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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Religion in Earliest Israel

Little is known of Israel's religious beliefs in this era. It is thus ironic that with the steady erosion in the reliability of other traditional markers of Israel's ethnicity (such as the finding of a pillared house at a given site or the discovery of collared-rim jars, now both found in non-Israelite Iron I sites as well) some contemporary scholars propose that what distinguished “Israel” from other emerging Canaanite Iron I societies was religion—the belief in Yahweh as one's god rather than Chemosh (of the Moabites), for example, or Milcom (of the Ammonites). Indeed, the early Iron Age marked the rise of national religion in the Near East, tying belief in the national god to ethnic identity. Thus the Israelites are the people of Yahweh, just as Moabites are the people of Chemosh; Ammonites, worshipers of Milcom; Edomites, of Qaus. And farther east, the Assyrians follow Ashur into battle. (The terms national religion and national god, though commonly used, are admittedly misleading; the particulars of modern nation-states should not be read back into these ancient societies.)

There is some evidence that ancestor cults were a part of Israel's belief system, in this period and later. It is important to note that “ancestor cults” are not synonymous with “ancestor worship.” Rather, ancestor cults are associated with patrilineal societies (like Israel) and are a means for (living) males in the society to bond with each other, while at the same time defining themselves as part of their lineages, through the practice of blood sacrifice. Blessings from the dead to the living are expected for those who observe the cult conscientiously, and disaster might befall those who ignore its customs; but the ancestors are not necessarily worshiped as deities. Excavated burials indicate that throughout this period the dead were buried as if their continued existence were dependent on the care of their families. They are buried with food and drink, lamps, amulets, and tools. The many biblical injunctions against the cult of the dead (see, for instance, Deut. 26.14; Ps. 106.28; Jer. 16.5–9 ) imply that it flourished in Israel, and the archaeological evidence supports this conclusion.

The major religious symbol of the premonarchic era is a box or chest known as the ark of the covenant. (The Hebrew word for ark in this context is different from the word used for Noah's ark.) The story of the war against the Benjaminites in Judges 20 includes a reference to inquiring of Yahweh by means of “the ark of the covenant of God,” with the help of the priest Phinehas. The ark in this narrative is a conduit to Yahweh and in some way represents his invisible presence among the Israelites. The ark is so much a representative of Yahweh that its arrival in the Israelite camp prompts their Philistine enemies to say that a god has come into the camp (1 Sam. 4.7 ), and its capture and deportation by the Philistines sets the stage for a “battle” between Yahweh and the Philistine god Dagon, which assumes that Yahweh or his power resides in or around the ark (1 Sam. 4–5 ). This same ark so represents traditional religion in Israel that David uses it to legitimate his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6 ).

What was this “ark,” and what can we know about it from other biblical passages and from nonbiblical sources? Numbers 10.35–36 is an early passage that reflects the same warfare usage of the ark. Here, “the ark of the covenant of Yahweh” was serving as a scout for the assembled Israelites in their trek through the wilderness. It would set out ahead of them and find a place for them to stop at the end of each day's march. This passage is set in the context of the wilderness wanderings, but it has a military flavor: each day, as the ark was setting out early in the day, Moses would say, “Arise, O Yahweh; may your enemies be scattered and may those who hate you flee before you.” Again, the ark is a representation of Yahweh, and it is Yahweh and not an inanimate box who is serving as scout for the Israelite people. Psalm 68.1 uses virtually the same words without mentioning the ark: “May God arise; may his enemies be scattered; may those who hate him flee before him.” At the end of the day, when the ark came to rest, Moses would say, “Return, O Yahweh, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (my translations here and below).

Two other early passages give a similar picture of the function of the ark. Psalm 132.8 says, “Arise, O Yahweh; to your resting-place, you and the ark of your might.” Numbers 14.44 reports that the Israelites tried to invade Canaan from the south, even though Yahweh had not sanctioned such an invasion: “neither the ark of the covenant of Yahweh nor Moses had departed from the midst of the camp”—that is, an invasion without Yahweh leading, in the form of the ark, was doomed to fail, and it did.

