Part 7 – The Religions of the Ancient Near East


The world of the peoples of the Old Testament, called by scholars the Ancient Near East, was dominated by hundreds of gods. The Old Babylonian Empire, for example, had more than 2000 gods. Each god was understood to control some natural phenomenon, craft, object, or species of plants and animals. These gods were not of equal rank; some were higher up in the hierarchy of gods, some were more powerful, some more deceitful. The god of the pruning hook was less powerful than the sun god. On the famous stele of the Babylonian King Hammurabi we see the sun god Shamash, seated on a throne, giving the law to the King. The flames coming from his shoulder tell us that he is the god who commands the sun.

The ancient peoples imagined the gods to be like humans only much more powerful, immortal, more benevolent, but also more deceitful and ruthless and evil. They formed a class apart. People believed in the awesome powers of the gods. They were feared as unpredictable, temperamental beings. They could inflict disaster on people at any time.

Gods were represented by different symbols and forms. The same sun god Shamash can be symbolized by the solar disk, instead of by his human form. On the victory stele of an Assyrian king, who is shown having his enemy tied with a lash attached through his nose, a number of mighty gods, protectors of the king, are represented by their symbols: the sun god by the solar disk, the moon god by the crescent of the new moon, and the storm god riding on a bull.

Gods could be shown in entirely human form, in animal form, or as a mixture of both. Ishtar, the mother goddess, was sometimes presented as a woman, or as a lion or other fierce animal, or even as a star, since she was associated with the planet Venus, which ancient peoples believed to be a star. Marduk, the protector god of Babylon, can be depicted as a human being, but also as a fierce mythical creature.

The Egyptian god Horus appeared as a human being with the head of a falcon. The Canaanite god El is represented as a man with horns on his human head.

The Ancient Near Eastern world shared one cosmology, a common view of the world as the place where people live. People developed particular ideas and beliefs about human life, formed specific representations of the world around, and shared these with neighboring groups. Consequently, gods of similar character and function were worshipped under different names in different areas. For example, most cultures associated one god with the sun, although he had a variety of names.

Ancient cosmology thought of the world as being on three levels, corresponding to the earth, the sky, and the world of the dead under the earth.

The earth was the dwelling place of living people. It had emerged from the waters by an act of the creator god. It was understood to be a mound or a disk in the waters, protected from the waters above by an arched vault.

The sky or heaven was the realm of the gods. They were believed to reside above the sky with the stars, the moon, and the sun. The many stars in the sky were seen not as simple lights but as reflections of the gods. The world of the dead, sometimes called the netherworld, also had its special gods who ruled that world.

The divine power associated with the sun was responsible for upholding the world, maintaining order, and upholding justice. People believed that the sun entered the netherworld in the west at sunset and passed through that lowest level during the night. In the morning he left the the world of the dead and resumed his journey through the sky during the daytime.

In Egypt the sun was pictured traveling by boat. His nighttime journey through the netherworld was dangerous and full of obstacles. Each morning the rising of the sun was like a victory of the power of light over the powers of darkness and death. The ancient Egyptians believed that when the Pharaoh died he entered into the netherworld, where he joined the sun god. The Pharaoh too overcame death and took his place among the eternal shining gods. This could only happen, however, if his body were kept intact. For this purpose an Egyptian king would construct a pyramid, which was meant to serve as the house of the body of the deceased king and as a kind of ladder when his soul ascended, like the sun, from the netherworld into heaven.

At first the Egyptians believed that only kings could become immortal by joining the sun. In later times the idea developed that also commoners could ascend into the heavens. On some coffins we find pictures of the ritual of the weighing of the souls in the netherworld. Souls that were too heavy were fed to monsters, but the souls that passed the final judgment ascended to the heavens.

For the ancient Semitic peoples the netherworld was the final destination of all people, both the good and the bad. A similar belief in ancient Israel is reflected in many OT passages, where that place is called “sheol.” Sheol was thought to be a dark and uncomfortable place under the earth, where the dead slept.

