Current Issues in Israelite Religion

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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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13 Comments for : Current Issues in Israelite Religion
    • Ed babinski
    • September 16, 2013

    Was the Israelite incorporation of a particular high god's name in personal names truly a unique phenomenon? What about the incorporation of Baal in people's names?

    Maybe it's a matter of degree, and not a truly unique phenomena?

      • Richard S. Hess
      • September 17, 2013

      Thanks, Ed, for your comment. You are correct that there is nothing unusual about "Israel's incorporation of a particular high god in personal names." However, the surrounding nations do not have such an exclusive use of a single "high god" in their personal names as we find in Judah approaching the end of the Iron Age.

    • Matthew Landis
    • September 17, 2013

    I'm not aware of very many critical. Scholars, who are not openly apologetic, who question the "old" paradigm that the Israelites/Canaanites religious view did not emerge from polytheism to eventual strict monotheism. It is rather simplistic to try and state that the Israelites started out as a monotheistic, and a very uncritical reading of both the archaeological and Biblical data.

    Ed, you're correct to point that out concerning non-Yahwistic theophoric names. I will also point out that the work by Jeffrey H. Tigay on personal names and the Divine Name Yahweh has come under some criticism, as interesting and influential as the work was. Tigay did not make a bullet-proof case. See Binger's critique in her work on Asherah, and others.

    • Uri Hurwitz
    • September 18, 2013

    A question and expression of gratitude to Richard Hess, the author: is there no connection between the worship of Yahweh and Aton in the brief Amarna period? Both deities display intolerance to worship of other deities.

    Also, thank you Prof. Hess for your terrific work, especially on Semitic and Hebrew personal names in various periods. Your Israelite Religions volume I consider indispensable for work on the subject

    As for readers comments above:

    Israeli seals and bullae, as well as biblical theophoric names are indeed different from other Semitic names.Just two examples: the former don not include a single female goddess; multi-deities are not included in one name as is common in Akkadian.

    For elaboration,interested readers may wish to consult Chap. 2 in

    De Moor's The Rise of Yahwism . Also J.D. Fowler comparative study of the very subject raised by the first comment above.

    Uri Hurwitz

    • luiz
    • September 19, 2013

    It's worth to mention that the earliest mention of Israel (Merneptah' Stele) offers a important insight. 'City' is a feminine word in egyptian. Curiously, Israel was written in a masculine form. For the egyptians, behind Israel was a "Man".

      • luiz
      • September 19, 2013

      It’s worth to mention that the earliest mention of Israel (Merneptah’ Stele) offers an important insight. ‘City’ is a feminine word in egyptian. Curiously, Israel was written in a masculine form. For the egyptians, behind Israel was a “Man”.

    • Richard S. Hess
    • September 19, 2013

    Thanks for your kind words, Uri. I think that there may be important parallels between Aton and Yahweh insofar as they were viewed as single deities. I think this is the strongest of the LB parallels that De Moor cites between other religions and the Israelite worship of Yahweh.

    • Matthew Landis
    • September 20, 2013

    Seals and bullae do not always tell the entire story, and one might consider the bronze arrowheads that have been found dating from around 1200-1000 B.C.E. which are inscribed with the owners names and titles. These include such phrases as "Servant of the Lion-Lady", "Son of Anat", "Son of Ishtar", and others. The above are what are important to point out. There are 50 such arrowheads found so far, with around 3 bearing the title "Son of Anat" on one side.

    This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, seeing as the Biblical record actually does contain a theophoric title related to a goddess: Shamgar Son of Anat" in Judges 5:6. While the arrowheads and the reference in Judges do not contain strictly theophoric names – but titles -, it could certainly be argued that with Anat's association with war and warriors in the mythological stories we have, the titles almost certainly apply to the goddess Anat. If one wishes to assign the title to a city, then one must still contend with the reason for that cities name.

      • Uri Hurwitz
      • September 21, 2013

      The famous arrow-heads predate the early Israelite period, and are considered Canaanite. See, for example, Cross.

      Because of his name, Shamgar, which is not Hebrew, this minor Judge Shamgar ben Anat is considered of foreign ancestry, not an Israelite. And indeed this is the only exception which proves the rule that foreign goddesses are not found in the BH onomasticon.

      Yes, Seals and bullae do not always tell the entire story, but neither should they be neglected. Richard Hess, did a great deal of important work on the subject.

        • Matthew Landis
        • September 21, 2013

        1200 – 100 B.C.E. is not a time when Israelites were represented? That is curious. As to the "Canaanite" attribution of the arrowheads, I'm sure you're aware that one of the "current" trends in research in Ancient Israel ("current" is misleading, as it has been around for quite some time now) is that all evidence points to their very "Canaanite" nature – the so-called "Conquest of Canaan" not being backed up by the archaeological record one bit (in fact, all signs point to the Israelites arising from Canaan in some sort of social separation). So it's a bit difficult to claim that since the arrowheads were "Canaanite" they had nothing to do with Israel. To the contrary! The reference to Cross is welcomed, but seeing as it is over 60 years old now, one might do better to reference the work of R. Deutsch and M. Heltzer and P. McCarter. You might find some updated information in there.

        The ancestry of Shamgar is unimportant when it comes down to it, in my opinion. He is represented as a Judge of Israel, whether he was Hurrian or not. The Biblical writers chose to include him in their record of that time, and his title was preserved.

        You commented above that the Bibilical record does not contain any theophoric names with a goddess in it. I should probably point out that this isn't very surprising, as the Hebrew Bible does not claim to be objective history in our modern sense, but is an ideological and theological work. There is a reason that Asherah is relegated to the status of a hated cult symbol in most instances. So we cannot jump to conclusions from the Biblical record that can be 100% foolproof.

        Hess has done good work, but I would also recommend O. Keel and C. Uehilnger's work (in English translation as "Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel") on the iconographic evidence we have from Ancient Israel. It takes a less apologetic approach (sorry, Richard Hess – I do feel you are a bit apologetic with your writings and ignore much of the archaeological data that conflicts with the Biblical record) and has many important insights into the very topic at hand. This article does well to point out the conflicting data we have to strict Yahwism, but it does tend to lean towards a point of view that has many problems.

          • Uri Hurwitz
          • September 23, 2013

          If you reread the article by R. Hess which occasioned this exchange, you will find answers to some of your points. Please pay attention to what he states about seals and bullae, that is extra-biblical material which supports the knowledge that can be gathered from the HB.

          Since the article does not deal with historicity, I won't discuss it here.

          I wish you well.

          • Yoni
          • September 23, 2013

          Matthew I recommend the articles and books by Abraham Faust referenced above on the Canaanite-Israelite question, as well as the Ralph Hawkins book.

    • Ed Codish
    • September 23, 2013

    There is almost no indication in our pre-exilic texts of a zodiac or constellations. The Jew seem unique in this. The absence of constellations argues for an absence of mythological divinities. As to polytheism in general, Emmanuel Levinas points out, accurately I think, that all the old Gods had to go. That is, a necessarily atheistic ethos has to precede monotheism

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