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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Israel's Religion

A historical sketch has been a necessary diversion from the religious and literary questions that this chapter is seeking to address. It has drawn attention to the ecstatic prophetic groups; it has now to be asked what can be guessed about the religion of David. The tradition in 2 Samuel 6 credits David with bringing to Jerusalem the ark of the covenant, a cult object that had apparently at one point been captured by the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 4: 4 the ark is called the ‘ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts’ and in Numbers 10: 35–6 it is associated with the earthly and heavenly armies of Yahweh by way of words that also occur in Psalm 68 and which, as mentioned earlier, speak of Yahweh coming in a warlike manner from the south. The words are ‘Arise O Lord, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you’ (Num. 10: 35–6, cf. Ps. 68: 1 ). The ark was possibly a visible symbol of the warlike presence of Yahweh among his people, which had been brought to Palestine by shasu groups who settled in Israel. Indeed, the adoption of Yahweh by Israel may have resulted from the belief that the ark had assisted them in their struggles with their neighbours to establish their independence. That David should have adopted this cult object is perhaps an indication that his own faith was a soldier's belief in a God who was his helper in war. At any rate, the stories of Saul and the ecstatic prophets, and of David and the ark, point to two features that were to be formative in the development of Israel's faith and thus the production of the Old Testament: a northern prophetic element, and the establishment of the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

City of David Archaeological Project.

It has long been supposed in critical scholarship that when David captured Jerusalem he found there both an established priesthood presided over by a priest-king, Zadok, and a cult that contained ‘Canaanite’ elements. Hints of this pre- existing religion have been found in psalms such as 110, where the king is made a priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ and Psalm 91 where God is named as ‘the Most High’ and ‘the Almighty’ as well as Yahweh. Psalm 46 , which speaks of the river that flows beneath the city of God, contains another possible allusion to ‘Canaanite’ beliefs. Without meaning to reject these suggestions, it should be noted that current scholarship is divided about how much of the city of Jerusalem existed at the time of David, while it has also been argued that the ‘Canaanite’ features of the Jerusalem cult are later developments rather than beliefs and practices that Israelite faith incorporated from a pre-Davidic Jerusalem cult. Only time will tell which of these views is the more likely to be correct.

The delineation of the ecstatic prophets in the north and the Jerusalem cult in the south is only a preliminary step in tracing the faith of Israel. The prophetic groups lived on the margins of society, while the Jerusalem cult was that of a royal rather than a national temple. To discover the religious situation of the people in general it is necessary to consider the evidence from personal names, extra-biblical inscriptions, and artistic representations on seals and amulets. The evidence from personal names is not easy to handle because of textual variations between parallel passages (King Abijam in 1 Kgs. 14: 31, 15: 1 , etc. is Abijah in the parallel account in 2 Chr. 12: 16, 13: 1 , etc.) and differences between the Hebrew and the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The list of names of the 30 heroes of David in 2 Samuel 23: 24–39 bristles with such difficulties. Bearing all these problems in mind, it is nevertheless striking that the recorded names of the kings of Israel and Judah begin by having no element of the name Yahweh, and that this element only gradually becomes more common. The first northern king whose name has an element of Yahweh is Ahaziah (853–852), the first southern king (assuming that Abijam rather than Abijah is correct) is Jehoshaphat (871–848). Of the nineteen kings of the northern kingdom, Israel, only seven contain an element of Yahweh while of the twenty kings of Judah (not counting David and Solomon) fourteen contain this element. The greater presence of Yahweh elements in Judah is probably due to the close connection between the king and the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem, while of the seven names with Yahweh elements in the northern kingdom five follow one after the other from 853 to 782, the period of major political activity of the prophetic groups led by Elijah and Elisha, who were fiercely loyal to Yahweh and who encouraged their sympathizer Jehu to execute a coup d'état in 841 (2 Kgs. 9 ).

