Who is YHVH?
Attempting to correlate the events and people of Genesis and Exodus with more ancient sources is a very challenging task. It seems that in those sources the god of Israel who is the creator of all is woefully absent. Polytheism abounds. The gods have a heirarchy, but any god is worthy of worship. Most city-states had a god who was esteemed more highly than the others, but the temples of different gods resided in the same cities and occasionally one god would visit the temple of another god as one king might visit the palace of another. Most of the gods had made some sort of contribution to the formation of the world (and some to its destruction). It appears that every society of the ancient past worshiped one or more gods none of which were called Yahweh. Now I could argue that this is why the world is in such a fallen state, beacause the one true god was forsaken. However, those who would say that the Bible is absolutely perfect, containing no more and no less than the Word of God because God is so powerful that he made sure it happened that way, must also conclude that He is so powerful that the ancients would at least know something about Him. Someone HAD to know SOMETHING since belief in Him is traced according to the Bible through the line of Seth and later that of Shem. Nor could there be large families extending so far through history without anyone encountering a people who insisted their God was the only one and that He was so powerful that He alone controlled the blessings and curses throughout the world.
It is clear from the Bible that the ancestors of Israel dwelled in Mesopotamia. There are also enough similarities between some of the stories in Genesis and those in Sumerian literature that we can conclude that the writers of the Bible either traced their history back to the same events, the stories were influenced by Sumerian stories, or they outright borrowed (and re-wrote) the Sumerian stories. The Sumerian sources both attest and contest the Biblical narratives. The most significant difference is theological. Where our Bible accredits the events to the work of Yahweh, the Sumerian accounts accredit them to another god and often to many other gods. While I would like to think that the true stories (the ones with Yahweh) have not yet been discovered, I must consider that Yahweh was once known by another name and was viewed as one among the Sumerian pantheon.
The first choice of course would be that Yahweh is the same as the Sumerian god An, since An was the absolute highest of the Sumerian hierarchy. It would make sense that God most high would be the supreme diety. However I have not yet seen enough connections to conclude this idea is strongly supported. An appears to have very, very little interest in earthly matters. Complicating the situation is the fact that Yahweh's actions as recorded in the early chapters of Genesis are performed by a variety of different Sumerian deities. Recently however, I have been reading quite a bit about another Sumerian god whose name has taken a variety of forms over time and among different peoples. The places and the names and the holidays and the attributes of this god are found within the more ancient of our own sacred writings.
According to the Bible, our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and this same God is the God who appeared to Moses, and is the same God who we worship today. Abraham and his family lived in Ur, a Sumerian city and major commercial center. In this city, one particular god was more highly regarded than the rest. A calendar which honored this god was also in use and the 1st, 7th and 14th days of the month were set apart as holy. They also held special festivals that occurred near the same time of year that Israel was to keep the feast of unleavened bread and the feast of booths or ingathering. Over time it was decided that another city would become the major center of worship of this god and there a most impressive temple was built in his honor. This new location was Haran.
The Bible records that Abraham and his family moved from Ur to Haran. Later when Abraham left Haran, he did not forsake his relations there. We see that both Isaac and Jacob were instructed to acquire their wives from among Abrahams relatives in Harran. Their fathers were also displeased by their other sons choices to take wives from among the canaanite tribes. Some would argue that Yahweh was a Canaanite diety, but why not marry a Canaanite if Yahweh was one of their gods? There is no mention of a change in rulership in Haran during those years, and in Haran, Abraham's relatives appear mostly at peace with their neighbors. It seems likely to me that Abraham left Ur somewhere between 2100 and 2050 BC during the reign of Ur-Nammu, and that his son and grandson aquired their wives prior to the Elamite invasion of Sumeria which occured around 2000 BC. Jacob, unlike his fathers does not appear concerned that some of his sons take Canaanites as wives. Perhaps this is due to the strained relations between he and Laban when he, laden with family and flocks, departed without saying goodbye. Jacob did have his name changed to Israel shortly after this event. Or, perhaps the political situation has changed so that returning for wives could be dangerous.
Then we see that Israel ends up in Egypt for a long period of time. And, the Bible indicates that Israel cried out in Egypt to the God of their fathers, so we can assume that they mostly remained loyal to Yahweh. Does a god by the name of Yahweh appear in Egypt? Not a god named Yahweh, but there is a god named Yah. Actually, there is more than one god named 'Yah.' Yah is the Egyptian word for 'moon' and was used to refer to any of the moon gods. It is interesting to note that the first appearance of a reference to Yahweh in a name is Azariah, the son of Ethan, the son of Zerah, the son of Judah. There are also other great-grandchildren of Judah whose names contain "Yah." It seems likely that Judah's great-grandchildren would have been born in Egypt considering that Moses is the great-grandchild of Levi. (Some might say that Judah/Yehudah contains Yahweh's name, but 'dah' doesn't mean anything by itself).
