HOW early in history does the divine name, Jehovah, or Yahweh, appear in sources outside the Bible? Some scholars confidently answer: As early as the 14th century B.C.E. Why do they say that?
By about the year 1370 B.C.E., the Egyptians had conquered many lands. The Egyptian ruler of the time, Pharaoh Amenhotep (Amenophis) III, built a magnificent temple at Soleb, in Nubia, now known as Sudan. When archaeologists discovered that temple, they found an Egyptian hieroglyphic that appears to show the Hebrew Tetragrammaton—YHWH, or Jehovah. That engraving is older by 500 years than the famous Moabite Stone—previously the oldest known occurrence of God’s name. Why does the name of the God of the Bible seem to be engraved in an Egyptian temple?
“The Shasu Land of Jahu”
Pharaoh Amenhotep III dedicated the temple he built to the god Amun-Ra. The temple was about 400 feet [120 m] long and stood on the west bank of the Nile River. Hieroglyphics decorating the bases of columns in one of its halls list the names of territories that Amenhotep claimed to have subjugated. Each territory is represented by a prisoner, his hands tied behind his back and bearing a shield upon which the name of his land or people is inscribed. The lands of a number of the so-called Shasu, or Shosou, people figure among those hieroglyphics. Who were the Shasu people?
Shasu was the generic name that the Egyptians gave to the Bedouin, despised tribes who lived beyond the eastern border of Egypt. The lands of the Shasu covered southern Palestine, southern Transjordan, and Sinai.
Some researchers say that the lands described as belonging to the Shasu extended as far north as Lebanon and Syria. The list of subjugated lands displayed at Soleb includes one that has variously been read “Yahwe in the Shosou land,” “The Shasu land of Jahu,” or “Land of the Shasu-yhw.” Egyptologist Jean Leclant says that the name that appears inscribed in the shield at Soleb “corresponds to the ‘tetragram’ of the god of the Bible, YHWH.”
Most scholars believe that the name Jahu, Yahu, or Yahwe in this and similar contexts must refer to a place or a district. Scholar Shmuel Ahituv says that the inscription identifies “the wandering area of the clan of the worshippers of Yāhū, the God of Israel.” If his conclusion is correct, the place name would be just one of several ancient Semitic examples that identify both a locality and its god. Another example is Assur, which identifies the land of Assyria and its supreme deity.
Regarding the inscription in the temple at Nubia, Biblical scholar and archaeologist Roland de Vaux says: “In a region with which the forefathers of Israel had so many connections, there was, as early as the middle of the second millennium BC, a geographical or ethnic name very similar, if not identical, with the name of the God of Israel.”
A Name Still Revered
Soleb is not the only place in Nubia where the name Yahwe appears in Egyptian hieroglyphics. What appear to be copies of the Soleb list are found also in temples of Ramses II at Amarah West and at Aksha. In the Amarah listing, the hieroglyphic for “Yahwe in the Shosou land” appears close to those for other Shosou territories, thought to be Seir and Laban. The Bible associates those areas with southern Palestine, Edom, and Sinai. (Genesis 36:8; Deuteronomy 1:1) They were areas frequented by people who knew and worshipped Jehovah both before and after Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.—Genesis 36:17, 18; Numbers 13:26.