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Nissim Amzallag





YHWH: The Kenite God of Metallurgy





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Nissim Amzallag





YHWH: The Kenite God of Metallurgy








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YHWH: The Kenite God of Metallurgy

The Bible describes YHWH as glowing (kabod), and YHWH’s heat as melting mountains, imagery connected with volcano gods, the divine patrons of metalworkers such as the Kenites, who lived in the Negev region. Indeed, the description of Israel’s encounter with YHWH at Sinai portrays a volcanic eruption, with smoke “as if from a furnace” (Exodus 19:18).


YHWH: The Kenite God of Metallurgy

Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jan Luyken, 1703 (adapted). Rijksmuseum.nl

Scholars have long supposed that YHWH was formerly an ancestral god, “the god of the fathers,” who provided protection, fertility, and rain to the clan worshipping him, and whose dominion was eventually understood to extend to the whole earth as Israelite religion developed.[1] This view derives in part from the explicit biblical portrait of YHWH as the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the agropastoralist lifestyle of these ancestral figures. This reconstruction, however, overlooks an essential aspect of YHWH’s early history.

A Volcanic Theophany

In the biblical narrative, YHWH transforms the Israelites into his people at the revelation at Sinai (Exod 19:5–6). This revelation is accompanied by what many biblical scholars and geologists have long identified as the successive phases of a volcanic eruption:[2]

שׁמות יט:טז ...וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שֹׁפָר חָזָק מְאֹד וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּחֲנֶה....
Exod 19:16 There were noises (thunders) and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud shofar blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled….
יט:יח וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו יְ־הוָה בָּאֵשׁ וַיַּעַל עֲשָׁנוֹ כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָהָר מְאֹד.
19:18 Now Mount Sinai was in smoke because YHWH had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.

Some commentators have argued that verse 16 describes a thunderstorm,[3] and that either these verses stem from different sources, with the difference conceptions of the event,[4] or that thunderstorm imagery has been artificially combined with volcanic imagery to stress the miraculous dimension of the event.[5] But these interpretations are unnecessary since thunder and lightning are components of a volcanic eruption. Indeed, even rain and hailstorms are frequently provoked by volcanic eruptions, a phenomenon known as wet volcanism.

In Exodus, the elements of fire and smoke are accompanied by tremors—the shaking of the mountain described above. The tremors, essentially mini-earthquakes, are characteristics of volcanic eruptions, and provoke the release of hot gasses from the fissures. This release produces a loud noise, here, in the Sinai theophany, called a “loud shofar blast.”[6]

This volcanic dimension of revelation also appears in the account of the Horeb revelation in Deuteronomy, which specifies that YHWH spoke from fire and smoke—i.e., from within the crater of the volcano—during the eruption:

דברים ד:יא וַתִּקְרְבוּן וַתַּעַמְדוּן תַּחַת הָהָר וְהָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ עַד לֵב הַשָּׁמַיִם חֹשֶׁךְ עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל. ד:יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיכֶם מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל.
Deut 4:11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and fog. 4:12 Then YHWH spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.

The flowing lava is not mentioned here, but in the song of Deborah, the entire event is referred to as liquefaction of Mount Sinai by the presence of YHWH:

שׁפטים ה:ה הָרִים נָזְלוּ מִפְּנֵי יְ־הוָה זֶה סִינַי מִפְּנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Judg 5:5 The mountains melted (nazlu) to YHWH, Sinai before YHWH the God of Israel.

In sum, the memory of YHWH’s revelation at a mountain, whether called Sinai or Horeb, pictures the event as a volcanic eruption.

Not Just a Literary Feature

Considering that no active volcano is known to exist on the Sinai Peninsula, some scholars have suggested seeing these features as serving a literary purpose, presenting the event’s exceptionality and the overwhelming powers of the deity self-revealing to the Israelites.[7] It is, however, important to note that YHWH’s volcanic dimension is not limited to retellings of the Sinai theophany. Disparate passages connect YHWH to volcanic imagery:

Melting Mountains—Psalmists call upon YHWH to come and melt the mountains by his mere presence (Pss 46:7; 97:5;).

