Israelite Religion

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ISRAELITE RELIGION . In 1979 two silver amulets dating to the late seventh to sixth centuries bce were discovered in a burial cave in Ketef Hinnom, outside of Jerusalem. The smaller of these amulets reads: "Blessed be [he or she] by Yahweh, the helper and dispeller of evil. May Yahweh bless you (and) protect you, and may he cause his face to shine upon you and grant you peace." The larger amulet mentions "the covenant" and Yahweh's "graciousness to those who love him," refers to Yahweh as "our restorer," and concludes with the benediction: "May Yahweh bless you and protect you, may he cause his face to shine." This blessing is a slight variant of the priestly benediction in Numbers 6:22.

These two amulets, worn by the deceased, provide an entry into a number of aspects of ancient Israelite religion. They show the interplay between family religion and state religion, linking domestic burial practice with the religion of the Jerusalem Temple, where priests recited the priestly benediction during the sacrificial rites; they show how domestic religion placed Yahweh in the protective role of helper and dispeller of evil; they show the importance of the covenant to individual Israelites; and they suggest that the dead too belong to Yahweh's covenant and require Yahweh's protection. Some of these ideas were rejected by various biblical writers, particularly the aspects linked to magic and the cult of the dead. Nonetheless, the amulets provide a countervoice, testifying to authentic Israelite belief and practice in the late preexilic era. They provide a perspective onto the complex weave of Israelite religion, involving the nature of God, the relationship between God and humans, the functions of the covenant, the Temple, and sacrifice, the varieties of religious practice and belief, and the status of sacred texts. Each of these topics was subject to controversy, negotiation, and reinterpretation during the course of Israelite history.

God and the Gods

Yahweh (הוהי) is the proper name of the God of ancient Israel. He is also called El, literally "God," and Elohim, also meaning "God," although the latter was originally a plural noun meaning "gods, pantheon." By a remarkable act of theological reduction, the complex divine hierarchy of prior polytheistic religion was transformed into the authority of a sole high god. However, Yahweh was not the only god in Israelite religion. Like a king in his court, Yahweh was served by lesser deities, variously called "the Sons of God," "the Host of Heaven," and similar titles. This host (the word also means "army") sometimes fought battles of holy war (cf. the battle of Jericho, where Joshua meets the divine "captain of Yahweh's army"; Jo. 5:1315) and were also represented as stars (Jgs. 5:20: "the stars fought from heaven;" also Jb. 38:7). These lesser deities attend Yahweh in heaven, as in the prophet Micaiah's vision: "I saw Yahweh seated on his throne with all the Host of Heaven standing beside him, to his right and left" (1 Kgs. 22:19). At times they are also equated with the gods of other nations: "He established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Sons of God" (Dt. 32:8 with Qumran and the Septuagint; similarly, Dt. 4:19). A third category of divine beings (after Yahweh and the Sons of God) consisted of messenger gods, called angels. The angels carry Yahweh's messages to earth, as illustrated by Jacob's dream vision of the angels ascending and descending the celestial staircase that links heaven and earth (Gn. 28:12). In late biblical books, the Sons of God and the angels merge into a single category and proliferate: In Daniel's vision of the heavenly court, "thousands upon thousands serve him" (Dn. 7:10).

The tripartite hierarchy of the divine worldYahweh, the Sons of God or Heavenly Host, and the angelsderives from the earlier structure of Canaanite religion. According to the texts from Ugarit (c. 1200 bce) and other Canaanite sources, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon was El, whose wife, the mother of the gods, was Asherah. The other gods of the pantheon are collectively called the Children of El and are subservient to El's authority, although someparticularly Baal, Anat, Astarte, and Reshephare prominent deities. A third category consists of servants and messenger gods. This hierarchy is structurally equivalent to that of Israelite religion, with some striking differences. On the level of high god, El seems to have merged with Yahweh, who absorbs El's name and has many of his attributes. Asherah in Israelite religion becomes the name of a sacred pole or tree in local Yahwistic shrines, although there are hints in some texts that she was worshiped as a goddess in some times and places. The second tier of deities, the Children of El (bn ʾil), have the same title in Israelite religion (Sons of God; bene ʾel or bene haʾelohim), but in Israelite religion have been demoted into relatively powerless beings. Resheph, for example, rather than an independent god of war and disease, seems to become a personification of disease, accompanying Yahweh's awesome march into battle (Hb. 3:5). Yahweh replaces or absorbs the functions of all of the active gods of the pantheon, hence like El, he is the beneficent patriarch and judge; like Baal, he is the divine warrior; and like Asherah and her daughters, he dispenses "blessings of breast and womb" (Gn. 49:25). Israelite religion, like Israel's language and culture, is a child of the Canaanite or West Semitic world.

