The Origins of Yahwism

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Editor(s): 
Jürgen van Oorschot, Markus Witte
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    DeGruyter
    , June
     2017.
     360 pages.
     $137.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783110425383.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Origins of Yahwism, editors Jürgen van Oorschot and Markus Witte provide students and scholars of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern history with a valuable survey of recent scholarship on their titular subject. Oorschot and Witte have put together a volume representing “the plurality of positions in the fierce debate to clarify whether YHWH originated in the South or the North” (vii). Unlike similar “origin” debates in other fields, however, the positions in this book are uniquely complicated by the interest of worshippers across the globe. Thus, it is very important that the editors of The Origins of Yahwism have not promised concrete or final answers regarding their topic. Instead they offer—and the volume delivers—a compelling and productive discussion that succeeds in two ways: first, by offering a cross-section of the debate surrounding the origins of YHWH and Yahwism; and second, by giving English-speaking readers access to scholarship otherwise available only in German. 

The variety of perspectives included in this compendium provides a fair glimpse into the current “state of debate” regarding the origins of YHWH-oriented worship. Although Oorschot and Witte note that this anthology “cannot deliver a clear and indisputable answer to the question of the historical beginning and origin of the worship of YHWH” (xi), the scholars who have contributed to this volume present relevant evidence for addressing such a question. The pertinent archaeological and textual sources cited throughout the volume make this a sophisticated (albeit concise) introduction to the available evidence, and the evidence cited is sure to prove helpful for scholars looking to bolster their understanding of this complicated subject. 

Angelika Berlejung’s chapter “The Origins and Beginnings of the Worship of YHWH: The Iconographic Evidence” exemplifies the work of her fellow contributors in the way that it deals with the very real challenge of engaging with fragmentary evidence. Berlejung writes: “The present situation in which no clear image of YHWH or iconographic characteristics of YHWH can currently be identified does not mean that such images did not exist” (67). In her thoughtful exploration of the potential variations of Yahwistic imagery, Berlejung demonstrates the creativity necessary in a search for the origins of YHWH and Yahwism. 

Faried Adrom and Matthias Müller offer a chapter that addresses the epigraphic attestation of names identified with (or close to) YHWH in Egyptian reliefs. In “The Tetragrammaton in Egyptian Sources—Facts or Fiction,” Adrom and Müller fill a gap by introducing evidence that has thus far been unavailable to those reading only in English. This reflects a larger contribution made by the compendium as a whole. Of the sixteen authors credited in this volume, fourteen are based in Germany, Switzerland, or Finland, making this book a valuable addition to English-language collections. Given the volume of English-language literature on the subjects of the Hebrew Bible and history of “Israel,” it is not impossible that some students (or scholars) have pursued their work unaware of the advances that have been made in similar scholarship around the world. By offering translations of important European research, The Origins of Yahwism invites a potentially uninformed reader into a broader community of scholarship that is largely active in languages other than English.

Friedhelm Hartenstein’s chapter “The Beginnings of YHWH and ‘Longing for the Origin’: A Historico-Hermeneutical Query” provides a reflection on the differing opinions represented in the preceding chapters. As a conclusion to the volume, Hartenstein’s work offers a pragmatically inclusive approach that encourages scholars of various perspectives within biblical and historical studies of “Israel” and its religion to reflect on their “position and subjective perception” (306). Hartenstein writes: “Due to their special subject, Old Testament studies are obliged to work on the tension and connection between history of religion and theology” (306). This notion seems to be a particularly appropriate endnote to a volume that delivers so strongly on the promise of a window into the “fierce debate” identified by Oorschot and Witte in their introduction.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Surman is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018

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