How did the deities El and YHWH come to be identified as one?

This is a complicated question that no one really knows the question to. Here’s what I know:

  • In the bible, this happens in Exodus. YHWH (Yahweh–Lord) tells Moses (twice) that he is the God of the fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that he’s revealing his name for the first time. That name means something like “I am” or “I will be.”
  • Adherents to the four-author theory of the Torah, called the Documentary Hypothesis, suggest that most texts refer to God EITHER as El or as Yahweh, but not both:
    • The oldest of the four texts, the northern E text, refers to God only as El until the moment in Exodus where Yahweh tells Moses his real name.
    • The newest text, the Priestly text, does the same.
    • But there’s a text called J, which uses southern place names, so we also call it the Judahite text OR the Yahwist text (in Germany, where the theory comes from, Yahweh is spelled with a J). The J text uses “Yahweh” or “Lord” exclusively from the start.
    • The editors harmonized these texts. So where you see “Lord God” in the bible, proponents of this theory believe editors wove the different texts together.
  • Scholars believe El is by far the older name. One way they determine this is by sculptures representing El vs images of Yahweh. Another way is that people/place names with “El” in them were much commoner in early Israel and Judah: Isra-el, Ishma-el, Othni-el, Beth-el, Ja-el, Raphae-el. (You also see a lot of Baal name: Jeruba-bel, Beulah).  Names with “jah” or “yah” in them (El-i-Jah, Joshua, Joannha, Jesus or Yeshuah, Jeremiah, Josiah, etc.) come along much later.
  • One theory advanced by people like Richard Elliot Friedman is that the Yahwist religion was the creation of the Levites, a violent tribe that may have entered Canaan by force and gradually overtaken the group of Canaanites that worshipped there. More on this here:  This theory maintains that the two names, El and Yahweh, gradually became synonymous.
  • Another theory, one that accepts the historicity of the Exodus, is called the Kenite hypothesis. It suggests that Moses met a group in the Arabian peninsula during his wanderings in the desert. Exodus describes Moses’ father in law as a priest of Midian, and one theory is that Moses took God’s name and perhaps the canon of laws from this group.
  • A related theory mentioned in links YHWH (in Hebrew pronounced yodhehvavheh) to a regional YHW in Egypt; the thinking is that immigrants coming from Egypt to Canaan brought this name with them. (For much of the 2nd millenium BCE, Canaan was a vassal of Egypt. The Amarna letters, exchanged between Canaanites and their Egyptian governors, document this fact.)
  • Around 400 BCE, during the time of Ezra/Nehemiah, a trove of letters and documents from Elephantine, a military outpost in Egypt, reveals a community of Jews settled in Egypt worshipping a god YHW as well as Anat-Yahu (Anath wife of YHW). Members of this community corresponded with temple priests in Jerusalem. 

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