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.
In my spare time, I am working on writing an article about ancient Israelite and Judean religion. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. It is difficult because saying something about ancient Israel comes with a lot of modern baggage. So, these are some notes from a large encyclopedia, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. One thing which I’d like to draw out is that even when we do speak of ancient Israelite religion, we must remember that religion and politics operated in the same social sphere. Communicating this historical reality will be one of the greatest challenges in writing this definition/article.
Administration of the State in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, Gosta W. Ahlstrom, pp. 587-603)
- c. 1500-1000 BCE, Palestine and Transjordan was primarily a mixture of West Semitic ethnic groups.
- 12th-11th centuries see the increase of Canaanite settlements
- Canaanite is not an ethnic term, just about those who live in the country.
- Majority of Israelites were originally “Canaanites”, part of that diverse group people who settled in the region.
- KEY: Idea of twelve-tribe is a “historiographic reconstruction” (588).
- When writing, be sure to define this.
- Accoridn got WIliam Foxwell Albright, history through the Bible “is a pious fiction.”
- NOTE FOR SELF: This is a good way to problematize how we look at ancient Israelite religion in the first place. It demands that we be aware the HB reflect old tradition, though usually not completely accurately.
- Government was a tribal system; Ahlstrom claims that no institution of elected official developed. Of course. But we need to remember that as a tribal system, they did have a voice, often time over other kings in a West Semitic context. Cf. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew.
- We could also see the old rulers as theoocratic rulers, but this is problematic as the term carries too much negative baggage when presenting to a large audience of general readers.
- “To promote and support the ruler’s position in such as development, a kingship ideology anchored the ruler and his power in the divine will, and thus legitimized his might” (590).
- Cf. Ps. 2:7, 45:6 (King is addressed as elohim), 89:26 (adoption formula for a god adopting a king); Is. 9:6-7 (who will inherit the dominion of Yahweh), etc.
- Broadly speaking, this is shared throughout ANE (591).
- King Keret was son of the god El, Assyrian king was the son of a god. Esarhaddon is the son of Ninlil and Shamash. Shulgi, a Sumerian king, is the son of the goddess Ninsun. etc.
- In a West Semitic context especially, one individual god was usually the main god (591). He writes, “The temple was an expression of the deitiy’s cosmos and domain. Nation and religion were the same. The reality was that in order for a nation to be ruled and governed according to the deity’s will, it had to have a “deputy” divinity choisen, namely, the king (591).”
- Cf. Sanders on this for more details unique to a West Semitic context.
- Theological kingship was part of ancient Israel’s heritage as it emerged as a unique and long lasting contending among the various ethnic groups categorized as Canaanites. (Loosely based off of 592; I expanded the details the words of Gosta).
- Enthronement of a king was a religious activity (593). It involved the following:
- Selecting a king and proclaiming affirmation of king via religious oracle, anointing, victory, ride a donky to place of investitutre, born of or adopted as the son of Yahweh, proclaimed with eternal dynasty, people acclaim, and a banquet!
- King was in charge of building a temple, as demonstrated through various inscriptions throughout Syro-Palestine (596).
- Panamu of Sam’al, Azatiwata of the Karatepe inscription, Mesha of Moab, Solomon, kings of Israel.
- This temple building, a religious and political activity, had economic implications. Land was bought, people were hired, and animals were sold for sacrifice (596).
- State Cult (597-598)
- Responsible for liturgical contact between deity, the foundation of the nation.
- Again, “religion and state were one.”
- Accordingly, the “king had supreme authority over the state religion and its cult” (597); however, that doesn’t mean others had a significant say in matters of religion.
- Roles of state cult, in a West Semitic context, on behalf of people:
- Offer sacrifices and burn incense
- 1 Samuel 15, 1 Kings 3 (one thousand burnt offerings), 1 King 9:25 (Sacrifice 3 times per year.
- Temple building and cult paraphernalia
- 1 Kings 6-8 (Solomon builds temple), 1 Kings 16:32 (Ahab puts up religious symbol of a Phoenician Baal.
- Ordering cultic meetings (?)
- Organize and run the cult.
- Jeroboam did this at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12)
- “Realizing that kingship would not be restored, the only way to retain the kingship concept was to divorce it from an earthly king and, in agreement with an old ideology, proclaim Yahweh as king, ruling no longer throuh his deputy the eartlhly king but through the priesthood. In this way one could come to grips with the idea of being a people not governed by an indigenous king. The theogcratic ideal or dogma became anchored in a remote time in order to acquire the prestige of something primeval” (602).
Over the next week or two, I will take notes for the following chapters: Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel by William G. Dever (605-614), Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Hector Avalos (615-631), and Private Life in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mayer I. Gruber (633-648). Part VIII of these volumes also have five other important chapters: Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel y Mark Smith (of course), Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient Israel, Death and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew Thought, Witchcraft, Magic, and Diviniation in Canaan and Ancient Israel, and Prophecy and Apocalyptics in the Ancient Near East. Art and Architecture in Canaan and Ancient Israel may also be a helpful article to read.
Although this is a lot of reading for a single, short work on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, it is imperative that an article (especially like this) be thorough. At the same time, it is important to be able to present the nuances while, at the same time, presenting the history of ancient Israelite religion in an understandable and comprehensible way.