YHWH: The Original Arabic Meaning of the Name
In Exodus chapter 6, after Moses complains about how Pharaoh has increased Israel’s workload and refused to set them free, God appears to Moses and reiterates his promise to take Israel out of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land. As part of this message, God tells Moses that his name is YHWH, even though he never shared this name with the patriarchs, and only appeared to them as El Shaddai:
שמות ו:ב וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה. ו:ג וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְ־הוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
Exod 6:2 God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 6:3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.
The text makes it clear that the name YHWH—known in scholarship as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”)—is of great significance, marking a new era in ancient Israelite history, but it offers no explanation for its meaning.
YHWH as Being
In contrast, God’s earlier revelation at the burning bush, in which Moses is introduced to this special name for the first time, explains or at least hints at its meaning:
ג:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.
3:13 Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
ג:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
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.’”
When Moses asks God his name, God first answers by saying “I am what I am” and even follows this up with “tell them Ehyeh (I-Am) sent you.” The word ehyeh (“I am”) sounds very much like YHWH, and is meant as a play on words, explaining that YHWH’s name means “he will be” or “being.” Thus, God follows up this implied etymology with the Tetragrammaton:
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.
3:15 And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ‘YHWH, the God of your fathers, 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.”
Nevertheless, this interpretation does not reflect the original meaning of YHWH. The word “he is” would not be written with a vav as its third letter, but with a yod, as יהיה, just as the word “I am” is אהיה. Second, note how awkwardly the verses read, trying to force the meaning ehyeh on the word YHWH, by having God first tell Moses to use the name Ehyeh, and then to use the name YHWH, without explaining the switch. Thus, I would argue that the explanation here is a popular etymology, and we need to look elsewhere for the etymology of this name.
Moses’ Midianite Backstory
The first clue to understanding the name comes from the context of the story of the burning bush in the book of Exodus. After Moses kills an Egyptian and flees from Pharaoh (2:12-15), he ends up in Midian, where he meets the priest of Midian, Reuel (or Jethro), and marries his daughter, Zipporah (2:15-22). While shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks, he sees the burning bush and receives a revelation from God at God’s own mountain:
שמות ג:א וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה.
Exod 3:1 Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb.
This context suggests that God’s mountain is not in Israel or in Egypt, but it is in the Horeb wilderness, not far from Midian. Where is Midian and what do we know about it historically?
Midian and the Qurayyah Culture of North Arabia
Assuming the area described by Ptolemy as Midiana is the same area as biblical Midian, an assumption that can be supported by the biblical connection between Midian and Ishmael (see below), we can know quite a bit about its material culture in the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages (13th–12th cent. B.C.E.).
A group of semi-nomads, who produced a very distinct, colorful and attractive, decorated pottery with images of ostriches or other birds, lived a little northeast of the area Ptolemy calls Midian, in an area known as the Oasis of Qurayyah. This pottery style is known in scholarship as Qurayyah Painted Ware (QPW).
The Qurayyah people were also experts in metallurgy, specifically the smelting of copper and the production of bronze. The area of Qurayyah itself has no copper veins, but such veins are found further south in the Arabian Peninsula, and the copper ore was sent north to Qurayyah for smelting because the people of Qurayyah (Midianites) were experts in metal work.
Evidence of this culture’s fingerprints is also found in other areas of copper smelting in this period, specifically the sites of Faynan and Timna in the southern Levant (in modern day Jordan and Israel respectively). Uzi Avner, an archaeologist working at the Dead-Sea and Arava Science Center, has argued that the Midianites were brought in as specialists or contractors, working with the local nomadic (Shasu) tribes or with Egyptians, who had a presence in this area during this period, producing pure copper from ore for their customers (or employers).