One of the distinctive features of Israelite religion is the absence of a wife or consort for Yahweh. Yahweh is a male god, but he is not depicted as a sexual being. It is possible, although far from certain, that some local traditions may have rectified this situation. Several inscriptions from the eighth century invoke blessings "by Yahweh and his asherah." The grammar of these invocations most likely indicates that "his asherah" refers to a sacred pole or tree rather than a goddess, because a proper name cannot have a possessive suffix, and sacred poles or trees called asherahs are mentioned in the Bible as features of local shrines. However, Asherah is El's wife in Canaanite religion, and she might be Yahweh's wife in these local cults, perhaps represented by the sacred pole or tree. In several instances in the Bible, the name Asherah clearly refers to a goddess: According to the Book of Kings, King Asa's mother made a statue of Asherah, which King Asa destroyed (1 Kgs. 15:13); 400 prophets of Asherah were supported by Queen Jezebel (1 Kgs. 18:19; lacking in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures); and a statue of Asherah was placed in the Jerusalem Temple by King Manasseh and later destroyed by King Josiah (2 Kgs. 21:7; 23:6). Whether these statements are historically accurate or whether in some cases they are false accusations against "wicked" royalty (like Jezebel and Manasseh), they nonetheless clearly attest that Asherah could be understood as the name of a goddess. The symbolism of the sacred pole or tree called the asherah or asherim (the plural form is masculine in gender) remains suggestive but obscure. It may be a depersonalization of Asherah into a religious symbol of Yahweh worship, perhaps representing an attribute of Yahweh's divinity such as fertility or abundance (in the metonymy of the tree); it may signify that the goddess Asherah was worshiped alongside Yahweh; or perhaps more likely, the sacred pole or tree was subject to differing interpretations, with a floating symbolic register.

Early biblical texts seem to acknowledge that gods of other nations exist (Dt. 32:8). The nations each have their own god, but Yahweh is Israel's god. This seems to be the earliest sense of the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods beside me" (Ex. 20:3). Yahweh is Israel's high god, who delivered his people from slavery and oppression, and therefore he is entitled to Israel's worship and loyalty. Moreover, Yahweh is superior to the other gods, as proclaimed in the early hymn, the Song of the Sea: "Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, working wonders?" (Ex. 15:11). Other national gods exist, but Yahweh is Israel's god and he is the greatest god. The worship of Yahweh functions as a unifying agent of Israelite culture and religion. This type of worship is sometimes called monolotry (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others) or henotheism (belief in one god without denying the existence of others). A more thoroughgoing monotheism, which denies the existence of other gods, is a product of the prophetic and Deuteronomistic critique during the eighth through the sixth centuries bce.

In addition to the major categories of divine beings, the human dead are also referred to as gods. When King Saul has a sorceress summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel, she calls the ghost an Elohim (1 Sm. 28:13). Elsewhere the shades of the dead are called gods (Is. 8:19) and "holy ones" (Ps. 16:3). Although divination by consulting the shades of the dead is prohibited in Deuteronomy 18:11, it may have been a fairly common local practice. Statues called teraphim were also used for divination (Ez. 21:26; Zec. 10:2) and are once referred to as gods (Gn. 31:30). These were probably statues of dead ancestors who bestowed blessings on their descendants and could be invoked for divination. These practices indicate that the dead were not connected to the world of the gods as full-fledged deities, but as shadowy intermediaries between the world of the living and the divine realm. The world of the dead was the subterranean Sheol, not in heaven where Yahweh and his divine entourage dwelled, but somehow their shadowy existence was in some respects divine and included godlike foresight into the future.

On a different level the human king functioned as a quasidivine intermediary between the divine and human realms. The king is at times referred to as the son of God (Ps. 2:7; 2 Sm. 7:14) and the firstborn of God (Ps. 89:28), and in one text the king seems to be addressed as Elohim (Ps. 45:7). The language of divine kinship in these texts indicates that God adopts the reigning king as his earthly son, which corresponds to the king's role as God's chosen representative or intermediary on earth. As portrayed in the royal psalms, the king is the earthly guarantor of cosmic order, defeating the enemiesboth human and cosmicand establishing harmony and peace. The king partakes of the divine through the sacral office of kingship, which ideally ensures "abundant authority and peace without end" (Is. 9:6). In the Second Temple period (536 bce70 ce), in the absence of a reigning king, the concept of the king as a quasidivine intermediary stimulated the expectation of a royal messiah, the future Davidic king, hedged with divinity, who will defeat chaos once and for all.

Humans and God

Aside from the special status of the king, humans have varying kinds of relationship with God. In the priestly creation account of Genesis 1, God creates humans "in the image of God," a phrase that suggests a democratization of the king's status. As God's earthly image, humans are collectively to rule the earth and all of its creatures (Gn. 1:2628). Humansincluding male and femaleare god-like mediators between God and the world. To be created in "the image of God" also implies a spiritual, moral, or intellectual component that transcends ordinary creaturely existence. Humans are more than animals but less than gods, and they are the pinnacle of creation (see also Ps. 8:49). A less exalted status is given to humans in the Yahwistic (denoted as J) creation myth in the Garden of Eden (Gn. 2:43:24). There the first human is created as a laborer, "to work and protect" the garden (Gn. 2:15). This status is similar to that in older Mesopotamian creation myths, in which humans are created to be the laborers of the gods. In the course of the Garden of Eden story, the humans become "like gods, knowing good and evil" (Gn. 3:5, 22), gaining a god-like aspect comparable to the lofty status of humans in Genesis 1. In this story the desire to be god-like leads to higher knowledge and self-awareness, but also leads to pain, suffering, hard agricultural subsistence, and consciousness of death, that is, the ordinary fare of human existence. Unlike the original situation in paradise, the human world is limited by pain and mortality, but it is also enriched by a god-like knowledge of good and evil. This divine quality includes moral discernment of good and evil and, through the semantic range of the verb "to know," sexual maturity ("they knew that they were naked," Gn. 3:7; "the man knew his wife, Eve," Gn. 4:1). Human existence contrasts with the perfection of paradise or divine existence, yet humans have some degree of divinity, or likeness to divinity.

