Where Did YHWH Come From?

And What Does that Have to do with Temple Zero?


Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of YHWH introducing himself to Moses, as Moses was shepherding a flock, as a vision/theophany in a burning bush adjacent to Mt. Sinai/Horeb (Ex 3:1-2, 15).  (For the uninitiated, your English Bible’s use of the word “LORD” [all caps] is its symbol for God’s name, YHWH.)

There is a long tradition of Israel’s recognition of their God first occurring in the deserts south of Israel, in Midian through this episode. Midian was an area of today’s NW Arabia, home also to a people known as the Kenites.  We’ll look at that tradition[i].

Fairly recently (2010), there has been discovered in the City of David an archaeological site of a structure that fits all the criteria of a Bronze Age temple, dubbed “Temple Zero”.  What do these two things have in common, if anything?  Let’s see if we can find out.

The Kenite Tradition

The Kenites were an ancient nomadic people located in Southeastern Transjordan and Northwest Arabia.  This was the area in the late Bronze Age known as Edom and Midian.  The Midian association stimulates much of the speculation concerning the tradition. 

Midian, of course, was the home of Moses for forty years after he escaped from Egypt, traveled there, and married Zipporah, a daughter of Jethro, a priest of Midian (Ex 2).

The Biblical references to “Kenites” is sparse. The first reference is in Gen 15:18-21:

[18] On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, [19] the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,

Assumedly, God was saying that Abram’s offspring were going to dispossess/displace the Kenites (and many other peoples) from the land they were then occupying to make room for those descendants.

Much, much later in the history of Israel we have Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (a.k.a Reuel [Ex 2:18, Num 10:29] or Hobab [Jdg 4:11 KJV,17 KJV]) being identified as a Kenite in Judges 1:16:

[16] And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb near Arad, and they went and settled with the people.

We have a further piece of data in 1 Chr 2:55, where it is mentioned that the Kenites were a clan of the tribe of Judah, but they lived among the Midianites in the desert.

[55] The clans also of the scribes who lived at Jabez: the Tirathites, the Shimeathites and the Sucathites. These are the Kenites who came from Hammath[ii], the father of the house of Rechab.

The interesting thing about these two latter verses is that they imply that these Kenites had assimilated, at least socially, into the tribe of Judah.  In theory, the Judahites remembered their positive treatment of their Exodus ancestors and so, in a manner of speaking, adopted them — through intermarriage and other social interaction favorable for both groups.

It has been suggested that the Kenites were involved in the trade of spices, as they are mentioned alongside the merchants of Sheba and Raamah in Ezk 27:22.  There is a similar, though non-Biblically-attested, tradition that originally Kenites were metalworkers who serviced the needs of merchants traversing the various southern trade routes that crisscrossed their home region.  More on this tradition, below.

Further, there is considerable Biblical evidence for the tradition of YHWH emanating from the south (from which the Kenites are thought to have emerged, including Jethro’s location in Midian).  Perhaps the most important (and perhaps earliest) among these is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.  There we read this (Jdg 5:4-5.  See also Dt. 32:10, Dt. 33:2, Ps 68:8, Hab 3:3):

[4] “LORD, when you went out from Seir,

when you marched from the region of Edom,

the earth trembled

and the heavens dropped,

yes, the clouds dropped water.

[5] The mountains quaked before the LORD,

even Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel.

If nothing else, there was a tradition among some early Israelites, including the authors of the above-cited passages, that YHWH came up out of the South to redeem and lead Israel.

So what does all this tell us about YHWH and his first recognition by Israel?

What Did Jethro Know, and When Did He Know it?

Recall that we’re introduced to Jethro in Ex 2 when Moses is invited by him into his household.  Moses marries his daughter and ends up working for him for forty years as a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks.

We’re told in Ex 3 that one day Moses took his flock “to the West side of the wilderness”.  (It’s impossible to know where in Midian Jethro’s camp was.  But based on later dialog having to do with Moses taking his wife and kids on donkeys on his return trip to Egypt, it’s likely he was in the northern part of the region, near the Rift Valley in the vicinity between modern-day Eilat/Aqaba and Bozrah, thus making for a shorter journey for them.)

Here we also need to ask: “How far was the ‘West side of the wilderness’”?  Again, we can only speculate that in those days there was more water and vegetation for grazing on the West side of the Rift Valley – away from the “wilderness” of the Arabian desert.

It is estimated that in those days shepherds would take their flocks a fairly short distance, perhaps up to six miles in a day, to pasture and water before either returning to their home sheepfold or to a nearby location (e.g. large caves) where the flock could be protected overnight from predators.  So it is quite likely that Moses was not more than a few miles from Jethro’s camp when he arrived at the infamous destination.

