Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

Richard S. Hess Baker Academic, Grand Rapids October 15, 2007
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By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, biblical theology had waned and been replaced with a genre known as the history of Israel’s religion. With Walther Eichrodt’s Old Testament theology (1933) a new wave of publications emerged in that discipline, a wave that shows no signs of abating (despite Hess’s statement to the contrary, p. 11). Concurrently there has risen a renewed interest in the history of Israel’s religion represented, for example, by Georg Fohrer (1968) and Rainer Albertz (1992). However, no substantial work on the subject has been done by a conservative scholar until now with the work under review.

The plural “religions” in the title is not a slip of the pen or an editor’s oversight but an intentional way of focusing on an important fact, namely, the difference between rigid Mosaic and prophetic monotheism on the one hand and Israel’s actual polytheistic belief and practice on the other. Hess has made no new discovery here, but he has presented alongside the biblical testimony itself (e.g., 2 Kings 17:7–41) an abundance of archaeological data that confirm and illuminate the Bible’s witness. One is forced to conclude on the basis of such overwhelming evidence that Elijah’s plea that he alone was left to serve the Lord was not entirely without justification (1 Kings 19:14). Indeed, multiple pagan and/or syncretistic religions coexisted with pure Yahwism; hence Hess’s appropriate title.

Hess explains that the revived interest in the history of Israel’s religion(s) is because of the failure of Old Testament theology to reach a satisfying consensus and because of a consequent turn toward more “objective” archaeological data. He explains this trend and his own work as follows. “Israelite religion as a modern discipline turned away from a funda-mentally literary task aimed at distilling the principle [sic] teachings of the Old Testament for faith, life, and—especially in Christian contexts—a connection with the New Testament and Jesus Christ. In place of this, it focused on the growing body of textual and archaeological evidence addressing the subject of ancient Israel’s life” (p. 12).

Having set out the rationale for his endeavor, Hess describes various approaches to the general study of religion and then, more particularly, previous studies of Israelite religion. These two chapters alone immensely enrich the importance and value of the book.

The author’s method of presenting the data is diachronic, that is, in line with the existing canonical structure of the Old Testament and concomitantly the chronological sequence as that can best be determined. But here is the problem. If the chronological data of the Old Testament texts are not aligned properly with the extrabiblical chronological evidence, it follows that they cannot be mutually instructive. That is, unless a method is employed that satisfactorily integrates the two sets of data, one cannot expect convincing results. The issue here is precisely the same as that in pursuing biblical theology, especially in view of the time-honored principle of progressive revelation. By this is meant that God’s self-revelation was only gradually disclosed, more highly refined ideas naturally following those less developed.

The problem in both disciplines is the prior commitment by scholars to the authorship and dating of biblical texts. For a well-known example, if Moses did not write the so-called “Priestly” document (P) at 1400 B.C. (or even 1200), but it was composed in the postexilic period (450 or so), the theology and/or religion and its practice must most likely reflect that age and not the traditional Mosaic period. Therefore, if for instance one is committed to the fully developed priestly institution in Israel only in the fifth century, as historical critical scholarship supposes, archaeological evidence of portable shrines like the tabernacle attended by priests in a sophisticated ritualistic and liturgical ministry should trump the results obtained by a documentary hypothesis no matter how well established it is as a scholarly consensus.

Hess is agnostic about the composition of the Pentateuch, assigning only its poetic strands to the second millennium (and thus non-Mosaic as a whole; pp. 141–42). With regard to the Decalogue, he describes the question of its dating as “a vexed one,” lacking empirical evidence for any date whatsoever (p. 163). This assertion appears to discount the Bible’s own witness to Mosaic authorship as well as nearly universal pre-Enlightenment Jewish and Christian tradition. With respect to the reference to Yahweh in Genesis, and thus its pre-Mosaic antiquity, Hess remains ambivalent, being content to consign this and other divine names to “the Bronze Age of the second millennium B.C.” (p. 179).

The more distant the biblical text from the putative era of the Pentateuch, the more comfortable Hess seems to be with direct correlation between the biblical traditions and the archaeological data. It is here, beginning with the divided monarchy, that he makes his best contribution, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. In fact Hess’s analyses of both text and artifact are brilliant in places, a treasure house of deep biblical insight and interpretation.

The brief conclusion to the book consists of three observations that speak for themselves (pp. 347–51). “First, it is clear that ancient Israel was home to a variety of religious beliefs and practices that developed from earlier West Semitic beliefs and practices attested in Bronze Age archives and cult centers.”

“Second, there is a sense in which the religion of ancient Israel emerges as a distinctive set of practices and beliefs. Above all there is the exodus tradition of Israel’s redemption as slaves from Egypt by its god, and of Yahweh and his unique covenant with them, given in the form of a treaty.”

“A third point is the gradual evolution and change in ancient Israel. Although the texts and archaeology indicate a diversity of religious practice present from the beginning until the end of the period, there are clear signs that as the centuries progressed this people became increasingly devoted to Yahweh alone and to his religion as attested in the biblical texts.”

Hess is an eminent evangelical scholar of outstanding erudition. One can only hope that the last three quotations can be revisited by him and made more palatable to those who represent the historical evangelical tradition of a previous but not necessarily unenlightened generation.

—Eugene H. Merrill

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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