TIMNA – Around 3,200 years ago, the great empires around the Mediterranean and the Middle East suddenly imploded. The Egyptians retreated from Canaan and the copper mines of Timna in the Negev, skulking back to the banks of the Nile. And in the arid wastes of southern Canaan, a new power arose.
The Timna mines were taken over by semi-nomadic tribes, which set up a mining operation that dwarfed the previous Egyptian industry.
This new desert kingdom would leave its mark on the main building at Timna: the Egyptian temple of Hathor, protector of miners. The new masters smashed the effigy of the Egyptian deity – leaving the fragments to be found by archaeologists more than 3,000 years later – and set up over the ruins of the temple a tent sanctuary, judging by the remains of heavy red and yellow fabric found in the 1970s.
There they worshipped a new god, one that had no apparent name or face.
That miners' god was none other than the deity known by the four Hebrew letters YHWH, who would become the God of the Jews and, by extension, of Christians and Muslims, claims Nissim Amzallag, a biblical studies researcher at Ben-Gurion University.
According to Amzallag, long before becoming the deity of the Israelites, Yahweh was a god of metallurgy in the ancient Canaanite pantheon, worshipped by smelters and metalworkers throughout the Levant, not just by the Hebrews. His theory is not exactly widely accepted, but has recently been gaining traction.
Roughly from the 19th century, biblical scholars began looking at scripture less as records of divine revelations and more as historical and literary documents. This has led, for example, to the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis,” which considers the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to be a compilation from multiple sources, each produced by different authors with their own beliefs and agendas.
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But mysteries remain: where did the YHWH cult originate? Who were the first people to worship him? And how did he end up being the sole deity of a group called Israel, who, as their very name says (in Hebrew), didn’t even start out as a Yahwistic people, but as followers of El, the main god of the Canaanite pantheon?
Fire and brimstone
Most scholars already believe that the cult of Yahweh first emerged somewhere in the southern Levant, partly based on Egyptian texts from the late second millennium B.C.E. These documents describe groups of Canaanite nomads collectively known as Shasu, including one tribe named Shasu Yhw(h) – perhaps the first recorded Yahweh worshippers in history.
The Bible itself may contain a memory of this southern origin of Yahweh, as it tells us explicitly that God “came from Teman” (Habbakuk 3:3) or that he “went out of Seir” and “marched out of Edom” (Judges 5:4-5) – all toponyms associated with the area ranging from Sinai to the Negev and northern Arabia.
“Everybody recognizes these southern origins of Yahweh, but most scholars stop there,” Amzallag says. “This forms the basis of my theory as well, but I take it a step forward.”
Reading between the lines, the Bible contains clues pointing to an original identity for Yahweh as a metallurgical deity, he says.
In the Bible, Yahweh’s appearance is usually accompanied by volcanic-like phenomena. When he descends upon Mt. Sinai to reveal the Torah to the Jews, the mountain erupts in fire, spewing lava and billowing clouds accompanied by earthquakes and thunderstorms (Exodus 19:16-19).
In antiquity, metallurgical deities like the Greek Hephaestus or his eponymous Roman equivalent, Vulcan, were associated with volcanic descriptions - which closely mirror the smoke, fire, black slag and molten red metal produced in the smelting process, Amzallag says.
Poetic metaphors throughout the Bible describe Yahweh as a fiery deity who makes the mountains smoke (Psalms 144:5) and melts them down (Isaiah 63:19b), just like smelters melt down ore to obtain copper and other metals, the researcher notes. In fact, in Psalm 18:18 Yahweh is depicted as anthropomorphized furnace: “smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.”
To ancient people, the process of melting down rocks to extract metal would have “appeared completely preternatural and required a divine explanation,” Amzallag told Haaretz.
Yahweh’s metallurgical attributes were also on display in the pillar of fire and smoke by which he guides the Hebrews in the desert (Exodus 13:21) and the cloud that accompanies his visits to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9-10), a simpler version of the Tabernacle in which Moses speaks face to face with God.
The description of this tent bears remarkable similarities to the sanctuary in Timna, further suggesting that 3,000 years ago, this place may have been dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, Amzallag maintains.
Yahweh, god of the Edomites?
But wait a minute - the Bible and most archaeologists agree that after the collapse of the Egyptian empire in the 12th century B.C.E., Timna was taken over by the Edomites, not the Israelites. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium-davidian-era-textiles-found-at-timna-1.5408868
While the Bible goes to great lengths to describe Israel’s neighbors – such as the Edomites, the Midianites and the Moabites – as dastardly pagans, the text also betrays that Yahweh was worshipped by these nations too, possibly even before the Israelites did so, Amzallag notes. Genesis 36, for example, makes it clear that the Edomites are descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother, and lists Edomite monarchs who ruled “before any Israelite king reigned” (Genesis 36:31).
The Ammonites and Moabites are listed as descendants of Lot (Genesis 19:37-38), the nephew of Abraham and pious Yahweh-believer who escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In other words, the genealogies of the Bible contain the memory of an ancient confederation of Canaanite peoples, who may have considered themselves all descendants of Abraham and who all worshipped Yahweh alongside other gods, Amzallag posits.
