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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Israelite‐Judean Religion

The actual religion of the states of Israel and Judah from ca. 900 to 600 BCE can be partially reconstructed from archeological and inscriptional evidence and from some evidence in the biblical text, which must be interpreted with caution, because the Bible stands in a polemical relationship to the contemporary religions of Israelites and Judeans, consistently distorting the real meaning of such features as the “high places” (bamot, translated “open shrines” in NJPS [e.g., 1 Kings 3.2 ]). Northern, Israelite religion was especially misrepresented by the propaganda of the predominantly southern, Judean authors and editors of most of the Tanakh. For these reasons the following sketch is conjectural, but represents the generality of current scholarly opinion.

There is no question that the national deity of both Israel and Judah was YHVH (LORD in NJPS), but the relationship to this deity might be better called monolatrous, the worship of one god without denying the existence of others, rather than strictly monotheistic. YHVH is the name regularly, but not exclusively, appearing as the theophoric or divine element in Israelite‐Judean names. YHVH's attributes, as expressed in the oldest examples of Israelitepoetry, such as the Song of Deborah (Judg. ch 5 ) and the Blessings of Jacob (Gen. ch 49 ) and Moses (Deut. ch 33 ) seem to be a mixture of features attested in Canaanite and Ugaritic religions for the ancient creator god El, the “old god” (ʾilu du ¿alami = Heb ¾el ¿olam, “Everlasting God” [Gen. 22.33 ]) and the young vigorous fertility‐storm god, Baal. YHVH is usually portrayed as seated on His heavenly throne, surrounded by the angelic host waiting in attendance, like Canaanite El; or, like Baal, either mounted in the divine chariot, or riding on the “wings of the wind/cherubim.” Derived from the latter deity is the pervasive theophanic imagery, namely depictions of the deity appearing with storm clouds, thunder, lightning, earthquake, etc., so familiar to Bible readers. Holy war themes, in which YHVH leads His hosts in battle, are also similar to those elsewhere in the ancient Near East. YHVH is often portrayed as setting out for battle, armed with the divine spear, bow and arrows, against Israel's foes (Ps. 18.7–16; Deut. 32.22–25, 41–42; Hab. 3.3–13; etc.).

Perhaps mingled with, and partially absorbed by, YHVH was a type of god reflecting an older type of religion centering on a familial deity, often referred to simply as the “god of X” (X being the name of an ancestor of the family or clan) or, more generally, as the “god of the fathers.” Evidence for this kind of religion comes mainly from the patriarchal narratives of Genesis (“God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”) and is otherwise attested in the Near East from Mesopotamia in the second millennium BCE to, much later, the region of the Nabatean Arabs (centered in Jordan) in Roman times.

In sum, the major attributes of YHVH that continued in biblical religion were already found in Israelite‐Judean religion: king, creator, father, warrior, provider of fertilizing rain. Since many of the oldest texts (e.g., Judg. 5.4 ) refer to YHVH as “coming from the south” (Seir, Paran, Sinai/Horeb), He originally may have been a god of one of the regions south of Judah. But even in old texts He has already absorbed the attributes of several kinds of ancient Near Eastern deities, to become a kind of over‐arching deity. The name YHVH may be attested in pre‐Israelite documents from the Amorite region of upper Mesopotamia. In the Bible the name is explained as referring to His ability to protect Israel (ʿehyeh asher ʿehyeh, “I shall be what I shall be” [Exod. 3.14 ]) interpreted in context as “I shall be with you.” The original sense of the name may refer to God as creator (taking “YHVH“ as causative hiphil, “He brings into being”) or it may have some other, lost connotation.

One of the most discussed issues in recent years is whether YHVH had a female consort, the ancient Canaanite mother/fertility goddess Asherah, identified with the tree of life. Two Hebrew inscriptions contain benedictions in the name of “YHVH and his Asherah.” Scholars are divided in opinion whether Asherah here referred to the goddess herself, or whether the term has been reduced to an abstract hypostatization of YHVH's power to provide fertility. More evidence is needed, but in any case it is certain that biblical religion, in possible contrast to Israelite‐Judean religion, viewed Asherah simply as a Canaanite deity and her symbol, reduced to a wooden pole, as idolatrous.