Wherever that location was, he found himself at “the Mountain of God” confronted with the so-called “burning bush”.  Here’s where we have to ask about Jethro, the Kenite.  What did he know about this Mountain of God?  And what, at the time, did he know about the God of that mountain, YHWH?

Jethro had had his family encamped in this area for decades.  If there had been any revelation whatsoever of YHWH to the local people, Jethro would have known about it.  After all, he is identified as a priest.

This is the pillar of the Kenite/YHWH presumption: Jethro was a priest; he lived next to YHWH’s mountain.  If we assume Jethro knew of YHWH, we have to assume that in the forty years that Moses lived with him that Jethro would have thoroughly educated him on the nature of his God.  This is the assumption.

A related and tantalizing question has to do with Moses’ return with the Israelites from Egypt.  Ex 18:5 tells us this:

[5] Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God.

Wait a minute.  How did Jethro know where Moses was encamped with Israel?  Did he simply assume that Moses would take the people to the Mountain of God, a place he and Jethro were intimately familiar with due to Jethro’s history with him?  Or, might Moses simply have sent a messenger to Jethro who would have told him the location?

Sadly, we’re not told.  But in light of this Kenite/YHWH tradition, it seems worth considering, at the very least, that YHWH’s presence on and association with this Mountain of God could have significantly predated the Exodus story by perhaps centuries, or longer, and so was well known by all who inhabited its area.

What do we know, if anything, from the archaeological records from that area and time?

Archaeological Evidence

Unfortunately, we don’t have any archaeological evidence from the assumed-Exodus period, re: YHWH.

The earliest extra-Biblical evidence we have for the association of YHWH with Israel is the stone inscription of the 9th-century Moabite king Mesha that refers to Israel and its God: the so-called Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone)[iii].

Juan Manuel Tebes in his paper, “The Archaeology of Cult of Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors and the Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis”[iv] presents a wealth of information regarding cultic worship practices in the southern Levant, partially in the Late Bronze (1550-1200 BC) and early Iron Age (1200-1000 BC) periods, but primarily in the Iron Age II period (1000-586 BC) period. 

One of the striking pieces of data he reports is the finding of a series of open-air cultic sites, featuring rock art images of worshipping or “adoring” devotees of a God who is not depicted.  This may seem like no big deal, but many surrounding cultures of the day depicted their gods as, e.g., bulls (i.e. Ba‘al, the Canaanite storm god) or other powerful images.

One of the most important sites he reports on is Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, located approximately 31 miles south of Kadesh Barnea, just over the Sinai border of today’s Israel.  There he reports several important finds[v] but notes two inscriptions[vi], dated to the 9th or 8th century BCE, which read:

“AmarYau says, speak to my lord, HShLM. I bless you by YHWH of Teman and by Ashrth (Asherah). May he bless you and observe you and be with my lord” and;

“ …says, say to Yehallelel and to Yoash and…I bless you by YHWH Shomron (Samaria)  and by Ashrth (Asherah)”

It’s worth noting that, in keeping with the culture of the day, the inscriptions identify YHWH as the God of Teman and Samaria — localities.  At that time, of course, every town or region had a principal god which the residents believed to be their god.  Some gods were recognized throughout quite large areas, such as the Canaanite Ba’al and the southern region’s Qos. 

But the point is that each group or town adopted a primary god (e.g. the “Ba’al of Hazor”).  (Pfitzmann[vii] terms this phenomenon as regards YHWH as “Poly-Yahwism”, arguing that the use of this idiom makes it more problematic to find the origin of the recognition by Israel of YHWH.)

One of the distinctives of this site is that, as mentioned, the deity YHWH is not depicted – it is aniconic.  This feature is characteristic of many of the southern shrines/open-air worship structures he surveyed.  (The Ashrth [i.e. Asherah] reference gives us a clarifying insight into the monotheism, or lack thereof, in the southern desert of Israel in the 9th-8th century, which is a subject beyond our current scope other than to note that polytheism was a problem widely acknowledged throughout the Hebrew Bible.)

Another important southern Negev site is Tel ‘Arad, about which Tebes notes:

“The best-known shrine is a small tripartite structure excavated in the Judaean fort of Tel ‘Arad X–IX; it stood for some 40 years in the mid-eighth century BCE (see Herzog 2002)… It is commonly identified as a Yahwistic shrine based on an ostracon letter found in the site mentioning the “house of Yahweh (Aharoni 1981, 35–38), although this could easily refer to the temple of Jerusalem as well. Even if Yahwism was the main focus of worship at ‘Arad, the rituals performed at the shrine seem to have been influenced by the southern practices, illustrated by the finding of one or perhaps two or three standing stones.”

Note that the mid-eighth century BCE is very late relative to the Biblical dating of the Exodus (15th-13th century).  But, it is not late relative to the dating of the writing and assembling of the Tanakh, as is now widely believed (8th-5th century), possibly extending into the 3rd-1st centuries.

