Skip to main content

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete & Jared talked with Ted Lewis about the origins of God as they explore the following questions: 

  • How does a historian differ from a theologian?
  • Why do we use the generic title of God when talking about the Christian God in our cultural context? 
  • Did God have a name? If so, why don’t we use it? 
  • What is the contrast between Yahweh and El? 
  • Why did ancients refer to their deity by a seemingly generic name like El or Elohim? 
  • Why is there a debate around the meaning of El Shaddai?
  • Where do scholars think Yahweh came from? 
  • What clues did the Shasu nomads give about the origin of Yahweh?
  • What is the Midianite hypothesis? 
  • What was the relationship between El and Yahweh in the ancient mind? 


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Ted Lewis you can share. 

  • “I’m very interested in how do we know what we know? We inherit views from our parents, our churches, our teachers, but I love probing why do we believe what we believe, and as a historian, I just see it as a thrill of investigation.” Ted Lewis
  • “What is the religion of all the Israelites? I want to know everything that’s in the Bible, but I also want to know what it’s reacting against, because I’m interested in the full society.” Ted Lewis
  • “The Bible is a part of that Canaanite world and it reflects a lot of the language of that world and they have shared terms. Yet the biggest distinctive of Israelite religion is the God Yahweh, and that is fascinating. Well, where does Yahweh come from?” Ted Lewis
  • “The beautiful thing and frustrating thing about the Bible – is it’s an edited text.” Ted Lewis

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. Well, we have some unfortunate news. This is our –

Pete: Before we get into our podcast.

Jared: This is our last episode –

[Dramatic pause]

Pete: For two weeks.

Jared: For two weeks.

Pete: [Overzealous maniacal laughter]

Gotcha going, fooled you people, fooled you.


[Background music begins, then slowly fades out]

Jared: So, we’re moving to our every other week schedule here –

Pete: Which we do every summer, people. Don’t email us – “how come the episodes not on?” Because it’s summer time!

Jared: [Laughter]

No, we will inevitably get someone who’s like, “Well, I think my podcast thing is broken.”

Pete: It broke! My computer broke!


Jared: [Laughter]

So, we’re announcing it this year.

Pete: And we do it in January, just for future reference.

Jared: Yes.

Pete: We do this twice a year.

Jared: Yes, so, today we’re talking with… who are we talking with?

Pete: Ted Lewis, who is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and he is a historian of antiquity, specifically of Israelite origins and who the Israelites were in their context.

Jared: And not only who the Israelites were, but as we’ll learn today, where did God come from?

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: The origins, also, of God.

Pete: Right, which has to do with Israel. So, it’s all connected. So, he’s interested in what the Israelites, how they understood God, what they thought about God, which is, we’ll get into that. It’s a subtly different kind of question than we typically ask ourselves, so –

Jared: Yup.

Pete: But yeah, so, the origins of God, let’s get into it.

[Music begins]

Ted: History is messy, really messy, but so is modern life. But if you’re an inquisitive person, the Bible just gives you this rich data set to work with and it’s a messy data set, and then add in archeology and inscriptions – I don’t see yet how a person couldn’t be attracted to being a historian if you have that type of inquisitive mind where you just have to know.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, Ted, welcome to our podcast!

Ted: Thank you.

Pete: Yeah, it’s good to have a scholar here of, well, let’s just talk about that. A scholar of what? What do you actually do? You are a historian, right? And what does that mean to be a historian, I guess, of the Bible or the biblical story or of Israel or whatever. Just help us understand what a historian does with all this stuff.

Ted: Yeah, I’m always very clear when I’m teaching to tell people that I wear this historian’s hat, and what I mean by that is, I’m, first of all, very interested in how do we know what we know? And we inherit views from our parents, our churches, our teachers, but I love probing why do we believe what we believe, and as a historian, I just see it as a thrill of investigation. Investigating ideas for ourselves and what they’re based on and so having some type of agency there.

Pete: Right.

Ted: And then I’m really quick to define what I’m not. I’m not a theologian, and what I mean by that is I’m not a systematic theologian who tries to weave all the data into a unified whole. For me, a historian is involved in what the history of humans. What do humans do? What are their ideas? And that’s really, really messy. So, for me, it mirrors what I see in our modern society that people have different ideas and that’s reflected in, as a historian of Israelite religion, I see all these different ideas in trying to make sense of it.

Pete: Right. So, it’s more than just, you know, the big topic here is God, right? We’re gonna get to that in a second, but when we’re talking about God and “the God of the Bible,” there’s more to it than simply reading passages on the surface. There’s sort of a backstory to that?

