps. 18:13-14)
Furthermore, Qos, Yahweh, and the Canaanite Baal are now thought to have been local manifestations of the ancient Syrian storm-god Hadad (Kelly 260).
It must be concluded that either Yahweh and Qos co-existed in Edomite religion, or they were two names for same god (Kelley 266; Blenkinsopp 150-151). It is notable that the Bible distinguishes Yahweh from the gods of other neighbours — the Philistine Dagon, the Ammonite Milcom, the Moabite Chemosh, and so on — but never mentions Qos in all Israel’s dealings with Edom. Edom’s religion is never denounced or rejected. There is even a character named Kushaiah (1 Chr 15:17) whose name might mean “Qos is Yahweh” (Kelley 268).
Ultimately, the Hebrew Bible in its present form is preserved for us by Judean scribes, and the role of Edom in Yahweh devotion has taken a back seat to Judah and Jerusalem. The rise of an Assyrian/Babylonian vassal state that was occasionally hostile to Judah tarnished Edom’s image further. Still, vestiges of Edom’s importance remain. The story of Job seems to be set there, for example, and his friends have Edomite names. The tradition of Jacob and Esau seems to presuppose Israel and Edom as brothers within the Abrahamic family — not Israel and Judah. Jer. 49:7 and Obad. 8 recall Edom as having once been the land of the wise. Amos 1:11 and Obad. 10 call Edom Israel’s brother. Deuteronomy 23:7–8 reads:
You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin…The children of the third generation that are born to them may be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.
If Judges 4.11 preserves a genuine memory about the migration of Kenites to northern Israel, it is not hard to see how these nomadic groups could have settled in Samaria and introduced Yahweh to the local Canaanite culture. Midianites are portrayed as traders in the Joseph story, and archaeological finds show they had connections with regions as distant as Anatolia (“Midianites”, ABD). Other biblical references support “a series of relationships between the central highlanders [Israel] and southern caravaneers in the Iron I period” according to biblical scholar Mark S. Smith (Smith 145). The inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud also suggest that Samarian and Edomite caravans would have interacted with each other on the way to Egypt.
Another link between the Kenites and Samaria is the mysterious Rechabites, a nomadic group that drinks no wine and is completely devoted to Yahweh according to Jeremiah 35. A Rechabite also helps Jehu massacre worshippers of Baal in 2 Kings 10, and the group is linked with the Kenites in 1 Chr. 2:55.
The evidence does not permit certainty, but the following version of the Kenite hypothesis is consistent with the biblical texts and archaeological evidence:
- Yahweh was originally venerated by the nomadic tribes of Edom, either alongside or as another name for Qos.
- Diverse biblical texts agree that Yahweh originated in the region of Edom, and key figures in the traditions of Judah in particular have Edomite lineages.
- The Kenites, Midianites, and possibly other Edomite tribes interacted with Samaria through trade and settlement before the state of Judah existed, bringing knowledge of Yahweh to the Samarians.
- By the time of the Omrides (biblical king Omri and his descendants) in the 9th century, Yahweh had been adopted as the state deity of Samaria, supplanting Baal to some extent.
- A Judahite state based in Jerusalem was established in the 8th century, and Yahweh became one of the chief gods venerated at the temple in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judah.
John Day, “Cain and the Kenites”, Homeland and exile: biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies in honour of Bustenay Oded, 2009.
Karel van der Toorn, “Ritual resistance and self-assertion: the Rechabites in Early Israelite religion”, Pluralism and identity: Studies in ritual behaviour, SHR 67, 1995.
Broshi and Finkelstein, “The Population of Palestine in Iron Age II”, BASOR, No. 287,1992.
M. Weinfeld, “Judges 1.1-2.5: The Conquest under the Leadership of the House of Judah”, Understanding Poets and Prophets, p. 395.
Lipinski, Edward, On the skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: historical and topographical researches, 2006.
Justin Kelley, “Toward a new synthesis of the god of Edom and Yahweh”, Antiguo Oriente, No. 7, 2009.
Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Midianite–Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 33/2 (2008): 131-153.