Hebrew inscriptions, bearing in mind that their survival and discovery is haphazard, indicate the presence of personal names combined with Yahweh from the eighth century onwards (practically no Hebrew inscriptions are known from before this time). From the information in Graham Davies's Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions (1991), there are roughly thirteen such names from sites in Judah in the eighth century, eight from the seventh century, and twenty from the late seventh to early sixth centuries. These figures do not include names ending in -yah or -iyah. On the other hand, the Samaria ostraca, dated from the second half of the eighth century, contain seven personal names with the element ba'al, the name of the ‘Canaanite’ god of the storm. This supports the view presented in the books of Kings that the northern kingdom, Israel, or at any rate its capital Samaria (the Samaria ostraca derive from places close to, and linked to, Samaria) was open to ‘Canaanite’ influences.

Much interest has been aroused by the discovery in 1975–6 of two inscribed jars at Kuntillet-Ajrud, a kind of caravanserai 50 km. south of Kadesh-barnea, in the Negev. Dated c.800 BCE, they were evidently written and painted on by travellers, and among the inscriptions are references to ‘Yahweh of Samaria’, ‘Yahweh of Teman’, and ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’. The references seem to indicate that for the travellers, at any rate, Yahweh was worshipped as a localized deity in Samaria and in the south of Edom (i.e. Teman; and see above for the connection between Yahweh and this region). The reference to Yahweh's Asherah is probably to the sacred pole or tree that represented Asherah, because it is not possible (as far as is known) to add a suffix with the meaning ‘his’ to a proper name in Hebrew in the way that ‘his’ is added to ‘Asherah’ in the inscription. What this indicates is that popular religion associated a fertility symbol, the Asherah pole or tree, with the worship of Yahweh, a practice strongly condemned in the Old Testament (1 Kgs. 15: 13 ). The iconography of Israel and Judah shows the influence of Egyptian and Assyrian religious symbols upon Israelite popular religion; but it also shows that, at the end of the seventh century, a strenuous effort was made by officials in Judah to avoid ‘pagan’ symbols. The seals from around this time have no symbols, and contain simply the names of the officials concerned. Their presence confirms the account of the cultic reform carried out by Josiah from 622 BCE onwards (2 Kgs. 22–3 ).

The consideration of such things as personal names, inscriptions, and iconography generally confirms the picture given in the books of Kings, according to which the religion of Israel in the period 950–587 was syncretistic. The worship of Yahweh was carried on at many sites called, derogatively, ‘high places’ in the Old Testament; but other deities were worshipped, including Baal, and fertility practices were associated with Yahweh in the form of the Asherah pole or tree. The situation in Israel and Judah can be described in terms of three competing types of religion: those of official Yahwism (the religion of the court), popular Yahwism (the religion of the ordinary people), and prophetic Yahwism (the religion of prophetic groups probably on the margins of society). However, there were probably important differences between Israel and Judah.

Trustees of the British Museum.

Israel was more open to syncretism at the level of official religion, with the result that the prophetic groups frequently clashed with the kings of Israel, and encouraged soldiers and administrators with prophetic sympathies either to subvert official policies or to attempt coups d'état. An instance of the former is the high official Obadiah's concealment of prophets during the reign of Ahab (873–853) when the king's foreign-born wife promoted her own religion and tried to eliminate the Yahweh prophets (1 Kgs. 18: 3–4 ). An instance of the latter is the coup d'état of Jehu (841–813) instigated by Elisha (2 Kgs. 9 ).

In Judah, which was much smaller territorially and where Jerusalem's influence became increasingly dominant, prophets such as Hosea and Amos directed their attention to Israel. However, Micah was bitterly critical of Jerusalem towards the end of the eighth century, as were Jeremiah and Ezekiel just over a century later. The two slightly different manifestations of Yahwism, in Israel and Judah at royal and prophetic level, were brought together following the destruction of the northern kingdom, Israel, by the Assyrians in 722/721 BCE. Royal chronicles and other written or oral traditions were brought from the north to Judah by groups, including prophetic groups, seeking refuge in the one remaining country where Yahweh was officially worshipped.