Ted: Yeah, and the backstory is you want to look at what the texts say themselves, but then know that those are in a cultural context. And so then, how do you think about who are these people who are writing it? What is their background? Does it make a difference if somebody writing it is a scribe or a commoner? And then thinking through the role of whoever is putting the Bibles together and editing it. And what they edit in and what they edit out is equally important. And then how do you figure out what the average person is doing? That’s where archeology comes in so that we have texts but we also have objects, and then quite often the objects can really fill in the gaps.

Pete: You mean objects like pottery or statues?

Ted: Pottery or figurines. So, for example, the Bible might say, “Don’t worship other gods.” Well, a historian, first of all, you have to read between the lines. If you have any law that says don’t do something, you can read between the lines and know that that means that people were doing it and that’s why they have the law to say, “stop that!”


So, if they have a law that says, you know, don’t worship other gods and don’t have idols to those gods, well, that tells you say, the normative teaching on that. Archeology tells what people are actually doing. Archeology might show that they actually do have a figurine in their house. So, it’s a no-no to the theologians, but it shows you what people are really doing.

Pete: So, just to back up for clarity here, there’s more involved to this than simply saying, “Here’s what the Bible says about God.” It’s about digging into who the people were who were doing the saying.

Ted: Right. And I’m very clear to say that I’m, I don’t, I’m not writing an Old Testament theology. Old Testament theologists usually would say this is what the Bible says on a specific topic, where we pick up or work on systematic theology. It put all the teachings of the Bible in a nice coherent system. I’m interested in when I write Israelite religion, what is religion of all the Israelites? So, I want to know everything that’s in the Bible, but I also want to know what it’s reacting against, because I’m interested in the full society.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Well, there’s a few specific things that we were talking about jumping into, and I’m really excited about these, so I wanted to maybe bring up the first one, and that is, something that I actually haven’t thought about a lot and that is how we just use the generic title, God, when we’re talking about the Christian God in our cultural context. We just say God and we sort of assume everyone knows what we’re talking about, but you make a big deal about the fact that that’s not God’s name. So, can you maybe talk a little bit about how names and titles function in ancient Israel?

Ted: Yeah, it really is, it’s something fascinating to probe, to think about, you know, did God have a name? And you think about it, god itself is not a name, neither is the noun “lord.” And our English translations have kind of obscured the fact that God did have distinct names, though you don’t see it in our translations. And it really matters, because think about how if somebody just called, rather than calling you Pete or Jared, they just call you “the man.” You know? Well, you’d say, no, my name –

Pete: Well, I get that sometimes.

Jared: Pete makes me call him that, just to be clear. But, uh –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

Ted: You know, our names are integral to our sense of self. You know, our sense of family and our identity and even how we use the names of other people tells us something about social perception and how we’re negotiating our way in the world. So, names are really, really important to our identity, and then to probe, well, did God have a name and if he did have it, then the next question is, well, why don’t we use it? You know, well, if you look at certain passages in the Bible, they really make sense if you put God’s name in there. For example, Jeremiah 16:21 says, God speaking, says, “and they shall know that my name is Yahweh.” Well, it’s translated in our Bibles, “they shall know that my name is the Lord.” Well, the Lord is, again, not the name. Or in Isaiah 42:8, God says in our translations, “I am the Lord, that’s my name.” Well, it reads much better if it’s, “I am Yahweh, that’s my name.”

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ted: You know? So, we have hints in the Bible itself that God has had names, the primary ones are El and Yahweh, and again, then the question is, well, you know, why don’t we use them?

Pete: Well, can we back up to the biblical stories because, you know, Yahweh’s in there. Right? That’s a name, but they also say God an awful lot. So, that’s interesting why sometimes there’s a name and sometimes there’s a title, but maybe even more interesting is why English translations do what they do. Could you explain that? Why do we have Lord in our English Bibles when it seems to be it’d be better to put God’s name in there rather than sort of reduce the name to a title?

Ted: One of the reasons why we don’t use God’s name is because of the results of monotheism. If there is only one God, then you can refer to that being as God and it kind of functions as a name. So, that’s one reason. Another reason is just reverence and I love the Jewish tradition that says you should love God so much that you take special care never to break his laws. And there’s a section in the Talmud called “The Sayings of the Father.”


