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Early Israelite Religion – Not only YHWH

Original Date
May 11, 2009

The Book of Judges reflects considerable diversity in the premonarchical religion of Israel, and this is confirmed by archaeology. The final editors of the Hebrew Bible (OT) had a rather idealistic view of religious conditions—the Levites led the other tribes in the worship of Yahweh, which contrasted sharply with the idolatry of the Canaanites. Once we get behind the editorial framework of the compilers, however, we find a far more complex situation. For instance, when Gideon was called upon to deliver Israel from the Midianite oppression, an angel of Yahweh appeared before him at Ophrah and commanded him to “pull down the altar of Baal which your father has, and cut down the Asherah [1] that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on top of the stronghold” (Judges 6:25–26). Apparently, the altar to Baal served as a village shrine. Gideon pulled down the altar by night to escape the notice of his family and the men of the town; he built the altar to Yahweh and offered a bull upon it. When the men of the town discovered what he had done, they went to the house of Gideon’s father and demanded that he be brought out so they could execute him. Joash, Gideon’s father, interceded and saved his son from the townspeople.

After Gideon defeated the Midianites, he received from the Israelites the loot taken from the Midianites (Ishmaelites)—golden earrings, crescents and pendants, as well as purple garments worn by the kings of Midian. Gideon proceeded to make from this material (the Hebrew word is “it,” so we cannot be sure if the antecedent is the gold or the robes) an ephod. An ephod can be a decorated priestly garment, as in Exodus 28:4, or it can be an image clothed in a cultic garment, as appears to be the case in the Gideon incident, because it “became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

In another episode, Micah, an Ephraimite, steals 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother, for which she curses him (Judges 17:2ff.). Repentant, Micah restores the silver; his mother then gives him 200 pieces of silver, which he turns over “to the silversmith, who made it into a graven image and a molten image; and it was in the house of Micah” (Judges 17:4). The account continues: “And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest” (Judges 17:5).

This description of a household shrine finds an echo in Iron Age I houses excavated by Joseph Callaway at Khirbet Raddana, two of which had small platforms built up of stones beside the roof support pillars of the great room. In one house, two offering stands were recovered. The account of Micah’s household shrine suggests, as does this excavation, that the religion of Yahweh that we meet later in the Bible went through a process of development. We cannot trace this development to an imageless Yahweh with any certainty.

A collection of ancient Hebrew and Phoenician inscriptions from a later period was recovered in 1975 and 1976 at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in the desert southwest of Kadesh-Barnea. Although they date to the eighth century BCE, they have implications for the period of the Judges as well. These inscriptions contain the names of El and Yahweh (spelled YHWH as in the Hebrew Bible), suggesting to the excavator, Ze’ev Meshel, that the site was a religious center, or shrine.  [2] The inscriptions and some primitive drawings were found on large storage jars and on the plaster from a building. One Phoenician inscription, apparently written on the plaster of a door jamb, reads “ … blessed be Baal in the day of … ” [3]    It refers to Baal rather than Yahweh, but its appearance on a door jamb recalls the injunction in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write a biblical passage on “the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” One of the storage jars at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud was inscribed with poorly preserved drawings and a blessing that reads: “Amaryau said to my lord … may you be blessed by Yahweh and by his Asherah. Yahweh bless you and keep you and be with you.” [4]

The reference to Asherah in this inscription is highly controversial, as, indeed, is the meaning of the term Asherah in the Hebrew Bible. [5]  Asherah appears in Canaanite literature as the female consort of Baal. In the Bible, she is always condemned as a pagan deity. But here, in the eighth century BCE., the time of the classical prophets, we find Asherah, at least according to some interpreters, mentioned as a consort of Yahweh. What we seem to have here is a grassroots cultic pluralism that inspired periodic religious reforms throughout Israel’s history. Examples are King Hezekiah’s reform of the eighth century BCE and King Josiah’s reform of the seventh century BCE.  If this cultic pluralism, with Yahweh worshiped alongside Baal and Asherah, persisted until the time of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, then it certainly existed in the period of the Judges.

