A reader writes:

Old Testament scholars like Knauf and Romer make a case for YHWH being a storm god related to Qos and Edomite religion, based on a linguistic case.

If their theory was plausible and you had to accept it, how would you reconcile that with your faith? Assume that their arguments are very convincing. How would you reconcile that with orthodox theology?

Since most people aren’t very familiar with the Edomites, let me begin my response with some background . . .

 

Meeting the Edomites

The Edomites were a people who lived in a region to the south of Israel. The Old Testament indicates that they were related to the Israelites. Their patriarch—Edom, also known as Esau—was the brother of Jacob, who was also known as Israel. The two peoples are thus deemed as being related by blood.

Just as Jacob and Esau had a sibling rivalry, so did the peoples that descended from them, and they often found themselves in competition and conflict, though they also had a shared sense of kinship that endured.

Thus one of the criticisms of the Edomites in the book of Obadiah is that they took advantage of Israel’s distress and even raided Jerusalem, despite the fact that they were kinsmen (Obad. 10-14).

This sense of kinship indicates a shared heritage that would likely includes religious elements. Thus we find archaeological evidence of the worship of Yahweh in Edom. Bert Dicou explains:

Evidence for an old connection of YHWH with Edom can also be found in extra-biblical sources. Some inscriptions found in Kuntillet ’Ajrud, mentioning the ‘YHWH of Teman’ besides a ‘YHWH of Samaria’, may even be interpreted as suggesting that in Edom (at least, in Teman) around 800 bce (the time of the inscriptions) YHWH was worshipped, since the expression ‘YHWH of Samaria’ clearly refers to YHWH as present in his cultic centre in Samaria (Edom, Israel’s Brother and Antagonist, 179).

 

The Deity Qos

The major Edomite deity was named Qos, and scholars have wondered about the relationship between Qos and Yahweh. Unfortunately, the Old Testament gives us virtually no positive information, although some have tried to mount an argument from silence. Dicou explains:

A problem within the religion history of Israel and its neighbours is the puzzling absence of the most important Edomite god, Qos, in the Old Testament. Whereas the gods of the other neighbours are rejected as well as mentioned by their names, neither happens to the Edomite god or gods...

This can possibly be explained by assuming that Edom’s Qos did not differ very much from Israel’s YHWH—which must have made it difficult to reject him. It has been asserted that there are important correspondences between YHWH and Edom’s god Qos (176-177).

 

Same God, Different Name?

One possibility is thus that Qos and Yahweh are the same God being referred to by different terms.

This would not be surprising, as in the Old Testament itself, Yahweh is referred to by multiple terms: El, Elohim, Adonai, etc.

The same is true of other deities in the Old Testament. Thus the generic term Ba’al (Hebrew, “Master”) is also called Hadad, Chemosh, etc.

We often see how the same deity could be called by different terms across linguistic barriers. Thus the Latin-speaking Romans referred to the same deity by the names of Jupiter and Jove that Greek-speakers referred to as Zeus.

Even today, language barriers result in Christians all over the world using different terms for God:

  • Spanish-speaking Christians refer to God as Dios
  • Polish-speaking Christians refer to God as Bog
  • German-speaking Christians refer to God as Gott
  • Arabic-speaking Christians refer to God as Allah
  • Finnish-speaking Christians refer to God as Jumala
  • Hungarian-speaking Christians refer to God as Isten

You get the point.

Given all this terminological diversity, it’s quite possible that the Israelites and the Edomites, at least at times, simply used different terms for the same deity.

This is all the more plausible since the Edomites didn’t speak exactly the same language as the Israelites, and even in Hebrew, God can be referred to with terms as different as El and Yahweh.

Maybe in Edomite he was Yahweh and Qos.

This would explain why Qos isn’t condemned in the Old Testament the way other foreign deities are.

 

Yahweh a Storm God?

The reader referred to the idea that Yahweh and Qos may have been storm gods, but we need to be careful here.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is not presented simply as a storm god. He is the God of everything, and everything includes storms.

Storms are very powerful, and thus they make a good metaphor for divine power. It’s thus no surprise that various Old Testament books use storm imagery in connection with Yahweh.

Despite the use of storm themes in the Old Testament, the biblical writers did not conceive of Yahweh simply as a storm god.

For them, he was the everything God—the Creator of the entire world—and they also use fire themes, harvest themes, healing themes, birth themes, death themes, battle themes, and many others. But that wouldn’t let us reduce Yahweh to simply being a fire god, a harvest god, a healing god, a birth god, a death god, or a war god.

 

Yahweh vs. Ba’al

There’s also another reason to be careful about thinking of Yahweh as principally a storm god: When the Old Testament uses such imagery in connection with him, it is often part of a deliberate attempt to subvert Ba’al worship.

In the Canaanite pantheon, Ba’al was the storm god. In Canaanite mythology, Ba’al also famously had a conflict with the sea god, Yam, who he conquered.

During much of the Old Testament period, Israelites were tempted to worship Ba’al (and the other Canaanite deities), but the prophets make it very clear that Yahweh and Ba’al are two different deities.

That’s why—if you’ll pardon a storm-related pun—they thunderously denounce Ba’al worship.

We thus find the biblical authors using Ba’al-related imagery to subvert Ba’al worship. By using storm imagery for Yahweh, they are saying, “Ba’al isn’t the true lord of the storm; Yahweh is.”

Similarly, the biblical authors subvert Ba’al worship when they make it clear that it was actually Yahweh who set the boundaries of the sea (Job 38:10-11Prov. 8:29Psa. 104:9Jer. 5:22)—the Hebrew word for which is also yam.

We thus have to be careful that we recognize what the biblical authors are doing with storm imagery and not simply reduce Yahweh to being a storm god.