From his daytime position in the sky the sun god saw what people did on earth. Then, in his nightly journeys through the netherworld, he sat in council with the deceased ancestors and reported what he had seen. This council decided on appropriate punishments for the wicked. The sun god used the internal organs of sheep and goats, in particular the liver, to communicate what decisions were taken to correct and punish the wicked. All over the Ancient Near East the examination of the liver of a sacrificial animal was a prime method to find out what is hidden in the future, and what counter-measures should be taken to protect people from misfortune. Excavations of ancient temples all over the Near East have produced such models of livers.

Many cultures also worshipped a moon god. They observed how the moon grew from new to full, and the moon became a symbol of life, growth, and fertility. People believed that the moon god knew the secret of the renewal of life. They also believed that when the moon disappeared for three nights each month it stayed in the netherworld. The appearance of the new moon was a special moment, a festival when people sacrificed to the moon god and to their ancestors.

It is important to understand that the Hebrew Bible represents the official position of the religion of Yahweh. It promotes Yahwism and it mocks the worship of gods other than Yahweh. However, in the very act of condemning certain practices of the common people, it informs us what people were actually doing. The biblical authors often accuse Israel of worshipping “all the host or army of heaven,” which refers to the many gods who were thought to dwell in the sky above. The Hebrew Bible mentions many of these. Even the veneration of deceased ancestors was a normal part of popular Israelite religious practice.

In the book of Judges we read that Gideon was ordered by the angel of the Lord to pull down the altar for Baal, which was in his father’s courtyard, and cut down the Asherah next to it. The Asherah was a wooden pole, most probably in the shape of a tree trunk. It was believed to enhance fertility and was also used in healing practices. It is frequently mentioned in the Bible and was erected next to an altar, sometimes even altars devoted to the God of Israel. King Josiah even removed an Asherah pole from the temple in Jerusalem.

The word can also refer to the goddess Asherah, who was the queen of the Canaanite god El. In the heartland of Judah, at a place called Khirbet-el-Qom, an eighth century BC inscription was found containing the name of Asherah. The inscription reads: “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh for he saved him from his enemies by his Asherah.”


Some scholars think that there were at least some people here who believed Asherah to be the consort of Yahweh.

But is there any evidence to support this connection between the two?

I don’t think there is any hard evidence for that. A place like this tells us that the Israelites in the monarchic period worshipped different gods and goddesses: including Baal and Asherah.

But we knew this already from the Bible itself. The prophets frequently condemned the people of Israel for exactly that.

True, but the possibility is strengthened by a similar find in the northern Sinai, at a place called Kuntillet Ajrud.

Ah, that was a camel caravansarai.

Exactly. It was a rest stop for travelers situated at the crossroads of desert tracks leading to Gaza and the port of Eilat. There was probably a religious center there, where travelers prayed and brought offerings to their gods.

Didn’t the archaeologists find other inscriptions there as well?

Yes, they found inscriptions with the names of Baal and El, as well as a depiction of a female figure who could represent the goddess Asherah.

But not everyone agrees that the name Asherah in these inscriptions actually refers to the goddess herself.

No, it could just be a reference to the Asherah symbol. Either way, it is clear that the worship of Asherah played a significant role in ancient Israel.


King Ahab of Israel built a temple for Baal in his capital Samaria, and his wife, Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, actively promoted the cult of Baal. The Baal worshipped by Jezebel was most probably the Baal of Tyre, a Phoenician god. The biblical text sometimes speaks about Baals in plural, giving the impression that there was more than one Baal. However, the plural refers to the many local cult centers where Baal was worshipped. Baal, who was also called Hadad, was in fact seen by his worshippers as a single powerful god, the king of the gods. He was associated with storms, rains, and thunder, and he was believed to be both violent and gentle. His fertilizing showers were the prime cause of life. Baal was represented in human form as a warrior with deadly weapons and in animal form as a mature bull or a calf.