Humans, however, also have a propensity toward evil. This flaw gives rise to various problems and solutions. In Genesis 6, God responds to the collective problem of human evil by sending the flood. In both versions of the flood story (the Yahwistic and priestly versions, edited together in Gn. 69), God saves the sole righteous man and begins a new era of human existence. This new era, according to the Priestly version, is distinguished by the first laws and covenant (Gn. 9:117), establishing clear limits to human violence, particularly the slaughter of animals and murder. The Noachic covenant and its laws, which apply to all earthly creatures, are a first step toward the great promulgation of laws and covenant to Israel at Mount Sinai. In the Yahwistic version of the flood, human evil is not decisively controlled, rather Yahweh resigns himself to the persistence of human evil, promising that despite their corrupt nature he will never again destroy humans (Gn. 8:21). In the Yahwistic narrative the problem of evil is relieved by Yahweh's compassion for humans, and later by his election of Abraham, who will teach justice and righteousness to his children, and through whom all the earth's peoples will be blessed (Gn. 12:14; 18:19).

The human propensity for evil creates the need for religion, which, through its stories, rites, and laws, teaches morality, regulates behavior, and restores a beneficial relationship with God and the cosmos. Peopleincluding Israelites and foreignerscan choose to disobey the religious norms, in which case God will send destruction (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah). But there remains a mutuality of interest in the continuance of human existence: God desires justice and morality, and from Israel he also desires worship, and in return he grants his blessing. God and humans are linked in a relationship of mutual benefit, regulated by a divinely sanctioned cosmic order. In situations in which this cosmic order has been disrupted or destroyed, God's relationship with Israel, or with humans generally, becomes a critical problem.

Family Religion and State Religion

The worship of God took different forms in various social contexts in ancient Israel. The most notable distinction is between family religion and state religion. In the domestic domain of family religion, portrayed most directly in the patriarchal narratives, Yahweh is the "god of the father" who provides blessings of offspring, abundance, healing, and protection for members of a household or lineage. The worship of the "god of the father" and the reverence for the lineage ancestors were complementary features of family religion. Problems of infertility (e.g., Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel), marriage (e.g., Isaac, Jacob), inheritance (e.g., Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau), family strife (e.g., Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers), and famine (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) are occasions when family religion becomes prominent in these stories and in Israelite domestic life.

Archaeological excavations shed additional light on family religion. Many Israelite houses had domestic shrines featuring incense altars and cultic stands, where incense and food offerings were made, probably accompanied by prayers and vows. Also common in these domestic shrines were bowls of sheep or goat knuckles, which were used for divination, and clay figurines (including females with prominent breasts, horses with male riders, birds, and rattles), whose function is unknown. These clay objects presumably figured in family religion, although it is unclear whether they were deities, ancestors, the worshiper, or had other functions or uses. Ethnographic parallels indicate that such inexpensive figurines could be used in a variety of ways: as religious icons, decorations, or even toys. It is possible that the female figurines represented major or minor goddesses in Israelite religion. A variety of other religious practices were at home in family religion, including memorial offerings to the dead (Ps. 16:34; Dt. 26:14), divination by means of statues of the ancestors, and protective magic (cf. the mortuary amulets from Ketef Hinnom and the biblical references to male and female sorcerers).

The worship of gods other than Yahweh is occasionally attested in domestic contexts in the biblical text, such as the family worship of the Queen of Heaven (probably a local form of Ishtar or Astarte; Jer. 7:1718; 44:1525); women planting ritual gardens and mourning for Adonis, Tammuz, or Baal (Is. 17:1011; Ez. 8:14; Zec. 12:11); and the offering of incense to the Host of Heaven on rooftops (Jer. 19:13; Zep. 1:5). The latter, at least, is the worship of Yahweh's heavenly entourage. It is possible that family religion also included a ritual of passing children through fire as a rite of initiation or redemption, perhaps called a molech offering (or mulk) or an offering to the god Molech (e.g., Dt. 18:10; 2 Kgs. 23:10). This may have been a symbolic attenuation of an older rite of child sacrifice. Many of the practices of family religion were deplored by various biblical writers (e.g., Dt. 18:911), and they were officially anathematized by King Josiah (2 Kgs. 23).

State religion was rooted in the public structures of political authority and descends from the prestate tribal religion. In the early period, tribal and pan-tribal identity was activated most directly during pilgrimage festivals and military crises. For example, the Song of Deborah (Jgs. 5) describes the call of the tribes to war (not all of them come) and depicts Yahweh as the mighty divine warrior and savior of the tribal confederation. The Song of the Sea (Ex. 15), perhaps recited at tribal festivals, describes Yahweh as the mighty warrior and national savior in his triumph over Pharaoh's army at the Exodus and his delivery of his people to the Promised Land. Jerusalem became the royal capital and the center of the state religion for the southern kingdom of Judah, whereas Dan and Bethel were the official state shrines for the northern kingdom of Israel. State religion regulated the system of sacrifices offered at the central shrines, which supported the guild of official priests. The king was the patron of the state religion, which in turn provided the charter for his sacral authority; the king maintained the Temple (or, in the northern kingdom, the official shrines), appointed the chief priests, and at times presided over the sacrificial ceremonies (e.g., 1 Kgs. 8:6266). The Jerusalem Temple and the dynasty of Davidic kings were symbolically linked, as illustrated by the proximity and names of the two institutions: the Temple was the House of Yahweh (bet yhwh ), which stood next to the somewhat larger palace of the royal dynasty, the House of David (bet david). The centralization of worship at the Temple, promulgated by Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, concentrated the sacrificial tribute in Jerusalem and exalted and extended the authority of the royal house.