A Priestly passage from a later period, Numbers 7.89 , describes Moses conferring with Yahweh within the tent of meeting, and here too the ark is involved, this time not as Yahweh's representative but as his footstool. Moses would hear the voice speaking to him “from upon the mercy seat that was on the ark of the covenant, from between the two cherubim.” The ark is specifically called Yahweh's footstool in 1 Chronicles 28.2 : David tells the people that he had planned to build “a house as a resting-place for the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, for the footstool of our God.” And Psalms 99.5 and 132.7 both mention worshiping at Yahweh's footstool, the first in a passage that refers to the cherubim throne and the second just before the ark is mentioned. Numbers 7.89 , in turn, depends on Exodus 25.10–22 , another Priestly passage that concerns the building of the ark and the cherubim throne. Here we learn that the ark was a box made of acacia wood overlaid with gold, with rings on two sides into which gold-covered acacia wood carrying-poles could be inserted. The tablets of the covenant, which Moses had brought down from the mountain, were to be stored in the ark, yet another of its functions; depositing a treaty in a box that served as the footstool of a deity has precedents in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The golden “mercy seat,” some sort of covering, was to be placed above the ark, with golden cherubim at each end of the mercy seat. Yahweh tells Moses that he will speak to Moses from above the mercy seat.

The description of the seat with flanking cherubim resembles the cherubim or sphinx thrones that have been found in art from other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Such a representation appears, for example, on an ivory panel from Megiddo and on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos, both with boxlike footstools. If Yahweh speaks from above the “seat,” then he is to be understood to be enthroned invisibly upon the seat, with the magical figures of the cherubim on each side of him. The ark above which the mercy seat is placed, then, is a footstool. The cherubim throne was also Yahweh's chariot, as 2 Samuel 22.11 (= Ps. 18.10 ) shows: “He mounted a cherub and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind.” The chariot of Yahweh in Ezekiel 1 and 10 , with four composite animals pulling it, is a permutation of the same mobile throne.

The ark could, like divine images in Mesopotamia, be one of the spoils of war. The Mesopotamian equivalents make clear that narratives like 1 Samuel 2.1–7.2 , in which the captured deity manifests his or her power in a foreign land, are prompted by the humiliation of lost battles, especially since such losses can be interpreted as the defeat of one's own god by the enemy's god. (Hence the removal of the image to the victorious god's temple.) These stories of captured gods triumphing even in captivity serve to cheer the people in the face of loss and to maintain their belief in their own ability to triumph. Such narratives tend to be written in the immediacy of loss. The ark narrative in 1 Samuel 4–6 may thus preserve premonarchic views, both of the function of the ark as Yahweh's representative (because Yahweh was thought to be enthroned invisibly above this footstool) and of the role Yahweh played in Israel's life in this early period.

The ark is more than once called “the ark of the covenant” or “the ark of the covenant of Yahweh,” and in 1 Samuel 4.4 , “the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim.” The Hebrew word for covenant used here, berît, means a mutual agreement or contract. In the strictest sense, the ark is the ark of the covenant because the tablets of the covenant are kept in the ark. But the covenant with Yahweh includes more than the Ten Commandments. For the era of the judges, the evidence points to the covenant with Yahweh as one of the defining elements of Israel's culture, and one that distinguished it from its neighbors: the covenant metaphor is not found in other ancient Near Eastern texts. According to the covenant, while other gods may exist for other cultures, Yahweh is Israel's god and they, in turn, are his people. Yahweh will protect them, give them space to live, and provide fertility for their animals and crops; and they in return will not worship other gods but will observe the form of Yahweh's worship that existed at that time. Israel's understanding of its relationship with Yahweh in this period is clearest in several of the oldest parts of the Bible.

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