This Canaanite temple of the storm god Baal was uncovered here in Hazor.

How do we know it was devoted to the storm god?

Archaeologists found here a basalt pillar with an emblem of the god, fours rays inside a disk.

But was that the only evidence?

No, they also found several images of a bull, which was the universal symbol for the storm god.

In the sacred stories of the ancients Baal was also depicted as a creator god, in particular as the mighty one who struck the great sea monster and set the borders of the sea.

Scholars describe Baal as a young storm god, who emerged in the second millennium BC and replaced El, the father of the gods, as the prime god. The storm gods were dying gods, they died when winter time approached and came back to life in spring. The cycle of their heroic battles with the god Mot (symbolizing death or winter) and their victories over him guaranteed fertility.

In Canaan Baal was worshipped widely by a large variety of ethnic groups. Yahweh, the protector and warrior god of Israel, was a different type of god. In the Exodus account he appears as a desert god, not associated with storms and rain. When the Israelite tribes settled in the area around 1200 BC, they were attracted to the storm god of their neighbors. In the minds of Israelites Baal began to compete with Yahweh for the title of supreme god.

Biblical writers countered this, sometimes by attributing to Yahweh the same powers their neighbors ascribed to Baal, sometimes by describing Yahweh in more spiritual and less physical or anthropomorphic terms.

King Josiah

King Josiah is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as the champion of religious reform. He introduced three important changes to the religious practice of the people of Judah: He purified the temple, he abolished the bamot, and he banned child sacrifice.

Temple purification

The purification of the temple must have been spectacular. Josiah removed a variety of cult objects, including an Asherah pole and images of horses. The horse images were used in the worship of a god associated with the sun, possibly under the name of Yahweh. The sun god was often presented as riding a winged chariot pulled by horses.

Bamot destroyed

Each village and town in the land of Israel had its own “bamah” or high place for sacrifice. A bamah could be a simple small altar, but it could also be more complex, with several altars, a temple building, water basins, and other objects. King Josiah destroyed the bamoth, and by so doing he centralized the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. This made it possible to control the worship of Yahweh and supervise what actually happened near the altar of the Lord.

Important sanctuaries also had a temple building with a statue of a god. Open air sacrificial places were common throughout the biblical world. Archeologists have found a bronze model of an open air sacrificial place in the area of Elam, dating back to the twelfth century BC. In Hazor was found a similar sacrificial place from the time of David and Solomon.

Although the bamah usually had an altar dedicated to Yahweh, it also had matsevot, or erected stones, which could symbolize the particular worshippers, their gods, or their ancestors. Apart from sacrifices to Yahweh, people also sacrificed to their ancestors, and sometimes to local deities. They also engaged in certain magical practices. By destroying all the places of sacrifice in Judah and deporting the priests from these centers, Josiah attacked the heart of ancient forms of worship and opened the way for a Yahweh-only religion, the one which eventually would become predominant in Israel.

Child sacrifice abolished

Here in the Hinnom Valley, just outside Jerusalem, Josiah also destroyed a sanctuary for child sacrifice. People practiced child sacrifice in special crisis situations, such as during a siege of a city or at times of severe drought. King Manasseh of Judah is said to have burned his own sons in this valley. The Bible uses a particular expression for child sacrifice: passing a son or a daughter through the fire to Molech. Molech is probably not the name of any particular god.

Josiah also destroyed the temple of Ashtoreth that Solomon had built. Ashtoreth, called Ishtar in Babylonia, was known as “the queen of heaven.” She was the mother of the gods, a goddess of love, good fortune in war, and fertility.

Ashtoreth was a popular goddess and was widely worshipped under different names. In Israel too, many people had figurines of Ashtoreth in their homes. Women used them in magical practices, most probably to enhance fertility and facilitate child birth. The prophet Jeremiah condemns the women of Jerusalem for making cakes in honor of the queen of heaven. Recent excavations in Jerusalem of sites from the first temple period uncovered many Ashtoreth figurines in ordinary homes. Small shrines in the form of a temple or a house served as altars to Ashtoreth.