We should trust the Bible on this, he says, because its editors wouldn't have wanted to admit that the cult of Yahweh was not exclusive to Israel. "So, if they reference it, it must be true,” Amzallag concludes.
Further biblical evidence of this broadened base of worshippers can be found in the Book of Exodus, where a key role is played by Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who lives near the mountain of God (alternatively called Horeb and Sinai).
It is Jethro who indirectly leads Moses to his first meeting with Yahweh at the burning bush. And it is he who inaugurates the Tent of Meeting with a sacrifice and proclaims that “Yahweh is greater than all other gods” for having freed the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Exodus 18:7-12).
But Moses’ father-in-law is not an Israelite: he is described alternatively as a Midianite priest (Exodus 3:1) and a Kenite (Judges 1:16).
Now, according to Bible, the Midianites were descendants of Midian, another son of Abraham, which again supports the idea of the existence of an extended family of Yahwistic peoples. The Kenites, on the other hand, are a tribe descended from Cain and described as living among all the peoples of the Levant and specializing in crafts and metalworking, which, according to Amzallag, is further evidence that Yahweh’s first incarnation was as a smelting god.
Note that the so-called Midianite-Kenite hypothesis goes back to the 19th century, when biblical scholars saw Jethro’s story as evidence that these groups introduced the Israelites to the worship of Yahweh. Amzallag seems to be the first to stress the metallurgical side of this hypothesis and link Yahweh specifically to the rites and cults of ancient miners and smelters.
Copper mining at Timna and at other remote sites like Faynan, today in southern Jordan, was central to the region’s economy, employing not just miners and smelters, but blacksmiths, traders and other workers in every town and village of Canaan. These people, identifiable as the biblical Kenites, would have been held in high regard and seen as being close to the divine because they possessed knowledge about the secret and mysterious process of copper smelting, Amzallag says.
Or maybe the god of storms
“There is no doubt that at least for the Edomites, and possibly for their neighbors, religion had to go hand in hand with what was their most important activity,” says Erez Ben-Yosef, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who leads a team excavating at Timna. “They depended on the success of these operations and they definitely would have felt they needed the help of a god in the complex smelting process and in organizing these mining expeditions to distant, arid areas.”
We have no direct proof that the metallurgical god, worshipped at the Edomite sanctuary in Timna from the 12th to the 10th century B.C.E., was Yahweh: there is no inscription invoking his name. But the kinship described in the Bible between the Israelites and the Edomites, and the metallurgical attributes of Yahweh in the holy text, are “compelling arguments” supporting Amzallag’s theory that this god was worshipped by multiple peoples as a deity connected to metallurgy, Ben-Yosef concludes.
There are skeptics.
“The theory is interesting but I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that the first worshippers of Yahweh were metallurgists,” says Thomas Romer, a world-renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and a professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. There is strong evidence connecting the Israelites and the Edomites, and maybe the latter worshipped Yahweh as well, says Romer, author of “The Invention of God,” a book about the history of Yahweh and the biblical text.
However, Romer disagrees with Amzallag’s interpretation of the supposed volcanic phenomena described in the Bible. He thinks they are more indicative of a god of storms and fertility, similar to the Canaanite god Baal.
“It is quite common for storm gods in antiquity to make the mountains tremble, but is this really an allusion to volcanism or is it just showing the power of the god?” Romer says.
Iron trumps bronze
If, and that’s a big if, Amzallag’s theory is correct, a niggling question remains: how did this smelting god, worshipped by the semi-nomadic peoples all over the southern Levant become the solitary national deity of just one of these nations, the Israelites?
That may have had to do with the rise of the Iron Age, Amzallag says. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, two relatively rare elements. Iron is much easier to find and just needs to be combined with another common element, carbon, to produce one of the strongest metals known to man: steel.
By the 9th century B.C.E., copper production at Timna and the rest of the Levant had all but shut down and the process of smelting had lost much of its mystique. In the Iron Age, Mediterranean metal workers lost their elite status and were simply seen as skilled craftsmen rather than quasi-priests or magicians.
In parallel, their gods either lost their importance in the local pantheon and were forgotten, or were transformed, acquiring different attributes and characteristics, Amzallag says. Meanwhile, the loose coalition of Canaanite nomadic tribes who once saw themselves as descendants of the same patriarch, had morphed into a patchwork of small, centralized kingdoms, each vying for the status of regional power. Conflict became inevitable, and indeed the Bible is filled with stories of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors, who are invariably depicted as evil.
As each nation attempted to gain political and military supremacy over the other, the Israelites may have also tried to establish their spiritual superiority, depicting themselves as favored children of a powerful god, or, to use a biblical turn of phrase - a Chosen People.
“To gain primacy and become the chosen people of God, they had to remove the metallurgical origins of Yahwism and disconnect him from the other nations,” says Amzallag. But while weeding out explicit mentions of Yahweh’s roots, the editors of the Bible could not completely ignore the traditions and stories that were already an integral part of the identity of this cult, he suggests.
Yahweh’s fiery attributes or the stories of a shared Abrahamic origin for the peoples of the Levant are echoes of more ancient beliefs, he says, clues that remind us that “once there was no exclusive connection between God and Israel. Initially, God belonged to all.”