Now, guess who that god of Ur and Haran was. Thats right, the titulary god of those cities was the god of the moon, who the Sumerians called Nanna. The Semitic name for Nanna however was 'Sin.' Is it any coincidence that the mountain on which Moses encountered YHVH was Mt. Sinai or that YHVH made his covenant there with his people?
So, what are the attributes of this moon god, Nanna? Although Nanna was the son of Enlil and Ninlil (the god of wind and goddess of air), during Ur's time of power, Nanna became known as the "father of the gods," and "creator of all." He gave birth to Utu, Shamash in semetic (the sun-god), and Inanna, Ishtar in semetic (goddess of life, fertility and war). Nanna was considered to be the God of shepherds and nomads because he provided light for them to travel by night. Also as "god of wisdom" and of writing, he inspired Ur Nammu, the ruler of Ur near the time of Abraham, to codify a law that promoted justice, the care of orphans and widows, and equal weights and measures, much like the Torah later would do. Nanna also would enter the underworld every month where he would determine the fate of the dead (eventhough Utu was the judge), and and rise again on the third day (the new moon).
The idea that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was Sin/Nanna suggests also that Israel was not identical with the majority of the Hyksos who worshiped Set the god of the desert and of storms. Although as foreigners, they may have been viewed by Egyptians as Hyksos (foreign rulers). An argument could be made, however, that Yahweh had been the Egyptian Set rather than Yah; Set was a god of storms and the desert and his name may mean 'pillar of stability.' How did Yahweh lead the people out of Egypt and through the desert? He led them by the pillar of clouds and fire. Set however was not known in Ur or Haran, unless Set can be connected with Enlil. Also, an argument could be made that nearly all gods participated in the Exodus since the plagues manifest each god's agreement with with the command to let the people go by turning their powers against Pharoah. The usual Christian understanding would be that the plagues represented God's power over everything including the "so-called" gods of Egypt. But its unlikely that the Egyptians would have seen it that way, and I think its unlikely that the Israelites saw it that way either.
The Israelites lived in a polytheistic and henotheistic world. Henotheism is devotion to a single god while believing in the existance of other gods. The phrase "God of gods" and "God most high" suggests that there are other gods. The command to "have no other gods before (or besides) me" suggests that there are other gods. Designating that Yahweh is "the god who..." suggests that there is a need to distinguish Him from other gods (although it could simply be a reminder of what God does for us). Only someone looking from a monotheistic perspective will interpret the entire Bible in a way that makes Yahweh the only god. Someone who is not monotheistic will interpret these much differently. Devotion to one god does not mean that they didn't believe there were others.
While I now strongly doubt that early Israel was monotheistic, it appears to have eventually become so. When did they become monotheistic? After the Exodus, the name of Yahweh becomes extremely popular for use in naming children. Yet this may only indicate their allegiance to Yahweh, not monotheism. It is during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah that we see the pagan dieties removed from the temple and destroyed. Why wasn't anyone stoned for this by the authority of Torah all those years for worshipping other gods? Could it be that Hezekiah and Josiah (or the priests of their days) converted Israel to monotheism? Some scholars say that the book of law 'found' by the priests in the temple was actually the book of Deutoronomy. Interestingly, the tone of Deuteronomy is more insistant on worshipping "one god" than any of the other books of Moses (Torah). Nearly all the books of the latter prophets also begin to appear around this time of reformation. I suspect that any biblical books that contain a clear monotheistic message were written after 750 BC.
Where does all of this leave me and my faith? Am I certain that Yahweh is a renamed and evolved form of Nanna? No, I'm not certain of that. There are too many other gods whose qualities have been given to Yahweh to be certain that our Yahweh of today is the same as the Nanna of ancient Sumer. I do feel that if Abraham didn't worship Nanna, he was at least strongly influenced by the Nanna cult and the reign of Ur-Nammu. If we claim to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then we must ask: "Who was their god?" Unfortunately, the archealogical record isn't very supportive of the claim that their god is the same god that Jews or Christians worship today. I once read a statement on a Jewish site (I think it was reform Judaism) that they recognized that God evolves. At the time I found their statment appalling. Maybe that statement wasn't so wrong.
When I began to see some five years ago that Christianity is steeped in paganism and non-biblical traditions, I changed my life accordingly. I began rejecting any teaching or tradition that was not clearly taught within the Bible, and especially those that had absolutely no Old Testament support. I also began to seek the counsel and instruction of scripture rather than the doctrines of churches. When these things stood out to me, I realized that although I had a personal relationship with God, I hadn't really known Him. Walking in Bible teachings I thought I was beginning to understand. Now I am seeing once again that I still don't know Him. I know He is there, but why does He hide?