The association of the term Kenite (or Qenite) with metalworking comes from the etymology of the word.  In Arabic, Syriac, and Palmyrene the root qyn can form the basis for words meaning “to forge”, “metalworker.” Tubal-Cain, a descendant of Cain, is identified as the founder of metallurgy, and therefore the first metallurgist[viii].

Regarding this tradition of Kenites as metalworkers and YHWH as their God, Tebes notes this:

“Another feature possibly related to the southern folklore are the traditions linking Yahweh, [63] or the worship of Yahweh, with metallurgy. It is not surprising that the ritual practices of the ancient populations living in the Negev, Edom, and Sinai, areas rich in minerals such as copper and turquoise ready to be mined, involved the worship of deities associated with mining and the underground, such as Hathor, coupled with the performing of metallurgical activities involving the use of fire. Biblical scholarship has focused on several biblical texts that could indicate a prominent role of metallurgy in the development of early Yahwism, particularly: 1) the role of the Kenites, seen as itinerant metalworkers par excellence, in the spread of Yahwism in Palestine (Sawyer 1986); 2) the representation in prophetic texts of the God of Israel and his dwelling characterized as made of copper (Ezek 40:3; Zech 6:1–6), or of Yahweh as being a smelter (Ezek 22:20) or creator of the copperworker (Isa 54:16) (Amzallag 2009); 3) the identification of metallurgical terminology in the biblical description of divine-related elements, such as the firmament, the celestial throne, the divine radiance, and Yahweh’s “jealousy” (for a detailed analysis, see Amzallag 2019, 7–8); and 4) the popularity of stories such as that of Moses and the bronze serpent (Num 21:8, called nehushtan in 2 Kgs 18:4). It is likely that the biblical authors were aware of the metallurgical connotations of this vast terminology, and some of it could have been inherited from early periods in the history of Yahwism.”

One of the key features of southern shrines Tebes reviews is the presence of standing stones (see Tel ‘Arad photo, above).  Here he notes that these standing stones in the other regions of the Levant were dressed (i.e. finished) stones.  But, in the southern regions under discussion, they were not:

“The Levantine cult involved the worship of dressed stones, a practice almost totally foreign to the southern desert peoples, where the presence of unhewn stones was the rule.”

He cites several southern sites at which undressed (i.e. unfinished) standing stones were positioned as objects of cultic worship, presumably representing a deity or deities.

So we have arrived at a kind of nexus.  Undressed standing stones (as represented at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and also ‘Arad, among many others), along with references to YHWH.  At this point, we need to take a leap of faith.

Temple Zero

In 2010 on the East slope of the Kidron Valley about halfway between the Gihon Spring and the base of the hill to the south at the Pool of Siloam, archaeologists (Eli Shukron) uncovered, under tons of rock and fill, a structure that can only be interpreted as a temple or shrine.  Thus, the name “Temple Zero”[ix] as it significantly predates Solomon’s first temple of the 10th century BC. (For an insightful video presentation on this site, see this Youtube video.)

Archaeologists have dated (using Carbon dating of grain seeds found in water channels that fed the site) to 1500-1600 BC, approximately the time of Jacob.

A very interesting feature of this structure is that it contains a “Matzevah” – an unfinished standing stone, just as in the open-air temple’s shrines that Tebes reported upon in the southern Negev.  The reason it is interesting is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any such thing being present in the later Temple of Solomon.  Something happened.

What happened is that the religious leaders of Israel (and authors of the Bible ) later decided that standing stones were “out”.  Why they took this decision is likely simply to separate Israel’s worship system from the surrounding pagans.

We have several Biblical prohibitions against these Matzevah.  Dt. 16:22 says: “where the Israelites are instructed: ‘You shall not set up a sacred pillar, which the LORD your God hates.’”  Then we have Leviticus 26:1, which states, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God.” This verse seems to equate a standing stone with an idol.

Unfortunately, in tying this to Jacob, the only stone we have he, himself, erecting in honor of YHWH is identified as at Beth-El, several miles north of the City of David following his ladder dream (Gen 28:18-19). 

However, it is not at all clear that the place of Jacob’s dream and its stone is the one-in-the-same place that is named Beth-El later in Gen 35:11-19, where also a stone is erected. (The Beth-El identification in Gen 28 may be a later edit.)  Could his dream have occurred on the west side of the Kidron Valley, halfway between the Gihon Spring and the Siloam Pool?  Not impossible.