It says you should build hedge around the Torah. It’s kind of a like a fence that would keep you from even getting close to breaking God’s commandments. So, if we have the commandment in Exodus 20, don’t take the name of God in vain, well, one of the ways to make sure you don’t do it is just never to use God’s personal name. So, again, in Jewish tradition, it said let’s just use a substitute rather than using God’s sacred name Yahweh that they use all the time in biblical period, let’s just put a safeguard in and read a substitute. For example, the word Adonai just means Lord, just use that instead. You know, Christianity had something similar in which, you know, think of the Lord’s prayer. We talk about “hallowed be thy name,” and yet we don’t have that same type of reverence that you would have of observant Jews who would say don’t even use it at all. I have, you know, students from Jewish backgrounds who will say, “I can’t use name Yahweh in your class, so I’ll either write YHWH, use the consonants, or I’ll use the substitute Adonai, which is just a noun meaning Lord, or even in English, I’ll write G-D.” But it’s that lovely tradition of you should love God so much you’d never even come close to taking his name in vain. Well, then, just don’t use it and that’ll protect you.

But I wear a historian’s hat. My historian hat says, yes, but in biblical times, they use God’s name on a daily basis. And I’m interested in, you know, what is that name and what did it mean and what’s the difference between Yahweh and El, these different names for God? And how does that reflect, you know, Israelite religion for all of society?

Jared: I think that’s a really important point, because you mentioned earlier that the historian is looking at the cultural context and to use a generic name, the name God as the title in our context really lifts us out of the ancient context and just makes it more relevant or applicable to us. I just think we would have a very different view of God if everyone used Yahweh because it sort of places us in a historical context where there are other Gods around, and so, it would’ve been really important to use God’s name because if you would’ve just said God back then, the first thing would be like, well, which god? You know? It’s like, growing up in Texas, we used Coke for all the names for soda –

Pete: [Laughter]

That’s blasphemy.

Jared: And then I come to the Northeast, and I say, can I get a Coke and they walk off! I’m like, no, you’re supposed to ask me what kind! And that’s kind of how it would’ve been, it’s like, well, God. Now we would just walk off, like, we know what you’re talking about. But back then they would ask, what kind? Like, who are you talking about? And I just think it definitely changes the dynamic of how we read our Bible. But you mentioned, you know, the differences between El and Yahweh, and I would throw in there maybe like, Elohim is a word that people have heard too. Could you maybe draw some distinctions in how those would’ve been used in the ancient world?

Ted: Yeah, I mean, first of all, we have all the data even in our English translations, you just have to know how to decode it. So, if you look at your English translation and they use the word LORD in small caps, that’s translating a Hebrew word Adonai, which just means lord or master. If you look at your English translation and it has LORD in all caps, typically small caps, that’s translating in the Hebrew God’s personal name Yahweh. So, that’s one way to kind of look and you can even figure out what the Hebrew says even without knowing any Hebrew. Whenever you see God translated in English translations, underneath that is either the personal name El, you know, many people know the personal name El Shaddai, I can talk more about that in a minute. So, God can have underneath it in the Hebrew, El, or it can just mean a common noun just meaning god small “g.” Similarly, the plural Elohim, you know, that too can be translated as God and that’s really hard for the translator. So, whenever you have the Hebrew that says El or Elohim, we translate it as God, but it could also be a personal name so you really have to study the text carefully to see where is it a personal name, and where is it just a common noun meaning God? It’s easier with Lord and Yahweh, it’s harder with the translation of El and Elohim.

Pete: And Elohim can also mean gods.

Ted: Yeah, it can mean the plural.

Pete: Just to complicate things even further.

Ted: Yeah, very complicated.


Pete: Right, so, I mean, I guess gets us back to, you know, what were the ancients thinking? You know? Like, I guess, I don’t mean to have this be too vague, but why did they talk like this about their deity? Like, why did they refer to their deity by a generic name like Elohim or El or are they generic names? Where do they come from?

Ted: El is not a generic name. El is actually a personal name, but once again these are obscured in our translation so that the most common personal name you see for El is El Shaddai. Older Christians recognize that because Amy Grant made a famous song in 1992.

Pete: Oh yes.

Jared: [Laughter]

Ted: You know? If you look at your English translations, that’s just translated God Almighty. But underneath in the Hebrew is a personal name El Shaddai. There’s other El names like El Berith, the God of the Covenant it’s usually translated, or El Elyon, God the Most High. In Hebrew, these are personal names. El Elyon, that’s who Melchizedek worshipped. A key verse to really see this and it puts it in a bit of a historical context too is Exodus 6:2-3 where God says to Moses in Hebrew, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai. But by my name Yahweh, I did not make myself known to them.” So right away, you see even a historical context there, that the writer is saying the patriarchs worship God under the name of El, specifically El Shaddai, again, in our English translations God Almighty, and then in Moses’s time, God reveals his special name Yahweh and says, “now this is new.”