YHVH was worshipped at “high places” scattered around the country, which varied from simple hilltop shrines with stone or earthen altars, cultic pillars (matzevot), and wooden poles (˯asherot), to larger structures such as the main high places in the Northern Kingdom, Dan and Bethel, where YHVH was worshipped as a calf. In biblical religion the high places are viewed propagandistically as totally idolatrous from the time of Solomon on, since all “legitimate” worship was to be confined to the Jerusalem Temple. Ironically, the latter itself was a typical Canaanite shrine, built by the Phoenicians, with three divisions, the last of which was the “Holy of Holies,” with altar, cultic pillars, elaborate decoration of palmettes, lotus, bulls, and cherubim. According to the main traditions of the Bible, the Holy of Holies contained no divine image, as in typical ancient shrines, but only the Ark ofthe Covenant containing the stone tablets given by YHVH to Moses. The Ark seems to have had its origin in the kind of box‐like palladium still used by some Bedouin tribes. Mounted on a camel, it leads their migrations, as the Israelite Ark is said to have led Israel in the desert (Num. 10.33 ). The Ark also led the army into battle according to texts describing the early period. Its capture by the Philistines caused a major religious crisis (1 Sam. chs 4–6 ). According to the Bible, the Ark was brought to newly conquered Jerusalem by David and was placed by Solomon in the Temple, where it was viewed by many as the throne of YHVH. It is not mentioned thereafter, and its later fate is unknown.

Israelite‐Judean religion seems to have had aniconic tendencies; it avoided depicting YHVH through any image or icon. Later biblical religion condemns images of deities vehemently, and has suppressed all evidence of their legitimate use, except for the cryptic reference to human‐like statues called teraphim, attested in a few places, like Gen. 31.34 and 1 Sam. 19.13 , which seem to have been family deities, or talismans. It is possible that the strange story in Judg. chs 17–19 of the image stolen by the Danites, which became the center of a cult served by a priesthood descended from Moses, preserves the memory of an image of YHVH worshipped in some circles. Archeological evidence has as yet turned up no divine images in an excavated shrine, though of course such valuable objects probably would have been removed or looted in antiquity. Israelite‐Judean sites do contain large numbers of different types of female figurines, some of which probably represent the fertility goddess Asherah. Such images are usually viewed by scholars as amulets, and as belonging to “popular,” not “official,” religion (see below).

Worship of YHVH consisted of sacrifices, the oldest of which seem to have been the “whole offering” (ʾolah), the “communal offering” (shelem) and, probably, the “sin (or purification) offering” (ḥataʿt). Pilgrimages were made to local shrines on sacred occasions. Old biblical texts show that the three major festivals, two in the spring, one in the fall (later called Passover‐Matzot, Shavuot, and Sukkot), along with the new moon and Sabbath were occasions for such visits, though it is unclear if in Israelite‐Judean religion the Sabbath was already associated with the seven‐day week. A yearly pilgimage is also attested at which a communal offering was made and consumed by the family (1 Sam. ch 1 ). The elaborate cultic establishment described in the Torah, especially in Leviticus, is held by most scholars to be a development of later biblical religion projected back into the past, but it undoubtedly contains elements reflecting the actual cults of Israel and Judah, such as the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement, itself probably originally a shrine‐cleansing rite.

