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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 7)

Biblical Scholarship and Popular Religion

    Anyone who wishes to argue on behalf of the accuracy and integrity of the Hebrew Bible as a historical document may, paradoxically enough, take comfort in the aforementioned discoveries. If you are a fundamentalist, a proponent of scriptural infallibility or a good-old- fashioned Bible thumper, then the aforementioned inscriptions might just be for you.

    As we saw earlier, the text is adamant that the children of Israel are neither properly nor exclusively worshiping the God of Israel. If the archaeological record indicates that they were clutching fertility goddesses in their hands, or thinking in terms of God’s consort, then we may have confirmation of the Old Testament’s insistence that many Israelites were doing what was offensive to the Lord. As Dever observes, the testimony of the archaeological record and that of the Hebrew Bible are “parallel but not contradictory” (1984:31).

    The accuracy and integrity of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s hypothesis, by contrast, do not fare as well. By his own estimation cosmogonies, which speculate as to the birth of the gods and their various sexual unions, are one of the central features of polytheistic thought (1972: 24-31; 1951: 189, 195).16 Kaufmann was convinced that monotheistic Israel knew nothing about the phenomenon of coupled deities. After all, the Tanakh makes no mention of this. Needless to say, the inscriptions examined above challenge this view.

    Kaufmann also believed that both Israelite official religion (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) and popular religion were monotheistic. In light of the Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qôm findings we will need to revise this hypothesis; at least some Israelites were not getting with the monotheistic program. Should we now conclude that Israelite official religion was monotheistic, while Israelite popular religion was polytheistic? Are those spectacular finds in the Sinai testimony to ancient Israelite popular religion–a syncretistic religion of “the masses” which acknowledged Asherah, among other deities?

    This is, in fact, a very widespread view among contemporary biblical scholars. It is everywhere assumed that Asherah worship is “popular.” John Day observes that “the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions. . . give us direct insight into the nature of the popular religion so scathingly condemned by Israel’s pre-exilic prophets” (1986:392 and see 406). Lemaire writes that the reference to Yahweh’s Asherah “reflète vraisemblablement un usage correspondant à la religion populaire de cette époque” (1977: 608; and see Lemaire 1984:51). According to Dever these inscriptions “give us a rare glimpse into the world of ‘popular religion’-the practice of religion that characterized the masses in ancient Israel” (1999:14; North 1989: 119; 134; Emerton 1982:218  Hestrin 1991:57). So for many, Asherah is a goddess of Israelite popular religion.17

    Old Testament researchers also assume that this popular religion of Asherah was chastised by the official religion, that is, the religion represented in the Hebrew Bible. Lemaire notes that the inscriptions “help illuminate the prophet’s messages. They help us understand why the asherah was rejected from official Israelite religion at the end of the eighth century BCE” (1984: 51). Notice how Lemaire equates the prophets’ rejection of Asherah with official religion. As with Kaufmann, when he reads the prophetic sections of the Tanakh he assumes that he is hearing the voice of the actual official religion of the eighth through sixth centuries BCE.18

    Yutaka Ikeda writes: “the popular religion in Judah during the reign of Rehoboam . . . is condemned because the people built for themselves high places, pillars and Asherahs on every hill and under every green tree” (1993:71). Again, it is assumed that the Old Testament is an official religious document, one that condemns popular Asherah worship. Similarly, Moshe Greenberg maintains that biblical literature was “the official public religion of Israel in pre-Exilic times” (1964:89).

    The belief that the Hebrew Bible preserves the views of Israelite official religion must be one of the most oft-encountered assumptions in biblical scholarship. It is so deeply ingrained in scholarly thought that only a few have ever thought it necessary to explicitly defend this belief. But I have every reason to suspect that certain sections of the Hebrew Bible are anything but the expression of the real official religion that coerced and convinced their subjects across the pre-exilic period. In fact, I am led to a completely different conclusion. In the final section of this paper I would like to enumerate those reasons which lead me to believe that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, the literary prophets and the Dtr. circle in general do not fit the sociological profile of an “official religion.”

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