The Religion of Ancient Israel

04.01.01 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Patrick D. Miller

    A review of Patrick Miller's, "The Religion of Ancient Israel," by Dr. Richard Hess.

    Miller, Patrick D. The Religion of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000.

    This volume provides a contemporary and thorough summary of the major areas of research that touch upon the question of the beliefs and practices of ancient Israel. Miller is informed by both the latest analyses of relevant biblical texts as well as the the archaeolical data and the input from study of ancient Near Eastern religious texts.

    In chapters one and two, Miller introduces the pantheon that was present in the world of ancient Israel and goes on to analyze how the Israelites responded to the variety of deities. Although he uses many texts from the Bible, Miller also draws from archaeological discoveries of ancient Palestine as well as comparative literature, especially the Ugaritic materials (although his use of the extrabiblical textual material is not as strong as it could be). Miller seems to follow the position of Keel and Uehlinger in the vexed question of who Asherah in the inscriptions of Yahweh and his Asherah. As a result he finds there a hypostasis or personified medium of Yahweh, rather than simply a cult item or a female consort. While this is possible, it appears to go far beyond the evidence that describes only an entity named, "Asherata/Asherah," whether in the extrabiblical inscriptions such as Kuntillet 'Ajrud or in the biblical texts themselves. That this was most likely a deity or an image of the deity is evident from the manner in which the divine name agrees with that of a goddess in earlier Canaanite society and the consistent usage of asherah in both the biblical and extra-biblical testimony as a deity (or image), rather than a manifestation of Yahweh. If such was the case, it would be surprising that no hint of this sort of sophistication is found anywhere, whereas manifestations of Yahweh, such as the mal'ak (angel) and the name of Yahweh abound in narratives and didactic sections that demonstrate these as hypostatic forms.

    Chapters 3 and 4 discuss sacrifices, offerings, holiness, and purity. This section is more heavily based upon the biblical text than the preceding one. Because Miller refuses to describe the religious experience of ancient Israel in a historical timeline, the reader benefits as there is no need to commit to one developmental view or another. This is particularly beneficial in light of the diversity of opinion regarding the dating of the various priestly institutions and rituals. Further, Miller's own tendency to allow for and at times endorse a pre-exilic origin to many of these practices reflects the latest of mainstream scholarship and runs counter to the current that for more than a century has universally assigned everything to a post-exilic context. The discussion is well-informed and enlightening, perhaps the best available for an introduction to categories of priesthood and holiness. Miller has read and aptly summarized all the major contributors to the field as well as many minor ones. One only might wish for a greater contextualization, as well as contrast, with the early West Semitic rituals from Ugarit and now especially Emar.

    The final chapter considers the roles of the leading figures in Israelite religion, especially the priest, prophet, and king. Of particular interest in this regard are the essays regarding the teaching role of the priests, the intercessory and healing roles of the prophet, and the checks placed upon royal power. Less convincing is the acceptance of Mowinckel's interpretation of the royal participation in an enthronement of Yahweh festival at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Notes regarding foreigners, women, and torah obedience conclude this section. One might wish here for a greater discussion of the observations on the roles of women in the cult, all the more so in light of the provocative summary that is provided.

    The copious and informative notes are located at the end of the book; less user friendly than if they were footnotes. Perhaps this is a requirement of the series to make the text more accessible; but it is unfortunate for a book that could easily be used as much as a reference work as it could as a monograph for reading through once. A bibliography, as well as Scripture and subject indices, complete the work. It can be highly recommended for its breadth and depth of material and analysis.

    Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
    Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    April, 2001

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