It was most likely at this time, during the reign of Hezekiah (727–698), that the first steps were taken towards the production of the Old Testament as we know it. Hezekiah had the necessary scribal resources, and in the presence of the northern prophetic groups plus a desire to resist Assyria and extend his jurisdiction over as much of the former northern kingdom as possible, the motivation to put in train the production of the initial account of the history of the people from the time of Abraham onwards. His scribes made use of royal chronicles, stories emanating from prophetic groups, and stories of local and popular heroes and heroines. Abraham and Isaac were most likely Judahite heroes, their stories being set in southern Judah (Hebron) and the Negev, while Jacob was a northern hero, his story centring on Bethel, Shechem, Transjordan, and Haran. The fact that the Judahite Abraham precedes the Israelite Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel and who becomes the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen. 29; 32: 22–32 ) is best explained by the supposition that the stories were put together in Judah when Israel no longer existed as a political force.

Louvre, © RMN-Franck Raux.

How the overall story was continued down to Hezekiah's time can only be guessed at. We are on firmest ground with the royal chronicles, described in the books of Kings as the ‘Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah/Israel’ (see 1 Kgs. 14: 19, 29 ). Their general accuracy can be checked against Egyptian and Assyrian records from time to time, from the invasion by Sheshonq I of Egypt in 925 BCE (1 Kgs. 14: 25–8 ) through the mention of Omri in the Inscription of Mesha (see above), to Ahab, Jehu, Azariah (Uzziah), and Hezekiah himself being mentioned in Assyrian sources. This does not mean, of course, that every detail is correct from a modern historical point of view. The stories of Elijah and Elisha, that dominate the books of Kings from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 10 , contain legendary elements and narratives that sometimes cannot be fitted in to the historical scheme; but the general framework can be trusted. What cannot be known is how much of the story from Jacob to the time of David existed in this initial draft. Because tradition abhors a vacuum it is likely that the narrative included the Exodus (Hosea 11: 1 ), stories about Moses, Joshua, and some or most of the ‘judges’ ending with Samuel and Saul. The difficulty is that it is almost impossible to work back from the final forms of these accounts to the form that they might have had in the initial version.

This initial version was the product of official Yahwism as represented in Jerusalem under the patronage of a king (Hezekiah) who allowed himself to be advised by a prophet, Isaiah. Its aim was to legitimize Jerusalem and its Davidic dynasty as chosen by Yahweh, as well as to assert that the whole land of Israel, north and south, had been promised to the descendants of the Judahite Ancestor, Abraham. However, the account also no doubt stressed the importance of loyalty to Yahweh over against other deities, and used stories as object-lessons to point out the consequences of disloyalty. It is also likely that the reign of Hezekiah was the time in which the laws found in Exodus 21–3 were officially promulgated. These restricted any period of slavery for males to six years and were generally supportive of the poor and disadvantaged (e.g. Exodus 22: 21–7 ).

Trustees of the British Museum.

The promise of Hezekiah's reign was cruelly disappointed. Invaded by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701, Judah was devastated and Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute (2 Kgs. 18: 13–16 ). For the next sixty years Judah was a vassal state of Assyria and ‘pagan’ religion flourished at the official and popular levels. In 640, by which time Assyrian power had declined to the point of no return (the Assyrian empire would last for not more than a further thirty years), parties favourable to prophetic Yahwism were able to intervene in the politics of Judah and place on the throne the 8-year old Josiah (2 Kgs. 21: 19–22: 2 ). His reign (640–609) produced a religious reorganization in Judah that turned Jerusalem from a royal to a national sanctuary. All other sanctuaries were closed down and all traces of ‘paganism’ were purged from the Jerusalem cult. In terms of the threefold distinction between official, popular, and prophetic religion, it can be said that official religion, inspired by the prophetic, sought to control popular religion as never before in Judah or Israel, a move made possible by the increasing administrative control of Jerusalem over Judah. This controlling of popular religion is instanced in making the passover a national festival to be observed only in Jerusalem. The origins of the passover are obscure and its exact form of observance prior to Josiah unknown; but it was probably a local or family observance of some kind, originating in the northern kingdom.