Curiously, the Bible contains no reference to a New Year festival (the references in Lev. 23.24 and Num. 29.1 , later taken to refer to the New Year festival, do not mention that name); yet it is scarcely likely that Israel was the only Near Eastern people without such an event, so crucial to ancient thinking and the actual lives of people. It is likely that biblical religion has expunged all reference to the New Year festival, except for an enigmatic reference to a “Day of Acclaim” (yom teruʾah). Some scholars have hypothesized a New Year festival based on the evidence of some biblical psalms, especially the so‐called “enthronement psalms” (Pss. 93, 96–98 ), and comparative evidence, primarily the Babylonian akitu festival. The event might have proclaimed YHVH's victory over cosmic chaos (see below), and His kingship as creator. Certainly, the themes of creation and kingship survive in the later Jewish Rosh Ha‐Shanah; but that Israel also had such a festival remains conjectural. If the new year rituals were as close to those of the ancient Near East as suggested by some scholars, biblical religion may have edited the festival out as too redolent of idolatrous practices. Some scholars have also suggested a festival celebrating covenant renewal, held every seven years, based on Deut. 31.10–11 ; but the existenceof such a cultic event is even more conjectural than that of a New Year festival.

Prophets played a prominent role in both Israel and Judah. Prophecy of various kinds is attested in practically all ancient cultures. In the ancient Near East prophets are found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where their function was secondary to the dominant oracular means employed. But in western Asia ecstatic prophecy seems to have had a more central significance. The closest parallels to biblical prophecy are found in the Mari texts (in modern Syria on the Euphrates) of the middle second millennium BCE, reflecting an Amorite (West Semitic) culture related to Israel in many respects. There, as in the Bible, proph‐ets, both men and women, are sent to kings to deliver messages, and sometimes rebukes, from deities. Prophets are well attested from areas around Israel, from Phoenicia to Transjordan, where texts have been found mentioning a seer Balaam, evidently the prophet described in Num. 22–24 .

But in Israel and Judah prophets seem to have been even more important than in neighboring cultures. Mechanical forms of divination played a less significant role; there is reference to what were probably a sort of sacred dice, the Urim and Thummim, which could give a simple yes‐or‐no answer to questions. Later, they are said to be stones set in the breastplate of the high priest. There are also references to consulting the spirits of the dead, such as Saul's visit to the woman of Endor, who raised the ghost of Samuel (described as a “god” [ʿelohim]) (1 Sam. ch 28 ). But from an early period, the standard means of “inquiring of God” was through a prophet (naviʿ), also called “seer” (roʿeh), “visionary” (ḥozeh), and “man of God” (ʿish ha‐ʿelohim).

Prophets were characterized by a non‐normal psychological state, ecstasy. When the “spirit of God” entered them they fell (sometimes literally) into a trance and received messages from God. They might appear to be asleep, or babble uncontrollably. Prophecy might be stimulated by music (1 Sam. 10.5; 2 Kings 3.15 ) and was always related to music through the art of poetry, because much biblical prophecy was composed in rhythmical parallelistic discourse, that is, poetry. The early prophets traveled in bands with a leader in their midst, who might be called their “father”; they themselves were “sons of the prophets.” They delivered oracles on everything from lost asses (1 Sam. ch 9 ) to campaigns in war to the appointing of kings. It is likely that groups of cultic prophets were found at shrines, and royal prophets at the courts of kings. In all of this the role of prophets was probably similar to that in surrounding cultures.

However, some prophets took on a more exalted, and isolated, function in Israel and Judah. Prophecy, represented by the seer Samuel, seems to have been centrally involved in the founding of the monarchy, in the transition from charismatic to royal leadership in the 10th century BCE. The Bible attests to prophetic figures who claim to be empowered to appoint kings, and who presume to remain censors of monarchy and state. They deliver unbidden oracles, often unwelcome to rulers, on state policies, both religious and military. They criticize the people for lack of social concern and for oppressing the poor. Such independent prophets, great figures like Samuel and Nathan in the 10th century, Elijah and Elisha in the 9th, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah in the 8th, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others in the 7th and 6th centuries, far surpass the prophets in the surrounding cultures and are of great importance in the biblical tradition.