 

Revelation, Loss, and Clarification

The Bible depicts God and man as experiencing an original unity. This implies that God revealed himself to us at the dawn of our race.

However, as the Old Testament makes clear, our knowledge of God became disfigured by sin, and the worship of other gods was introduced.

The disfigurement became so bad that, prior to the time of Abraham, the ancestors of the Israelites worshipped the Mesopotamian deities (Josh. 24:214-15).

But God began to rebuild knowledge of himself by calling Abraham and giving him new revelation. This knowledge was further clarified with the revelation given to Moses, and later through the prophets and other biblical writers.

We thus see a process whereby the original knowledge of God was largely lost, but God began to reintroduce knowledge of who he was and thus clarify our understanding of him.

This process was gradual and messy. At first, many of God’s people worshipped other deities in addition to him (Gen. 31:34-35Lev. 17:7Josh. 24:14). This continued even after God brought the Israelites into the promised land.

But through the prophets’ repeated calls, God made it clear to the Israelites that this must stop, and by the end of the Babylonian Exile, the practice was definitively ended.

 

Avoiding Overreach

One of the difficulties that scholars have in piecing together how this process worked is the small amount of information we have about this period in history.

Aside from the Old Testament, we have little literature about Israel and its immediate neighbors (Edom, Moab, Midian, etc.), and the Old Testament does not give us a great deal of information about many of these questions.

As a result, scholars are often left to simply guess at many issues pertaining to these early periods.

For example, one scholar (M. Rose) has proposed that Qos was not the same deity as Yahweh, and his worship was introduced only later. Dicou explains:

Rose maintains that only in later times, namely the eighth or seventh centuries bce, did the god Qos, of Arabian origin, come to be known in Edom. Nothing is known about the god who was worshipped before Qos, but it is not unlikely that it was the same god as the one of the Israelites, namely, ‘YHW’ (178).

In other words, the Edomites may have originally worshipped Yahweh, but later Qos was introduced and became their most popular deity.

How would that transition have happened? We don’t know.

Would it even have been clear to the Edomites from the beginning that Yahweh and Qos were different deities? We don’t know that either.

Scholars of religion have noted that there can sometimes be confusion about the identity or non-identity of deities, and it can go back and forth.

Sometimes—for some worshippers—Deity X will be regarded as the same as Deity Y. But other times—for other worshippers—Deity X and Deity Y will be clearly distinct.

Thus in different streams of Hinduism, the deities are sometimes considered to be separate, but in other streams they are all considered aspects of a single, ultimate God.

Closer to home, the God of the Bible was regarded by the first Christians as one, but heretics like Marcion and the Gnostics came to think of the God of the Old Testament as a fundamentally different being than the God of the New Testament.

A modern example of the same phenomenon can be seen in the fact that many Christians today are willing to acknowledge that God is also worshipped by Jews and Muslims, even if they have an incomplete or partially erroneous understanding of him. But others will vigorously deny that Muslims worship the same God as Christians.

The same phenomenon happened in the ancient world. Not everybody had the same understanding of whether this god was the same as that god.

Therefore, some Edomites may have understood Yahweh and Qos to be the same, but others may have disagreed, and the popularity of the two viewpoints may have gone back and forth over time.

We just don’t know.

This is why we have to be careful to avoid overreach—to avoid going beyond what the evidence allows us to say with confidence.

Scholars may legitimately speculate about how the identification or non-identification of various gods developed over time, precisely how the worship of these gods arose and when, etc., however we must always bear in mind that these are just speculations.

The truth is that we don’t have the evidence we would need to be sure.

 

“Not Without Witness”

Although the biblical evidence—as well as the archaeological record—makes it clear that man’s knowledge of the Creator was strongly disfigured, the New Testament establishes the principle that he did not leave himself without witness.

In Acts, Paul explains that he did so at least through the creation itself:

In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:16-17).

He makes a similar point in Romans:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-20).

And thus people in various cultures have reasoned their way to the existence of the Creator. This included figures in polytheistic Greece, some of whom Paul quotes:

Yet he is not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:27-28).

If God cared enough to make it possible for us to always learn about him through creation—what is sometimes called “general revelation”—then it is reasonable to suppose that he also always continued to give “special revelation”—that is knowledge about him disclosed through visions, prophecies, etc.

This would apply even in the dark times before Abraham and Moses and even in communities other than Israel.

Thus we find figures like the Jebusite king Melchizedek, who “was priest of God Most High” (Gen. 14:18), the Midianite priest Jethro, who rejoiced at what God did for Israel under Moses (Exod. 18:9-12), and the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam, who prophesied for Yahweh (Num. 22:8-24:25).

We thus see a knowledge and worship of the true God outside of Israel in these early times.

At our remote date, we cannot know the details of this knowledge and worship. It may have—and in fact almost certainly was—partial and at times confused, for that is what we see within Israel itself, as the struggles of the prophets indicate.

However, we can say that God always preserved a knowledge of himself, however dimly he was understood in a particular age, and however hybridized his worship came to be with pagan ideas.

We may be thankful that he did lead the Israelites along the path he did, that he did restore knowledge of himself, that he did clear away pagan confusions, and that he finally gave us the full revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, his Son.

 

Summary

With the above as background, I would offer a short summary of the response to the reader’s initial query as follows:

  • The speculations about Yahweh and Qos being storm gods who were related is, in fact, not at all certain.
  • However, even if it could be proved, there are a number of ways to square this with an orthodox Christian understanding:
    • Yahweh and Qos may well have been the same deity being worshipped under two names.
    • Yahweh may have been the earlier deity and Qos only introduced later.
    • God has always preserved knowledge of himself in the world. Even though it has been partial and overlaid with misunderstandings, God eventually clarified it and gave us his definitive revelation through his Son.