Pete: So, El Shaddai, I mean, how would that best be translated to English? Should it just be translated as El, Almighty? Or should we say God Almighty because again, it’s not a title, it’s a personal name. Sort of the same problem with calling Yahweh Lord, right? It’s obscuring things a little bit?

Ted: Yeah. There’s a huge long debate, we don’t have to get into it here, as far as what the name means. You know, El Shaddai, it could mean God Almighty, but that root shadad can also refer to destruction, it can mean El, the one who destroys, and we even see that in the book of Job where it talks about, it comes like the destruction from the Almighty and it makes a word play, like the shôd from Shaddai.

Pete: Mmm.

Ted: It can also mean feel, the word shôd can also mean feel, so it can mean God of the feel, an agrarian title. It can mean the word breast, you know, God who gives fertility. So, in Genesis 49:25 is a really old poetic section about El is one who gives the blessings of breasts and womb. You know, he gives you children and helps them grow strong. So, there’s a huge debate about what does El Shaddai mean. They certainly knew back in their time, that’s why when they would use El Shaddai, it had that nuance to it.

Jared: So, let me see if I get this right, and I may not. But when God reveals, in Exodus 6, it’s El Shaddai, is that a, I guess I’m trying to understand is this God sort of absorbing all the other gods? Was there an El Shaddai that would’ve been a well-known deity in the region at the time and now Yahweh is saying, in the past, I was revealing myself as this El Shaddai, but actually, when you thought it was El Shaddai it was actually me and my real name is Yahweh. Is that what you’re saying?

Ted: Partly. The Bible is part of its world, you know, the Bible is an Ancient Near Eastern text that comes from the Ancient Middle East and reflects that world, so it’s going to have a lot of the similar vocabulary of their neighbors. The name El for God as a personal name was known in northern Syria as the name of the God of their pantheon. They had a full on pantheon, the head of the pantheon is a God named El. We have statues of that deity, we know what he looked like, he was elderly, he had a beard, he’s typically seen seated with his hand up raised in a benedictory position to bless you. So, the Bible is a part of that world, so it doesn’t, shouldn’t surprise us at all that the Bible also uses that name El for their God.


We can get more into like, the origin of Yahweh but what’s fascinating is Yahweh doesn’t appear anywhere outside of ancient Israel which is just a fascinating question because we have a lot of shared terms like that ancient society in Syria, it’s called Ugarit. They also have the name Baal, they also have a goddess by the name of Asherah. Well, read your Bible and those Canaanite gods pop right up in the book of Kings. So, the Bible is a part of that Canaanite world, and it reflects a lot of the language of that world and they have, you know, shared terms and yet the biggest distinctive of Israelite religion is the God Yahweh and that is fascinating. Then, well, where does he come from?

Pete: Yes. Where does it come from?

Jared: Yeah, let’s talk about that a little bit.

Pete: I’d love to at least hear your thoughts about that.

Jared: Yeah, because, and I want to position it too in terms of, so that people can stay clear on the narrative here. So, there’s a few different places where scholars think that Yahweh came from and you just explained one which comes from the North as part of this Canaanite, you know, because there is these other shared terms like El. But then, maybe continue on that story of where do scholars think Yahweh came from?

Ted: Yeah, so, again, I’m putting on my historian’s hat, okay? So again, I’m not asking questions of ontology or theology as far as God existence. I, for me, God is a given. As a historian, I’m trying to figure out what did the ancients think if you asked them, well, where did Yahweh come from? Did he travel with Abraham, you know, coming from Mesopotamia? Did he come with Moses up out of Egypt? Where did humans think that they first ran into this deity Yahweh? And of course, history is messy and it’s really, really messy when it comes to the historical origin of Yahweh because we have two sets of data and you can’t, it’s hard to reconcile the two.

The first one is the option of Yahweh came from the North. Why do we posit this? If you go straight North, you’re in the land of Syria. These are, the major civilization would be called Ugarit in the late Bronze period, Aramean traditions, so all this is ancient Syria. And if you look at the language they used to talk about religion, it’s extremely close linguistically and culturally to everything you see in the Bible. So, for example, their language for sacrifice is going to have the same word, or the same cognate word. So, it’d be equivalent to we have the word dictionary in English, French cognate dictionnaire – you can see, it’s the same cognate word. So, and their word for sacrifice would sound exactly cognate to the Hebrew word for sacrifice. Same, the same term for altar, the same term for their offerings whether it’s sheep or goats or doves, the name of the priest, the name of the high priest, it’s exactly the same cognate terms. And then you start adding everything, like, where do they practice religion? The word for temple, the word for sanctuary, the word for altar – they’re all exact cognates.