Temples and palaces

Even though the realm of the gods was heaven, which was inaccessible to human beings, kings built houses for the gods on earth. These were meant to serve as comfortable residences for the gods. In fact ancient kings did everything to ensure the presence of their gods on earth, nearby, so that they could establish profitable relationships with them. Temples had to be luxurious, comfortable places where the gods could be appeased and consequently become benevolent.

Temples were storehouses of wealth. Kings brought precious stones, gold, and silver in order to create beautiful houses for their gods. Perhaps more than anything else, temple building stimulated development, as it pushed rulers to engage actively in both trade and war. In the temples the gods were served by special servants. They were looked after, dressed, fed, bathed, entertained by dance and music, and praised and honored by prayers and rituals. In addition to the main statue of the god who was resident in the temple, there were also images of visiting gods and the worshippers.

In Mesopotamia temples had a vertical extension, the ziggurat, which was like a ladder to heaven. The room of the god was not on the highest platform, as we might assume, but in the lower level inside the building. The upper platform was used for astrological observation and probably also for sacrifices.

Another temple design, the only one found in Syria and Palestine, was built on a horizontal plane. Such temples were also found in Mesopotamia, often next to a ziggurat.

The temple complex was fenced off and consisted one or more open court yards, with altars and water basins. The complex often had buildings with several rooms. The statue of the god was placed in the main room, and in front of it stood incense burners, offering tables, and cult stands for drink offerings.

In Egypt, in addition to temples devoted to gods, we find funerary temples situated next to the tombs of Pharaohs and important dignitaries. Funerary temples were not houses where gods were fed and honored, but cultic places for the administration of rituals for the dead.

Laying the foundation of a temple was a very serious matter. In a lengthy ritual the king, as the representative of the god, had to anchor the corner stones with a special peg. Both the cornerstone and the peg were covered with written texts containing prayers, blessings, and curses.

A king needed the protection of his gods. Nothing could succeed without their intervention, so he tried to be in constant contact with them. Here in the Israel Museum there is a stele of Tiglat Pilesar III, the Assyrian king who defeated king Menachem of Israel. The king is pictured as “pointing to the good,” a ritual in which the king turned to his gods for help. Above the king’s head are the symbols of his gods.

In the palaces of the Assyrian kings, such as the palace in Nimrod, we find many images of winged creatures. At the entrances stand huge statues of winged creatures, half bull, half lion. These creatures stood guard. The peoples of the Ancient Near East not only believed in the existence of many gods, they also believed there was a class of winged creatures, not divine, not human, but a class in itself. They might be friendly, they might be cruel. On the reliefs inside the palace we find many images of a giant winged human figure, with horns on his head, standing near a tree, the tree of life. This creature is picking flowers, or sometimes fruit, from the tree of life. These will enable the king to live long and will promote fertility in his empire.

All doors in the palaces of the Persian kings had images of supernatural beings, monsters, and fierce animals to protect the king’s coming in and his going out. One such figure was the griffon, with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. 

In a relief from the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal II we can observe a scene representing the transport of cedar logs from Lebanon to Nineveh. On the relief one can see winged creatures, obviously aiding the transport.

In the Bible we also find winged creatures—cherubim and seraphim—as guards and servants of the God of Israel. The tree of life in the garden of Eden was guarded by two cherubim, as was the covenant box. In a vision the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on his throne attended by seraphim with six wings. The creatures in the first chapter of Ezekiel are described as having four wings.

The throne is often symbolic of power in biblical texts. Thrones need protection and support, and we often see lions at the sides of thrones; King Solomon’s throne was guarded by fourteen lions. The throne of the kings of Persia was supported by people from the different nations ruled over by the king. The psalmist says that the Lord himself will make the throne of David stable, so that it cannot be moved.

