The Origins of God

Photo by Meredith Fontana on Unsplash

Because I’m a novelist writing historical fiction about the Exodus, I subscribe to which sends me articles about biblical archaeology. A couple of pieces that recently made it into my inbox deal with Bronze Age deities who share important similarities with the god of the Hebrew Bible: Qos of the Edomites, and Yahweh (a transliteration closer to the original Hebrew spelling of the name we know as Jehovah) of “the Southlands.”

The “Southlands” paper is actually a master’s thesis in Old Testament studies, and it closely analyzes a couple of very ancient verses in Judges and Deuteronomy. These verses depict Yahveh (that’s how I spell God’s name in my novels, because there is no Hebrew letter with the sound of English “w”) as rising up from areas near the Land of Midian, which is located in today’s Saudi Arabia southeast of Israel. 

(Note: If you’re encountering the idea that some parts of the Bible are older than others for the first time, you can read my blog post about this accepted scholarly theory here. And if you’re curious about all the different spellings of the name of God we pronounce “Jehovah,” give me a follow because my next post will be about that. It involves some knowledge of three different languages, so it’s pretty interesting.)

The other article that was emailed to me by does a deep dive into scant but important inscriptional evidence that the Edomites, a people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as both kin to and enemies of the Israelites, also worshiped Yahveh. The territory of the Edomites shifted over the centuries, but it was generally southeast of Israel — though not as far southeast as Midian. In addition, a Semitic people who called themselves the Shasu, who may have been the nomadic precursors to some of the tribes of Israel, had a god with a similar name that is one letter shorter — YHV instead of YHVH (the written forms of most Semitic languages, even today, have no letters associated with individual vowel sounds). The paper’s author believes that the Edomite god Qos might actually be a deified version of Yahveh’s bow, made famous to us by the story of Noah as the origin of the rainbow: “I do set my bow in the cloud.”

Photo by Look Up Look Down Photography on Unsplash

My novel takes place in an era not far removed from the dawn of writing, so there really isn’t a lot of hard and fast evidence about what the cultures that eventually came together to produce the Hebrew Bible believed at the time. A piece of pottery inscribed with a handful of letters in an archaic script is a substantial contribution to the total. So I was very excited to read in the article about Qos and the Edomites that at least a few scholars think the worship of Yahveh might have spread to the Israelites via Midianite caravans, which figure prominently in my book. But in general, I’m taking the paucity of archaeological evidence about proto-Israelite religion as a license to explore the potential modernity of their belief system. Agnosticism – if not outright atheism – may be timeless, and that could be one reason why we 21st Century denizens find the thin supply of information we have about ancient faiths confusing. Who knows? Maybe some people living at the time did, too.

Besides matzah. Anyone who’s ever been to a Passover seder knows that the Israelites brought matzah, the unleavened flatbreads that we still eat today, with them when they fled Pharaoh’s oppression. But what else did they bring? And, more importantly, what did they pack it in?

I’m at the point in my re-drafting of the story just before the actual exodus from Egypt, and went down a bit of a rabbit hole figuring out these questions. I’d done some research for the earlier middle-grades and young adult versions of the novel, but this time I am writing for adults who will demand more specifics to be able to really lose themselves in the story. I knew that the relatively impoverished family of my protagonists wouldn’t have a lot of big storage jars; but if they had only one, how big could it be and what could fit inside?

Two ancient Egyptian storage jars in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. Photo credit: Public Domain

I found a lovely example on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, but it seemed a bit small to be a “large Egyptian storage vessel,” which is what I had first Googled. I couldn’t find any storage jars from ancient Egypt taller than three feet, and most were about two feet tall. That’s when I realized there wouldn’t be a whole lot to store for a normal family — it would be all they could do to keep themselves fed at all, much less carry surplus. And when I looked at typical contemporaneous potters’ wheels, it was clear that throwing a four- or five-foot tall pot would be a job only for the most highly-skilled artisans, who probably worked for Pharaoh or his court.

I knew that regular Egyptians ate fish and fowl as their most abundant protein sources, so I had to look up how long it would take to dry that type of meat for storage. I was gratified to learn that it was three days, tops, in a hot and arid climate like Goshen. (Only wealthy Egyptians could afford to burn aromatic wood to smoke their meat, and salt was fabulously expensive everywhere in the ancient world, so air-drying was the usual method).

The Met Museum’s storage jar was way too big for just some dried duck meat and Nile tilapia, so I threw in a bunch of the family’s stored grain and figs from the tree in their courtyard. With all of these provisions, they could set out for the Land of Promise in good Jewish style — with plenty to eat.

Matzah. Image credit: Paurian via Flickr.

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