The prophets' dominant literary form was the “messenger speech,” a discourse purporting to be the direct words of the deity—in structure these were often similar to the message a messenger might deliver on behalf of a king. Many genres were used: laments, parables, hymns, etc., but the central type of speech was the “lawsuit” (riv), which used legal forms to excoriate Israel. The basic outline was a statement of the crime, of an individual, like a king or priest, or of the people as a whole, followed by the sentence passed by the divine court in heaven (of which prophetsseem to have been viewed as human members, transported there in their visions). One often finds also a call to “heaven and earth” to serve as witnesses. Lawsuit oracles were delivered not only against Israel and Judah, but also against surrounding peoples (sometimes called “oracles against the nations”). Although the implied audience is the other nations, the actual audience was Israel‐Judah, who were to learn a lesson from these speeches. Most prophets also gave “salvation oracles,” predictions of weal and assurances of divine protection, a function that may originally have belonged to cult prophets at shrines. It has also been suggested that many psalms reflect an oracle of salvation delivered by priests, or cult prophets, at the shrine. We shall see below that it was the independent, fearless brand of prophecy that provided the stimulus for the growth of biblical religion out of Israelite‐Judean religion, but that prophecy itself eventually became effectively outlawed by later biblical religion.

Did Israelite‐Judean religion practice child sacrifice, as surrounding Canaanite religions did? To be sure, the Bible condemns “passing children through the fire to Molech” (probably a form of Baal), but Israelites were acquainted with the practice, and recognized its numinous terror when performed by others (2 Kings ch 3 ). The prophets condemn those who sacrifice their children at the tophet outside Jerusalem, a place of such horror that it gave its name, Gehenna (geʿ ben hinom), to the later concept of hell. Biblical religion recognized that the first‐born “belong” to YHVH and must be “redeemed.” The story of Abraham's binding of Isaac implies that child sacrifice has been superseded, but it also recognizes the significance of the rite as the supreme test of loyalty to YHVH. The story of the unhappy fate of Jephthah's daughter (Judg. ch 11 ) suggests that the practice of child sacrifice in connection with a strong oath was not unknown in Israel. Certain prophetic texts as well suggest that it was practiced (see, e.g., Mic. 6.7 ).

Very little is known about the official cult of the Northern Kingdom, beyond the establishment of two royal shrines in Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam I in the 9th century, where worship centered on the images of two calves set up by him, mentioned above. Jeroboam is also said to have established a festival in the eighth month to replace the festival in the seventh month (the New Year festival?) in Judah (1 Kings 12.33 ).

More is known about the state cult of Judah, which centered in the shrine on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Judean religion seems to have reflected a royal theology, or ideology, based on a covenant (berit), an unconditional divine promise to David that his dynasty would rule forever, “as long as the sun and moon exist” (Ps. 89.37–38 ). The king was viewed as the “son” of God (Pss. 2.7; 9.27; 2 Sam. 7.14 ), though whether this implied actual royal divinity is questionable. There is little doubt that this royal religion was imported into Judah from primarily Egyptian and Phoenician sources. The terms used to describe the king in the biblical texts that most directly reflect Judean royal tradition, the “royal psalms” (Pss. 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89 ) are used elsewhere only of God. Also prominent in this royal cult were notions of unconditional divine protection of Zion and Jerusalem, amounting to what has been termed a doctrine of the “inviolability of Zion.” (This notion is also expressed in Isa. chs 1–39 .) It was believed that no enemy could capture the city in which was located God's sacred house, the Temple built and maintained by the king, which was viewed as the royal chapel. The “Zion Psalms” (Pss. 46, 47, 48 ) are possibly early expressions of this doctrine, which also figures prominently in later prophetic messianic visions (see below). The aim of this political, religious, and cultic complex was undoubtedly to strengthen the claim of the monarchy to legitimacy. It seems to have succeeded, because Judean dynastic kingship remained stable for over three centuries (the brief usurpation by Athaliah is the only exception, and she was a northerner, the daughter of Phoenician Jezebel). Northern Israel, bycontrast, probably lacking such a royal ideology, saw the rise and fall of many ruling houses. The main ideas of royal religion became transmuted in biblical religion into messianic eschatology (see below).

