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Current Issues in Israelite Religion

By: Richard S. Hess

The archaeology of Israelite religions continues to evoke new evidence and approaches. Recent reassessments raise the question of monotheism in pre-exilic Israel. Put another way, did anyone believe in a single deity before the fall of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE?

The traditional critical view has been that Josiah instituted a (Deuteronomistic) revolution that created the worship of a single deity. For some this has given way to the understanding that belief in a single deity cannot be affirmed with certainty before the deportation of Judah to Babylon, and possibly much later.[i] This reconstruction rests on the archaeological and inscriptional remains of ancient Israel in the Iron Age. It argues that clear evidence for the worship of a single deity is absent.

The Kuntillet ͑Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions demonstrated the existence of a belief in a divine consort, Asherah, for Yahweh.[ii]

Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. From http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/pdfs/20-4/meshel.pdf

Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. From http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/pdfs/20-4/meshel.pdf

. Khirbet El Qom inscription http://myty.info/image/2006070004/bsba100604200l.jpg

. Khirbet El Qom inscription
http://myty.info/image/2006070004/bsba100604200l.jpg

 

Mesha Stele

Mesha Stele

Yet this is not the whole story. It had long been noticed that the earliest text associating a deity with Israel is the stele of King Mesha of Moab from the ninth century BCE. The Moabite king related Yahweh alone to Israel, probably as the national deity. From Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE the only deity mentioned in the inscriptions is Yahweh. This includes, among other items, personal texts such as the Ketef Hinnom silver scrolls (composed in the early or mid-seventh century BCE), as well as salutations and blessings on the official correspondence from the leaders of garrisons at Lachish and Arad (early sixth century BCE).[iii]

Ketef Hinnom

Ketef Hinnom

The overall effect has been to move the models of Israelite religion as a single expression with some aberrations to a recognition that ancient Israel possessed various and competing “religions.”[iv]

Lachish ostracon

Lachish ostracon

The most important recent text publications for Iron Age Israelite religions have been the seals and bullae. Although some have been disputed regarding their authenticity, those published from controlled contexts have revealed information about the personal names and the divine names used in their formation. These can now be added to the existing collection of Israelite names in the Bible as well as those in extra-biblical texts to yield nearly three thousand Iron Age personal names from Israel and Judah.[v] Although not every personal name in ancient Israel included the name of a god as part of its formation, those that did attested to a dominance of Yahweh as the divine name most often used. This becomes virtually exclusive in the archive preserving dozens of bullae (and their names) in Jerusalem that can be dated to shortly before the Babylonian destruction. This unique phenomenon suggests something special about the worship of Yahweh in Judah that did not occur in the surrounding nations with personal names and their chief gods.[vi]

Gemaryahu ben Shaphan bulla, excavated in the City of David

Gemaryahu ben Shaphan bulla, excavated in the City of David

If we move back in time to the Iron Age I period, we find the highland settlements of early Israel remarkable for both the absence of religious paraphernalia and architecture and for the absence of special burials. This has led scholars to suggest an early Israelite “egalitarian ethos” or an emphasis upon a common intrinsic value to every human life.[vii] In this view, human worth was not distinguished according to power or wealth as was customary in other societies.

The religious practice in these highland settlements also differed from the preceding Late Bronze Age. The general lack of images (with the exception of the “Bull Site” east of Dothan) and of distinctive cult center architecture might suggest a change in religious practice.[viii] Most perplexing is the cultic associations that appear in the Mt. Ebal site of the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries BCE. While no stereotypical images were found, as at other earlier cult centers, the nature and distribution of more than 2,800 animal bones suggest the Mt. Ebal’s site was more than a place of domestic habitation.[ix]

Bronze bull from the “bull site”

Bronze bull from the “bull site”

From the nearly contemporary site of ancient Emar, north of Mari along the Euphrates River in Syria, 13th century BCE cuneiform texts add important insights into our understanding of Late Bronze Age West Semitic religion. Before the publication of these texts over the past two and a half decades, the major extra-biblical literary source for Israelite religions was the city of Ugarit. The texts from this city, especially the myths, continue to yield important insights regarding gods and goddesses other than Yahweh.[x]

Mt. Ebal cult site. Photo by Ralph Hawkins. Courtesy of R.S. Hess.