Josiah's reform had a major impact on the formation of the Old Testament. It was inspired by or gave rise to the deuteronomistic movement, which was a combination of high official and prophetic circles. These produced a first draft of Deuteronomy, and edited the existing story of Israel from the time of Abraham, bringing it down to the time of Josiah (2 Kgs. 23: 24–5 ) and adding deuteronomistic frameworks to books such as Judges. The framework in Judges sets the stories of various heroes and heroines in a recurring cycle of the Israelites turning to other gods, oppression by a foreign power as God's punishment for the apostasy, the raising up by God of a deliverer in response to the request of the people, and a period of ‘rest’ following the deliverance, before the cycle is repeated. Deuteronomy was probably modelled on the types of vassal treaty that were current in the Near East at the time. These contained a historical prologue setting the context for the treaty (Deut. 4:44–11: 31 ), stipulations required to be observed by the vassal (Deut. 12–26 ), and details of penalties that would be exacted if the vassal was disloyal. Interesting parallels have been pointed out between Deuteronomy 28 and the vassal treaties of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (681–669 BCE). One of the features of deuteronomistic theology, deriving from the vassal treaty scheme, was a recasting of past history to show that disasters that had befallen Israel were divine punishments resulting from disloyalty to Yahweh. In particular, disloyalty to Yahweh was understood in terms of worshipping other gods.

Another feature of the deuteronomic reform was the introduction of new social measures to counteract poverty and to support the officials whose shrines had been closed down. For example, a three-year tithe was commanded whose produce was to be distributed locally to Levites (dispossessed local cultic officials) and to the disadvantaged (Deut. 14: 28–9 ). Further, a seven-yearly system of release was commanded in which loans to fellow Israelites were written off (Deut. 15:1–6 ). Women slaves were given the same right of release as men slaves (Deut. 15: 12–18; cf. Exod. 21: 7–11 where women slaves do not have this right).

The deuteronomic reform was brought to an end by Josiah's death in 609 BCE at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II and for the remainder of the existence of Judah (to 587) the kingdom was in effect a vassal state to Egypt and then Babylonia. These reverses allowed popular religion to be freed from official control, and the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel contain abundant evidence that ordinary people turned to ‘pagan’ deities and away from the austere official and prophetic Yahwism that had apparently failed, given Judah's loss of independence.

From the destruction of the temple in 587 to the end of the Persian period (333) Israelite history enters a phase about which little information has survived, and yet in which the Old Testament and its faith came near to reaching the forms in which we know them. It can be surmised that in this period priestly, scribal, and prophetic interests combined in the context of a small temple-based community in Jerusalem to consolidate trends that had been apparent for some considerable time. However, the loss of the Jerusalem temple and the Babylonian exile made a lasting impression upon this closing stage of the formulation of the faith and its writings.

University of Pennsylvania Museum (neg. #S8–56181).

In the first place, in the absence of political rule (the last Davidic king was Jehoiachin, who died some time after 560 BCE), religious rule by priests took on new importance, while prophetic activity became primarily concerned with the editing and expanding of teaching deriving from the prophets of earlier generations. Secondly, there was much less scope for popular religion in a temple-based community centred in a Judah that was now smaller than it had been before 587. The southern part of Judah, for example, had been occupied by Edomites. Thirdly, official religion in the sense of the religion of the court no longer existed, and neither did prophetic religion in the sense of the religion of marginal groups fiercely loyal to Yahweh, who intervened in politics from time to time. In fact, religion in Judah was now well on the way to becoming a faith based upon writings that were regarded as scripture.