תהלים מו:ז הָמוּ גוֹיִם מָטוּ מַמְלָכוֹת נָתַן בְּקוֹלוֹ תָּמוּג אָרֶץ.
Ps 46:7 Nations rage, kingdoms topple; at the sound of his thunder the earth dissolves.
תהלים צז:ב עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל סְבִיבָיו צֶדֶק וּמִשְׁפָּט מְכוֹן כִּסְאוֹ. צז:ג אֵשׁ לְפָנָיו תֵּלֵךְ וּתְלַהֵט סָבִיב צָרָיו. צז:ד הֵאִירוּ בְרָקָיו תֵּבֵל רָאֲתָה וַתָּחֵל הָאָרֶץ. צז:ה הָרִים כַּדּוֹנַג נָמַסּוּ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה מִלִּפְנֵי אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ.
Ps 97:2 Dense clouds are around him, righteousness and justice are the base of his throne. 97:3 Fire is his vanguard, burning his foes on every side. 97:4 His lightnings light up the world; the earth is convulsed at the sight; 97:5 mountains melt like wax at YHWH’s presence, at the presence of the Lord of all the earth.[8]

Destructive Power—Prophets warn the people of imminent mass destruction inherent in YHWH’s volcanic activity:

מיכה א:ג כִּי הִנֵּה יְ־הוָה יֹצֵא מִמְּקוֹמוֹ וְיָרַד וְדָרַךְ עַל (במותי) [בָּמֳתֵי] אָרֶץ. א:ד וְנָמַסּוּ הֶהָרִים תַּחְתָּיו וְהָעֲמָקִים יִתְבַּקָּעוּ כַּדּוֹנַג מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ כְּמַיִם מֻגָּרִים בְּמוֹרָד.
Mic 1:3 For lo! YHWH is coming forth from his dwelling-place, he will come down and stride upon the heights of the earth. 1:4 The mountains shall melt under him and the valleys burst open— like wax before fire, like water cascading down a slope.
נחום א:ה הָרִים רָעֲשׁוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְהַגְּבָעוֹת הִתְמֹגָגוּ וַתִּשָּׂא הָאָרֶץ מִפָּנָיו וְתֵבֵל וְכָל יֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ. א:ו לִפְנֵי זַעְמוֹ מִי יַעֲמוֹד וּמִי יָקוּם בַּחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ חֲמָתוֹ נִתְּכָה כָאֵשׁ וְהַצֻּרִים נִתְּצוּ מִמֶּנּוּ.
Nah 1:5 The mountains quake because of Him, and the hills melt. The earth heaves before Him, the world and all that dwell therein. 1:6 Who can stand before His wrath? Who can resist His fury? His anger pours out like fire, and rocks are shattered because of Him.[9]

As these texts show, volcanism seems to be an essential attribute typically associated with YHWH. The account of the Sinai revelation, with its volcanic imagery, is meant to show that YHWH himself, and not simply a divine emissary, was present during the revelation, and concluded himself the covenant transforming the Israelites into his people.

A Midianite Origin for YHWH?

Considering that, like the Sinai, volcanic activity is not attested in Israel either, some scholars have looked farther afield, and suggest that YHWH was formerly worshipped in northwestern Arabia, where a volcanic field is attested as having been active for millennia. Some even argue that Mount Sinai should be identified with one of the volcanoes on this peninsula, to which the Israelites would have gone when they left Egypt.[10] Jacob Dunn goes so far as to suggest that YHWH was formerly an Arabian volcano god.[11] All this connects to what scholars call the Midianite origin hypothesis for the cult of YHWH in Israel.[12]

This hypothesis is based on biblical hints that place the discovery of YHWH by Moses in Midian (Exodus 3:1–6), by the mountain of God located close to Jethro’s dwelling, to which God tells Moses to bring the Israelites to serve him after they leave Egypt (Exod 3:12). Moreover, Moses’ father-in-law is described as a “priest of Midian” (Exod 2:16, 18:1), implying that Moses may have learned local religious doctrine from him.[13]