In some societies, after the death of a king, sacrifices were offered to the deceased ruler and to other members of the royal family. The ruler ascended into the realm of the gods, and became a powerful supernatural being. The 8th century BC stele of a Syrian queen, displayed in the Pergamon Museum, shows a servant ministering to the deceased. On the table we see bread, eggs, and fish. The servant holds a knife and seems to be ready to prepare the food for the deceased. The winged solar disk symbolizes the sphere of the gods. A poem in Isaiah chapter 14 predicts the fate of the king of Babylon. Instead of being exalted into the heavenly realm of the gods, the mighty ruler will be brought down to sheol. The prophet condemns the beliefs of the peoples about their rulers, and declares that the rulers are only normal human beings.


The Bible mentions several non-Israelite temples for gods like Dagon and Ashtarot. Is there any physical evidence for the existence of such temples?

Yes, indeed. Archaeologists have excavated many ancient temples in Israel.

Can you give me some examples?

Yes, in Tel Qasile near the coast there is a Philistine temple to Dagon, for example. Here in Hazor were found two even more ancient temples, from the time of the Canaanites.

This was one of them, wasn’t it?

Yes, this was a temple devoted to the moon god Sin.

How can we be so sure that it this identification is accurate?

Well, at the back of the room were found a number of matsevot.

Sacred standing stones.

Right. And on one of the stones and also on the statue of a human being were two well-known symbols of the moon god.

Do we know the function of these standing stones?

They were most probably intended to represent deceased kings of Hazor.

And what about this human figure?

This could have been the moon god himself or perhaps the priest who served him.

In the Israelite fortress city of Arad archaelogists discovered a temple complex. It included a sacrificial altar, and next to it an entrance into a holy of holies. The doorway into the holy of holies is flanked on each side by two incense altars, and inside are two “matsevot,” or standing stones. The originals of the incense altars and the matsevot are preserved in the Israel Museum.

This temple was most likely devoted to Yahweh. If so, the larger matsevah probably symbolized Yahweh. The smaller one may have represented a lesser god or goddess.

The zevach sacrifice

In Ancient Israel people regularly sacrificed animals. The most common sacrifice was a kind of  sacrificial meal, called in Hebrew “zevach”. It could sometimes take the form of a monthly family event. In ancient Israel the ritual was actually performed by the head of the family.

Samuel’s father Elkanah, for example, held a yearly zevach sacrifice at the sanctuary in Shiloh. The same type of sacrifice was also offered at the new moon festival, at the village bamah. There were also sacrifices for special occasions. For example, a thanksgiving zevach could be offered to celebrate healing after sickness, or following the birth of a child. Unlike the “olah,” the burnt offering, where the animal was totally burnt on the altar, the zevach was a ritual meal.

Parts of the animal, in particular the fat parts, were devoted to the Lord and burnt on an altar. If the sacrifice took place at the sanctuary, certain other parts of the animal were to be given to the priests. The book of Leviticus gives a detailed and complicated description of how this sacrifice should be carried out.

This part of Leviticus is a priestly document. It probably reflects the practice of the sacrificial meal in ancient Israel, and it served as the rule for the zevach sacrifices celebrated at the temple in Jerusalem.

First of all the text of Leviticus prescribes that the sacrificial animal should be without defect. The man who offers the animal should kill it at the entrance to the sanctuary. First he is to lay his hand on the head of the animal, and then kill it. The meaning of this rite is never explained in the text. Some scholars suggest that it is a way for the officiator to identifiy himself with the sacrificial animal. The blood of the animal is caught in a bowl and then splashed against the altar by the priests, not by the man who brings the sacrifice.

The animal is butchered, and the following parts are brought to the altar to be burnt for the Lord as a good smelling sacrifice: All the fat that covers the entrails, the two kidneys and the fat that is around them, and the appendage of the liver, which is actually a large part of the liver.

