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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

“Yahweh the Destroyer: on the Meaning of יהוה” by Heath D. Dewrell and the Exodus

In the new book Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Setting in Honor of P. Kyle McCarter Jr., the opening contribution is by Heath D. Dewrell entitled  “Yahweh the Destroyer: on the Meaning of יהוה”. In his contribution Dewell examines the etymology of the national god of ancient Israel and Judah which he calls “a topic of perennial interest.” In the opening paragraph, he identifies the two most prominent understandings of Yahweh both of which are not the one expressed in Ex. 3:14.  They are “he causes to be” or from the Arabic “he blows” as in a storm god.

In so far as the Exodus is concerned, Dewrell draws a line in sand he will not cross: “Without going too far afield into questions concerning the historicity of Moses and the exodus…” His analysis of the national god of Israel and Judah proceeds by ignoring the very biblical event that causes those entities to be. It is certainly understandable why Dewrell, presumably limited by deadline and word count considerations for his contribution, would not want to venture forth into the issue of the historicity of the Exodus. Ironically, though, the historicity of the Exodus strengthens the very case he makes in this contribution. And that will be the subject of this blog.


In his first section, Dewrell addresses the issue of the spelling of the name of the deity (6-11). He begins by noting that the majority of scholars hold that yhwh represents the original form of the name of Israel’s god. He reviews the scholarship of those of have questioned this spelling. The Mesha Stele, a non-biblical attestation of the deity by a foreign people in the ninth century BCE of yhwh carries a great deal of weight for him.

Therefore, both our earliest evidence for the name and what one would expect historico-linguistically point to the longer form as having been the older one and the shorter forms as being secondary. Freedman and O’Connor’s assertion that “the longer form is obviously original” thus remains persuasive.


Speaking of Freedman, Dewrell next turns to the dominant theory most closely associated with William F. Albright, Frank Moore Cross Jr. and David Noel Freedman (12-17). In a footnote, Dewrell even pushes the interpretation back an academic generation to Paul Haupt, Albright’s teacher.

Here Dewrell takes exception to the epithets which have been added to “he causes to be.” Specifically, the effort to link Yahweh to El and to make the true name in its fullest form “He who creates (heavenly) armies.” This El-Yahweh deity then is enthroned on the cherubim just as El alone is in both Ugaritic and Punic iconography. This expansion thereby enables these scholars to connect the deity to the Ark Narrative.

Dewrell’s objection to this scenario is the absence of the title “Yahweh who creates the heavenly army” from the archaeological evidence. The title is an academic construct not supported by the evidence. He questions whether “Yahweh was originally a deity in the mold of El as depicted in the literature from Ugarit. Dewell cites the archaic poetry of the Bible, specifically the Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah as expressing a deity who is a warrior. Yahweh marches to battle against his enemies on behalf of his people, and when he marches he comes from the southeast according to McCarter. Such behavior contrasts with Canaanite El who is a non-militaristic pantheon patriarch deity. Instead, Yahweh and El originally were two different deities with different characteristics.

Dewrell uses a couple of footnotes over two pages in length in smaller font to source these assertions. He then summarizes his position contra Cross, that:

Yahweh does not appear originally to have been linked to Canaanite El, which makes it unlikely that the origin of Yahweh’s name is to be found in an El epithet.

I agree with Dewrell but would take the analysis one step further. My interest is in biblical history. Therefore the question I would ask is related to human agency. Who is the person who linked these two deities of different characteristics and locations together? Who named the people after El and the deity worshipped as Yahweh? I do not address these questions in my book The Exodus: An Egyptian Experience, since I too drew a line in the sand as to what I would include in the book. But once you accept an historical Exodus, then it becomes easier to ask why Moses sought to link these deities at a time when Ramses was so closely connected to Baal. The question then becomes one not of theology, literature, or abstract forces of long duration but of power politics.


In this section Dewrell addresses the familiar purported Midianite-Kenite thesis (18-23). This thesis derives from the apparent home of Yahweh the warrior god identified in the previous section. Dewrell notes the wide support for the notion that Yahweh originally was venerated among the Kenites, Midianites, and/or Edomites. The connection derives from the biblical evidence that (i) depicts both Moses and Yahweh being in this area, (ii) identifies Cain the Kenite, and (iii) the Egyptian archaeological evidence of the Land of the Shasu, YHW. Dewrell concludes:

While none of these pieces of evidence is conclusive, the fact that several independent bits of circumstantial evidence all point to the idea that Yahweh was somehow associated with the area south of Israel may indicate a cultural memory with possible roots in historical reality.

The historical reality is the Exodus and the missing ingredient is human agency provided by Moses. In an earlier blog this year (Egyptologists, Biblical Scholars, and The Exodus

March 10, 2022), I wrote:

When Moses flees to the wilderness he does so as one who previously had organized, planned, and participated in a campaign against the Shasu. He is no Sinuhe. He already knows the name “Yahweh” but “led thee out of the land of Egypt” is his new hope, vision, and political goal.

Moses does not encounter the Kenites by chance. These smiths are the one neutral or protected people among the various Shasu tribes. [An idea I picked up from Kyle years ago.] They offer him a sanctuary or safe haven. Moses marries into/is inducted into the Kenite tribe. He now has the mark of Cain which renders him safe from those he had fought as a Hyksos Egyptian under Seti. At this point Moses does not expect to be wandering in the wilderness when he leads people out of Egypt against the will of Ramses. Some of the Shasu decide to assist Moses in his effort against Egypt. Later they will become Calebites and be included in the Exodus narrative alongside those who did depart from Egypt. The kingdom of Judah under David thus will be an odd combination of Canaanite Jebusites (Elyon) who had been allies of Egypt, Amorite Benjaminites (Shaddai) who had been part of the Exodus from Egypt and had a Mesopotamian orientation, and Shasu Calebites (Yahweh) who became allies of Israel during the Exodus.

