The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Parallactic Approach

  • Ziony Zevit
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Zevit, Ziony. The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Parallactic Approach. London and New York: Continuum. 2001 xx + 821 pp. Hardback. ISBN 0-8264-4728-7.

The author has produced a comprehensive review and assessment of the archaeological and Hebrew sources for the religion of ancient Israel. In fact, he has produced the most explicitly archaeological study of the subject yet advanced. A task that has been well over a decade in its making, this book is methodologically rigorous and the most complete inventory of the relevant data on the history of ancient Israelite religion yet available. As such this work is something more than a textbook or a survey. It forms both a kind of lexicon on Iron Age Israelite cult sites and religious objects as well as a large collection of original insights and interpretations regarding both texts and artifacts. Never before has each historical and anthropological question been assessed by the use of current theories and methods prevalent in the field. A conscious effort is made to provide a typological framework into which may be placed every type of evidence investigated. The result is a coherent study whose novel and innovative explanations and proposals are often persuasive largely on the basis of the methodological context in which they are placed.

Zevit defines the topic of his subject as follows (pp. 15, 611): "Israelite religions are the varied, symbolic expressions of, and appropriate responses to the deities and powers that groups of communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their worldview." For the author, as for the writers of the Old Testament, the Israelites as a whole, and in smaller groups, worshipped a variety of deities whose identity and myths are in some cases known and in other cases unknown. In his review of the various cult places where Israelites of Iron Age 1 and 2 (from the Judges until the deportation to Babylon) worshipped, the archaeological evidence allows the author to propose examples where the presence of two cult stands, two altars, and/or two of other religious implements suggests that worship of two deities. Examples of this and of some cases where three or more deities were worshipped suggest a polytheism in many of the urban centers throughout northern and southern Israel. This remains speculative, a fact that Zevit acknowledges. Further, there are examples of cult sites whose singleness might suggest a single deity. Pre-eminent among these is the Iron 1 site on Mt. Ebal. Refreshingly, Zevit refuses to sit on the fence regarding the interpretation of this site. He denotes it as a bona fide cult site where Israelites worshipped. Its unique nature can now be set in a context of all excavated Iron Age cult sites that (particularly in the Northern Kingdom) demonstrate that singularity was the norm rather than the exception.

The inscriptional evidence allows Zevit to re-examine the inscriptions traditionally cited in the discussion of Israelite religion. His is one of the few to publish a full examination of the paleography, morphology, and interpretation of a host of inscriptions previously easily available only in part or none at all. Khirbet Beit Lei, Khirbet el-Qom, Kuntillet 'Ajrud, En Gedi, and others come under Zevit's close examination. Again, he is surely correct to see the famous blessings from Ajrud as demonstrative of two deities, Yahweh and Asheratah (not "his Asherah"). Yet while his analyses demonstrate a wide diversity of religions that accepted Asherah and Baal, along with Yahweh, the selection is curiously edited. No similar focus is given to the Jerusalem pomegranate, the silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom, or the Yahwistic blessings in the introductory formulae of the Arad and Lachish letters. All these would support a stronger acceptance of Yahweh as uniquely (or alone) worshipped by some. While it is true that the primary focus of Zevit's study is the various religions of Israel, other than the monotheism of Josiah, his conclusions about the widespread worship of multiple deities remains one-sided unless the inscriptional data representing a unique emphasis on Yahweh is also considered. The same seems true of the study of Israelite onomastica. In fact, there is a difference in the percentages of Yahwistic personal names versus other theophoric names among Israelites, and the relative percentages of names from neighboring countries that use their national deity when compared with those theophoric names that explicitly mention other deities. Thus while every count of Yahwistic names in Israel results in a number and percentage that far exceeds all other personal names with explicit divine names as an element, the ratios in Ammon and surrounding countries is the reverse. It is therefore not true to imply that Israelite onomastica portrays no significant tendencies toward the worship of a single deity.

Many readers will be most interested in the author's analysis of the biblical texts relevant to his enterprise. He reviews the relevant notes in the Deuteronomistic History and the Chronicler, the prophetic indictments of Israelite practice, and the mythic allusions in a number of psalms, especially 42, 43, 68, and the elohistic psalter. The result is a collection of religious deities, myths, and customs that suggest widespread polytheism throughout the nation at all periods until the centralization of Josiah, but then re-emerging all the stronger after that single event. Although there are many examples of ties with the cultic objects and sites, as well as the extrabiblical inscriptions, the resultant evidence points to the conclusion that not only were ancient Egyptian and Canaanite deities worshipped throughout Israel during all periods of the Monarchy, but the some of the psalms and many of the mythic allusions in the Bible derive directly from ancient Canaanite mythologies. Although much of this is true, and indeed attested by the biblical witness, there remains much that is speculation, as the author repeatedly admits.

If there is a weakness in this work, it is its lack of consideration of all the extrabiblical written materials. In addition to the texts already mentioned, there is the omission of a closer analysis of the Deir Alla inscription. Most significant of all, however, is the absence of a direct treatment of the Ugaritic myths. These provide the greatest single source of evidence regarding myths of preIsraelite Canaan. To omit these from careful and direct study seems to overlook a source of such significance. While other studies, such as those of Mark Smith and John Day, do deal with such matters, it would have been helpful to see them in a compendium such as this.

Despite this minor caveat, this is the best book available for understanding the religions that were alive in ancient Israel. Zevit is surely correct in recognizing the multiplicity of beliefs and practices that reflect a variety of cults and deities, worshipped differently at various sites. This book takes its rightful place as an essential reference tool for all those interested in serious research into any aspect of the religions that the prophets of the Old Testament challenged.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary



Roger Anderson

In a discussion over this book I'm told that the finding of massebot stones in groups of more than one indicates multiple dieties. The 12 pillers set by Moses at Sinai represented the 12 tribes befor Yahweh and not the presence or power of God. Can you give me the correct rendering of Levit's words from his book on this as well as if the person was correct in Levit's premise. Could it not be equally possible and more probable that massebot stones found in quantities of more than one within Isreal, without specific inscriptions to the contrary were merely from multiple parties within Isreal? And that size variations of the massebot stones simply represented power, population, wealth, or influence over other paries within the group?