What can reasonably be conjectured about the belief system of ancient Israel and Judah? If one relies only on the biblical evidence, very little can be extrapolated that is not dependent on the dating of the texts—a highly debated enterprise—so that any interpretation must remain to some extent circular. For example, was covenant already a feature of early Israelite religion, or did it rise to prominence only later, in biblical religion? The answer to this question depends on how one dates the biblical covenantal traditions, a topic with little scholarly consensus. The only religious complex of ideas that is more or less unanimously accepted for ancient Israel is the “monomyth” of the primeval battle between YHVH and the dragon‐like Sea (Yam, also called Rahab, Serpent, Leviathan, River[s], etc.). This myth is found throughout biblical literature and is usually connected with creation (cf. Pss. 74.13–15; 89.10–11; Isa. 51.9–10; Job 26.12–13 , etc.; chapter 1 in Genesis reflects biblical religion and has been largely demythologized, with the exception of a reference to sea monsters in 1.21). But what did the myth mean to ancient Israel? Was it reflected, even reenacted in the cult? Had it been reduced to merely a literary motif? We have no answer for such questions.

The extrabiblical archeological and epigraphic evidence points to little overt difference between Israelite‐Judean religion and the religions of surrounding peoples. The religious picture that emerges from the great Moabite inscription of the mid‐9th century BCE does not differ from what is described in, and may reasonably be extrapolated from, the older texts of the Bible; except that it is Chemosh, national deity of Moab, who wages holy war on YHVH and puts Israel itself to the ban of extermination (ḥerem). Iconography points in the same direction. Israel and Judah made unrestrained use of the typical Levantine Egypto‐Phoenician and Mesopotamian repertoire of motifs: winged sun discs, scarabs, moon god symbols, sacred trees of life, paradise imagery, cherubim (a composite beast with the body of a lion, the wings of eagles, and a human head), winged cobras (seraphim?), etc. Many of these symbols were used on seals, the most personal representation of individual identity, and it is therefore difficult to dismiss them as mere “art.” But it is a mystery what such things meant to the Israelites. The full significance of the amulets, especially female figurines, abundant at Israelite sites also escapes us.

Amulets and “pagan” visual symbols are commonly ascribed to “popular” rather than to “official” religion, which supposedly shunned them. Worship at the high places and consultation with the spirits of the dead (ʿovot veyidʾonim) are similarly ascribed to “folk religion.” But the opposition of “popular or folk vs. official” is inherently polemical and is dependent on individual interpretation; this dichotomy may not reflect the reality of Israelite‐Judean religion. For example, it is well known that the Bible presents only a gloomy picture of the afterlife in Sheol, as a shadowy, listless realm cut off from contact with God. But it is becoming ever clearer that the high places, and especially the cultic pillars (matzevot) associated with them, point to a belief in some kind of active contact with long‐dead ancestors, perhaps even a cult of dead heroes. The communal marzeaḥ drink‐ ing bouts, condemned by the prophets as “pagan,” may also have been thought to enable one to commune with ancestors. Is one to label such things as reflecting only “popular religion”? Or is it more likely that developed biblical religion has edited these practices out and declared them to be “idolatrous?” Similarly, biblical religion reduced the heavenly assembly of divine beings, called “sons of God” (Ps. 29.1 ), “holy ones” (Ps. 89.6–7 ) and even “gods” (Ps. 82.1 ) in older biblical texts, to colorless and nameless “messengers” (angels). But there is every reason to suspect that in Israelite‐Judean religion the angels werethe same type of potent, named heavenly forces so prominent in postbiblical religion, especially apocalyptic, and also in rabbinic midrash.

The general picture of Israelite‐Judean religion that emerges is of a cult along the same pattern of other cults in the ancient Near East. If the surface conceals some “elusive essence” of an already totally monotheistic, covenantal, Torah‐oriented faith, scholarship has not yet discerned it with certainty (see below). It is likely not in Israelite‐Judean, but rather in biblical religion—what might be termed the Biblical Revolution—that the essential developments lie.

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