A Kenite Deity

Other texts refer to Moses’ father-in-law as Kenite,[14] a group of whom settle in the land along with the Israelites and are allied to them.[15] Indeed, Cain, the eponymous ancestor of the Kenites, becomes a part of the biblical primordial history, and YHWH’s participation in his birth (Gen 4:1) attests the closeness of this tribe/congregation to him, at least before the rise of Israel. The mention of Cain as the first man to make an offering to YHWH (Gen 4:3) strengthens this premise.

The connection of YHWH with the Midianites may justify the exploitation of the volcanic imagery by the Israelites for accounting for the divine presence, but the connection of YHWH specifically to the Kenites challenges the assumption of an Arabian origin of YHWH, and points us in a different direction, given the Kenites’ metallurgical activity.[16]

A God of Metallurgy

The Kenites appear to have been a society of metalworkers. The story of Cain in Genesis 4 describes how one of his descendants, Tubal-Cain “forged all implements of copper and iron” (לֹטֵשׁ כָּל חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל), i.e., he is described as a smith, the craftsman producing implements from raw metal. Indeed, the Semitic cognates קין (Arabic قين, Syriac ܩܝܢܝܐ, Aramaic קֵינָאָה) suggest that the root ק.י.נ designated activities belonging to the field of metallurgy, smelting (metal production from ore) and smithing (the working of raw metal).[17]

Cain himself, then, rather than his descendant Tubal-Cain, should be understood as once having played the role of the forefather of metallurgy and the South-Levantine society of metalworking Kenites, both smiths and smelters, i.e., producers of the raw metal from ore. This helps explain their connection to YHWH, a deity with volcanic attributes.

In antiquity, volcanoes were typically identified with the gods sponsoring metallurgy. For example, Hephaestus was called the “prince of Etna” in ancient Greece, and the term “volcano” derives from Vulcain, the name of the divine patron of the metallurgists at Rome.[18]

The association between volcanoes and smelting is easy to understand. Both volcanoes and furnaces release a similar sulfurous smell and smoke. In antiquity, smelting (metal production from ore) was the only human activity involving stone melting. Just as lava flows out of a volcano, slag flows out of an active furnace, and the slag, once solidified, resembles volcanic stones (basalt). This homology is visible in the description of the Sinai revelation, where the column of smoke rising from Sinai is likened כְּעֶשֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁן “with the smoke of a furnace” (Exod 19:18).

Copper Mining

The consistent use of volcanic imagery in portraying YHWH’s appearance denotes a substantial metallurgical background attached to his former identity. Notably, the Song of Deborah connects YHWH with origins in the land of Seir, located near the Arabah copper mining area:[19]

שופטים ה:ד יְ־הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה גַּם שָׁמַיִם נָטָפוּ גַּם עָבִים נָטְפוּ מָיִם. ה:ה הָרִים נָזְלוּ מִפְּנֵי יְ־הוָה זֶה סִינַי מִפְּנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Judg 5:4 O YHWH, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled; the heavens dripped, yea, the clouds dripped water, 5:5 the mountains quaked (or “flowed”)—before YHWH, the One of Sinai, before YHWH, God of Israel.

The book of Zechariah confirms this point. It begins with a virulent criticism of the ancient prophets of Israel, for they have left the “ways of YHWH” and refused to listen his voice (Zech 1:4-6). The meaning of this claim is clarified thereafter, when the prophet accounts for the future coming of four “saviors” of Israel sent by YHWH, and identified as חָרָשִׁים “smiths” (Zech 2:3–4).

In a later vision (Zech 6:1–5), Zechariah sees four flying chariots (the four winds) coming from הָרֵי נְחֹשֶׁת “mountains of copper,” a description designating the copper mining areas (Arabah and Sinai) as being YHWH’s former dwelling place. Thus, even as late as Zechariah, YHWH’s metallurgical background was remembered, at least by some.

