Yahweh before Israel, by Daniel E. Fleming (book review)

Daniel E. Fleeming is Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. His latest book is a must read for anyone interested in the origin of Yahweh. He does a great job at challenging the Medianite/Kenite hypothesis. That’s the prevalent idea that Yahweh originated from Seir/Edom in the south and was later adopted by Israel.

For quite some time now, a majority of biblical scholars have come to take for granted the idea that the name Yahweh originates from the south and desert region of Seir and Edom because of the S3sw Yhw3 (“Shasu Yahu”) Egyptian inscriptions that link this name to this region. This hypothesis imposed itself during the 20th century and is often de facto accepted.

On the Shasu Yahu

Fleming agrees with a majority of scholars that yhw3[1] is the perfect Egyptian rendering of Yhwh and that these inscriptions do refer to the biblical Yahweh. He does a thorough reviews of the Egyptian, Biblical, and Mesopotamian sources that have been used to develop and support the popular hypothesis. He then shows that the first mention of the Shasu people, which dates back to Thutmose II and Thutmose III (who reigned during the 15th and 14th century BCE), does not refer to Seir/Edom. On this list, the Shasu Yahu are identified as a nomadic tribe (not a place) and are listed among other shasus that are clearly connected to the north.

“At the center of any evaluation of the early divine name must stand the Ywh3 subset of Shasu-land in the geographical vision of Amenhotep III, in the early 14th century. I will argue that the subdivisions of what the Egyptians fought as unified “land” of the pastoralist Shasu population are most easily understood as defined by kinship, which does not preclude territorial associations. Whatever the connections of the name Yhw3 in this New Kingdom setting, it is above all a major group of the Shasu, so a population, a people. Old identification of the divine name Yahweh with a people rendered Yhw3, earlier or later, offers a markedly different direction for probing the root of the deity.” P.22

Fleming goes on to argue that the absence of location for the Shasu Yahu on this early inscription has led scholars to jump to the conclusion they should be associated with Seir/Edom because a later association.

“For context, the Shasu references from the 15th and early 14th centuries lack entirely the deep southern orientation of the 13th and 12th-century texts, with their links to Seir and Edom.” P.57

The š3św yhw3
The Name Yhw3/Yhwh

Fleming argues that there is no indication that the name Yhw3 initially referred to a deity. Instead, the name could have been that of a tribe or family who would later be known as Israel (hence the title Yahweh before Israel).

“It seems that the name does not, or at least may probably not, begin as divine.” P.66


“What matters about the name Yhw3 is its complete identification with a population that the Egyptians linked to mobile herdsmen, some specific group among the Shasu.” P.66

Fleming reminds us that the first attested mention of the name Israel is found on the Merneptah stele of the 13th century BCE.

“When considered in the company of the Amorite evidence, Yhw3 of Shasu-land in the early 14th-century Egyptian list shares the form of peoples named by simple verbal form, with their possible interpretation as shortened personal names. Study of Shasu name generally moves directly to the divine, assuming reference to the god later attached to Israel and leapfrogging the question of how to understand a human political entity on its own terms.” P.175

He raises the possibility that the name Yhw3 could have been associated with a deified ancestor:

“As shown by Marten Stol (1991) in his study of Old Babylonian personal names, these names appear to originate as deified ancestors. This reasoning could lead to the conclusion that Yahweh also began as the name of an ancestor, as in the first edition of Moor’s volume on “Yahwism,” but,

thought theoretically possible, it is difficult to believe that the major Israelite deity, venerated in a cult that was imported into Palestine, was originally a deified ancestor. Though such gods are known, they are never found in leading position in the pantheon. Their worship tends to remain local, as an ancestor is of necessity the ancestor of a restricted group (van der Toorn, 914).” P.183

And while agreeing with Toorn that it is difficult to explain how an ancestor could turn into a major deity for Israel, he sees the problem differently because he doesn’t believe the name Yhw3 referred to a deity.

“The problem is not whether a major deity could be identified by a human ancestor but rather whether a people could be identified by a personal name, a straightforward question with a straightforward answer: yes, and fairly often.” P.183


“Understood this way, the problem shifts to explaining how the name for a people could come to be attached to a deity that eventually identifies the ‘god of Israel’ (e.g. Judg. 5:3, 5).” P.183

This leads him to conclude that the name Yhw3 was most likely a reference to a personal name:

“Yhw3 is identified as a group within a larger Shasu population organized by kinship-based structures, what the Bible and common parlance would call a ‘tribe,’ the name of that people derives most easily from an abbreviated personal name, not necessarily an ancestor, yet certainly conceived in relation to a single person, in familial or kinship terms.” P.235

He nevertheless feels that the geographical, conceptual, and historical origin of the Yahweh deity and the process by which it came associated with El remains very  obscure:

“In this study of Yahweh before Israel, I conclude that the divine name did not originally pertain to El and that we must grapple with the reality of two key gods underlying the single God of late monarchic Judah and Judaism. Beyond the two dominant names for God, the Bible’s repeated complaints goddesses called Asherah or Ashtoreth and, perhaps more than anything, iconographic evidence, suggest the persistence of female deities in religion of the region. Other lesser deities may have also received attention.” P.265

Flemings refers to Deut. 32 as a possible way to explain Yahweh’s association with Israel:

Deut. 32 – “The picture of an authoritative divine head distributing the nations of the whole world among the gods, however, resist explanation in terms of old regional religious traditions, and the novelty of the notion suggests innovation.” P.270

While rejecting any possible association with storm-gods:

“Israel itself was a different and more limited entity in the early days of Yahweh. Against various models, Yahweh was not a god or a name taken from El, and the Egyptian context for Yhw3 as people suggests no reason to treat him as once a young warrior or storm god. All of these associations, however, archaic, came afterward.” P.274

For Fleming, Israel is not a tribe per se, but a loose alliance of petty kings of the northern region who came to identify with Yahweh:

“Before Israel, and then alongside it, Yahweh was the god of the people without kings, allied as occasion required, to fight any deemed a common enemy.” P.275

These tribes would have later federated and somehow adopted Yahweh as their chief deity.


Unfortunately, Fleming sets the table but leaves us hanging dry. All the elements are there, but were are still missing the plausible explanation for how a deified ancestor could have evolved into the chief deity of the Israelites. 

Once again, the most current research in the field appears to fully support the idea that Abraham made a covenant with a Mesopotamian overlord (see my many other posts).

I have been arguing for the last decade that, after he died, this overlord would have been remembered and celebrated as Baal Berith (Lord of Covenant) by Abraham’s descendants would inherited the land. It is at a later stage that he would have changed name for “yhwh”.

As the hypothesis of an earthly covenant made with a mortal overlord fully satisfies all the questions raised by Fleming, I am hoping he will one day consider it seriously.



Fleming, D. (2020). Yahweh before Israel: Glimpses of History in a Divine Name. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108875479

[1] According  to Fleming, the Egyptian “3” pronounces as “a”. So Ywh3 would be rendered as “Yhawa”. This is interesting as my own explanation of the origin of the tetragrammaton Yhwh would also pronounce “Yahwa”.