So, if you look at this you’ll say, well, it certainly looks like Israelite religion is part of this linguistic and cultural continuum coming down from the North. If you want to put biblical traditions in there, you have the patriarchs coming from the East, but they come down to the land of Israel through the North. So, everything is a perfect fit for all these northern origins except for one thing – no Yahweh. Right? So, the Northern tradition has all the culture and language. It’s the obvious place to look, and yet there’s not one mention of Yahweh.

In contrast, let’s look to the South. If you look to the South, and again, this would resonate with biblical traditions of the Exodus, Yahweh coming up from Egypt, well, here it’s really tantalizing that we have explicit references to what seems to be Yahweh, but very, very brief and very, very minor.

Pete: Are you saying Egyptian evidence?

Ted: Yeah, Egyptian.

Pete: Okay.


Ted: So, let me take you, everybody knows, you know, New Kingdom Egypt. These are the famous pharaohs we read about as far as Ramses II, Thutmose III, Akhenaten, the so called heretic pharoah who tried to work a version of monotheism with the sun god. Well, if you look in New Kingdom Egypt and this is basically, you know, 15th, 14th centuries BC, they know all about Semitic deities or Canaanite deities. So, look at even New Kingdom Egypt with their full Egyptian pantheon, there are six Canaanite deities who are extremely prominent. Three male – Baal, Resheph, and a guy named Horon; three female goddesses – Anat, Astarte, and a goddess named Qudshu. So, they know all about Canaanite deities and even kind of wove them into, you know, their Egyptian religion. What’s missing? Yahweh!

Okay, so, it’s really confusing why isn’t Yahweh among those six. Well, then, let’s go indigenous. Let’s go to the actual land of Canaan, right before you have all the Israelite presence in there. So, this could be, say, 14th century BC. The land of Israel, called the land of Canaan back then, was governed by the Egyptians. And we have Egyptian governors writing 382 letters back to pharaohs back in Egypt. So they give us a window into real indigenous, what’s going on in the land of Canaan or pre-Israel if you would, and they reflect their culture and one of the ways we can see what people, who people worship is throughout the ancient world, you put the names of the god who you worshipped in your personal names and in your children’s name, right, so why do we know there are the God El and Yahweh in ancient Israel? Well, think of someone like Ishmael. Ishmael’s name means “may the God El hear,” hear my prayer, probably. Or the king Uzziah, “iah” is shortened for Yahweh, so that would mean Uzziah’s name was Yahweh is my strength. So, personal names are like a personal testimony of your faith. Go back to those Egyptian letters. We have 382 letters filled with personal names and they have every god imaginable except for Yahweh. They’ve got, you know, Egyptian gods – Horus, Rah, Seth, the god Thoth; they’ve got Mesopotamian names in there – god Asheru, goddess Ninurta, West Semitic gods, you know, Asherah, Baal, etc., and no Yahweh. 2808

So, again, we’re, you almost feel like Yahweh is not there either – except for – we’ve got a little bit of data. We’ve got some geographical lists coming from the 18th and 19th Egyptian dynasties. This is, again, famous Ramses II. Often people think he’s the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and they’re very cryptic geographical lists and they talk about the land of the Shasu nomads of Yahweh.

Pete: Okay. Explain that.

Ted: They also talk about these same Shasu nomads, Shasu nomads of a place called Seir. So, it’s really a brief amount of material, but it’s got the name Yahweh in there and they’re also, the Shasu nomads have a place called Seir. We have archaic biblical poetry which we can tell and date linguistically and there’s two passages that talk about Yahweh coming from the South and coming from Seir, the same designation. One is Deuteronomy 33:2 that talks, “Yahweh came from Sinai, he dawned from Seir and with him were the myriads of holy ones.” Another passage is Judges 5, an old war poem, Judges 5:4-5 reads, “Oh Yahweh, when you settle from Seir, when you march from the staph of Edom,” which is in the South, “all the earth quaked before you,” before Yahweh coming up from Sinai.


So, these Shasu bedouin texts, these nomad texts, it’s really, really, you know, brief references, but we can locate it in time, and it seems to line up with this old poetry that says Yahweh came from the South.

Pete: So, Ted, Seir is in Edom?

Ted: We don’t know for sure –

Pete: But it’s South.

Ted: But when we look at parallel terms, you know, it seems to be south of the Dead Sea, straight south. And you see that in Judges 5:4, they have these parallel terms. Yahweh, when you march forth from Seir, parallel term, when you march from Edom.