It is useful to distinguish a third type or level of religious worship, local religion, which mediates between family and state religion. Regional shrines served local families and lineages, functioning as a unifying feature in Israelite society. There is evidence that Yahweh was worshiped in various local manifestations: He was invoked in blessings as "Yahweh of Samaria" and "Yahweh of Teman" in eighth-century inscriptions from Kuntillet ʿAjrud, and Absalom speaks of his vow to "Yahweh in Hebron" (2 Sm. 15:7). These local manifestations of Yahweh were no doubt conceived as the same god, but worshiped with local variations and accents. The local shrinesand the local priests who gained their living by the sacrifices offered therewere anathematized by the prophets and Deuteronomy. The exhortation "Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one" (Dt. 6:4) may be a criticism of the multiplicity of Yahwehs worshiped at the local shrines and an affirmation of Yahweh as worshiped in the Jerusalem Temple. In some respects state religion was a version of local religion, because Yahweh in Zion is a local manifestation of Yahweh who becomes the authorized state god, a jealous god inimical to the local cults.

Covenant and Law

Ancient Israel called itself ʿam yhwh (the people of Yahweh; Jgs. 5:11; 1 Sm. 2:24; 2 Sm. 1:12). This term implies a relationship of kinship or fealty between the people and their god. In many biblical texts, particularly from the eighth century bce and later, this relationship is called a berit (covenant, pact; e.g., Hos. 6:7; 8:1; Ex. 24:78). The Priestly source structures its portrayal of history as a sequence of three covenants: the Noachic covenant (Gn. 9:817), the Abrahamic covenant (Gn. 17), and the Mosaic covenant (beginning with Ex. 6:18). According to this scheme all creatures have a covenant with God (the Noachic covenant), but Israel has a special covenant with God. Only to Israel at the time of Moses does God reveal his true name, Yahweh, which signals his most complete self-revelation (Ex. 6:3). The Mosaic covenant consists of rules or stipulations that Israel must abide by, and in return Yahweh will make his sacred presence dwell in the midst of the people in his Tabernacle. Hence the construction of the Tabernaclea desert image of the Templehas a prominent place in the account of the covenant at Sinai (Ex. 2540). The covenant is a divinehuman bond between Yahweh and Israel and is also an interhuman bonda system of law, ethics, and ritual practicethat regulates Israelite life.

Preeminent among these laws are the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:114; Dt. 5:618), which crystallize the basic tenets of the covenant. In their present form, the first five commandments are explicitly religious, each referring to Yahweh, and the second five are more explicitly secular and do not refer to Yahweh. In the earlier form of the Ten Commandments, which apparently consisted of ten brief sentences, this twofold division may have more naturally fallen between the fourth commandment ("remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy") and the fifth commandment ("honor your father and mother"). In any case, the sacred and the secular commands are complementary aspects of the covenant, together forming a coherent religio-ethical order. Notably, the Ten Commandments are addressed to the people Israel as a series of exhortations ("You [plural] shall. ") and has no explicit penalties. The Commandments are community rules anchored not by penalties but by the authority of Yahweh. This authority is rooted in the memory of his salvific deeds on Israel's behalf: "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex. 20:1). The legal and ethical order of the covenant is guaranteed by the past deeds of Yahweh that created the conditions for Israel's existence. Israel's willing assent to the laws ("all that Yahweh has spoken we will do and obey"; Ex. 24:7) is an expression of covenant loyalty to her divine patron.

The effective consequences of the covenant are made explicit in the blessings and curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27 and 28 (which show some borrowings from the curses in contemporary Assyrian treaties). If Israel obeys the covenantal stipulations, Yahweh will grant Israel his blessings; if Israel disobeys, Yahweh will send curses and destruction. This collective responsibility for Israel's destiny becomes the historiographical key for the Deuteronomist's account of Israelite history in the books of Deuteronomy through Kings. The destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria and the southern kingdom by Babylon are due to both kingdoms' disobedience to the covenant, particularly to the first and second commandments (2 Kgs. 17:723; 23:2627). The classical prophets' oracles of doom also rest on this covenantal foundation: Because the people have disobeyed the covenant, Yahweh will deliver them to destruction. The preexilic prophets occasionally provide a glimpse of Yahweh's blessings should Israel repent, and this prospect of future blessing becomes a prominent theme in the exilic and postexilic prophets (and in the postexilic expansions of previous books). The conceptual fabric of the covenant is implicit in much prophetic discourse, including in its pointed social criticism, prophecies of doom, and evocations of an ideal order.