Mt. Ebal cult site. Photo by Ralph Hawkins. Courtesy of R.S. Hess.

But in contrast to the coastal, mercantile city of Ugarit, the inland city of Emar, with an agricultural economy, provides religious parallels closer to that of Israel. Major texts have been published on: (1) the installation ceremony of the high priestess of the storm god; (2) the seven-day zukru festival, beginning on the fourteenth day of the “first month”; and (3) the six months of ritual activity in a calendar of the Emar year.[xi] These provide the closest parallels yet discovered to the installation of the Israelite priests (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8-10), the Passover and other Israelite feasts (Exodus 12-13 et passim), and the half-year ritual calendars of Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-25; Lev 23; Num 28-29; Deut 16:1-17).[xii]

Emar

Emar

These discoveries have established a third dimension to the older paradigm that assumed Ugarit influenced Israelite religion. The broader perspective on West Semitic religion found at Emar requires a re-examination of many assumptions, including the presumed “polytheism to monotheism” development that looked at early Israelite religion exclusively through the lens of the Ugaritic myths and the deities.

The question of the origin and rise of belief in Yahweh alone (and its associated assumptions such as aniconism, (i.e., the rejection of images of the divine) in the context of other Israelite religions continues to affect archaeological and biblical research into other areas. Prophecy, wisdom, gender, literacy, covenant, iconography, ethnicity, and family life are a few examples.[xiii] The publication and analysis of new and existing evidence has overturned older assumptions and will require new models for the future.

Richard S. Hess is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary.

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[i] Cf. many of the essays in Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton eds., Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010).

[ii] William G. Dever, “Archaeology and the Israelite Cult: How the Kh. el-Qôm and Kuntillet ͑Ajrûd ‘Asherah’ Texts Have Changed the Picture,” ErIsr 29 (1999): 8*-15*; Ze ͗ev Meshel, Kuntillet ͑Ajrud (Ḥorvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border (Ed. Liora Freud; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012).

[iii] Gabriel Barkay, A. G. Vaughn, M. J. Lundberg, and B. Zuckerman, “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation,” BASOR (2004): 41-71; Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Judean Desert Studies; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981); Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period (Trans. and ed. Anson F. Rainey; Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), pp. 49-153.

[iv] R. S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

[v] For Albertz’s listing and analysis of names, with bibliography as to primary sources of publication, see Rainer Albertz and Rüdiger Schmitt, Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) pp. 245-386, 505-609. Albertz uses names from unprovenanced seals and bullae, but observes that they reveal a profile (in terms of theophoric and other elements) similar to the provenanced names and those from the Bible. For additional Israelite and Judean names from sources outside Palestine, see Ran Zadok, The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography (OLA 28; Leuven: Peeters, 1988).

[vi] Cf. R. S. Hess, “Aspects of Israelite Personal Names and Pre-Exilic Israelite Religion,” pp. 301-313 in New Seals and Inscriptions, Hebrew, Idumean and Cuneiform (Ed. M. Lubetski; Hebrew Bible Monographs, 8; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007); Stig Norin, Personennamen und Religion im alten Israel: Untersucht mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Namen auf El und Ba ͑al (ConBOT 60; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013). Albertz and Schmitt, Family and Household Religion, pp. 245-386, understand a closer similarity between the names in Israel and Judah and those in the neighboring states of the Iron Age. However, they do not plot the Israelite names in chronological order nor distinguish Northern Israelite names from Southern Judean names.