We do not know the origins of Yahweh worship. Exodus 6:3 attributes the revelation of Yahwism to Moses in the land of the Midianites, south of Canaan. Moses married a Midianite woman whose father is called “the priest of Midian” (Exodus 18:1); Moses’ father-in-law officiated at a cultic celebration of Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 18:10–12). Miller points out that “certain poetical texts associate Yahweh in a special way with the south, and speak of Yahweh coming from that area to aid Israel in warfare,” as in Judges 5:4–5 and Deuteronomy 33:2. [6]  If Yahwism did have its origins among the desert peoples of the south, its acceptance among the tribal groups in Canaan apparently occurred over a long period of time, during which different factions competed. These different factions were associated with various cult symbols. The Ark of the Covenant may have been a symbol of southern origin; other symbols, such as the brazen serpent finally removed from the Temple during Hezekiah’s reform (2 Kings 18:4), seem to have Canaanite origins. The evolution and triumph of Yahwism in Israel must have come about through intense internal struggles.

The Judges— A Social and Religious Prelude to Nationhood

If the Book of Joshua is a Conquest story, the Book of Judges is by all means the book of accommodation, development and syntheses story.  The period of the Judges, when “there was no king in Israel; [and] every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25), lasted about 200 years—from around 1200 to 1000 BCE. When, however, the periods of time given for each episode in the Book of Judges are added together, the total far exceeds 200 years. It even exceeds the 480 years the Bible says elapsed between the Exodus and the founding of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:1). This is because the episodes are not to be joined as consecutive events; some undoubtedly occurred simultaneously. Further, the recurrence of the highly symbolic numbers 20, 40 and 80 suggests that these figures are not necessarily to be taken literally. Numbers in the biblical world often have more sophisticated vocations than counting.

The stories of the Book of Judges have been arranged in a theological pattern in which historical detail often yields to theology. The theological pattern is given in Judges 2:11–23:

  1. turning from Yahweh to Baal;
  2. incurring the wrath of Yahweh, who allows an enemy to oppress Israel;
  3. raising up judges to deliver the people from oppression; and 
  4. allowing a time of peace before the next apostasy.

Miller notes that “the basic assumption behind this theological pattern is that fidelity to Yahweh was the determinative factor in the vicissitudes of ancient Israelite history.” The writer’s or editor’s purpose is religious instruction, not history. As a result, the modern historian must interpret the text accordingly.

The transition from the period of the Judges to the beginning of the monarchy under Saul occurred during the priestly career of Samuel, the last of the judges. According to 1 Samuel, Samuel’s father was an Ephraimite from the town of Ramah, south of Bethel, who went on annual pilgrimages to the sanctuary at Shiloh. On one of these pilgrimages, Hannah, Elkanah’s barren wife, was promised a child. The birth of her son Samuel is described as a miraculous event. In gratitude to Yahweh, Hannah entrusted Samuel to Eli, the priest at Shiloh, to rear and educate. Samuel became an exemplary man of God, and was recognized widely as a prophet and a judge. He worked an annual circuit that took him to Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and back to Ramah where he built an altar to Yahweh (1 Samuel 7:3–17).

Samuel’s sons, however, were not of Samuel’s caliber, and the elders of Israel called on Samuel to appoint a king to rule over them. Samuel’s position on this matter is unclear, because 1 Samuel preserves conflicting traditions. In 1 Samuel 8:6–22, Samuel is instructed by Yahweh to oppose the appointment of a king; in 1 Samuel 9:15–24, Samuel is instructed to anoint Saul secretly as king. Perhaps Samuel was of two minds on the question. In any event, Samuel played a decisive role in the creation of the monarchy.

Thus the era of the settlement and Judges ended. Israel was embarked on the road to nationhood.


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - The Patriarchal Stories

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