To the Persian period (539–333 BCE) can be assigned the editing of the Pentateuch into its final form and the substantial completion of the prophets, which included the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets. The story beginning with Abraham was prefaced by the primeval history (Gen. 1–11 ) and supplemented by the ritual and priestly material now found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. In the Former Prophets (Joshua to Kings) the story was brought down to the destruction of the temple and the release from prison of the last king, Jehoiachin, in 560 (2 Kgs. 25: 27–30 ). Also, sections were edited or expanded to meet situations arising from the destruction of the temple in 587 and the Babylonian exile. For example, Solomon's prayer of dedication of the temple in 1 Kings contains sections which imply that there are Jews in the diaspora (i.e. not living in Palestine) for whom the temple will be a place towards which they pray (1 Kgs. 8: 46–53 ). It says nothing about the temple as a place of sacrifice. A good example of the work on the Latter Prophets is Isaiah, where sayings deriving from at least three prophets, Isaiah of Jerusalem (eighth century), Deutero-Isaiah (mid-sixth century), and Trito Isaiah (late sixth century) were brought together, along with attempts to give the work some unity by thematically linking the closing chapters with the opening ones.

Louvre, © RMN.

The third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings, was less complete by the end of the Persian period. The Psalms, some of which dated from the First Temple period, were probably in their present form as far as Psalm 106 . The Proverbs, many of which dated from the time of Hezekiah or earlier, were prefaced by chapters 1–9 which set them in an explicitly Yahwistic theological framework, albeit one which was closer to official Yahwism than to prophetic Yahwism. Also complete by the middle of the fourth century BCE were the so-called Chronicler's history (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) and books such as Lamentations (most likely occasioned by the destruction of Jerusalem) and Ruth. It is difficult to determine whether works such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Esther were complete by 333 BCE.

This uncertainty stems mostly from lack of knowledge about social conditions in Judah in the first half of the fourth century BCE and whether changes were beginning to occur before Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and incorporated Syria/Palestine into the Hellenistic environment that would profoundly affect it up to and well beyond the coming of Roman rule in 63 BCE. Certainly, the advent of the Greek language, the founding of free Greek cities, especially in Transjordan, and the general spread of Greek culture had a noticeable effect upon the last stages of the genesis of the Old Testament. Returning for a moment to Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, while these could all have been written in the fourth or even fifth centuries, a case can be made for saying that Job and Ecclesiastes, at any rate, were produced in response to a scepticism that developed in Judah from the end of the fourth century onwards. This scepticism was produced not only by the need to respond to Greek philosophy, but by a growing individualism among members of an aristocracy that lacked power, and questioned aspects of official Yahwism. It has also been argued that the Song of Songs draws upon elements of ‘pagan’ mythology, which became increasingly popular with Hellenization.

John Rylands University Library of Manchester.

Whatever the truth of these arguments, Hellenization was responsible for the need for the Old Testament to be translated into Greek from the mid-third century BCE, for the benefit of Jews living in Egypt. There was also the clash with Hellenism which resulted in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid ruler of Judah, Antiochus IV, from 168 or 167 to 164. This resulted in the writing of the book of Daniel (in Hebrew and Aramaic) and the production of the books 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha, the former in Hebrew, the latter in Greek.

The existence of the Apocrypha indicates that what was said above about Old Testament books being completed in the Persian period needs to be qualified. The Apocrypha contains 1 Esdras, a work based upon part of 2 Chronicles 35–6, Ezra 1: 1–10: 44, and Nehemiah 7: 72–8: 13 , but evidently using a Hebrew text differing from that which has become traditional for those books; 1 Esdras also contains two sections ( 1: 23–4 and 3: 1–5: 6 ) which have no parallel in the Old Testament. Overall, it provides a more integrated and interesting version of material, most of which is in the Old Testament.

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