[vii] Avraham Faust, “’Mortuary Practices, Society and Ideology’: The Lack of Iron Age I Burials in the Highlands in Context,” IEJ 54 (2004): 174-90; idem, “The Archaeology of the Israelite Cult: Questioning the Consensus,” BASOR 360 (2010): 23-35; idem, “Early Israel: An Egalitarian Society,” BAR 39.4 (July/August 2013): 45-49, 62-63; Ran Kletter, “People without Burials? The Lack of Iron I Burials in the Central Highlands of Palestine,” IEJ 52 (2002): 28-48. For the egalitarian ethos and the value of the human person, especially in the Pentateuchal sources, see Joshua Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); R. S. Hess, “The Distinctive Value of Human Life in Israel’s Earliest Legal Traditions,” pp. 221-228 in The Ancient Near East in the 12th–10th Centuries BCE: Culture and History: Proceedings of the International Conference Held at the University of Haifa, 2–5 May, 2010 (Ed. Gershon Galil, Ayelet Gilboa, Aren M. Maeir, and Dan’el Kahn; AOAT 392; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2012).

[viii] Amihai Mazar, “The ‘Bull Site’ – An Iron Age I Open Cult Place,” BASOR 247 (1982): 27-42.

[ix] Adam Zertal, “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavations Seasons 1982-1987,” TA 13-14 (1986-1987): 105-65; idem, A Nation Is Born: The Altar on Mount Ebal and the Emergence of Israel (Tel Aviv: Yedioth, 2000) Hebrew; Ralph K. Hawkins, The Iron Age I Structure on Mt. Ebal: Excavation and Interpretation (BBR Supplement 6; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012).

[x] Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); R. S. Hess, Israelite Religions, pp. 95-112.

[xi] COS 1.122, 1.123, and 1.124.

[xii] Daniel E. Fleming, The Installation of Baal’s High Priestess at Emar (HSS 42; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992); idem, Time at Emar: The Cultic Calendar and the Rituals from the Diviner’s Archive (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000); R. S. Hess, “Multi-Month Ritual Calendars in the West Semitic World: Emar 446 and Leviticus 23,” pp. 233-53 in The Future of Biblical Archaeology (Ed. J. Hoffmeier and A. Millard; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); idem, Israelite Religions, pp. 112-23.

[xiii] For prophecy, see e.g., Jonathan Stökl nad Corrine L. Carvalho, Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East (SBL Ancient Israel and Its Literature 15; Atlanta: SBL, 2013).  For wisdom, see e.g., V. Avigdor Hurowitz, “The Wisdom of Šūpê–amēlī: A Deathbed Debate between a Father and Son,” pp. 37-51 in Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel (Ed. R. J. Clifford; SBL Symposium Series 36; Atlanta: SBL, 2007). For gender, see e.g., Luise Schottroff and Marie-Thres Wacker, ed., Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature (Trans. L. E. Dahill et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). For literacy, see e.g., Wilfred H. van Soldt, “The Extent of Literacy in Syria and Palestine during the Second Millennium B.C.E.,” pp. 19-32 in Time and History in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 56th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Barcelona 26-30 July 2010 (Ed. L. Feliu, J. Liop, A. Millet Albà, and J. Sanmartín; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013); Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (Atlanta: SBL, 2010); R. S. Hess, “Questions of Reading and Writing in Ancient Israel,” BBR 19 (2009): 1-9. For covenant, see e.g., Kenneth A. Kitchen and Paul J. N. Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant (3 vols.; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2012). For iconography, see e.g., Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (Trans. Thomas H. Trapp; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). For ethnicity, see r.g., Avraham Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance (London: Equinox, 2006); idem, The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012), pp. 230-34. For family life, see e.g., Albertz and Schmitt, Family and Household Religion.

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Current Issues in Israelite Religion Reviewed by on . By: Richard S. Hess The archaeology of Israelite religions continues to evoke new evidence and approaches. Recent reassessments raise the question of monotheism By: Richard S. Hess The archaeology of Israelite religions continues to evoke new evidence and approaches. Recent reassessments raise the question of monotheism Rating:
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