The sacrifice is followed by a communal meal in which the family eats all of the meat except the right hind leg and the breast. These were regarded as special parts of the sacrificial animal and were given to the priests. In more ancient times the right hind leg was reserved for the head of the extended family. When Saul went to look for the lost donkeys of his father, he met with Samuel, who was presiding over a sacrificial meal. Samuel presented Saul with the right hind leg, to honor him as the chief of Israel. In later times, when the priests received the breast of the animal, they performed a special rite of waving it before the Lord.

The book of Leviticus also mentions additional offerings of bread and olive oil that accompanied the zebach sacrifice. The bread was considered an offering to the Lord and was given to the priests.

Tabernacle construction

In the book of Exodus we find instructions for the building of a portable sanctuary followed by a description of its construction. In Hebrew it is called the mishkan, a word indicating the dwelling of God. The Israelites are said to have carried this tabernacle with them as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. According to Joshua 18.1, when they entered the land of Canaan, they set up the tabernacle in a place called Shilo. Archaeologists have found indications that there was a sanctuary at Shilo, but there is no evidence that it was the tabernacle.

Scholars have long debated whether the Exodus description of the tabernacle should be considered historical. Whatever the outcome of that discussion, the translator is confronted with many challenges to visualize and translate these texts. Many people have attempted to build models of the tabernacle. Two such models, constructed at full scale, can be seen in Israel today. While they do not always use the exact materials prescribed by the text, and it is impossible to be precise in many details, we have filmed them in this video to give an idea of scale and proportion.

The Tabernacle complex consisted of two main structures. There was an outer wall made of poles and curtains. This defined the borders of the courtyard. Entry into the courtyard was through an opening in the eastern side of the outer wall. The Hebrew word mishkan is sometimes used to indicate the entire complex. More often, however, it means the second structure, a large tent which stood inside the enclosure.

The Tabernacle was basically a tent spread over a framework. The framework was constructed of a series of individual frames that were joined together. (The actual frame in the Tavernacle was about three times as high and as wide as this model I am using.) A frame was made of five pieces of acacia wood. Two long verticle pieces were joined at the top, the middle, and near the bottom by crosspieces. The ends of the uprights extended below the bottom crosspiece. These two extensions fit into corresponding holes in a heavy silver base, which was the same width as the frame. The bases and frames were set side-by-side, forming a wall. This frame wall was then made stable by inserting bars through three lines of rings that were attached to the frames. There were three such frame walls; the east side had no wall but only an entrance through curtains hung from poles.

The top and sides of the Tabernacle were covered by four layers of different materials. The inner layer was made of embroidered linen. The embroidered figures would have been visible on the inside above and through the openings in the frames. This layer stretched out over the top of the frame from one side to the other. In this way it formed the ceiling and hung down on both sides to within about 50 centimeters (20 inches) of the ground. Over this were spread three layers intended to protect the frames, the linen curtains, and the implements inside the Tabernacle. Spreading the four layers over the top had the effect of giving the Tabernacle a flat roof, not sloped, and thus it would have resembled a box.

Several of the items in the Tabernacle were made of acacia wood. This is the only tree that grows to any significant size in the Sinai region.

Holy Place

The interior of the sanctuary of the Tabernacle was called the Holy Place. This interior contained two rooms, an outer one and an inner one; the term “Holy Place” may refer to either one of them, but most often it refers to the larger room outside the veil, while the smaller room on its west end is called the “Most Holy Place” or “Holy of Holies.”

The Holy of Holies was a cubical room measuring ten cubits in each direction.

Covenant box

The Covenant Box was a rectangular box, about 125 centimeters (49 inches) long, 75 centimeters (30 inches) wide, and 75 centimeters (30 inches) high. It was made of acacia wood and was overlaid with gold. It was decorated with a raised gold rim or molding around it. Evidently it stood on four legs on its corners. To each of the four feet was attached a gold ring. Through these rings were inserted two poles for carrying the Box. The poles were also made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. Inserting the poles through the rings made it possible to lift and move the box without actually touching it. Several of the articles of furniture of the Tabernacle were carried by means of such poles.