Once we understand that YHWH was formerly identified as the god sponsoring metallurgy in the Southern Levant, many other elements of his biblical persona fall into place.

The Divine Furnace in Jerusalem and the Heavens

Isaiah refers to YHWH’s furnace in Jerusalem:

ישׁעיה לא:ט ...נְאֻם יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר אוּר לוֹ בְּצִיּוֹן וְתַנּוּר לוֹ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
Isa 31:9b Oracle of YHWH, whose fire is in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem.

While this depiction is typically dismissed as a poetic formulation devoid of theological implications, given the other metallurgical aspects of YHWH’s attributes, it likely discloses a metallurgical dimension of YHWH’s cult in Jerusalem. In this understanding, the many metallic items in the Jerusalem Temple are not a mere expression of magnificence, rather their setting (mainly exposed in Exodus through the description of the Tabernacle) and the specifications about the metals making them, betray the theological significance of their presence: they represent the celestial furnace in the Israelite shrine, transforming it into the “terrestrial residence” of the god of Israel.[20]

Even the copper-coated altar in its courtyard granted the burnt-offering sacrifices a metallurgical significance. The radiance emanating from this metal coating, once it reaches the temperature close to 1000 C required for the combustion of the burnt-offering sacrifices, recalls the thermal radiance emitted by molten copper or gold.[21]

Ezekiel’s Vision

The prophet Ezekiel’s inaugural vision describes his access to the celestial universe as follows:

יחזקאל א:ד וָאֵרֶא וְהִנֵּה רוּחַ סְעָרָה בָּאָה מִן הַצָּפוֹן עָנָן גָּדוֹל וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב וּמִתּוֹכָהּ כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַל מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.
Ezek 1:4 And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, and brightness around it; and in its midst something like ḥašmal, out of the midst of the fire.

This vision depicts ḥašmal, something emitting an intense light in the midst of the heavenly fire. This enigmatic term occurs in the Bible only in Ezekiel’s vision, but we find a similar word in Egyptian (ḥašman) and Akkadian (ḫašmalu), both of which designate either amber or a metallic alloy of pale yellow or orange color.[22] Indeed, the Septuagint (LXX) renders the term ἤλεκτρον, which can be translated either as “amber” or as “electrum,” a natural alloy of gold and silver.

Most translations identify ḥašmal as amber, but this does not work well in context. The mention of burning coals in this fire (Ezek 1:13) suggests that ḥašmal here describes something emitting intense light through thermal radiance. Amber is a fossil resin which produces smoke without emitting any light once set on fire. Thus, in Ezekiel 1, ḥašmal must be describing a molten metal.

Ezekiel further mentions beings flapping their wings by the fire:

יחזקאל א:כד וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל כַּנְפֵיהֶם כְּקוֹל מַיִם רַבִּים כְּקוֹל שַׁדַּי בְּלֶכְתָּם קוֹל הֲמֻלָּה כְּקוֹל מַחֲנֶה...
Ezek 1:24 When they moved, I could hear the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of Shaddai, a tumult like the din of an army…

Through the description of these creatures and their motion, Ezekiel here accounts apparently for the intense air-flow feeding the celestial furnace and boosting the production of glowing coals. In other words, this vision depicts YHWH’s heavenly universe as a giant furnace, with winged creatures surrounding it and producing the air flow like bellows.

When we combine Ezekiel’s vision with Isaiah’s metaphor, we understand that these prophetic visions represent YHWH’s presence both in heaven and on earth by the means of a kind of giant furnace, a feature rooting his cult in metallurgy.[23]


Like its usage in human context,[24] kabod in divine context is generally understood as referring to YHWH’s glory. However, translating the expressions “El hakabod” as “god of glory” (Ps 29:3) and “melekh hakabod” as “king of glory” (Ps 24:7–8, 10) implies that one of YHWH’s most essential characteristics is a subjective trait dependent on those praising him.