An Arabian Tribe
The Midianites were a Proto-Arabian tribe; their home base was in Arabia and they are related to Ishmaelites. The book of Judges states this explicitly in the story of Gideon, who makes the following request of the Israelites after defeating the Midianites:
שופטים ח:כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם גִּדְעוֹן אֶשְׁאֲלָה מִכֶּם שְׁאֵלָה וּתְנוּ לִי אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ כִּי נִזְמֵי זָהָב לָהֶם כִּי יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים הֵם. ח:כהוַיֹּאמְרוּ נָתוֹן נִתֵּן וַיִּפְרְשׂוּ אֶת הַשִּׂמְלָה וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ שָׁמָּה אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ.
Judg 8:24 And Gideon said to them, “I have a request to make of you: Each of you give me the earring he received as booty.” (They had golden earrings, for they were Ishmaelites.) 8:25“Certainly!” they replied. And they spread out a cloth, and everyone threw onto it the earring he had received as booty.
ח:כו וַיְהִי מִשְׁקַל נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר שָׁאָל אֶלֶף וּשְׁבַע מֵאוֹת זָהָב לְבַד מִן הַשַּׂהֲרֹנִים וְהַנְּטִפוֹת וּבִגְדֵי הָאַרְגָּמָן שֶׁעַל מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן וּלְבַד מִן הָעֲנָקוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּצַוְּארֵי גְמַלֵּיהֶם. ח:כז וַיַּעַשׂ אוֹתוֹ גִדְעוֹן לְאֵפוֹד…
8:26 The weight of the golden earrings that he had requested came to 1700 shekels of gold; this was in addition to the crescents and the pendants and the purple robes worn by the kings of Midian and in addition to the collars on the necks of their camels. 8:27 Gideon made an ephod of this gold…
We see evidence of the connection between Midianites and Ishmaelites as well when it comes to names. For instance, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro or Jether (Exod 4:17) has the same name as David’s brother-in-law (husband of David’s sister Abigail), Jether the Ishmaelite (1 Chron 2:17).
The Spice Trade
During the Iron Age and afterwards, the Midianites, as an Arabian tribe, were part of the spice trade. They would travel from Arabia and pass through Israel on their way to the Mediterranean coast and/or Egypt. This is reflected in the biblical story of Joseph, which describes Midianite and Ishmaelite traders heading to Egypt with spices and slaves:
בראשית לז:כה …וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט הוֹלְכִים לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה… לז:כח וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה.
Gen 37:25 …Looking up, they (=Joseph’s brothers) saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt…. 37:28 When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.
In this story, the traders had first headed north, perhaps to trade with the Arameans, and were moving south through the Jezreel valley to the Via Maris, which would take them into Egypt. Although the story is set in the second millennium B.C.E., anachronistic features such as camels show that it was written in the first millennium B.C.E.
The strong connection between these eastern Arabian tribes and the spice route is reflected in the name the Bible (Gen 25:1-2) gives their eponymous mother, Qeturah (קטורה), a name related to the Hebrew word for incense, qetoret (קטורת).
In short, the Midianites were an Arabian tribe involved in metallurgy and the spice trade, whose base was in the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula, but whose reach of settlement was much wider, with pockets living in the southwest Sinai Peninsula, the southern Transjordan, and the Aravah (the desert area of the southeastern Negev), probably because of the copper veins there.
The Shaswe-Land YHWA
Based on Egyptian records dating to the 14th century B.C.E., we know that the Midianites were not the only ethnic groups living this these areas. In the geographical list in Amunhotep III’s Soleb Nubian temple, the people of the Aravah and the southern Transjordan are called Shaswe (or Shasu), a generic term meaning something like “nomadic tribes.”
The word shaswe, šꜣsw () is written after the Egyptian determinative for “land” tꜣ (), showing that the Egyptian text is describing different geographical areas inhabited by various shaswe. One area listed is called Nomad-land Seir, which is identical with the Mount Seir region in Edom. The following name in the list, and thus nearby or contiguous with Seir, was Nomad-land Yehwa, yhwꜣ(w) (). The pronunciation of this name is uncertain, since like Hebrew, hieroglyphics do not include vowels, but the term seems to be related to the name of the Israelite deity, YHWH, whose precise ancient pronunciation is also unknown.
