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“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.

All the World’s a Stage: Performing the Hebrew Bible

In the previous post (Is Morgan Freeman God? What Do Biblical Scholars Think?) , I suggested that a missing ingredient in the analysis of many biblical stories was that some of them were written to be performed. Specifically I cited the frequently assumed and completely wrong pronouncement that early Israelite religion was primitive. According to this view, the ancient Israelites first worshiped an anthropomorphic deity. Israel expressed this belief through stories that seemingly contained a physical presence of the deity in male human form. Only centuries later would Israel evolve to the higher order thinking of a cosmic deity.

Biblical scholars are correct to note the anthropomorphic presence of the deity in some biblical stories. The reasons for this appearance are twofold.

1. In stories originally communicated through oral storytelling, the physical presence is that of the male storyteller. For example, in the Tower of Babel story addressed in the previous post it is the storyteller using the voice of God who engages the audience in this story about the temple in Jerusalem. In the story of Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling, it is the storyteller wrestling with the meaning of the identity of Israel that is vigorously displayed (at the threshing floor?) to the audience.

2. Other stories were staged in the Israelite version of royal performances known in Egypt and especially Mesopotamia with the akitu. These stagings involved multiple people, primarily the king, queen or high priestess, and high priest. They could include physical objects such as a statue or an ark. They could involve processions. They typically were concerned about the prosperity of the kingdom for the coming year or under the new king. In other words, they expressed the resolution of the battle between cosmos and chaos, between order and disorder, between all is right with the universe and it isn’t. Each culture addressed these issues in its own way based on its own landscape and history. Israel was not excluded from the process. While there is some awareness of an Israelite king performing in a restoration of order ritual, David installing the ark of Yahweh at Zion, the actual performance extended far beyond that one scene.

A single post is inadequate to present and explain the entirety of the royal performance, so I will confine myself to two examples involving the physical presence of Yahweh:

1. Yahweh’s blessing at the conclusion of the flood story
2. Yahweh and Abraham’s walk and discussion prior to the destruction of Sodom.


Genesis 8:21 And when Yahweh smelled the pleasing odor, Yahweh said in his heart,… 22 “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

The idea that this blessing concluded the original sequence of stories identified as “primal” is not new. This understanding is correct but the full significance of the ending has not been appreciated.

First, in the performance, the priest of Yahweh is blessing the earth (adamah) to the king performing as Noah. To repeat the point first made in the previous post, the human voicing the words of Yahweh is not thought to be Yahweh; nor is Yahweh thought to be in human form. Instead, the person performing as Yahweh who utters this blessing is accepted by the king and the audience as having the legitimacy to pronounce the words of the Lord.

Second, the blessing is fairly audacious to say the least. Normally, one would expect a blessing for the coming year with a renewed blessing to be offered during the following New Year festival. Instead, the blessing is one in perpetuity.  It is reasonable to conclude that the climate at the time was an excellent one such that a king could support a blessing for all time. Obviously such a condition would not be true in the 9th century when Elijah faced off with Baal to make it rain (I Kings 18).

Third, speaking of Baal, this blessing may be the single most anti-Baal statement in the entire Bible. Based on this blessing, the need for Baal is negated. The blessing does not express the triumph of the stronger Yahweh over Baal. Nor does it express monotheism as we would define it. Rather it denies the relevance of Baal. Why have an annual ceremony to Baal for prosperity for the coming year if Yahweh has already promised good times for perpetuity? As the high priest of Yahweh intones this blessing to the king as Noah, he also is delivering a message about Baal.

Fourth, the message about Baal has political ramifications. In the kingdom of Israel, the petty kings of the individual Canaanite cities were no more. You could probably compile a list of all those kings who bit the dust. However, the demise of the political figures of authority still left the Baal industrial complex intact. Were people still expected to bring tithings to the local Baal priests? The answer according to this blessing was “No.” The denial of the validity of Baal served to eliminate an onerous burden of the Canaanite people now in the kingdom of Israel. The rule of Yahweh meant no taxes in the kingdom just as it had for the centuries of Israelite existence prior to the monarchy.

Fifth, the blessing by the priest of Yahweh on behalf of the kingdom forms an inclusio with the blessing of the sacred marriage at the beginning of the first cycle. In the garden story, the same high priest voicing the word of God had blessed the marriage of the man and the woman, the king and the queen, in words that ae still used to this very day in declarations of love.

Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

One should note that in the biblical narrative, Jacob is the first male to actually fulfill this vow. That development demonstrates a link between the first and third cycles augmented by the king performing in the lead human male role in both of them.

We have recently had the opportunity to witness the appeal of a royal marriage by two people who will never be king and queen. We would be wrong to ignore the appeal and power of the publicly-pronounced and witnessed sacred marriage between the king and queen in ancient Israel…especially if there were any questions regarding the appropriateness of the marriage.

Sixth, the two blessings provide a cosmos and chaos framework to the first cycle of the performance. From the garden through the murder and deluge to the new creation, there is a story of cosmos, chaos, and cosmos restored. The cycle ends by setting the stage for a new world order to come in the second cycle when the warrior shepherd-meaning-king of Hebron takes the stage. Regardless of the origin of the stories of the first cycle, they have been resequenced, repurposed, and revised to exclaim a mini-Israelite akitu that promises a bright future and prepares for the coming of the king from Hebron.

Seventh, since the blessing by the priest of Yahweh open and closes the first cycle, this means that the subsequent stories prior to the start of the second cycle are all supplemental.  The stories of the sons of Noah, the son of Cush (Nimrod), and the sons of men (Tower of Babel) were not part of the original cycle. I call these supplemental stories “son” stories and analyze them in my book Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Biblical Stories after the Death of David. In these stories and other supplemental writings to the original royal narrative, one may observe the three major political parties, the Levites, the Aaronids, and the Zadokites, battling for power using the alphabet prose narrative. The new endings eclipsed the blessing by the priest of Yahweh and also provide a new stage for the introduction for the warrior shepherd-meaning king from Hebron. As should be obvious, there were strong feelings about the presence of the Canaanite Jebusites and Jerusalem temple in the kingdom of Israel as well as which priesthood should be the voice of God in the kingdom.


Genesis 18:16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way…. 22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before Yahweh. 23 Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26 And Yahweh said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Notice that the human male performer does not pronounce the name of the deity. The king refers to him as “Lord.” By contrast, the author does use the name. This usage is consistent with the perception of Moses as being the first to know the name and in contrast to the supplemental son stories of Seth (Gen. 4:26) and Nimrod (Gen. 10:9). One may posit that the three priesthoods differed on when the name of Yahweh became known.

This second example seems to be an uplifting story. Isn’t it wonderful how Abraham and Yahweh are able to walk together and debate the pending destruction of a city? This dialogue between human and deity has achieved some measure of identity beyond biblical circles. Here we have a situation where it seems as if the words of the human being are sufficient to sway the actions of the Almighty. Don’t we want a God who will hear us, who will listen to us, and who will change his actions based on what we have said? Shouldn’t all figures of authority be like that?

While these sentiments are perfectly valid, they have nothing to do the original intent. Instead, imagine the two figures are the king and the high priest. Instead recognize that the audience already knows the fate of Sodom. Instead pay to attention to how many righteous people there are in Sodom. The subject of the dialog is not the willingness of the Lord to listen to the plea of a human. The message of the story is that there are no righteous people in the wicked city about to be destroyed. The various reductions in number from 50 to 10 highlight the reality that the city about to be destroyed truly deserves its fate. Only the weak king or ruler at the city gate who can’t control his people is to be allowed to escape along with his unnamed wife and daughters.

Once again we have a political polemic and not a philosophical discourse about the nature of God. This is a story about a weak king represented by Lot, his destroyed capital city represented by Sodom, and his rotten to the core people. As many commentators have noted, there are many links between this story and the story of the unnamed woman from Bethlehem, the city of David (Judges 19). In that instance, the city of the violation of the woman is identified as Gibeah, the capital of Saul in the land of Benjamin. Scholars debate which story came first. For purposes here, what is of paramount importance is that neither city in the land of Benjamin contained any worthy people. One wonders how this story of Sodom would have been understood at the time the story was written especially if it had been by Abiathar, Levite survivor of a Benjaminite perpetrated massacre. Biblical stories can have a personal aspect which is easy to ignore without knowing who the performers represent. Again, the story if not about a magnanimous deity, it is about a wicked people within Israel who deserve to be destroyed.

The Bible as theater presents a different view than the current biblical paradigms. If your goal is to determine what a biblical story means to you now in the 21st century, then you certainly have the right to so. If you goal is to understand a story in its original context, then it may be necessary to know how it was staged and who were the performers. After all, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard and when it comes to the biblical stories composed to be performed, biblical scholars are lacking the scorecard.

Next, we examine the processions which also differentiated Israel from its neighbors.