Temple and Psalms

The local shrines in Israel served as sacred centers where earth and heaven meet and where the worshiper could draw near to Yahweh's presence. The foundation legend of the shrine at Bethel in Genesis 28 illustrates the cosmic function of Israelite shrines: Jacob sees "a staircase standing on the earth with its top reaching to heaven" (Gn. 28:12) and encounters God. At Bethel Yahweh grants the patriarchal blessing to Jacob and promises to protect him, and Jacob makes a vow: "If I return in peace to my father's house, Yahweh will be my God, and this rock that I set up as a standing stone will be a house of God (bet ʾelohim ), and of all that you give me, I will give a tenth to you" (Gn. 28:2122). The sacred site of Bethel (lit., "house of God") is a cosmic axis where the human and the divine realms meet, where the ancestor enters into a bond with God, and where his descendants renew this bond. At this holy site the worshipers offer vows, libations, tithes, and sacrifices. As seen in its name, this "house of God" is a place where God dwells on earth, where the worshiper can enter into God's holy presence.

The Temple in Jerusalem partakes of all these aspects of the local shrines and eventually displaced them. As the central shrine of state religion, it had the patronage of the king and was graced (according to 1 Kgs. 6) with the finest Phoenician workmanship. It was built with Lebanon cedars, elsewhere called "cedars of God" (Ps. 80:11; cf. "cedars in the garden of God," Ez. 31:8). A divine quality seems to inhere in this wood (the Cedar Forest of Lebanon is described as a divine preserve in the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh and is considered "the secret abode of the gods"). The Temple is an image of divine paradise, as evoked by the engravings of trees, flowers, and protective cherubim on the cedar panels and gold overlay. Similar to the Garden of Eden, the Temple is a sacred place where God dwells and where ordinary humans cannot enter. (Only priests could enter the Temple's interior, and only the high priest could enter its most holy inner sanctum, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement.) Unlike the Garden of Eden, the Temple's location was known, and worshipers could approach God's holy presence in the Temple courtyard, and indeed were required to do so. There they would bring sacrifices and hear (or chant) sacred songs.

Many of the poems in the book of Psalms are sacred songs about the Temple, some sung in the Temple courts and some by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. In the language of these songs, the Temple is on Yahweh's "holy mountain," where worshipers who are pure of hands and heart (i.e., deeds and spirit) can enter into his salvific presence and receive his blessing (Ps. 24:36). The humble worshiper has only one wish: "to dwell in the House of Yahweh all the days of my life, to see the beauty of Yahweh, and to contemplate [him] in his Temple" (Ps. 27:4). This experience of divine presence is available in the sacred space and sacred time of the Temple, where Yahweh once celebrated his victory over chaos (Ps. 24:12, 710). At the Temple, the worshiper joyfully feasts in God's presence, drinks from the "fountain of life," and sees the light of God (Ps. 36:910). It is an earthly experience of a divine paradise, a place where, for a time, one can return to the perfect existence that humans once had in the Garden of Eden.

Because the Temple was the divinely sanctioned cosmic center, its destruction by the Babylonian army in 586 bce was a major religious crisis. In the psalms this event is depicted as a reversion to primeval chaos, when evil forces ran riot. Thus Psalm 74 invokes "God, my king from of old" to restore the order of creation as he did in primeval times when he defeated the dragons of chaos. In this mythic construal of historical events, the enemy's destruction of the Temple is a temporary victory, because the divine king will once more arise to vanquish the enemy. The tragedy of the present is an interlude between God's victories of the primeval past and the imminent future. This cyclical or periodizing view of history is a key ingredient in the rise of apocalypticism: the expectation that God and his holy allies (angels and one or more messiahs) will soon appear to vanquish evil and suffering. In the new era to come, God will build a new Temple, more glorious than the first (see Ezekiel's angelic tour of the new Temple in Ezekiel 4048), and the rivers of paradise will once more flow from the Temple (Ez. 47:112).


The major ritual action at the Israelite sacred shrines was sacrifice. Usually this involved the killing and offering of an animal from the domestic flocks (sheep, goat, or cattle), although grain offerings could serve as a substitute. Sacrifices in general are referred to as a gift (mina ), a slaughter (zeba ), or an offering or bringing-near (qorban ). These terms point to some of the basic dimensions of sacrifice. The sacrifice is a ritualized meal or feast in which meat is slaughtered (the consumption of meat was a special occasion in ordinary life, as in Gn. 18:18), transferred from the domestic setting to sacred space, where it takes on the character of gift or tribute to the deity and celebrates the bond between worshiper and deity. The sacrificial system has various components, each of which has distinctive shades of meaning.

The types of sacrifice most commonly referred to are the voluntary sacrifices called burnt offering (ʿola ) and well-being offering (shelamim ). The burnt offering is the type offered by Noah after the flood (Gn. 8:20) and by Abraham at Mount Moriah (Gn. 22:13), and both types are offered by Moses at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:5) and Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kgs. 8:64). Both types are commanded by Yahweh at Mount Sinai in one of the few passages that comment on their significance: "You shall make for me an earthen altar, and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your well-being offerings from your flocks and herds. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you" (Ex. 20:21). Performing these sacrifices at the sacred sites is a way of worshiping or remembering Yahweh, and with each ritual of remembrance, Yahweh grants his blessing. Memory and the circulation of blessings are the focus of the ritual. The worshiper remembers Yahweh and pays homage to him, and also remembers the great sacrificial events of the past that founded the people (e.g., the Sinai covenant, the dedication of the Temple). Yahweh remembers his bond with his people and responds to their tribute with his blessing, which recapitulates the pattern of his relationship with the ancestors. In this ritual event, which takes place in family, local, and state religion, the social roles of the Israelites in their families, clans, and tribes are reaffirmed and sacralized, as is the worshiper's metaphysical role in the larger structures of reality.

