Synopsis of YHWH, Snake God of Israel
H. Abdul Al-Dahir
The article, YHWH, Snake God of Israel, discusses the origins of the Hebrew god, who is YHWH (generally pronounced Yahweh). YHWH has been depicted as a Semitic creator god with no known idol image. However, history and the Bible tell a very different story. In the Biblical book, Numbers, 21:9, YHWH’s image as a snake coiled around a pole was carried by Moses before the Hebrews who fled Egypt, an event labeled as the Exodus. Later, according to 2 Kings 18:4, the Israelite King Hezekiah destroyed this snake image of YHWH because the populace was worshiping it. However, the Israelites continued to display YHWH’s image in numerous other places as on Hebrew altars, as epigraphic images in the Negev desert, on synagogue stones and on various cult objects as offering jars and vases. The origin of the cult can be traced to several locations in the Middle East. However, there are 2 main trajectories for the entrance of YHWH into ancient Canaan now known as Palestine. The first trajectory was from the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula where occurs the earliest form of the name YHWH which is Ya/Yh. Ya/Yh may be a form of the Semitic word ‘hy/hw’ which means to live, life.
The Negev inscriptions are an early form of Semitic writing which appears in the Negev Desert or southern Palestine. Archaeologists have assigned dates for these inscriptions anywhere from 2000 to 1000 BCE. Later Hebrews combined the word ‘yh/ya’, with the ancient West Semitic word for snake, ‘hwh’, to form the name of their god YHWH, which literally means ‘Yah, the snake’ or ‘the living snake god’ . The combination seems odd until one considers that the early Hebrews adopted the Sanskrit word for snake, ‘nagas’, from their northern Indo Aryan neighbors, the Mitannis. The Hebrew word for snake became ‘nachash’. However, the ancient Semitic word for snake, ‘hwh’ (pronounced both as chawa and hawa), was appended to the name Yah, thus making it clear to all that Yah was a snake god.
The name Yah also shows up in early Minaean inscriptions. According to J.A. Montgomery, PhD, these inscriptions date from between 1500BCE to 1300BCE. The Minaeans were a caravan tribe, which originated in Hadhramaut, which is located in Yemen. They later settled along the Western trade route. Their capital was Al Ma’in, in the Arabian Peninsula. A large Minaean colony settled at Dedan (the Biblical name for the Minaeans), the capital of which was Al Ula, also located in the Arabian Peninsula. This tribe settled on the borders of the Midianites, whose territory was Qurrayah (Northwestern Saudi Arabia), Edom and Moab (both located in Southern Palestine). Midian, according to Genesis, is the son of Abraham through his third wife Keturah. It was this tribe into which Moses married. These Midianites were known to the Egyptians as the Shasu of Yhw which means ‘the Bedouin who worship YHWH’. Dedan (Ma’in or Minaean) is a grandson of Abraham through his second son by Keturah, Jokshan (Qahtan in Arabic). The Hebrews were not only related to both of these tribes, but, according to the Book of Isaiah 30:6, they traded incense with them and then transported this incense into Egypt. According to J.A. Montgomery, in his book, Arabia & the Bible, it was the Minaeans who brought the cult of Yah with them from the southern coast of Arabia.
The cult of Yah appears to have been derived from the harvesting of the frankincense tree; a tree which was infested with gliding (flying in the Bible) poisonous snakes (Genus Chrysopelea). These snakes appear to have been regarded as protectors of the precious frankincense, which, along with myrrh, gold and copper, made the tribes from the southern coast of Arabia so wealthy. According to the Negev inscriptions, Yah was worshipped as a snake god who guarded the tree of life, which was the frankincense tree. Yah is written as a snake’s head with a protruding forked tongue (Old Negev script Y + H which is written as >——O). There are also full blown images of this snake god in these Negev inscriptions. There is an image of Yah portrayed as a snake head with the tree of life protruding from his mouth ( refer to image “Har Karkom, Harris/Hone, April 1997”). Refer to the images of Yah. It is this snake god which the Hebrews adopted from the Midianites thru the Minaeans that is referred to in the Bible.
The 2nd trajectory of the name YHWH was through Egypt. The Egyptians were known for their snake cults, the most famous of which was the snake cult of Wadjet. Wadjet was depicted as a spitting cobra (Naja Pallida) and was the protective deity of lower Egypt and Nubia. Wadjet’s image was displayed on the crown of the Pharaoh as a uraeus or the upright image of a spitting cobra. The Pharaoh’s nemes headdress, which symbolized the flaring hood of Wadjet, and the uraeus portrayed the Pharaoh as Egypt’s protective deity. (Ref: golden death mask of Tutankhamon). Pharaoh protected Egypt just as Wadjet protected him.
The people who settled Canaan (Palestine) came from many directions; one of the main directions was from Egypt. Egypt’s delta was inhabited by Western Semites or people who came from the Levant. These Western Semites were known to the Egyptians as Hyksos, which means foreign rulers.They ruled Egypt for a short period of time and then were expelled by the Egyptians. They fled through the Sinai and into Canaan (Palestine) and other areas of the Levant where they settled.
