Miniature from the Grandes Chroniques de France depicting the expulsion of Jews from France in 1182
The ancestors of the biblical Israelites, like all the other communities of the ancient Near East, were idol worshippers. We know quite a bit about their religion from the great number of archaeological finds, including writings, that have been unearthed in what are today’s Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. It appears that all the peoples of the ancient Near East practiced essentially the same religion. This religion functioned in a world believed to be populated by intangible powers (or deities) that ran nature and protected the tribal communities who lived there. Certain powers controlled important aspects of nature, such as the weather, the waters, fertility, moving celestial bodies, and so forth. In addition to these, there were tribal deities who were intimately connected with communities of humans who worshipped them.
None of these deities were considered all-powerful or all-knowing. In fact, it was believed that the gods lived in a symbiotic relationship with their people. In addition to those powers that ran nature, every human community needed its own divine protection from the dangers of nature and the predations of neighboring tribes, and the gods needed sustenance in the form of sacrificial offerings.1 These tribal gods were intimately connected to their people. One could even say they lived in a covenantal relationship with their communities. The gods protected their people, and the people fed their gods. That is a form of covenant, or official agreement.
A telling scene in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” speaks volumes about the relationship between gods and humans in the ancient world. In this story, dated centuries before the earliest layers of the Hebrew Bible, the gods destroy humanity in a massive flood for making too much noise and disturbing them, but then realize, too late, that they have foolishly destroyed their source of sustenance. They soon become desperately hungry. A long time later, after the water has subsided, Utnapishtim, the Noah character, makes offerings to the gods in thanks: “I offered incense in front of the mountain-ziggurat. Seven and seven cult vessels I put in place…. The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, and collected like flies over a (sheep) sacrifice.”2
The community gods were loyal to their human flocks, protecting and keeping them so they would provide them with sustenance. Every people had its deity, and we know the names of many of them from the Hebrew Bible, which has often been corroborated by ancient non-biblical sources. The people of Moab had a tribal deity named Kemosh (Numbers 21:29), the Ammonites’ deity was called Milkom (1 Kings 11:5), the Philistines’ god was Dagon (1 Samuel 5), and the goddess of Tyre was Ashtoret (2 Kings 23:13). The god of Shechem (today’s Nablus) was even called Ba’al Berit, meaning “keeper of the covenant” (Judges 9:4, 46). And before the Israelites transitioned to monotheism, they also had a tribal god with a unique name, constructed from the four letters YHWH, that conveyed a meaning something like “existence” or “being.” YHWH, along with the term Elohim,3 is the most common name of God in the Hebrew Bible. We know the name’s spelling, but its pronunciation has been lost to us because, like ancient Arabic, ancient Hebrew had no vowel signs but was accompanied by an oral tradition to ensure proper pronunciation. The oral tradition, however, did not preserve the pronunciation for YHWH. It may seem odd that Jews no longer know how to pronounce the name of their God, but the loss was purposeful.
YHWH is actually a personal name, and it apparently was necessary in a pre-monotheist world in order to distinguish that deity from all the others, each of whom had its own name.4 When offerings were made to individual gods, the smoke of the offering always rose into the heavens, where many deities were presumed to live. It is likely that in liturgies, the name of the god to be worshipped was invoked in order to ensure that the offering went to the right place.
After the Israelites realized that one god alone was the God of creation and therefore the only real deity, they stopped referring to God by a personal name. It would have appeared absurd or blasphemous to refer to such a profoundly powerful essence in such a familiar way. So Jews stopped pronouncing the personal name of God and substituted “my Lord” (Adonai) for the four-letter name of God. This would explain why Jews refer to the God of all Creation also as the “God of Israel,”5 since it was their own traditional tribal god that they naturally came to consider the God of all. This irony was not lost on the Jews, who expressed plenty of discomfort with that dual role.6