Instead, the mention of the Israelites seeing the kabod of YHWH (e.g., Exod 16:7; Num 14:21–22) suggests that it refers to a physical reality which the Israelites may perceive. This physical nature of kabod-YHWH as something that can be seen is confirmed by its revelation during volcanic eruptions:

תהלים צז:ה הָרִים כַּדּוֹנַג נָמַסּוּ מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה מִלִּפְנֵי אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ. צז:ו הִגִּידוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם צִדְקוֹ וְרָאוּ כָל הָעַמִּים כְּבוֹדוֹ.
Ps 97:5 The mountains melted like wax before YHWH, before the Lord of the whole earth. 97:6 The heavens declared His righteousness, and all the peoples saw His kabod.[25]

Here, kabod-YHWH becomes visible to everyone once mountains melt like wax, that is, through the flowing of lava. This detail, combined with the intense heat, all-burning properties and light associated with kabod-YHWH,[26] suggests that it envisions the yellow-orange thermal radiance emitted by physical bodies heated up to 1000° C [=1832° F], such as molten lava, slag, gold or copper.[27]

Solar Imagery

In some passages, YHWH’s kabod is identified with the solar radiance:

תהלים פד:יב כִּי שֶׁמֶשׁ וּמָגֵן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים חֵן וְכָבוֹד יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה לֹא יִמְנַע טוֹב לַהֹלְכִים בְּתָמִים.
Ps 84:12 For YHWH God is sun and shield; YHWH bestows grace and kabod; He does not withhold His bounty from those who live without blame.[28]
ישעיה נט:יט וְיִירְאוּ מִמַּעֲרָב אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה וּמִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ אֶת כְּבוֹדוֹ כִּי יָבוֹא כַנָּהָר צָר רוּחַ יְ־הוָה נֹסְסָה בוֹ.
Isa 59:19 From the west, they shall revere the name of YHWH, and from the east, where the sun rises, His kabod. For He shall come like a hemmed-in stream which the wind of YHWH drives on.

This depiction fits a representation of the shining sun as a bulk of molten metal radiating both light and heat onto the earth during the day.[29] And in this case, the celestial furnace, the holy site of YHWH’s activity, has a precise function: it conditions the sun activity and its beneficial role for the earth.

Ezekiel’s connection of YHWH’s kabod with the ḥašmal strengthens this understanding:

יחזקאל א:כז וָאֵרֶא כְּעֵין חַשְׁמַל כְּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ בֵּית לָהּ סָבִיב מִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמָעְלָה וּמִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמַטָּה רָאִיתִי כְּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב. א:כח כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בֶעָנָן בְּיוֹם הַגֶּשֶׁם כֵּן מַרְאֵה הַנֹּגַהּ סָבִיב הוּא מַרְאֵה דְּמוּת כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה...
Ezek 1:27 From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of ḥašmal—what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him. 1:28 Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the kabod of YHWH.

The ḥašmal here is compared to the radiance of a rainbow, or the sun behind clouds, and Ezekiel calls this phenomenon “YHWH’s kabod”, confirming that this term describes something physical and closely related to thermal radiance.

The Divine ʾap

Beyond its primary meaning as “nose,” ʾap also designates “wrath” and “anger” in the Bible. The Bible makes extensive use of this term (about 180 times) in the divine context, thus seeming to present the god of Israel as an explosive, fulminating, and even infuriated character. And yet, the figurative meaning of the term cannot always support a translation of wrath or anger, even in contexts of divine snorting, roaring, or smoking.[30]

In Job, for instance, we see YHWH’s ʾap destroying mountains when the deity is alone, without humans around to raise his anger:

איוב ט:ה הַמַּעְתִּיק הָרִים וְלֹא יָדָעוּ אֲשֶׁר הֲפָכָם בְּאַפּוֹ.
Job 9:5 He who removes the mountains, and they know it not, when He overturns them by his ʾap.

