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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 8)

The Hebrew Bible: An Official Religion?

    Let us revisit our definition of official religion cited above. An official religion, typically, is in a superordinate relation of power with other popular religious groups. It has access to the instruments of coercion necessary for the implementation of its views. As such, it has the apparatus of the state or monarchy at its disposal, and this permits it to manage dissenters as it sees fit. Gramsci reminded us, however, that a hegemonic apparatus wears a velvet glove on its iron fist. It seeks to avoid the use of force, preferring to gain the consensus of other social groups through non-coercive measures. The trick of running a successful official religion consists in learning how to make the majority of your population side with you. A savvy official religion avoids the use of violence, by reaching out, by ingratiating itself to other social groups.

    Is this the impression we receive upon reading the Dtr source and the literary prophets? Do those who promulgate pure monotheism on the pages of the Tanakh give us the sense that the majority of the people are with them? Do they even seem particularly interested in ingratiating themselves to their co-religionists? Do they ever demonstrate the ability to deploy force or to manage other social groups with this-worldly implements of coercion?

    The answer to all of these questions is no. To begin with, the biblical authors do not seem particularly skilled at, or interested in, achieving consensus. The prophets’ means of “persuasion”–if one can call it that–is usually the harangue, the hell-and- brimstone tirade, the prophecy of doom. It was not for nothing that the great Max Weber referred to them as the “titans of the holy curse” (1952:273). One thinks of Amos in the famous “oracle of the nations”:

For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Teaching of the Lord
And have not observed His laws
They are beguiled by the  delusions
After which their fathers walked
I will send down fire upon Judah
And it shall devour the fortresses of Jerusalem
(Amos 2:4-5).

    Note the rather stark, misogynistic imagery deployed by the prophet Hosea:

They sacrifice on the mountaintops
And offer on the hills,
Under oaks, poplars, terebinths
whose shade is so pleasant
that is why their daughters fornicate
And their daughters-in-law commit adultery
(4:13-15)

    Isaiah is also well versed in misogynistic rhetoric. Observe the following text, which falls into the literary genre that the late Robert Carroll referred to as “porno prophetics” (1995:286, 290):

Yahweh said:
“Because the girls of Zion
Are so vain
And prance with reclined throats
And with roving eyes
And with mincing gait
And with tinkling feet”-
My Lord will bare the scalps
Of the girls of Zion
And Yahweh will uncover their private parts 19

    In the ensuing verses the deity proceeds to systematically strip the clothes and jewelry off of the women of Zion. This type of rhetoric, critical, caustic, misogynistic, apocalyptic, is the stock and trade of Old Testament prophecy.

And now the question we must ask ourselves is: how many people would want to listen to this? As Michael Walzer remarks, with some understatement, the prophets “do notseem to have sought a popular following” (1987:70). If Gramsci’s theory taught us that a hegemonic apparatus rules through building alliances with the masses then we must pause and ask ourselves the following question: is it reasonable to expect that Israelites and Judahites were well disposed to messages such as these? Is the recriminating, acrimonious tone of these tirades likely to win over a large cross-section of the populace? Is this effective ideological work?20 If achieving consensus is the objective of an official religion, then little in the Hebrew Bible suggests that it represents an official religion.21

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