The “mercy seat” was a lid that covered the Covenant Box. It was rectangular with the same dimensions as the top of the Covenant Box. It was made of beaten gold. Standing on its top were two golden figures with wings, called in Hebrew “cherubim.”

Altars and sacrifices

In Old Testament times stone altars were built in the open air for the purpose of making sacrifices. These altars were made from large stones, piled together to form a platform. The stones used to make altars in ancient Israel were not to be cut or shaped with iron tools.

On the four upper corners of an altar there were projections shaped like the horn of a bull. These may have been intended to represent the animals sacrificed, or they may have functioned as points on which cooking utensils rested.

The altar in the Tabernacle was to be made of acacia wood overlaid on the outside, and perhaps also on the inside, with bronze. It was hollow and measured five cubits or 2.5 meters on a side and stood three cubits or 1.5 meters high.

On the inside of the altar was a grating made of bronze. It was probably intended to hold the burning coals and allow the ashes and grease to fall through to the ground.

A different kind of altar was used for burning incense. This altar was a box-like table, made of wood. It was completely covered over with beaten gold. The incense altar stood just outside the curtain entrance of the Holy of Holies.

Incense was actually burned in a small metal bowl or pan. It had a handle so that the priest could hold it and carry it to the altar.

Coals, usually from the altar, were placed into the bowl or flat pan. On top of these was sprinkled a small amount of incense, which gave off a pleasant smell when it was burned by the coals.

As the priests approached their work, they stopped at a large copper pot that stood on a copper base. It was probably open at the top for filling with water, but its exact structure is unknown. It was used by the priests to wash their hands and feet.

The lighting for the inside of the Holy Place was provided by the menorah, which was a stand that held seven oil lamps. It was shaped from a single block of gold. It had a central shaft that stood on a base. Six arms projected out of the shaft, making a total of seven branches. On the top of each of these branches stood an oil lamp.

Another piece of furniture in the Holy Place was a table made of wood and covered with gold. It held loaves of bread and various gold utensils used by the priests.

Several bronze instruments were used by the priests in the sacrificial process. These were mostly for catching the blood of the victim, moving the victim as it burned, moving hot coals to and from the altar, and cleaning the altar.

Wine offerings or libations were offered to God in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Wine was poured from a gold vessel into a gold bowl.

High Priest’s clothing

The High Priest’s clothing consisted of eight items. First he put on, as an undergarment, a pair of shorts made of linen.

Over these he wore the tunic, a kind of long shirt that reached nearly to the ankles.

He then wrapped a long sash around his waist; it was embroidered of four kinds of thread.

Over all of this he put on a long blue robe. It was a kind of jacket or over-shirt that hung down to the ankles. Around the hem of the robe were sewn alternating golden bells and pomegranates made of woven threads.

Next came the ephod, which was a kind of apron with its own belt and shoulder straps.

Between the straps and the top of the ephod was a jeweled breastpiece, a piece of embroidered cloth doubled over to form a kind of pouch or pocket. Mounted on it in gold settings were twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Inside the pouch were kept the sacred lots, the Urim and Thummim.

On his head he wore a sort of turban, formed by winding a long piece of cloth many times around the top of the head.

Tied around his forehead was a gold plate inscribed with the words “Consecrated to Yahweh.”

Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (eds.)