The Hyksos worshiped at least 2 Egyptian gods, Seth and the snake god, Apep. When they settled into Canaan, they brought with them their Egyptian god, Seth, whom the Biblical authors assigned as the 3rd son of Adam, who replaced the slain Abel. As for their snake god Apep, the Hyksos or their descendants (some of whom were known as Hebrews), exchanged his name for the local snake god, Yah. Yah was a Semitic god and the Hebrews made sure that all understood that Yah was a snake god. They combined the name ‘Yah’ with the West Semitic word for snake, which was hw or hwh. (Much later, (as explained above) the Hebrews borrowed their word for snake, ‘nachash’, from the Sanskrit word for snake which was ‘nagas’. They borrowed this word from the local Mitannis, people who lived in Northern Mesopotamia and Southeastern Turkey). Thus, the name Yh became YHWH, which means Yah, the snake or the living snake god.
Moon gods were often associated with snakes in Semitic cultures, as the Minaean god, Wadd, whose sacred animal was the snake as was YHWH who was represented by the nehushtan or snake coiled around a pole. Also of interest is the Egyptian moon god Iah, who became associated with YHWH. According to the Wikipedia article, Iah: “Iah ( Egyptian: J’h, transliterated as Yah, Jah, Jah(w), Joh or Aah ) is a god of the moon in ancient Egyptian religion. His name simply means moon.” Yhw seems to be a variation of Jah(w), an early form of the name YHWH. The Semites who worshiped Yhw in Canaan were known to the Hebrews as Midianites, but the Egyptians named them the Shasu of Yhw which means the Bedouin of YHWH. The Shasu of Yhw were a Semitic people who may have syncretized their snake god Yah with the Egyptian moon god, Iah .
Iah can be traced to the Old Kingdom where he became associated with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. However, since this god was not popular until the Middle Kingdom when the Hyksos ruled Egypt, it is unclear whether the Iah of the Middle Kingdom was imported into Egypt by the early Semitic Hyksos or was adopted into their religion from an Egyptian source. The name Iah and Yhw are spelled differently in hieroglyphics. This difference in spelling is due to the variations in pronunciation. The word ‘Yhw’ then is likely an Egyptian transliteration of the Semitic pronunciation of this word. The name of the Egyptian moon god, Iah, is pronounced similarly to the ancient Semitic word yah, which many scholars have translated as both snake and life. The similarity in pronunciation of the two words, Iah and Yah may be the source of YHWH’s association with the moon in the Hebrew cult and Wadd’s, the Minaean moon god, ophic associations in the Minaean religion. According to Exodus, Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Sinai is a form of the Akkadian word, ‘sin’, which means moon.
The Hyksos and the Midianites brought their snake cults with them into Canaan. These tribes intermarried with the Hebrews who adopted their cults to which were added the horned altars and tent shrines which are described in the Biblical Book, Exodus. According to Exodus, YHWH ordered these altars and shrines to be built with the “horn” or the uraeus. The Hebrews built the altars with a uraeus (image of an upright spitting cobra, who was the deity Wadjet) on each of the 4 corners, and, to make sure that all understood the meaning of the uraeus, they carved the image of YHWH as a snake on this altar. A good example is the Beersheba altar.
This snake cult persisted. It had its own temple caretakers and priestly caste, which were the Levites; a name which means the coiling ones. The cult also had devotees or Nazarites, who were especially dedicated to the snake god YHWH. They grew their hair long from their temples so that their sideburns resembled the coils of a snake. They also grew their hair into dreadlocks which also imitated the coils of their snake god. Eventually, the Judean King, Hezekiah (715-686 BCE), attempted to stamp out this snake cult. The attempt failed for Ezekiel (lived circa 550 BCE) recorded that the elders of Israel were still worshiping the snake god (Ezekiel 8:10-12). The Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians, marched into exile and returned to Palestine under Persian domination. The king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, a monotheist, financed the Hebrew temple at Jerusalem. But as late as 100AD, the Hebrews continued to carve YHWH as a snake on their temple walls. See the Galilean Migdal Synagogue Stone:
On the Stone face:
2 trees of life: These are stylized images of the frankincense tree. Around the trunks of the trees, one can see a coiling snake.
Center of Stone: The flower of life, often referred to as the tree of life by the Hebrews. The flower contains 6 petals and may be a stylized depiction of the 5 petaled flowers on the branches of the frankincense tree.
The ouroboros: the snake consuming its own tail surrounds the flower of life, also known as the tree of life to the Hebrews. The eye and the mouth of the snake are clearly visible on the right side of the flower. The ouroboros is ancient Egyptian in origin and is contained in “The Book of the Netherworld”. The ouroboros is a symbol the cyclical nature of creation. Here, the ouroboros represents YHWH as the guardian of the tree of life.
The leaves: The 4 stylized leaves of the frankincense tree can be seen as heart shapes. These heart shapes can also represent the flared hoods of spitting cobras.
Geometric Designs: Cross inside diamond inside square: Stylized ankhs or the Egyptian key of life.
Menorah: stylized tree of life or frankincense tree.
Today, most modern worshipers of YHWH have no inkling about his ophidic (snake) origins. However, the same cannot be said of the the Israeli archaeologists who have been unearthing the snake image of YHWH in every corner of Palestine including Hazor, Megiddo, Beth Shan, Beth Shemesh, Timna, Jericho, Gezer and Gideon. One can only conclude that these scientists have chosen to withhold the meaning of these snake images from the public. Perhaps they have been warned by the occupation authorities that releasing this information may adversely affect the political and economic future of occupied Palestine.