In this verse, ʾap cannot signify anger. No traces of divine anger appear in the surrounding verses. Moreover, the verse appears in the speech of Job who is refuting the assumption, argued by his friends, of a causal link between human sins and divine punishment. Rather, the verse conveys the observation that divine changes in topography occur far from human eyes, so that no one is aware of their occurrence, incidence, and consequences.

The transformations described in this verse refer to a volcanic activity erasing mountains and filling valleys (as in Isa 40:4-5). The metallurgical dimension of volcanism is especially insightful here, inviting us to identify ʾap in a more literal way, as the divine blowing apparatus boosting the fire up to stone-melting heat.[31] This interpretation fits the ancient beliefs assuming that volcanic eruptions are consecutive of divine blowing on this subterranean fire.[32]

This volcanic connotation of the divine ʾap is also visible in the Song of Moses, where the fire kindled and boosted by YHWH’s ʾap melts even the roots of the mountains (Deut 32:22):

דברים לב:כב כִּי אֵשׁ קָדְחָה בְאַפִּי וַתִּיקַד עַד שְׁאוֹל תַּחְתִּית וַתֹּאכַל אֶרֶץ וִיבֻלָהּ וַתְּלַהֵט מוֹסְדֵי הָרִים.
Deut 32:22 For a fire is kindled in My ʾap, it burns unto the depths of the nether-world, and devours the earth with her produce, and it sets ablaze the foundations of the mountains.

Also in Psalm 21, interpreting the divine ʾap as blowing apparatus instead of anger clarifies why it induces a volcanic eruption:

תהלים כא:י תְּשִׁיתֵמוֹ כְּתַנּוּר אֵשׁ לְעֵת פָּנֶיךָ יְ־הוָה בְּאַפּוֹ יְבַלְּעֵם וְתֹאכְלֵם אֵשׁ.
Ps 21:10 You shall make them as a fiery furnace, when you appear; YHWH shall swallow them up with his ʾap, and the fire shall devour them.

Even in the Song of the Sea, the reference to YHWH opening the sea by blasting a powerful wind through his “nostrils” (ʾapeka, in Exodus 15:8a) fits better their representation as the nozzles of bellows rather than any divine anger, a theme absent from the song:

שׁמות טו:ח וּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם.
Exod 15:8a And with the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up.

Here again, this centrality of the divine blowing apparatus is especially meaningful in metallurgical context.

YHWH the Blower

YHWH’s metallurgical history may also be found in his name. When Moses encounters YHWH for the first time, he asks YHWH his name and is supplied by two answers. The first explains that the deity’s name is “I am”:

שמות ג:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
Exod 3:14 And God said to Moses, “I am what I am,” and he said, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh (“I am”) sent me to you.’”

This answer has the deity’s name as deriving from the Hebrew root ה.י.ה (or ה.ו.י) meaning “to be,” understanding Israel’s deity as the (Supreme) Being. This is akin to the deity’s other name, (Ha-)Elohim, “the [supreme] God” mentioned just before (Exod 3:13). As this name is not used elsewhere, it appears to be a later attempt to interpret the more enigmatic name YHWH, introduced in the next verse:

שמות ג:טו וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.
Exod 3:15 And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: YHWH, the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you: This shall be My name forever; This My appellation for all eternity.”

Unlike Ehyeh, the name YHWH is not derivable from the root meaning “to be,” but rather, as several scholars have suggested,[33] it appears to be from the root ה.ו.ה, “to blow,” expressing both the action of blowing and/or the wind resulting from it.[34] YHWH’s name, therefore, designates this deity as the blower. Those who translate the name this way generally interpret the appellation in the context of thunderstorm imagery, assuming that the god of Israel began as a storm god.[35]

The blowing of wind, however, is not an essential or even a dominant feature in storms, like thunder or lightning. In contrast, the blowing of air is the critical element in metallurgy. Blowing is necessary for boosting combustion from 700-800˚C (normal fire) to the temperature required for the fusion of copper (1000-1100 ˚C) and its smelting (up to 1200 ˚C necessary for the fusion of silicates). This, I would argue, is why designating YHWH as the blower is best understood as deriving from a metallurgical background. YHWH began not as a god of storms but as a god of smelting.