Pete: Uh huh.

Ted: So, we have a good feel for where Edom is and that’s just south of the Dead Sea.

Pete: Okay, so, what do you feel about connecting back with I guess another theory, another south theory of Midian being sort of an important possible place, maybe, again, I’m not talking as a historian here, but at least what people thought where the location of Mount Sinai might be. So, I don’t know if we can fold those things together to try to get a sense of what the ancient Israelites were thinking about the origins of their God. Because Midian is even further South, right?

Ted: Yeah, now we’re getting really messy. And again, that’s why I love being a historian because it’s so messy you get to really wrestle. I mean, if you love detective stories and mysteries you’ve got to be a historian, right? Because that’s what we have all over the place.

Pete: Yeah.

Ted: So, the Midianites, there’s a classic theory in the field called the Midianite hypothesis, which is actually a pretty radical theory. It says not only was Mount Sinai maybe in Midian, but maybe the Midianites are the ones who first came up with Yahweh. And remember, Moses’s father-in-law was a priest of Midian, so maybe his father-in-law taught him all about Yahweh. So, unpack it a little more. Well, who are the Midianites? Well, the Midianites, you know, they’re mixed with another group of people called the Kenites. It is so mixed together that sometimes they’re called Midianites and sometimes Kenites. And as you start putting all this material together, sometimes they’re good guys and sometimes they’re bad guys.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ted: So, if you read Exodus 2-3, Moses had great, Moses has great relations with the Midianites. He marries Zipporah, a Midianite. He tends her father’s herds. You know, her father is a pious Midianite priest and he’s a trusted advisor who comes all, gives Moses ideas about legal administration in Exodus 18 that Moses then follows.

Pete: Yeah.

Ted: If you flip it over and look at other traditions about the Midianites, they’re terrible! You know, the Midianites sell Joseph into slavery. In Numbers 31 there’s a holy war against Midianites where they kill them. You know, Gideon defeats the Midianites in Judges 6. And then the Midianites are mixed with the Kenites named after Cain, the first murderer in the Bible. So, are Midianites good guys or bad guys? Well, they’ve got mixed traditions about this and the whole thing about did Moses’s father-in-law teach Moses about Yahweh comes out primarily to Exodus 18. In Exodus 18 talks about Moses’s father is named Jethro in this story. By the way, he goes by about three or four names if you want to track all this down.

Pete: [Light laughter]

Ted: Sometimes in Exodus 2 it’s called Reuel, you know, sometimes he’s called Hobab, sometimes he’s called the son of Reuel sometimes he’s called Jethro, and sometimes he’s called Jeth.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ted: So again, if you want messy data, it’s all over the place. In Exodus 18, here they call him Jethro, they call him a priest of Midian. And Moses, in Exodus 18, tells Jethro all that Yahweh did to pharoah and how Yahweh delivered them. Jethro rejoices in all the good things that Yahweh did, says, “Blessed be Yahweh who delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians,” and then he sacrifices burnt offerings to God.


Well, the theory that wants to promote the story that Jethro taught Moses says, well, he’s a known Midianite. Well, who is he gonna be sacrificing to? He’s sacrificing, probably to Yahweh, that he always knew of Yahweh. You know, it wouldn’t be the actions of a new initiate to the faith if he just got religion, Yahwistic religion right then, when he immediately sacrificed. No, he’s probably sacrificed to his old god, which is probably Yahweh.

Pete: Yeah.

Ted: The critique of this is if you read it carefully, after Moses tells Jethro all this material, Jethro says, now I know that Yahweh is greater. So, in my view, it’s more Moses’s attestation about this deliverance, which is a link that makes him become a priest of Yahweh. He’s never called a priest of Yahweh. So, I think that more than you know, Jethro becomes a convert to Yahwism.

Pete: Okay. So, let’s leave the Midianites out of this because they’re not helping at the moment. Right? So, I tried, but it’s an interesting hypothesis, but the hypothesis explains some things, but it doesn’t explain very well other things.

Ted: Right, exactly.

Pete: So, we have this Shasu that you mentioned, who are nomads that the Egyptians refer to. They’re from the South and the word “Yahweh” seems to be connected to these nomads.

Ted: Right.

Pete: Right, so –

Ted: And it probably was a people group.

Pete: It probably was a people group.

Ted: Yeah, and there’s a scholar at New York University, Dan Fleming, who just wrote a brand new entire book on that.

Pete: Really? Okay.

Ted: It’s called, basically, you know, Yahweh Before Israel. But originally, Yahweh is the name of a people group and then later, it got attached to the deity Yahweh.

