The Religion of the Bible
Backgrounds For Reading The Bible
Stephen A. Geller
We must first understand that biblical religion is not, strictly speaking, “biblical” because, unlike Judaism and Christianity, it is not a religion based on the Bible—i.e., the canonized record of past divine revelation—but on that revelation itself. Also, it is not a “religion,” in the sense of the beliefs and practices of an actual community. Rather, biblical religion was a minority, dissident phenomenon, always at odds, as the Bible itself states, with the actual religions of the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The religion of the latter might better be termed Israelite‐Judean religion. For more than a century the difference between biblical and Israelite‐Judean religion has been an axiom of modern biblical studies (see discussion below).
Moreover, biblical religion is not a unity but rather a congeries of differing and often competing opinions and traditions. Historical scholarship has isolated at least three major forms of biblical religion in the Bible:
1. Deuteronomicℐcovenantal religion, based on the legal form of a treaty between Israel and its deity, emphasizing Israelite loyalty and the performance of divine commandments, viewed as stipulations of the treaty.
2. Priestly religion, centering on the cult and emphasizing purity and punctilious observance of rituals.
3. Wisdom religion, focusing on understanding the cosmos and the laws of human nature, and dealing with such general problems of human existence as suffering and theodicy.
Despite considerable mutual influence and interpenetration, these three major types of biblical religion are best examined individually.
We shall first summarize the little that is known, or surmised, about Israelite‐Judean religion, and then take up each of these major streams of biblical religion in turn.