Review: Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah

Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton, Eds., Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah (London: T&T Clark, 2010).

This new volume from T&T Clark, edited by Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton, combines essays from a diverse and international field of scholars focused on the diversity of religious belief and practice in ancient Israel and Judah. A number of concerns guide the volume’s contributions. It seeks primarily to combat the traditional notion of a monolithic Israelite religion, and, as the title suggests, finds value in evaluating religious diversity within the separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The social contexts of religious belief and expression play a large role in these analyses. Of considerable significance is the book’s opposition to the presumption of a division between “official” religion of the biblical authors, and the “popular” religion of the apostate factions. This distinction is shown to be artificial and derived from an uncritical acceptance of the value judgments of the biblical authors. There are a number of valuable contributions within this volume, but the identification of that false dichotomy alone should make this book required reading.

The volume is divided into four sections entitled “Conceptual Diversities,” “Socio-Religious Diversities,” “Geographic Diversities,” and a “Postscript” by John Barton. The papers in the first section address broad approaches to the complexity of religious diversity. Susan Niditch’s contribution engages the experiential within Israelite religion. Three categories of texts provide case studies: descriptions of visits to the divine realms, descriptions of earthly visions, and descriptions of the underworld and of contact with the dead. I found some of Susan’s syntheses a bit strained. The topic of Herbert Niehr’s paper is the false dichotomy between Israelite and Canaanite religion. The Hebrew Bible paints a picture of stark contrast between Israel and the indigenous “Canaanites,” but does this contrast exist outside the propaganda of the biblical authors? Niehr addresses historical, literary, and religio-historical aspects of the distinction and concludes with a discussion of Judahite and Israelite religion as a subset of West Semitic religion. Similarly, Francesca Stavrakopouou’s article takes direct aim at the scholarly presumption of a division between the “official” religion of the biblical authors and the “popular” religion of apostate factions. This presumption, the author argues, is largely an attempt to “‘manage’ biblical and archaeological indications of religious diversity in ancient Israel and Judah” (p. 37). Stavrakopoulou evaluates theological and social-scientific constructs of this view of Israelite religion and highlights its inadequacy as a framework for the religious diversity of ancient Israel and Judah. The latter two papers are, in my opinion, the highlights of this volume.

The second section, “Socio-Religious Diversities,” is a more focused approach to the theme of the preceding section. It is the largest section of the book and seeks to “demonstrate that the religions of ancient Israel and Judah can best be understood as a series of spectra, rather than in terms of either/or distinctions” (p. 4). In the first article Nicolas Wyatt examines the nature of ancient Judahite royal ideologies. While presented in the Hebrew Bible as a heavily adapted foreign importation, Wyatt argues the normal elements of Syro-Palestinian royal religion are detectable within the Judahite ideology of kingship. This ideology should be viewed as genetically related to those of surrounding cultures. The king’s participation in ritual as subject and object, his divinity in life and death, and his relationship to Asherah are all evinced to some degree or another in the biblical text and by analogy with surrounding cultures. Diana Edelman follows, presenting biblical and artifact evidence for “Cultic Sites and Complexes beyond the Jerusalem Temple.” The Hebrew Bible makes numerous references to cultic sites outside of Jerusalem, but they are vaguely defined and are polemicized by the text’s authors and editors. Material remains confirm the existence of a wide range of cultic sites throughout the time period of the Bible, and show a sharp decline in number in the Persian Period and later, but do not provide enough data to pinpoint the introduction of cultic worship or its centralization.

Philip Davies authors the next article, which explores the distinction between urban and rural religion. The exploration is encumbered by the biblical and material bias toward urban contexts. The Bible largely polemicizes rural religion and idealizes urban religion, but some inferences and tentative conclusions can be made. Davies concludes with a caution against presuming a rural origin for the biblical texts. Carol Meyers’ article treats the topic of household religion. She begins with a description of the Israelite household, followed by sources for its investigation. The third section of her chapter discusses those manifestations of household religion that can be extrapolated from the biblical text and from comparative anthropology. These practices are categorized according to their regularity. Some were seasonal, monthly, or weekly; others were dictated by the human life cycle; and still others were predicated upon situations requiring divine intervention. Tying them all together were concerns for the sustaining of life, for group identity, and for humanity’s relationship to the divine.

Rainer Albretz’s chapter is entitled “Personal Piety,” and it aims to isolate within the context of folk religion the religious situation of the individual. Albretz identifies three available sources of information from which this situation may be reconstructed: theophoric personal names, individual lament and thanksgiving psalms, and proverbial material. The first two sources manifest a deep-rooted concern for the relationship of the deity to the individual, celebrating and lamenting events which are treated as highly personal acts of God. The last category shows concern for the ethos of the individual vis-à-vis the deity. A short final section evaluates developments in personal piety from the Deuteronomic reforms through to the Second Temple Period.

The last section of this volume examines the geographic dynamic of religious diversity. Jeremy M. Hutton authors the first chapter, which aims to dispel the geographic homogenization of Israelite religion and delineate the religious expression of the north, the south, and Transjordan. Hutton first draws upon archaeological and onomastic evidence to show the degree to which diversity is evident. He moves on to evaluate the Deuteronomic history as a possible source for northern religious practices, producing a great deal of detail from Dtr’s polemic. The most interesting section of Hutton’s paper is his discussion of the archaeological evidence for a distinct Transjordanian religious identity. Using Deir `Alla as a point of reference, the author produces a picture of religious variegation and tension. He concludes with a preliminary synthesis which sees micro-religions tied together under a macro-religious identity developed largely through literary and editorial manipulation. Lester Grabbe’s contribution looks for, but doesn’t find indications of Yhwh worship outside of Israel and Judah. A variety of locales are investigated, and Grabbe’s essay provides a great deal of information.

Barton’s postscript reflects on the broader issues discussed in the book and raises two questions which remain: (1) How did monotheism ever arise within a culture that tolerated and promoted such diverse views on God and the gods, and (2) “why did Judaism, the heir of all these ancient Israelite and Judahite religious practices, become a religion of the book?” He concludes with a warning about treated early Israelite religion as exclusively orthopraxic, rather than orthodoxic. As this volume shows, there was a great deal of reflection and innovation in the theology and religiosity of early Israel and Judah.


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