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Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

By Richard S. Hess. Pp. 432, figs. 44. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Mich. 2008. $34.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-2717-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The interaction of text-based analysis and evidence from material culture has had a long and checkered history when it comes to the reconstruction of features of ancient societies. This is especially the case in the use of the Bible and archaeology for understanding the origins and characteristics of Israelite religion during the half millennium or so (ca. 1200–587 B.C.E.) of Israel’s existence in the eastern Mediterranean. That scholars, including the author of this volume, now tend to speak of Israelite religions in the plural indicates that the religious identity of Israelites was more complex and elusive than a previous generation of positivist scholarship had imagined. Although Hess generally assumes that using biblical texts and archaeological data together supports the validity of the former, to his credit he nonetheless explores many instances in which recent research produces divergent results. In such cases, he tends to side with the more conservative view, opting for interpretations that favor the historicity of biblical texts and also the early presence of a belief in Yahweh alone as Israel’s deity.

The first five chapters provide methodological and contextual background for the volume. Following an introduction (ch. 1) with definitions of “religion” and “Israelite” and an outline of the book, Hess considers general approaches to the study of religion (ch. 2). This overview is descriptive and not analytical; it strangely omits important figures such as Jonathan Z. Smith, a curious omission in light of Smith’s work on the validity of comparisons in the study of religious phenomena and the frequent use of comparisons in Hess’ book. The third chapter reviews past studies of Israelite religion and includes a long and judicious excursus on the Documentary Hypothesis (a controversial yet enduring theory about different sources for the Pentateuch), which he accepts with respect to literary features but not in matters of religious history and dating. The next two chapters provide relevant contextual evidence from pre-Israelite periods. West Semitic archival documents from Syria (Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Emar) and Egypt (Amarna) mention many features (including prayer, prophecy, cultic personnel, and the architecture of shrines) considered analogous to Israelite phenomena known from the Bible (ch. 4). Similarly, cultic remains from Bronze Age sites in Palestine and Jordan are presented (ch. 5) as evidence that authenticates biblical traditions; at other times, however, they apparently contrast with Israelite cultic patterns and thus suggest Israelite uniqueness.

The rest of the book is roughly chronological, although the chapter titles belie that fact. That is, two chapters on the Pentateuch (ch. 6 on its narrative and legal components; ch. 7 on its priestly and cultic sections) present traditions Hess believes to be rooted in the culture of the pre–Iron Age period. Hess endeavors to show that the primordial characters and ancestors of Genesis, the “events” of exodus from Egypt, revelation at Sinai, wilderness wandering, and the sacrificial practices, personnel, and paraphernalia are authenticated by data from archaeology or from Near Eastern archival texts.

The chronological orientation emerges explicitly in the next four chapters: one on the Iron I period as the setting for the religion of early Israel and the early (“United”) monarchy (ch. 8); two providing information (written sources in ch. 9 and archaeological sources in ch. 10) about the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the Iron II period; and one (ch. 11) examining the putative exile of Judeans in the sixth century B.C.E. and the return to their homeland in the Persian period. The discussion of Israelite religion in these chapters tends to accept biblical narratives at face value without considering their literary and ideological features, and it gives primary attention to the number of deities and the presence or absence of divine images. The final chapter (ch. 12) is a brief overview of the book—perhaps too brief, given its wide scope.

The discovery of inscriptions and artifacts indicating that people in the territory assumed to be Israelite worshiped multiple deities until late in the Iron Age complicates the notion of an early monotheism in ancient Israel. Hess comes to terms with the archaeological data and allows for a complex understanding of the development of Israelite religion; yet he maintains that the diversity of beliefs throughout the Iron Age does not preclude an early monotheism (monolatry?) espoused by some. It should be noted that his approach is heavily oriented toward Christian (largely Protestant) categories and concerns. Matters of belief—especially the issue of monotheism vs. polytheism—loom large as the defining features of religion. This focus on beliefs means that religious practices, a central part of the lived religious experience of the Israelites, are thereby marginalized. To be sure, he does consider sacrifices and shrines; but in so doing, he emphasizes the communal and national religious practice of royal or priestly elites, thereby overlooking the myriad household religious activities that were arguably part of the lives of all Israelites.

Despite these limitations, and whether or not one faults the position Hess takes on the reliability of the text or the meaning of certain artifacts, one must admire the way he brings together a vast amount of material, clearly explains complicated issues, and includes diverse perspectives. His engagement with pre-Israelite textual materials is especially strong, as is his use of onomastic evidence. Reader-friendly features include a detailed outline at the beginning of most chapters and a summary at the end of all but the last. Hess also provides ample documentation, although there are occasional lapses; for example, he asserts (224) that “some scholars” would relate pork avoidance to Israelite ethnicity but does not cite them. The bibliography is extensive, running some 54 pages; the 44 illustrations (of varying quality) are well chosen in relation to the various topics; and the three indexes (authors’ names, biblical citations, and subjects) are helpful. The book thus serves as an excellent resource, apart from its particular perspectives. Indeed, as the title suggests, it is more of an examination—a “survey” according to the subtitle—of existing scholarship than an original synthesis.

Carol Meyers
Department of Religion
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina 27708-0964

Book Review of Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey, by Richard S. Hess

Reviewed by Carol Meyers

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 4 (October 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1134.Meyers

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