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Israel, Religion of

Ancient Israel and Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting.

Scholarship on ancient Israelite religion seems to swing back and forth, as if attached to a great pendulum, between those who advocate the uniqueness of the biblical revelation (the “biblical theology” approach) and those who assert that ancient Israelite religion is cut from the same cloth as other ancient Near Eastern religions (the “history of religions” approach). Much of the swing toward the latter was occasioned by archaeological discoveries that correlate the Bible and its ancient Near Eastern setting.

Most scholars of ancient Israelite religion argue that we should no longer refer to the Bible and the ancient Near East, as if the former were not a part of the latter. By affirming Israel's cultural and material solidarity with its neighbors, scholars have underscored that the study of ancient Israelite religion must be anchored in its historical ancient Near Eastern moorings. This need not prevent us from affirming that ancient Israel developed uniquely; by definition, all societies form cultural configurations that are distinct. The belief system that emerged from ancient Israel, especially in its conception of the divine, was indeed radical in its context.

The Formative Period.

Scholars have been able to document the Canaanite heritage of ancient Israelite religion. Ancestral religion, for example, with its worship of El (as exemplified by titles found in Genesis such as El Shadday, El Elyon, El Bethel, and El, the God of Israel), is directly related to the Canaanite deity El described in the Ugaritic texts.

Yet scholars have found it more difficult to describe the underlying reasons that led Israel to come up with a configuration of beliefs, such as monotheism and the absence of divine sex and death, that was radical in its West Semitic Canaanite context. A closely related debate is the date assigned to the formative period for these beliefs. Scholars such as Julius Wellhausen reconstructed an evolutionary process whereby a gradual progression from polytheism and then henotheism eventually led to the “ethical monotheism” of the prophets of the eighth century BCE and later. Others, such as W. F. Albright and Yehezkel Kaufmann, argued for an early crystallization of revolutionary beliefs such as monotheism during the time of Moses. Such debates have continued and always involve various theories on the settlement of Palestine and the archaeological evidence for the transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age (see Conquest of Canaan).

Nature and Scope.

Past treatments of ancient Israelite religion were excessively narrow, treating only the “orthodox” religion described by the majority of biblical texts. While the biblical Yahwism that eventually emerged as normative takes center stage for most people, today emphasis is also placed on religious conceptions that were very much a part of ancient Israelite society yet were eventually seen as nonnormative (e.g., Asherah, cults of the dead; see below). In other words, scholars now argue that Israelite religion must be studied from its earliest times to its latest. One should not opt for late Israelite religion (e.g., Deuteronomic or prophetic) while ignoring early forms, even if it seems that the religion of the early period cannot be easily divorced from Canaanite religion.


The Hebrew Bible is the most important document for studying ancient Israelite religion, yet it has its limitations. It must be understood as collections selected and edited according to certain criteria (e.g., Judean ideology, Deuteronomic theology). Yet this is hardly different from most other ancient Near Eastern texts or even modern literature in which writers selectively edit their material.

Current scholarship runs the full spectrum from pessimism to optimism about our ability to uncover early Israelite religion. Some scholars emphasize that the majority of texts stem from later times and are more or less useless for reconstructing the earlier stages. Others, such as Albright, Frank Moore Cross, David Noel Freedman, and Johannes C. de Moor, argue that some texts, primarily poetic ones, do contain material from the earliest periods of ancient Israel's existence. All scholars face an array of questions when working with material that has an overlay of late editing. To what degree can we unearth the earlier stages of the religion? Can we uncover nonorthodox viewpoints? Does later editing, even later reworking of material, obscure every trace of early beliefs or practices that might have been more at home in the family worship than in the cult which became normative?

Archaeology provides windows into the diversity of ancient Israelite religion. It uncovers physical remains of temples and various cult paraphernalia regardless of whether such sanctuaries and cultic objects were considered legitimate or apostate. Household shrines, foundations deposits, funeral offerings, and burials provide new dates on which to reconstruct practices characteristic of family worship and thus outside the scope of most biblical writers. Inscriptional evidence gives us empirical data (such as theophoric elements in personal names) free from the heavy editing of most literary works. But archaeology also has its limitations, such as a simple lack of evidence. At times the extant material remains can be just as restrictive as the biblical texts. The interpretation of the evidence is also subjective and sometimes even dogmatic. But archaeology's biggest shortcoming for reconstructing religion is that it is hard‐pressed to comment on underlying causes and ideologies such as monotheism.