This scenario was not in my book. That study was limited to Egyptian sources. This reconstruction partakes of biblical exegesis which would have added a whole new dimension to the book and made it much longer. However it does reveal the opportunity available to a biblical scholar if one should abandon one of the accepted Exodus paradigms listed above [multiple explanations for the Exodus].

Here one may trace the origin of Dewrell’s “cultural memory with possible roots in historical reality” to an actual historical reality.

For the remainder of this section, Dewrell dismisses the proposed storm god proposition of Knauf leading to the definition of “to blow.” He concludes that the linkage of a storm god based on the Arabic root “to blow” in an area bereft of rain to be invalid on both accounts. Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age inhabitants of Midian/Edom were as likely to have spoken an Edomite-related language with its affinities to Hebrew as Arabic.

Dewrell combines these sections about the meaning of Yahweh with the observation:

As with the thesis of Albright, Freedman, and Cross, there is no evidence to disprove this reconstruction. It does, however, rely on several suppositions for which we have no real evidence. If one were able to produce a cogent explanation that required fewer unverifiable assumptions, then one might appeal to Occam’s razor and prefer it to those that require more involved reconstructions. Here I will attempt to provide such a solution.


Dewrell now proposes his own “cogent explanation for the meaning of Yahweh (23-27). His starting point is:

1. Yahweh was a deity worshiped primarily if not exclusively by people who spoke Hebrew
2. the earliest literature portrays him as a warrior god
3. the most natural place to begin the etymological search is in the language of the people who venerated him.

He observes that the overarching depiction of Yahweh in archaic biblical poetry is as an agent of destruction. Yahweh annihilates enemies of Israel. This leads him to examine Hebrew terms for destruction and disaster like הוה. After reviewing the relevant biblical texts, Dewrell concludes that the Hebrew root and the character of Yahweh “both support tracing the etymology of Yahweh’s name to “destruction.” He also notes that Holzinger had made a similar suggestion years ago in 1893. Unfortunately, in the passing years there was some confusion over whether HWY (destruction) or ḤWY had been printed. This led to a misunderstanding in the subsequent scholarship including a footnote where a ח is used instead of a ה perpetuating the problem.

It thus appears that a minor typographical error is responsible for the [destruction] proposal’s having lain in obscurity ever since!

Imagine scribal error in the 20th century carrying forward into the 21st!

Dewrell concludes by situating Yahweh the destroyer with other Late Bronze and Iron Age Northwest Semitic deities of conquest and destruction: Anat (to be violent/subdue), Chemosh (to conquer/subdue), Reshep (to burn), and Deber (plague).  One can’t help but notice in this litany of deities that he ignored Egypt.


There is an Egyptian goddess who deserves consideration in the defining of Yahweh, the destroyer. She is Sekhmet who figures prominently in the Egyptian myth involving the destruction of man. Here are some excerpts about her from my book, The Exodus: An Egyptian Story.

The final aspect of Ra to be discussed concerns Sekhmet, the “Powerful One.” In The Book of the Cow of Heaven, there is an episode about The Destruction of Mankind….. The story tells of the old and weary sun-god Ra seeking to destroy the human race because of suspected rebellions plotted by people against him….

Hathor then commences slaughtering the people in the desert in the form of the goddess Sekhmet, a ferocious leonine deity, the “Powerful One.” Sekhmet provided a counterpart to the nurturing female goddess. This goddess was the bringer of plague and disease who breathed fire against her enemies. In the Egyptian tradition, the annual inundation and the corresponding annual mortal epidemic from pathogenic agents were attributed to the destructive force of the goddess Sekhmet. Consequently, the Egyptians developed rituals to protect themselves from this death.

            The Egyptians attributed other natural phenomena to her. The hot desert winds were an expression of her breath. She was a military patroness to kings and a symbol of their power. She exulted in her bloodlust, triumphant in her massacre of humans. One is left with the image of a raging lioness wading in the blood of killed humans in all her glory. In the myth, Sekhmet commenced her destruction of mankind in the form of the Eye of Ra, one of her most important manifestations. She was an excellent destroyer.

Sekhmet certainly is worthy of inclusion into the pantheon of destructive deities listed by Dewrell. When the people went forth from Egypt, they brought with them these Egyptian motifs of plagues, diseases, flowing red water/blood, magic, and New Year executions to restore cosmos/maat as part of their cultural memory. It was a story of Yahweh the destroyer prevailing against Sekhmet the would-be destroyer of humanity who once again had been thwarted by humans.

The challenge then for biblical scholars is to trace the Egyptian-based motifs into the written biblical texts via oral tradition. Perhaps when the covenant renewal ceremonies were performed at Mount Ebal, it included a reenactment of the triumph of Yahweh, the destroyer, and the Egyptians who served Ramses who had been tasked with the executing Moses and his supporters to begin the New Year. I wonder who acted in the role of the “destroyer” in the performance. I wonder who the destroyer at Passover actually was. In any event, the concept of Yahweh the destroyer perfectly complements the historical reconstruction of the Exodus from Egypt.

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