How Should We Think of Religion in Ancient Israel?

 

merneptah_israel_stele_cairo

The Merneptah Stele (originally at Wikipedia)

In a 2015 article written by Christoph Uehlinger, he questions how scholars who study ancient Israel think about ancient Israelite religion within its larger southern Levantine and West Semitic context. His point is that how scholars approach ancient Israelite religion is often problematic.  They either argue that “Iron Age Israel was no different at all from “Canaanite” or “West Semitic” religion” (13). On the other hand, some scholars consider ancient Israel to be the distinct “other” in the West Semitic religious milieu.

On these grounds, he challenges scholars of religion, especially biblical scholars: how can we re-think our approaches to ancient Israelite religion in a way that accomplishes the two major tasks, namely situating ancient Israelite religion within a broader Near Eastern, West Semitic, and Levantine context and simultaneously conceputlizing the distinctiveness of ancient Israelite religion? Uehlinger says it best: “the bigger challenge lying before us is to reconceptualize distinctiveness in terms of diversity without neglecting the equally obvious, and plausible, commonalities” (14).

This tension between commonalities and differences is exactly what I am interested in exploring. Though, even if scholars develop a model that accurate portrays the tensions of ancient Israelite and Canaanite religion (or should I say Israelite, Edomite, Moabite religions?), the greater challenge will be finding a way to effectively communicate the understandings to the public. Even if complex, nuanced, and thorough models are developed for approaching and interpreting religion in a West Semitic and South Levantine context, those models will not be comprehensive for the public.

The question I raise, then, is this: in midst of developing new approach to “West Semitic religion,” how might we simultaneously work to make the analyses comprehensible for a public audience?

 

Uehlinger, Christoph. “Distinctive or diverse? Conceptualizing ancient Israelite religion in its southern Levantine setting.” In Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel (1), vol. 4, 2015. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck.

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