Pete: Okay, yeah, that’s exactly what my memory, my memory clearly does serve me right. Yahweh is, in that context, in those Egyptian documentations, is not necessarily the name of the deity.

Ted: Right.

Pete: It’s the name of a people group, but it, you know, and Dan makes this argument that it sort of got folded into a religious system of some sort, I guess? Is that a way of putting it?

Ted: Right. And to clarify, the Shasu nomads can be in the North too, and Dan Fleming says, actually, the earlier stuff doesn’t have the Shasu tied up to the southern location Seir, so he basically throws out the southern aspect of Yahweh coming up from the South. So, he thinks that Yahweh people are northern group who eventually name, the deity is named after them.

Pete: How far north?

Ted: Up into Syria.

Pete: All the way up there? Okay. Interesting. I mean, you’re right, we have like, we have these foundational questions about Israelite religion, which is behind the text, you know, the text tells a much simpler kind of story, probably reflecting, you know, many, many centuries later, you know, in terms of how to put the stories together. But we have just a few tantalizing pieces of evidence, but the bottom line is I feel like we’re working with like, an 1,000 piece puzzle and we have about 40-50 pieces. You know? And we’re trying to put this picture together and like you said, it’s sort of the gift that keeps on giving if you’re a historian trying to ferret all this out and to suggest plausible ways of thinking about where this name Yahweh comes from.

Ted: Right. And I think it’s incredibly rich too, that by studying personal names of God, you see the different types of religion. So, in my work, you know, I’ve wrote two whole chapters on the God El because I found it so fascinating. If you look at the God El, he’s more tied to family protection. He’s like, there’s a segment or if you’ll call family religion. So, if you look at all the El traditions, it’s sacred space on small scale. We’re talking about stones and trees. You don’t have a massive temple. And it’s usually about families providing for their children, flocks, land, God is a shepherd – that’s a huge contrast to a national deity and that’s where the name Yahweh really resonates.

Pete: Mm hmm.


Ted: The god El is not a national deity tied to the monarchy. You know? So, again, there’s a huge change when we turn from the family El religion to state religion associated with Yahweh. It’s equivalent to Constantine in Christianity, you know?

Pete: Interesting, yeah.

Ted: El is just, you know, more a family deity. There’s no centralized city state system of governance, there’s no centralized temple, there’s no elaborate priesthood…

Pete: Like with Abraham and the stories in Genesis, right?

Ted: Yeah, and it’s really family religion. And it really turns, you know, Yahweh becomes adopted, you know, the name, really as state formation. And it’s really sociologic, a whole different game.

Jared: I want to try to clarify, because the way you’re talking about it, it kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier. Could you clarify the relationship between El and Yahweh in the ancient mind? Like, you say, you know, El was this kind of deity – would the ancients have seen those as two different deities, or would they have absorbed in the one conception the other as time dragged on? You know, you go through the centuries and El just becomes Yahweh. Or was there a time where they were two distinct deities?

Ted: Both/and.

Jared: Okay.

Ted: So, for some people they would’ve said, well, maybe these are two different deities, and again, if they’re in ancient Syria, they certainly would’ve thought there’s a difference between El, the patriarchal god, and Baal, the storm god, the warrior god, the fertility god. When you come into ancient Israelite religion, as much as the historian of Israelite religion might want to suggest otherwise, you know, that there might be two deities, that’s not the witness of the data we have. In the text that we have, El is fully conflated with Yahweh. Yahweh is El, El is Yahweh. So, all the adjectives, you know, associated with El, are fully woven onto Yahweh. So, just as El is a family god, Yahweh is also a family god.

Jared: So interesting.

Pete: And complicated. I think maybe, that’s one of the words for today and, but you know, I think it’s good just to understand that. You know? And it’s not to minimize, you know, the role of scripture in the lives of people because that’s, like, the first place we go to try to ferret some of these things out and then bring archeology and other kinds of artifacts into it, but the bottom line is that it is history is complicated and it’s messy and it’s probably a good idea just to sort of understand that and not come away with simplistic notions of, you know, the Bible is presenting this, you know, if you were there, things would’ve panned out exactly the way you read them there. It’s probably much, much more complicated. It is more complicated.

Ted: I love the fact that you’re using this vocabulary because if you ask my students, they laugh because that’s a sound bite I give them.

Pete: Yeah.

Ted: Especially my graduate students, whenever you’re pinned to say “What about this? We need a sound bite.” I said, “What are the first two words that should come out of your mouth? They should be, ‘it’s complicated.’”

Pete: Mm hmm, yeah!

Ted: Because it’s always complicated.

