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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 1)

    The Israelites, as construed by Kaufmann, were entirely oblivious to magic, paganism, and polytheism; in fact they did not even know what any of those things were (1972: 134, 131, 141; 1951:195). They stood at an epistemological divide from their polytheistic neighbors. He writes: “in the sphere of religious creativity Israel and the gentiles were two worlds, distinct and mutually incomprehensible . . . Israel . . . was ignorant of the religion of the gentiles” (1951: 195; also see Greenberg 1964:79).

    In other words, the numerous individuals who were excoriated in the aforementioned harangues were really monotheists. They worshiped idols in and of themselves– but they only knew of one God. At no point did they imagine that these inanimate objects really represented any other deities. “Popular idolatry,” he writes, “was not authentic polytheism with mythology, temples, and priesthoods. It was vestigial idolatry, a vulgar superstition of the sort that the ignorant level of monotheistic peoples practices to this day” (1972:142).

    The prophets, then, are not really calling their co-religionists polytheists; they are calling them fetishists. Pre-exilic ancient Israel, so goes the theory, was monotheistic to the core (Kaufmann 1976: 58). What we are reading in the Hebrew Bible is something akin to an intra-monotheistic dialogue; a monotheistic “official religion” (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) is chiding a monotheistic “popular religion” (i.e., the religion of the “people at large.”1972:122) about some of their minor indiscretions.3 The critique inscribed in the Tanakh is the work of a few empowered religious zealots– “tendentious and exaggerated” as Moshe Greenberg put it (1964: 81). For in truth, very true, the ancient Israelites only believed in one deity: Yahweh, the God of Israel.

    Kaufmann’s hypothesis–which still strikes many as an indiscreet apologia4 –is predicated on a variety of problematic assumptions:

  1. all Israelites were monotheistic (so much so that one might refer to them as genetically monotheistic),
  2. all these monotheistic Israelites had no idea as to what polytheists–who often lived in their midst--really believed,
  3. the Israelites worshiped idols without understanding what they signified (thus making them the most symbolically challenged people in human history),
  4. there was no social change in ancient Israel insofar as the monotheistic idea was present from the time of Moses to the second temple period,
  5. the Hebrew Bible represents the policies and positions of actual official religions in ancient Israel, and,
  6. it is an accurate witness to all aspects of Israelite history, except when it refers to the depravity of the Israelite people (which just so happens to be one of its most central themes).

    In this lecture I would like to assess these claims in light of some rather tantalizing recent archaeological discoveries. Prior to doing so, however, I want to define the terms “popular” and “official” religion. Kaufmann, like most biblical scholars, never told us what he meant by these. As I have noted elsewhere, this has created much confusion among students of Israelite religion (Berlinerblau 1993). By bringing my two disciplines, theoretical sociology and biblical scholarship, into dialogue, I hope to establish some initial, basic criteria by which we may make sense of pre-exilic popular and official religion. Eventually, I hope to advance a counter-intuitive hypothesis of my own. By the end of this paper I will try to re-position the authors of the Hebrew Bible.

    It will be argued that the social space, which they occupied within the fields of Israelite and Judahite societies, is diametrically opposed to what most scholars have assumed. If my inchoate theory is correct, then it will not only help us to understand something about those who wrote the Bible, but it will also delineate the central role that critique plays in the bourgeoning of the Judaic.

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