A Deity and a Land
In the list, Yehwa is the name of a land. Just as one nomadic group lived in a land called Seir, another lived in a land called Yehwa. But in antiquity, a name could sometimes be both a toponym and a theonym. The name Assyria (Aššur) illustrates this clearly: it is both the name of Assyria’s chief deity and of their ancient capital city. Eventually, it also became the name of their empire. Another example would be the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, who began as the patron goddess of Athens.
YHWH Comes from the Edomite South
Biblical evidence suggests that YHWH comes from the southeast, either from the hills of Edom or even further south in Midian or beyond. This is particularly clear in three very ancient biblical poems:
Song of Moses (Deut 33:2)
יְ-הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ…
YHWH came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, and approached from Ribeboth-kodesh…
Song of Deborah (Judg 5:4)
יְ-הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה…
YHWH, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled…
Song of Habakkuk (Hab 3:3)
אֱלוֹהַ מִתֵּימָן יָבוֹא וְקָדוֹשׁ מֵהַר פָּארָן סֶלָה…
God is coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah….
Each of these poems opens with the image of YHWH coming from his home in the south. In fact, Habakkuk’s song (v. 7) even goes on to describe how the tents of the Midianites (יְרִיעוֹת אֶרֶץ מִדְיָן) shake as YHWH stomps on the ground near them on his way to his people.
This conception fits with what the story of Moses and the burning bush, where Moses goes to the Mountain of God while tending the flocks of his Midianite father-in-law. Moses is wandering in Midianite territory, though not in Arabia but in the vicinity of modern-day Petra, biblical Kadesh (Reqem in Aramaic), where we have evidence of a Qurrayah-culture group living not far from Edom.
An Arabic Name
If YHWH’s origins are in the Nomad-land of Yehwa among the Midianites, then the meaning of the name should be from the Arabic language family rather than the Hebrew language family. This further calls into question the etymology in Exodus 3 of the Tetragrammaton from ה.ו.י, “to be,” since, unlike Hebrew and Aramaic, Proto-Arabic does not have the root ה.ו.י for the word “to be.”
The Jealous God
In 1956, Shelomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985), a scholar of both Jewish and Arabic studies, suggested that the name derives from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا), which means “love, affection, passion, desire.” He connected this suggestion with the passage in Exodus 34, in a set of laws known by scholars as the Ritual Decalogue. One of the laws, which forbids Israel to worship other gods, reads:
שמות לד:יד כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר כִּי יְ-הוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ אֵל קַנָּא הוּא.
Exod 34:14 For you must not worship any other god, because YHWH, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.
Goitein suggests that “YHWH whose name is Impassioned” refers to the deity’s personal name YHWH, which means “the Impassioned One,” and that this name derives from that (proto)Arabic term for passion. This reflects the idea that YHWH’s bond with his worshipers is one of passionate love, and YHWH is upset if the worshipers “cheat” by worshipping other gods.
In other words, the worshippers’ relationship with YHWH must be exclusive. Moreover, according to Goitein, this exclusivity demanded by YHWH goes back to his appearance as a god among nomadic, Arabian tribes.
Scholars call such exclusive worship of one god “monolatry.” While monotheism claims that no other gods exist, monolatry assumes loyalty and exclusive connection to one god, while allowing for the existence of other deities. In fact, many biblical passages that we read nowadays as monotheistic are really monolatrous. A classic example is in the Decalogue itself:
דברים ה:ז-ט לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָיַ… ה:ט לֹא תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא….
Deut 5:7 You shall have no other gods besides Me… 5:9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I YHWH your God am an impassioned God….