Pete: It’s true.

Jared: But Pete, I want to maybe, I don’t think challenge what you said, but I think explain it, because earlier you said that, and you even just kind of mentioned it there, that the text kind of tidies some of this up. But just from hearing you, Ted, and I think other guests we’ve had, if you read closely enough, it is still there.

Pete: Yeah, right.  

Jared: You just have to know what to look for.

Pete: On the surface. Yeah, if you just go to like, like you mentioned Ted, Exodus 6 for example.

Ted: Yeah, that’s a perfect example. That they’re giving you the data, they’re giving you their history.

Pete: Right.

Ted: You know, that I was known as El Shaddai, but now I’m Yahweh. So, they put it right out there. At the same time, they’re saying, but Yahweh encompasses all that.

Pete: Yeah. And at the same time, they refer to Israel’s God as Yahweh in those ancient stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

Ted: Yup.

Pete: I just, like, well, how can that be? You know, well, it’s complicated! Right? It’s complicated!

Jared: Well, the very name of Israel we have El in the name of Israel and then the God is actually Yahweh, which is confusing.

Ted: Yeah, and that’s, you know, why I start my book looking at El worship because I’m talking Israelite religion, and Israel has got the name of El and not Yahweh in the name of their people.

Pete: Right.

Ted: And sometimes you’ll see how, you know, things are, you know, edited in real time. So, it’ll talk about how you know, she called him Ismael because Yahweh heard her prayer.

Pete: Yes.

Ted: It’s like, wait. Ishmael –

Pete: Hold on a minute! Yeah.



Ted: Ishmael means may El hear my prayer. So, you see, right in real time they’re kind of doing the update and it’s what we do in reception history, right? We receive all these texts, and we update them for our modern times. Well, the ancients are doing reception history too.

Jared: Meaning that we should take that, say, that particular example as an example not that, you know, historically they would have interchanged those, although they probably would have, but that also reflects a later updating where we’re going to put in her mouth the name Yahweh, but her name we’re not going to change and it still has, you know, his name would still have El in it. And so, we’re getting, we’re getting two traditions, I guess, within one narrative.

Ted: Yeah, I mean, again, the past time talking about Genesis 16:11, you know, “Behold you are with child, you should bear a son, you should call his name Ishmael,” which means in Hebrew, El hears, “because Yahweh has heard your affliction.”

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ted: You know, the beautiful thing, and frustrating thing about you know, the Bible, is it’s an edited text. It’s passed down precisely because it had a type of sacred quality to it. It’s meaningful. This is their cultural heritage. They pass it down and thankfully, we have it to this very day. But as they pass it down, they don’t have any problem doing revisions along the way!

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ted: You know, it’s not canonized yet, it’s not fixed yet. You know, so, of course if Yahweh is the main term they’re using, they’re going to update it that way. You know, and you can set, you know, Exodus 6, which is as clear as you want where you know, God says, you know, “by my name, Yahweh, they did not know me,” you can set that up against Genesis passages that talk about, you know, they were referring to Yahweh back in the days of, you know, the patriarchs and Enos. So, again, somebody is updating that unless you want to throw Exodus 6 out the window.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, I think we could have this conversation for a lot longer, we didn’t even get to everything we were hoping to get to, and we’re already up against the time here, and that’s disappointing to me because this was just, I think such a rich conversation. I don’t know if that speaks to our nerdiness

Pete: Mm hmm!

Jared: Or just the interesting nature of the topic, but –

Pete: Our non-normalness, oh well!

Jared: It was really good, Ted, to have you on and just explain something that we all agree is very complicated, but I thought you did a wonderful job breaking it down for us and at least laying out what some of these challenges are.

Ted: Well, I just love inquiring minds. So again, thank you for being detectives along the way that, you know, history is messy, really messy, but so is modern life. But you just, if you’re inquisitive person, the Bible just gives you this rich data set to work with and it’s a messy data set, and then adding archeology and inscriptions and it’s just, I don’t see yet how a person couldn’t be attracted to being a historian if you have that type of inquisitive mind where you just have to know.

Pete: Well, thank you for being an inquisitive mind on our podcast.

Jared: Yeah, it was great to have you.

Pete: Thank you, Ted.

Ted: Yup, thank you!

[Music begins]

Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you! And well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Community Champion, Ashley Ward; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People Team, thanks for listening.

[Outtakes] [Beep]

Pete: [In a hushed tone that his handy dandy microphone picked up anyway]

I have to pee. If that’s on there…

[Regular speech volume]

We could start with that!

Jared: Yeah.

[End of recorded material]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.