YHWH’s Move from the Bronze Age to Iron Age

The hypothesis of metallurgical background of ancient Yahwism seems counter-intuitive at first sight since it contrasts sharply with Israel’s agropastoral lifestyle. Moreover, the figure of YHWH in the Bible is not reminiscent of the secondary status of smith-gods (e.g. Hephaestus, Ptah, Kothar) in many ancient mythologies.

However, if YHWH’s origins are rooted in the copper mining areas (Arabah, Sinai), the god should be likened with smelting (not smith) gods (e.g., Aten in Egypt),[36] whose outstanding position emanates from the symbolism attached to this activity.

In antiquity, the production of copper was approached as an act of creation of matter (the metal) from a sandstone (the ore) where it is apparently absent. This feature promoted the smelting god to the status of ultimate master of the powers of creation.[37] The ability to recycle the copper of old rust artifacts in a furnace without any loss of matter added the attribute of rejuvenation.

Through this power, the smelting god became the ultimate master of the powers of vitalization and holiness. This perspective accounts for the outstanding religious importance of metallurgy in the past. As Mircea Eliade wrote,

[T]he discovery of metals and the progress of metallurgy radically modified the human mode of being in the universe. Not only did the manipulation of metals contribute considerably to man's conquest of the material world; it also changed his world of meaning. The metals opened for him a new mythological and religious universe.[38]

The rise of iron in the first millennium B.C.E. downgraded the holiness, vitalizing, and creation dimensions attached to metallurgy. Unlike copper, iron is a metal already visible in the ore, a feature likening its smelting with an act of maturation/purification rather than creation of matter.[39] Furthermore, the inability to melt iron in antiquity prevented the recycling/rejuvenation of this metal. Metallurgy became a craft among others, and it deprived the smelting god of one of his most essential attributes: his being the source of creation, vitalization and holiness.

The move to iron also deprived this deity of his status of mysterious “super-god” transcending both the domain of gods and of humankind.[40] Before, this eminent position made his access especially difficult, mainly accessible through esoteric knowledge and the metallurgical experience. His worship was radically different from that of the classical deities, mainly conditioned by calls addressed to a divine being for his/her intervening on the worshipper’s behalf.

This difference may explain why the smelting god was never a god of the masses, and why his existence is mostly ignored today in history of religions.[41] This may also explain why the historical record is almost entirely silent about the existence of YHWH until the emergence of Israel.

Adopting an Esoteric Smelting God as Patron Deity

Israel’s adoption of this Midianite/Kenite smelting God as their patron deity was an unprecedented move. From its very beginning, Israelite YHWH worship was based on the transformation of an esoteric belief system reserved for metalworkers and their followers into a public doctrine addressed to a whole people. This metamorphosis helped spawn the outstanding creativity characterizing the religion of ancient Israel, and the way YHWH is presented in the Bible.


February 6, 2023


Last Updated

July 14, 2024


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Dr. Nissim Amzallag was a Research Fellow (2013-2021) at the Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies of the Ben Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev (Beer Sheba, Israel). He holds a Ph.D. in Biology, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and another Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from BGU. Amzallag investigates the cultural dimension of metallurgy in antiquity, the metallurgical background of ancient Yahwism and its involvement in the emergence of Israel and its theology. He is the author of: The Copper Revolution – Smelters from Canaan and the Beginning of Civilization (Livna [Israel]: Hameara, 2008, in Hebrew); Esau in Jerusalem – The Rise of a Seirite Religious Elite in Zion at the Persian Period (Leuven: Peeters, 2015 ); La Forge de Dieu, Aux origines de la Bible (Paris: Cerf, 2020, in French); Psalm 29: A Canaanite Hymn to YHWH in the Psalter (Leuven: Peeters, 2021); and YHWH and the Origins of Israel – Insight from the Archaeological Record (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, scheduled to May 2023).