The burnt offering and well-being offering form a complementary pair and were usually offered in sequence. The burnt offering, performed first, is entirely burnt into smoke, serving as a greeting-gift to Yahweh. The smoke is the pleasing odor that rises to Yahweh, summoning him to the sacrifice. The well-being offering, performed next, is shared by Yahweh and the worshiper, but with different portions and by different culinary means. The fat or suet is burnt into smoke (like the technique of the burnt offering), which rises to Yahweh as his pleasing odor. The meat is boiled in a pot for the worshipers, with a portion going to the officiating priests. The well-being offering is sometimes aptly rendered as a "communion offering," because in it the worshiper and Yahweh share a ritual meal in each other's presence. Yet even as they share a common meal, the difference of their respective portions signifies the metaphysical difference between Yahweh and humans. Yahweh's portion is smokea nonmaterial substance, rising from the earth to heaven, pointing to his divine nature. This is a substance that humans, as earthly beings, cannot eat. The humans' portion is meat stew, which is solid and cooked in a pot, corresponding to human physicality and material culture. Yahweh transcends human existence, just as his sacrificial cuisine differs from theirs. The ritual meal effects communion between the worshipers and Yahweh but also expresses metaphysical difference and hierarchy.

In the priestly system of sacrifice (presented in Lv. 116), several additional types of sacrifices are mandated for purification of sins. Each is a specialization of the well-being sacrifice, with the suet burnt into smoke for Yahweh and the meat boiled for the officiating priest. The most important purificatory sacrifice is the "sin offering" (attaʾt ), sometimes called the "purification offering." This offering purifies the worshiper and the Temple from the worshiper's inadvertent sins and impurities. Situations that require such purifying sacrifices include physical contact with an unclean person or object, menstrual impurity, unintentional failure to testify in a legal matter, and transitions of ritual status such as the initiation of priests. These are all situations in which a person is temporarily "out of place," whether physically, legally, or socially. A special purification offering is performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement to cleanse the Temple of the Israelites' deliberate transgressions (Lv. 16:16). The system of purification offerings ensures the continued availability of Yahweh's presence in the Temple by keeping it cleansed from the "dirt" of Israel's impurities and sins. It also provides a solution to the problem of human evil by regulating and cleansing its effects, thereby warding off another divine punishment like the great flood. The priestly system of sacrifice is, in this respect, a ritual theodicy, in which Yahweh forswears punishment as long as Israel atones for its sins.

Several of the classical prophets criticize the legitimacy of sacrifice, stating that Yahweh does not want or accept the people's sacrifices (Am. 5:2125; Hos. 6:6; Is. 1:1017; Mi. 6:68; Jer. 7:2123). These prophetic texts set up a contrast between ritual and ethics; Yahweh denounces the former and requires only the latter. It is not clear whether this contrast in prophetic rhetoric is absolute or relative; that is, whether ritual is empty under any circumstance, or whether it is empty only under the current circumstance of unethical behavior. In either case, the traditional practice becomes the object of critique and its meaning problematized. These questions about the relation between ritual practice and ethical disposition provide the ground for later transformations in Judaism and Christianity, when sacrifice becomes obsolete after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 ce). Some of the meanings and functions of sacrifice were preserved in other significant rites, most prominently the Passover Seder (a ritual meal which recalls the Passover sacrifice) and the Eucharist (a ritual meal which recalls both the Passover Seder and Jesus' sacrifice).

The Prophetic Critique

The religious critiques of the classical prophets (eighth through the sixth centuries bce) effected, over several centuries, significant shifts in the structures of belief and practice in Israelite religion. Many aspects of traditional religious practice such as sacrifice, worship at local sacred sites, and the use of various types of religious iconography came under scathing attack. Veneration of other divine beings, including Yahweh's entourage, the Heavenly Host, was defined as sacrilege. Political institutions, such as kingship and the ruling elite, came under attack. The classical prophets regarded Israelite societyparticularly the ruling classesas ethically corrupt, and the major religious institutions and traditions were part of the problem. Hence they were defined as empty and abhorred by Yahweh. Hosea's writings against Samaria are the beginnings of the critique:

Israel rejects what is good. They made kings, but not by me; They made officers, but not by my knowledge; With their silver and gold, they made images. (I) reject your calf, O Samaria, I am furious with (it). A craftsman made it, but it is not a god; Yahweh will shatter the calf of Samaria. (Hs. 8:36)

In this speech, kingship, the political administration, the sacred sites, and the religious iconography are all denounced. The "calf of Samaria" was the bull pedestal or throne of Yahweh at the royal shrines of Bethel and Dan. Analogous to the sphinx-like cherubs above the Ark in the Jerusalem Temple, the calf is a divine creature, but not a high god. But the physical representation of any divine being or aspect of divinity is castigated by the classical prophets, including the old standing stones at the local shrines. This is a critique of religious symbolism as such. Sacrifice too is an empty rite, as in Isaiah's oracle:

What do I need of all your sacrifices, says Yahweh, I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And the suet of fatlings; The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats, I do not desire. When you come to appear before me, Who asked these of you, trampling my courts? (Is. 1:1112)

The critique of traditional religious symbols and practices comes to a climax in Jeremiah's Temple Sermon: "Thus says Yahweh of Hosts, God of Israel, Make good your ways and actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not place your trust in empty words, saying 'The Temple of Yahweh, the Temple of Yahweh, the Temple of Yahweh.' You are placing your trust in empty words which are of no avail" (Jer. 7:38). In a situation in which the people are morally corrupt, even the Templethe religious institution par excellenceis devoid of value. In the absence of ethical behavior, all religious symbols and rituals are vacant.