Now in addition to the Matzevah, this structure contained several other features of a functioning temple of worship – “an oil press, grain press, altar for sacrifices, holding pen, animal processing, storage, water channel and all the features required of the Jewish temples that were built by and after King Solomon.” vii

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this temple is not so much that it is ancient, predating all but Israel’s father’s presence in the Promised Land.  What is interesting is that it operated as a functioning temple until Hezekiah, in the late 8th century (701 BC), rebuilt the walls surrounding Jerusalem in response to the impending invasion by Assyria, dumping 20 tons of fill on top of the structure to support the building of his new defensive wall.

So, you should ask, why was that temple still in use for at least 200 years after Solomon had built his temple on Mt. Moriah?  What were its links to Israel’s past that compelled some, at least, to continue to worship YHWH there rather than up the hill at Solomon’s vastly more impressive Temple?  Were they descendants of the southern peoples that had affiliated themselves with Israel/Judah, like the Kenites?  Were they just common Israelites remembering the ancient faith of their ancestors?

Perhaps the most provocative question is: “If this temple existed and operated until the 8th century, what does that say about the adoption of priestly Temple worship/sacrifice among at least the Judahites of that time” (the northern tribes had already split from the southern more than 200 years before Hezekiah reinforced Jerusalem’s walls and so destroyed Temple Zero)?


Where did YHWH “come from”?

In the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages, there was in the southern deserts of then Midian and Edom an awareness of YHWH as God.  One of the key physical hallmarks of that recognition was worship sites/shrines that did not depict Him in their rock art but that did employ the device of standing stones, possibly to symbolize Him.  We know of His worship there from pottery and wall inscription evidence.

Then we have the contemporary discovery of “Temple Zero” in the City of David.  And lo and behold, a standing stone – a Matzevah.  Assuming the provenance of this temple as 1500-1600 BC, based on carbon dating, where did the people who settled there in the City of David come from?  And, where did their understanding of the significance of standing stones come from?  Is it reasonable to conclude that it came from the southern deserts where standing stone ritual sites were common?

Perhaps even more interesting is the question: “Where did the Biblical authors get their assumption that YHWH came out of the South – Seir, Sinai, “desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness”, “from Mount Paran;”, etc.”  It’s unlikely they just invented it.  It had to have been a corporate memory of the people.

So what was the source of this corporate memory?  Was it simply the story of Moses at Horeb and the Bush, often repeated over the centuries?  Or, was it rather more ancient, extending back beyond Jethro, the priest of Midian, into the distant past?

We don’t know.  But here’s the circumstantial case.  We have a Bronze Age temple in Jerusalem with a standing stone, similar in every respect to the standing “undressed” stones that are found in the shrines in the southern deserts dated to the 9th-8th century BC some of which also contain inscriptions referencing YHWH, a temple that continued to operate 200 years after Solomon built his Temple.

Was the historical corporate knowledge of YHWH so compelling to those in Jerusalem in 900 BC that they chose to worship Him at the lowly “temple” in the south of the City of David rather than in Solomon’s opulent temple at the top of Moriah (that interestingly may have been thoroughly corrupted starting with Rehoboam [e.g. 1 Ki 14:21-22])?  That is a possibility based on the dating.

What were the issues that divided the city of Jerusalem between those that chose to worship YHWH at the City of David temple Vs those that sacrificed to Him at Solomon’s Temple?  That question will have to be answered either by additional manuscript insights or, potentially, by additional physical evidence yielded by archaeological research.

[i] Mondriaan, Marlene. (2011). Who were the Kenites?. 24.

[ii] The text says that these Kenites were from Hammath (2575b. חַמַּת Chammath).  There are two likely possibilities for this name.  The first is an ancient town located approximately where Tiberias is today on the Sea of Galilee.  The second is an ancient city in today’s Syria.  This reference (as does the discussion of Heber in Jdg 4:11) locates Kenites in the north.  And this migration from the South to the North forms the basis of the assumption as to how the Kenites introduced YHWH to Israel in the North.

[iii] Mesha Stele – Wikipedia

[iv] Tebes, Juan Manuel. 2021. “The Archaeology of Cult of Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors and the Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis”. Entangled Religions 12 (2). https://doi.org/10.46586/er.12.2021.8847.  See also his abbreviated Biblical Archaeology Society paper on the same subject here: Yahweh’s Desert Origins · The BAS Library

[v] Kuntillet ‘Ajrud Inscription (lebtahor.com)

[vi] Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions – Wikipedia

[vii] Bühler, Axel. “‘Un YHWH Venant Du Sud? De La Réception Vétérotestamentaire Des Traditions Méridionales Et Du Lien Entre Madian, Le Néguev Et l’Exode (Ex–Nb ; Jg 5 ; Ps 68 ; Ha 3 ; Dt 33)” by Fabian Pfitzmann.” RBL, 2021.

[viii] Mondriaan, pp 421

[ix] Israel’s Hidden Ancient Facts: Jerusalem’s Temple Zero Opposes The Sun! (israelfact.blogspot.com)

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