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Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel

Presented at the twenty-third annual
Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies, Department of Judaic Studies,
University of Cincinnati, May 11, 2000
(Continued from page 9)

    This brings us to the second dimension of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony: coercion. Here again, I find little to support the claim that the authors of the Hebrew Bible represented an official religion. For when they discuss the punishment that will be visited upon the rebellious, back-sliding masses, they rarely indicate that there exists any Israelite or Judahite mechanism that can carry it out. Where are the guards and the soldiers and the prisons of Yahweh who enforce the verdicts of the prophets? The fact of the matter is that the text rarely mentions any secular institutions that can exact punishment. On the contrary, the sins of the people are to be avenged by God, as opposed to any earthly apparatus of coercion. I call this the “God-will-get-you-for-that!” principle. In the absence of any effective earthly mechanism for the punishment of religious transgression, retribution is deferred to the divine realm.

    Not surprisingly, when the Israelites and Judahites are in fact punished, it is through the agency of foreign nations that have been set in motion by God. Thus, the text tells us that Assyria, which obliterates the northern Kingdom, is God’s “rod of anger” (Isaiah 10: 5). Babylon, which pulls down the curtain on the pre-exilic period in 586, avenges the transgressions of Judah (Jeremiah 27). Vengeance is the Lord’s, but vengeance is not and cannot be the prerogative of his earthly representatives.

    My final reason for doubting that the Hebrew Bible represents the official religion of its time has to do with the issue of anti-monarchism. It has long been recognized that sections of the Tanakh evince a biting critique of individual kings. Monarchs like Abijam (1 K 15:1-4), Joram (2K: 8:16-18), Ahaz (2K 16:1-4), Manasseh (2K 21:1-17), and Amon (2K 21:19-22) are excoriated. In First Samuel, King Saul is made to look like a complete buffoon. But even revered kings are criticized. David is chastised by the prophet Nathan for his reprehensible actions toward Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 12). Solomon, we are told, followed the goddess Astoreth and the god Milcom–“he did what was displeasing to the Lord” (1K 11:5-6).

    But the biblical critique does not limit itself to individual monarchs. Indeed, the very institution of monarchy itself is subject to criticism. In 1 Samuel 8 the elders of Israel beseech the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over Israel. In response the prophet enumerates a veritable litany of anti-monarchic complaints. A king, Samuel famously cautions, will bring excessive taxation, corvée labor, military conscription, and the imposition of arbitrary fiscal burdens (also see Berlinerblau 1999). There is no  getting around the fact that for the Dtr. circle the very idea of kingship is problematic. As J.J.M. Roberts observes: “The monarchy is generally regarded as alien to genuine Yahwism” (1987:379).22

    So if the Hebrew Bible were really the voice of an official religion, then how could it maintain such an inimical stance toward institutions of this-worldly power like the monarchy? As far as we can tell, in ancient Near Eastern societies the monarchy was the hegemonic institution par excellence. Typically it employed cadres of scribes to create and promulgate theo-political propaganda on its behalf. Are we to assume that the anti-monarchic Dtr. source was comprised of scribes in the employ of the monarchy? Were the kings of ancient Israel masochists who enjoyed having scribes on their payroll who spent their days criticizing them in ever more ingenious ways? Did King David or any scion of the Davidic dynasty appreciate the extended coverage his  murderous dalliance with Bathsheba received? Did King Solomon or his descendants relish the ever-so-subtle implication found in the Book of Kings that his actions resemble those of Pharaoh? (See Albertz 1994:142). 

    These considerations present something of a conundrum for the legions of biblical scholars who view the Hebrew Bible as an “official religion.” For the text itself acknowledges that consensus has not been achieved, and coercion is not an option. For these reasons I reject the widespread assumption that the Hebrew Bible represents the viewpoint of a pre-exilic official religion. On the contrary, it strikes me as the impassioned voice of a minority group, one that was at odds with the official religions of its times. One thinks of the late Morton Smith’s reference to the “Yahweh-alone party” (1987:17). By this he meant a small group of fanatical Yahwists who passed down their monotheistic teachings from generation to generation throughout the pre-exilic period. The dividend of this activity was the Hebrew Bible, or what Smith referred to as a “cult collection” (1987:11).

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