Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel

  • Beth Alpert-nakhai
  • Sep 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Alpert-Nakhai, Beth Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. American Schools of Oriental Research Volume 7. Boson: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001. xii +262 pp. Paperback, $29.95. ISBN 0-89757-057-X.

This is a revision of a Ph.D. dissertation completed in 1993 at the University of Arizona, where it was supervised by William G. Dever. The organization of the work is such that it begins with a review of anthropological and sociological studies with a particular emphasis on writers who have addressed the questions of Israelite religion. The work focuses on the sacrificial component of religion from the beginning. The textual evidence is reviewed next. It is thus separated from the archaeological evidence that is covered in the second half of the book. Further, because the focus is on sacrifice the only extrabiblical textual evidence discussed is that from the cultic and sacrificial texts of Ugarit. Thus one learns about recent thought on the various names of the sacrifices but little about the gods and goddesses, either in terms of these cultic texts or in terms of their roles in the myths. Because of this focus, the roles of prophecy in the Mari texts and of ritual celebrations and priestly installation in the Emar texts are not reviewed. Nor could I find discussion of the Kuntillet 'Ajrud inscriptions, the Khirbet el-Qom blessings, the Jerusalem pomegranate text, the Ketef Hinnom silver plaques, and the various other Hebrew inscriptions related to the religions of the region. In terms of biblical sacrifice and cult, Alpert-Nakhai prefers a systemic approach, as for example, that of Mary Douglas. She surveys the terminology of sacrifice, altar, tent, and implements related to the acts of sacrifice itself. She uses traditional critical approaches to the literature, wherein materials in Judges and Samuel are assigned precedence in terms of the earliest attested religious practices in Israel. This is followed by Kings and the traditional "sourcing" of the Pentateuch, though with an appreciation for Jacob Milgrom and others who wish to find pre-exilic antecedents to the Priestly terms and practices.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the archaeological remains, moving through Canaan (including Syria and Palestine) chronologically in chapters dealing with the Middle Bronze Age, the Late Bronze Age, and the Iron Age of the Israelite monarchy. The chapter on the Middle Bronze Age, which includes a brief summary of earlier periods with some notes on Negev and Sinai sites, proceeds to consider the northern sites such as Ebla, Mari, Alalakh, Byblos, and Ugarit (if the two temples of Baal and Dagan can be dated this early). At many of these, multiple contemporary cult sites exist in the cities. In Palestine and Jordan the picture is different. The early part of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1800-1650 B.C.) is characterized by nonurban and rural cult sites that reflect the interests of local and regional tribal groups. In the Middle Bronze IIC (c. 1650-1550 B.C.) the picture changes as the region becomes urbanized like that of Syria and the cities develop multiple sanctuaries with fortress temples in sites in the Jordan Valley and with city gate sanctuaries at Ashkelon and Tell el-Far'ah North.

Late Bronze IA (c. 1550-1450 B.C.) saw a continuation of Middle Bronze IIC in the cult centers. Things changed in LB IIA (c. 1400-1300 B.C.) and LB IIB (c. 1300-1200 B.C.), when the Egyptians exercised more control (after Tuthmosis III's victories in the region). By this time (and as early as IB, cf. 1450-1400 B.C.) most sites had become urban. Hazor retained more self-government and independence from Egypt. The main temple became the orthostat temple with its Hittite and northern influence. Elsewhere, by IIA general prosperity provided for enlarging and further building. By IIB the number of cult sites had doubled over the previous periods. Egypto-Canaanite temples in Jerusalem, Lachish, Beth Shan, and all along the coastal plain were constructed and used in part to aid in the collection of agricultural and other taxes for Egypt and its temples.

With the exception of the continuing fortress sanctuary at Shechem, the other cult centers of Iron Age I (c. 1200-1000 B.C.) tended to be small and simple, often open air or built among other domestic dwellings and thus in contrast to those of the Late Bronze Age (p. 176). Alpert-Nakhai does not discuss the Mt. Ebal site in the body of her work but places it in the endnotes (pp. 197-198) where she leaves it an open question. This is unfortunate because the site is an anomaly in comparison with known Late Bronze Age cultic architecture and other evidence. If one wishes to argue for continuity of culture from LB to Iron 1, as Dever, then one ignores this unique site that suggests something from outside the highlands, or one reinterprets it. However, Alpert-Nakhai has elsewhere, as co-author of an article, described the site as cultic, having been originally Canaanite and then changed to Israelite (Elizabeth Bloch-Smith and Beth Alpert Nakhai, "A Landscape Comes to Life: The Iron Age I," Near Eastern Archaeology 62(1999): 71, 77).

In the 12th and 11th centuries (Iron 1) village shrines and pilgrimage sites suggest the simplicity of worship. The wealth located in the Shiloh cultic storage rooms was unusual and implied a specialized religious group there. The "high places" occur but their main development begins in the tenth century, the period of the United Monarchy when they are located a key centers, archaeologically at Megiddo, Taanach, and Lachish. Alpert-Nakhai connects this with the development of priestly power. She observes the ongoing role of smaller local cult centers as well (Tel Rehov and Tel Qasile). During the Divided Monarchy (8th to 6th centuries) the high places continue as state-sponsored religious centers, while cult centers appear at village sites, along trade routes, and in alternative ("nonconformist," to use the language of J. Holladay) contexts (p. 193). For Alpert-Nakhai, the high places become a key means in monarchic Israel of "forging" a nation from tribal groups.

A bibliography and subject index conclude the work.

Written as a doctoral dissertation, Alpert-Nakhai's work is well researched and reflects a synthetic contribution that outlines the appearance and development of cult sites in southern Canaan from the Middle Bronze Age through Iron Age 2. Textually, it looks at sacrifice primarily in its terminology. Archaeologically, it surveys the evidence of cult sites, including evidence that is not limited to the sacrificial component. Analytically, it interprets the archaeological evidence as a means of tracing the changes in political, economic, and other sociological phenomena in this region. Thus it does not replace Zevit's work (The Religions of Ancient Israel) as a complete description of Iron Age Israelite practice; nor does it dwell on the belief systems that may be reflected by the material evidence. Rather, it uses the evidence to describe the societies that built these centers. For those seeking a model for these changes in the population and for those wishing a competent survey of the cultic material in Palestine and Jordan, especially during the second millennium B.C., this is a valuable work.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
September 2004

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