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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Social World of Israelite Religion

It has been a commonplace to think that theology or matters of faith are different from an individual's or a people's social world. That judgment is, however, erroneous. Attention to the most frequent form of psalm, the lament, demonstrates that the social world of friends and enemies as well as that of the legal system evoked considerable theological discourse in the Old Testament. Moreover, the literature of the Old Testament is rife with instances in which social conflict occurs over matters of what theology—one of peace or one of war—is appropriate to a particular occasion (see Jeremiah 28 ). In fact, the pivotal experience of liberation from slavery in Egypt enlivens a powerful theological tradition in which the God of Israel expresses concern for those who may be characterized with the stereotypic phrase, “the widow and orphan.”

The Old Testament attests to a world in which the household was relatively self-sufficient, even as regards religious matters (so the shrine of Micah in Judg. 17.1–6 ). In the Iron Age, however, certain roles of religious specialists—such as the priest and the prophet—developed. Since not everyone exercised an official or priestly role, one may think of the general populace as a secular laity.

The social world of the priests during the Iron Age and Persian Period was one fraught with concerns about power and status. To be a priest was, at least in terms of public rhetoric, an ascribed, not an achieved status. A priest had to come from a family of priests, namely, the family which could trace its genealogy to Levi (Deut. 18.1–8; 33.8–9 ). Levites in the first temple period performed various tasks, including sacrifice as well as certain teaching and judicial work (Deut. 17.18 ). Moreover, the Levites lived throughout the land, although the nature of the so-called Levitical cities remains obscure (Josh. 21.1–42 ). According to Chronicles, the Levites had an important, though secondary, role, e.g., the service of song, carrying various ritual objects including the ark. It may well have been the case that families designated certain of their sons for priestly service and that they became priests; if so, they would have held an achieved, not an ascribed, status.

Though Levites had the status of priests, priestly power seems to have devolved on those priests who were associated with particular shrines or temples, and here again the association took the form of priestly “houses,” which were defined in terms of patrilineal descent. (See, for example, the derogatory statements about Levites in Ezek. 44.10–14 , a document that highlights the role of Zadokite priests. One may also theorize that Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain competing notions of priestly regulations.) Among the prominent houses were those of Eli at Shiloh, Amaziah at Bethel, and Zadok in Jerusalem. The house of Zadok, one of the two priestly houses associated with Jerusalem in the early monarchic period, gained power over the house of Abiathar, which was exiled to Anathoth (1 Kgs. 2.26 ). The “house of Aaron,” unlike the other “houses,” is a genealogical construct, which enables certain priests—probably Zadokites—to authenticate their status by tracing origins to Levi through Aaron (1 Chr. 24.1–19 ); a similar phenomenon may also have been at work in a priesthood that claimed Moses as its authenticating ancestor (Judg. 18.30 ). These were the priests who controlled the sacrificial system, particularly after the centralization of worship in Jerusalem associated with the reform of King Josiah. The high or chief priest is a role which became prominent in the second temple period; the term itself is used infrequently to describe a role in the first temple period.

The social world of ancient Israel was refracted in, as well as reinforced and revised by, the sacrificial system in which both priests and laity participated. Individual Israelites participated in the system according to their ability to pay; some would provide expensive offerings (a sheep), others something less valuable (a bird). The system provided rituals of two basic sorts: maintenance and integration. The first included sacrifices and offerings based on the calendar, viz., daily, weekly, monthly sacrifices (Numbers 28 ). Such regularity enhanced the notion of continuity in the life of the people. Non-calendrical sacrifices, e.g., guilt or sin offerings (Lev. 4.1–6.7 ), served the purpose of reintegrating the individual into the society after some infraction or misdeed had occurred. Sacrifices and other rituals constituted one important way in which Israel created a social identity that distinguished it from other peoples, as well as a way in which it addressed issues of internal social order.

Though priests could instruct the people in an authoritative way, whether by torah pronouncement or by the divine dice (urim and thummim), prophets provided another mode by means of which the deity could communicate with humanity. There was no absolute gap between prophet and priest; the prophets Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Jeremiah were priests. Prophets were intermediaries whose words and actions proclaimed the will of the deity to Israelites (and, in fact, other nations as well). Since communication includes both the proclamation and reception of a message, prophetic behavior was embedded in a social process, which involved people's reactions to prophets. The Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that prophets were not successful in swaying human economic or political behavior. They were, however, successful in delineating divine statements of judgment, which articulated the consequences of behavior that violated Israelite covenantal norms. Prophets, particularly those in the Neo-Babylonian period, announced radical changes in the social world of Israelites and Judahites: the end of a monarchic state and removal from the land.

Both priests and prophets represented a fairly orthodox religious viewpoint, which was not shared by all Israelites. One may gain some perspective on the popular religion by reading the prophetic literature or religiously prescriptive literature, e.g., Hosea or Deuteronomy 18 , to see what behavior priests and prophets condemned, particularly the worship of other deities. Archaeologists have discovered amulets, household shrines, and inscriptions attesting veneration of such deities. In addition to popular or household religion, the Old Testament attests an upper class form of religious scepticism (Ecclesiastes).

In sum, the social world of Israelite religion was complex, including various institutions (e.g., numerous temples), various roles (e.g., priests and prophets), and various realms of religious behavior (e.g., the “official” religion of the state as well as the religious practices of the people, particularly as those addressed the concerns of the household).

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