It has been widely assumed that a great deal can be learned about a religion by looking at theophoric elements (divine names or titles) in personal names, for the ancients often gave their children names reflecting the deity or deities whom they worshiped. Yet because of social convention, personal names do not necessarily provide full and accurate evidence of explicit religious devotion. Even polytheists such as Ahab, Jezebel, and Athaliah could give their children Yahwistic names. One should ask to what degree this might have been a widespread practice among polytheists who for some reason (e.g., political motivation, fear of repression) adopted the name of the national deity yet in practice worshiped other deities. The absence of naming after goddesses, especially that of Asherah, has been considered significant. Yet at ancient Ugarit there was a vibrant cult dedicated to Asherah but only one attestation of her name as the theophoric element in a personal name.

Key Concepts.


The Israelite deity goes by the names of Sea, Lotan, and Mot) mythologies. In Psalm 74.13–14 God crushes the heads of Leviathan, a close parallel to the seven‐headed dragon creature of the same name known from Ugaritic. Chaos imagery is applied to historical forces (often Egypt), which Yahweh defeats in like manner (Isa. 30.7; Ezek. 29.3–5; 32.2–8; Exod. 15), and is often projected into future eschatological battles. Isaiah 27.1 describes such a battle in which Yahweh will destroy the twisting serpent Leviathan with his mighty sword. The longevity of the theme can be seen in the account in Revelation 12–13 of the defeat of the seven‐headed dragon and the seven‐headed beast.

The cult and abode of the dead.

The biblical idioms for death, “being gathered to one's kin” and “sleeping with one's fathers,” underscore the clan solidarity within ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the Yahwism that emerged as normative condemned the worship of the deceased and any form of necromancy (Lev. 19.26–32; 20.6, 27; Deut. 14.1; 18.10–11; 26.14). On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also gives witness to the practice of certain death rituals. Note especially 1 Samuel 28, where Saul has a necromancer conjure the dead Samuel from the grave; the Deuteronomic historian used this well‐known tale to underscore the demise of Saul, yet he left the efficacy of the practice intact. (See also Witch.)

Various Hebrew terms are used, often in parallelism, to describe the abode of the dead, including Sheol, Death, and two words meaning “the Pit.” Both Sheol and Death are also used for the personified chthonic power behind death (cf. the Ugaritic god Mot, whose name means “Death”). As a location, Sheol is described as the lowest place imaginable (Deut. 32.22; Isa. 7.11), often in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9.2; Ps. 139.8; Job 11.8). Sheol is frequently associated with water images (Jon. 2.3–6), often echoing the stories of divine combat. The gates of the underworld frequently mentioned in Egyptian and Mesopotamian accounts are also found in the Bible (Isa. 38.10; Ps. 9.13; 107.18; Job 38.17; cf. Wisd. of Sol. 16.13; Matt. 16.18). Thus Sheol is a place of imprisonment from which one cannot escape (Job 7.9). The personification of Sheol and Death can be seen in descriptions of their insatiable appetites (Isa. 5.14; Hab. 2.5; Prov. 27.20; 30.15b–16), remarkably reminiscent of the Canaanite deity Mot's voracious appetite. (See also Afterlife and Immortality; Hell.)


Many scholars have looked to the premonarchic league period to find the origins of ancient Israel's unique configuration, and have produced an array of hypotheses dependent on their views of the conquest/settlement of ancient Israel. Recently archaeologists have reemphasized the indigenous nature of early Israel; yet outside influences certainly played a substantial role. Thus, many look for the key to unlock Israel's radical configuration in the early league (Cross), Mosaic (Freedman), or even pre‐Mosaic (de Moor) periods. It will remain difficult, however, to illuminate the social and political background of this period given the paucity of textual and material evidence and the fact that the texts we do have may not constitute plausible historical witnesses.

Ancient Israelite religion encompasses the full spectrum of religious belief and practice, and in addition to the cross‐references given above, the reader should look to specialized entries such as the following for a more complete picture: Altars; Apocalyptic Literature; Astarte; Circumcision; Covenant; Creation; Demons; Dreams; Ephod; Eschatology; Feasts and Festival; Graven Image; Heaven; Hell; High Place; Idols, Idolatry; Kingship and Monarchy; Magic and Divination; Mourning; Nephilim; Passover; Prayer(s); Priests and High Priest; Prophets; Queen of Heaven; Rephaim; Righteousness; Sabbath; Sacrifice; Satan; Seraph, Seraphim; Sin; Tammuz; Temple; Teraphim; Theophany; Tribes of Israel; Urim and Thummim; Women, article on Women in the Ancient Near East and Israel.

Theodore J. Lewis

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