The text does not say that no other gods exist, only that they should not be worshipped in addition to YHWH, because YHWH is an impassioned God who would naturally become jealous and agitated at such behavior. YHWH’s relationship with his followers is like that of a husband to a wife; he loves his worshipers but is dangerously jealous of any “worshipping around.” As the book of Proverbs states about husbands:
משלי ו:לד כִּי קִנְאָה חֲמַת גָּבֶר וְלֹא יַחְמוֹל בְּיוֹם נָקָם.
Prov 6:34 The fury of the husband will be passionate; He will show no pity on his day of vengeance.
YHWH is just such an impassioned husband to his espoused people and just as vengeful if his people are disloyal.
Iconoclasm also characterized the Qurayyah culture (Midianites), as seen from the excavations at Timna. The Egyptians built a small temple to the goddess Hathor in Timna, which was excavated by Tel Aviv University and University of London archaeologist, Beno Rothenberg (1914-2012). At the same time, the Midianites had their own worship place there, characterized by a collection of pillars (מצבות) in a tent. (Because of the extreme aridity of the area, pieces of the tent survived and were discovered by the excavators.)
Unlike the Egyptian Hathor Temple, the Midianite worship area had no images, whether painted or carved, reflecting their aniconism. When the Egyptians left this area, the Midianites took control of the entire area including the Hathor Temple. In so doing, they made the area religiously acceptable by erasing Hathor’s face from the rock paintings, and reused these rocks in their own area as another pillar. Rothenberg’s argument of was reconfirmed by the recent excavation by Uzi Avner. This iconoclasm is also reflected in another related group, the Kenites (see appendix).
Authentic Tradition about YHWH, Midian, and Moses
The tradition about Moses’ marriage to a Midianite woman has the mark of authenticity: Why would the Israelites invent a story about their primary religious leader’s marriage to a non-Israelite woman?
More problematically, Moses not only finds his wife among the Midianites, but finds his God there as well. As I have argued in other contexts, such as my, “Hovav the Midianite: Why Was the End of the Story Cut? (TheTorah, 2016),” the biblical texts try to soften or even hide this, but the full force of the Moses-in-Midian tradition is one that explains the emergence of the Midianite/proto-Arabian god YHWH—a passionate deity expecting exclusive love—as Israel’s god.
Aniconic Kenites: Another Midianite-like Yahwistic Tribe
One further piece of evidence for Midianite aniconism comes from the Kenites. The relationship between Midianites and Kenites is unclear, but the biblical text sometimes conflates the two, since Moses’ father-in-law is sometimes described as having been one, and sometimes the other.
In Judges 1:16, we are told that the Kenites settled in the Arad Valley, and scholars have long suggested that the city of Horvat Uza is biblical Kina, since the stream in its vicinity is called Wadi-el-Keni, i.e., the Kenite Stream. Excavations of the Iron II (monarchic period) city there show that whereas the neighboring (Israelite!) towns had small carvings of people, Horvat Uza had none. Nadav Na’aman, a historian of the biblical period from Tel Aviv University, suggested that this was because the Kenites were especially connected to their ancient, aniconic tradition.
Similarly, one Kenite figure from a later period, Jehonadab ben Rechab (1 Chron 2:55), is described as having joined Jehu’s anti-Baal movement (2 Kgs 10:15-16). In Jeremiah we hear that this group—the Rechabites, a Kenite subclan—lived a nomadic tent-dwelling life, without building houses or planting fields, and eschewed wine consumption. This lifestyle is reminiscent of what we see in later times with yet another Arabic tribe, the Nabateans, who were also aniconic.
Even if the exact relationship between Midianites, Kenites, and Rechabites remains hazy—except that the latter two small groups became part of Israel and the former large group did not—all of these groups were part of an aniconic, YHWH worshipping tradition, which was adopted and reshaped by the Israelites in an early period.
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Prof. Israel Knohl is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Hebrew University. Knohl’s numerous publications include: The Sanctuary of Silence, which won the Z. Shkopp Prize for Biblical Studies and The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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