As part of the prophets' religious critique, the divine realm is reconceived such that Yahweh becomes the sole high god of all the nations. Rather than being the best of gods, as in older texts, Yahweh is the only god: "Yahweh is the true God, He is the living God and eternal King" (Jer. 10:10). The gods of other nations are mere illusions. Second Isaiah (i.e., the "second author" who wrote segments of the book of Isaiah ) makes this point in his exilic oracles: "I am God, there is no other; I am god, there is none like me" (Is. 46:9). In this new conception of God, the former anthropomorphic traits are purged: God is beyond human imagination, omniscient and omnipresent. The prophetic critique produced the classical monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The new conceptual forms of the prophetic critique are closely related to the classical prophets' social positions as liminal or status-inconsistent figures. Unlike kings and priests, the authority of these prophets derived from their verbal power and personal qualities, outside of inherited or appointed hierarchies. (There were other prophets who were royal retainers; e.g., Nathan in David's court.) The prophets whose social backgrounds are cited had inconsistent status: Amos was a southern rancher prophesying in the northern kingdom, Jeremiah was from a disenfranchised priestly lineage, and Ezekiel was a priest in exile. As prophets they were religious mediators, hearing Yahweh's words in heaven and relating them to humans on earth. From their betwixt-and-between positions, they drew new distinctions between symbol and reality, signs and things, in a manner unthinkable within the traditional structures of religious thought. This practice of social and religious critique is characteristic of a variety of intellectual elites in what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (Eisenstadt, 1986). The classical prophets are ancient Israel's Axial critics.

The prophetic critique was appropriated by the royal administration of Josiah (and perhaps earlier, Hezekiah) to justify the centralization of religious authority in the Jerusalem Temple, the central shrine of state religion. Both kings, according to the biblical texts, destroyed the local shrines (2 Kgs. 18:46, 22; 22:820). Sacrifice could henceforth only be offered at the Temple. This aggregation of power to the capital city enhanced the prestige of the king and the Jerusalem priesthood. It may have been facilitated, in part, by the Assyrian destruction and depopulation of the Judean countryside during the reign of Hezekiah and the concomitant expansion of Jerusalem's population. Josiah's renewed efforts to consolidate religious centralization in Jerusalem was accompanied by the discovery of "the scroll of the law" (2 Kgs. 22; an early form of Deuteronomy ), which mandated that Israel only worship at one site, "the place that Yahweh your God will choose, among all your tribes, to place his name there" (Dt. 12:5). Deuteronomy, a sublimely spiritual book, integrated the prophetic critique with the triumph of the state religion.

Other Theodicies

The classical biblical view of the relation between God's justice and human suffering can be seen most clearly in the psalms of lament and thanksgiving. Worshipers, who are suffering or have recently been delivered from suffering, attribute their painful state either to their own sins or to the malefic influence of their enemies. The worshipers trust that God will deliver them from suffering and evil or offers thanks for already having been delivered. At the end, the worshipers rejoice and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to Yahweh. The sequence of importuning, trust, deliverance, and thanks is typically dramatized with motifs from the old myth of God's primeval victory over his cosmic enemies. As in the Canaanite myth of Baal, the cosmic enemies par excellence are Sea and Death. For example, the suffering that afflicts the worshipers are "the ropes of Death the flood-torrents of Belial the ropes of Sheol the snares of Death" (Ps. 18:5; similarly, Ps. 69:23, 1516; 88:48; 116:3; Jon. 2:34). God rescues the worshiper from these chaotic regions with his mighty hand: "He reached down from on high, he took me, he drew me from the mighty waters, he saved me from my fierce enemy" (Ps. 18:17); and "he lifted me out of the desolate Pit, the miry clay" (Ps. 40:3; similarly, Ps. 30:4; Jon. 2:7). In these psalms, the victory of God over evil and suffering are portrayed as a recapitulation of his primeval victories over chaos. The myth of the Divine Warrior forms the master plot for his victory over evil and suffering in the present.

The classical prophets transformed this constellation of ideas in their concept of the Day of Yahweh, which will be directed against Israel for its evil deeds (Am. 5:1820; Is. 2:1217; Zep. 1:218). The leaders and people of Israel are now the "enemies," and Yahweh will punish and destroy them for the injustices they have committed. The military destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom by the Babylonians vindicated these utterances of the classical prophets, thereby investing their writings with increased authority, leading to their eventual canonization.

