The Religion of Israel
The Religion of Israel

The Religion of Israel


 The Religion of Israel

“The real religion of ancient Israel is almost everything the biblical writers condemned. The whole theology of the Hebrew Bible would have been foreign to most people.” – Prof. William G. Dever (Archaeologist, Anthropologist, University of Arizona) The Hebrew Bible is not a very good source for reconstructing the real religions of ancient Israel, for many reasons:

1) The Bible was written by a handful of elites who were attached to the court and temple in Jerusalem. They were not representative of the majority of people, but were members of an ultra orthodox, nationalist party. What they did was to do revisionist history. They rewrote the history of Israel, using older sources, and that’s the story we have today.

2) This ‘minority report’ paints an idealistic picture of what Israelite belief and practice should have been like, but never was. It would have been, had these nationalists been in charge, but they never were. So what you get is a portrait of a certain Israel that is a later construct. This ‘minority report’ tries to reconstruct religion to suit the few who wrote the Bible.

3) The biblical text as we have it was put together after the fall of Jerusalem, during the exile, after the history of Israel was over. This was long after events had transpired (in some cases centuries later). For these reasons, the Bible is now viewed a secondary source for understanding the real ancient Israel and Judah. Where would you go to find out about the real Israel in the Iron Age? Archaeology provides us with another window through which to look at Israelite beliefs and practices and new tools for understanding ancient Israel.

Archaeology is about a real people in real time and a real place. They really did exist and now we know a lot about them. In the last 20 to 30 this science has revolutionized our understanding of Israelite religion. This has given the ancient Israelites a voice and they speak from a different perspective as the one in the Bible.

In this short clip, Dr. William Dever covers just a few things to give us an idea of what it was actually like for most people most of the time in ancient Israel and Judah. It gives us some idea of what people were actually doing in the name of their religion: “The real religion of ancient Israel is almost everything the biblical writers condemned.”

Most people in ancient Israel had never been to Jerusalem. They certainly had never been in the Temple in Jerusalem which was a royal chapel and could be visited mostly by the priests and high priest. If those people had had to Bible they couldn’t read it anyway because they were illiterate. As far as we know perhaps only one or two percent of the population was littered.

The Bible wasn’t yet finished anyway, so Dever suggests that the whole theology of the Hebrew Bible would have been foreign to most people. They didn’t know about it, they couldn’t read, and it didn’t make any difference. The temple was of no importance, and they probably never met a real priest. It was all about surviving in the agricultural villages where they lived and observed the family religion, as opposed to state religion in Jerusalem.

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