During and after the Babylonian exile (586538 bce), new shifts occurred in the old patterns of theodicy. In the proto-apocalyptic writings of Second Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other prophetic texts, God's future victory over the enemy (the Babylonians, other foreign nations; e.g., Gog of Magog and his allies in Ez. 3839 and Death and the sea dragon Leviathan in Is. 25:8, 27:1) will lead to a golden age of peace and joy. The divine destruction of evil and suffering will be a cosmic transformation in which this era will be no more and a golden age will dawn. These apocalyptic ideas grew in force in the late Second Temple period, particularly after the Antiochene persecutions, stimulating the formation of apocalyptic communities at Qumran (an Essene order) and among the early Christians. In these apocalyptic groups, the cosmic enemies are both earthly and heavenly. The earthly enemies include Rome and other foreign nations, and also Jews who are not in the inner group of the righteous elect. The heavenly enemies are Satan and his armies of wicked angels and demons, who will be vanquished in cosmic battle with God, his angelic army, and one or more messianic figures.

An alternate transformation of the old pattern of theodicy occurs in the poetic dialogues of the book of Job. Job laments his suffering in language rooted in the psalms of lament, but maintains that he is innocent of any sin or wrongdoing. His comforters, who maintain the traditional claim that suffering is merited by past sinful acts, are repudiated by Job and later by God (Jb. 42:7). Job insists that God is treating the innocent man as his enemy ("Am I the Sea or the Dragon?"; Jb. 7:12), which impugns the idea of divine justice. When God appears to Job in the storm cloud, he uses the language of divine mastery over chaos to intimidate Job into silence. God's ways are beyond Job's understanding, and he recants: "I spoke without understanding, of things too wondrous for me, which I did not know" (Jb. 42:3). After recanting, Job is delivered from suffering, but the reasons are not the traditional ones. God's relationship to human evil and suffering is no longer comprehensible, if any such relationship even exists. Humans seem to be more or less insignificant in God's sight, and his victory over cosmic chaosrepresented by Leviathan and Behemothno longer has any metaphoric relation to the defeat of human suffering.

A similar view is articulated in the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the language of the divine victory over chaos is entirely lacking. A general absence of meaning (hevel ; emptiness, vanity, logical absurdity) pervades the world that we inhabit, and human suffering is only alleviated by death. Humans should cultivate simple pleasures and a tempered pursuit of wisdom, but not worry overmuch about the apparent absence of divine justice. Ecclesiastes holds that God is just, but what happens in the world is often unjust. Life and wisdom are God's gifts, and to ask for more is to invite anguish. "God made humans straightforward, but they have sought great reasons for things" (Eccl. 7:29). Ecclesiastes, like Job, stresses the limits of human understanding, offering a skeptical and pragmatic alternative to the traditional biblical views of theodicy.

The Scripturalization of Religion

During the preexilic period, religious knowledge circulated orally, particularly in the rites and festivals of family, local, and state religion. Elders, priests, and prophets were the primary religious authorities. Toward the end of the monarchic period a shift begins to occur in the locus of religious knowledge, from oral tradition to the written word. Second Kings 22 describes the discovery in the Jerusalem Temple of a "scroll of the teaching" (sefer hatorah; probably an early version of the book of Deuteronomy ) that authorizes King Josiah's religious reforms. Deuteronomy 17:1820 instructs the king to read a scroll that is "a copy of this teaching" throughout his days to ensure his just rule. In these scenes the authority of the written word begins to take the place of the prophets and prieststhe latter are limited to copying the scroll or pronouncing on its authenticity. The image of God's word as a textual product is vividly portrayed in the initiatory vision of the prophet Ezekiel, who becomes a prophet when God commands him to swallow a scroll: "I ate it, and it became as sweet as honey in my mouth" (Ez. 3:3). God's word has become a text, which the prophet recites to the people.

Henceforth the history of Israelite religion is inseparable from the history of the text and its interpretation. The canonical moment for this history, according to the biblical portrayal, is Ezra's reading of "the scroll of the teaching of Moses" (sefer torah moshe ; an early version of the Pentateuch; i.e., the first five books of the Bible) accompanied by learned men who "explain the teaching to the people" (Neh. 8:7). The function of religious specialists was now to read and interpret the authoritative text to discern the true meaning of God's already textualized word. A striking example of the new concept of divine revelation during the Second Temple period is Daniel's vision in Daniel 9, in which the pious Daniel reads the book of Jeremiah to learn when the redemption of Jerusalem will occur, then he prays, mourns, and fasts. The angel Gabriel arrives from heaven to reveal the scriptural secrets: "Daniel, I have now come to impart knowledge to you" (Dn. 9:22). God's word is contained in a text, but it takes further divine revelation to understand its true meaning.

Once religion becomes textualized, each community needs a divinely inspired or authorized interpreter, or class of interpreters, to discern the scriptural secrets. The Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran and Jesus of Nazareth are prominent examples of inspired teachers of scriptural secrets during the latter part of the Second Temple period. New institutions arose, such as the Pharisees and rabbis, whose authority was rooted in their ability to interpret scripture. Hillel, according to rabbinic tradition, "renewed the Torah" by the wealth of his interpretations, touching many aspects of Jewish life and law (Sukkah 20a). As Gershom Scholem observed, commentary became the major vehicle for religious discourse in Judaism. In Christianity "the word become flesh," but its gospel was also a text, and Christianity preserved its Jewish origins as a scriptural religion. By the end of the Second Temple period, Israelite religion had been transformed into a plurality (including Essenes, Pharisees, Samaritans, Christians, Gnostics, and Platonists) of cultures of interpretation.

See Also

Biblical Exegesis, article on Jewish views; Biblical Literature, article on Hebrew Scriptures.


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Ronald S. Hendel (2005)

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