III. The term (ha-’asherah, var. ’asherah) appears some 40 times in MT, usually with the article. When the plural is used, the forms ‘asherim and ‘asherot both occur. A cultic object appears most commonly to be denoted, which can be ‘made’ (‘asah), ‘Cut down’ (KRT) and ‘burnt’ (SRP). Probably a stylised tree, or a lopped trunk, is intended—see Deut 16:21, which prohibits the ‘planting’ of any tree (or: wood) as an ’asherah, and Judg 6:25-26, where it can become sacrificial fuel—and is frequently singled out for opprobrium by the Deuteronomist, However, not only is the attitude of the biblical writers not entirely consistent, but neither is the usage, the article being absent, or not presupposed by suffixes, in 8 cases. The term also appears in both singular and plural, and in the latter can apparently be masculine or feminine (the latter is however dubious, see below). Furthermore, the matter of the reference of a given passage, to cultic object or goddess, is independent of the use of the article. This is clear from the fact that in every instance where ‘Baal’ is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the article is used (allowed for in this instance by GK §126d, on the ground that it is specifying a generic term), as it is with a number of the ‘Ashtoreth’ (Astarte) references. Since in both these cases there is no question of it not being a deity of some kind that is referred to, whether specific or generic, it follows that the same rule may at least in principle apply in the case of ‘the ’asherah.’ The presence or absence of the article is therefore not, in the present writer’s view, a determinant in our analysis; what it probably does is to remove the proper name status of the noun, making it into a general term for a deity, though the use of the article with ‘elohim in its designation of the god of Israel suggests that the mechanical application of grammatical rules may be premature (see above: GK §126d). The first problem with the biblical allusions is therefore where a goddess is to be discerned behind the references and where the cult object. It is general contextual considerations which are to be taken into account. Thus references to constructing, erecting, removing or burning the ’asherah are in principle to be understood as referring to the cult object. LXX apparently understood its arboreal nature by its commonest translation as alsos, ‘grove.’ The Mishnah (‘Abodah Zarah 3:7) regards the Asherah as a tree. We shall consider below the relationship between object and deity.

The most important single source is the Deuteronomistic History, which contains 24 of the 40 references. One of its chief concerns is cultic purity, a strictly monolatrous Yahwism, and it therefore regards the presence of the ’asherah as evidence of apostasy. The Deuteronomistic historians have done their work so well that scholars are prone to talk of the ’asherah and other cultic elements as evidence of syncretism, or of (extraneous) ‘Canaanite’ elements in the Israelite and Judahite cults. In view of the epigraphic evidence to be discussed below, it is safer to begin from the supposition that the religion of both kingdoms only gradually moved towards monolatry and then monotheism, through prophetic and Deuteronom(ist)ic influence, and was otherwise, at both popular and official levels, basically polytheistic in nature. Furthermore, there is no justification for ideas of ‘foreignness’ about the Canaanite elements in religion in Palestine. Israel and Judah are to be seen as wholly within that cultural tradition. Historically speaking, it is their emergence from it which is striking (though often overstated) rather than its inherently alien nature. If we set aside those passages which treat the ’asherah specifically as an object to which certain things could be done, we are left with the following passages which may reasonably be understood to denote the goddess.

Judg 3:7 is a general statement on apostasy, and states that the Israelites served the Baals and the ‘Asheroth.’ This would be a generic use of the term, but should be corrected in accordance with Judg 2:13, where the goddess(es) are called Ashtaroth . 1 Kgs 15:13 (= 2 Chr 15:16) says that Maacah made an “obscene thing for (the) ’asherah”   and that Asa cut it (sc. the ‘obscene thing,’ not the ’asherah) down. The Kgs text has the article, the Chr text omits it. The principle of the article with divine names noted above applies, and there is no need to see a shift in understanding between the two versions. The Kgs passage undoubtedly has the goddess in mind (and apparently has her left standing!), though the article reduces her name to a generality. 1 Kgs 18:19 mentions 400 prophets of Asherah: the article is used, but the deity must be intended, unless the text be rejected as a gloss, as by some commentators. LXX repeats the phrase at v 22, and there is no objective reason for omitting it here. In the accompanying reference to the 450 prophets of Baal, the article is of course used, so both divine names must, on retention of the text, be interpreted consistently. 2 Kgs 13:6 appears to be an attempt to incorporate the asherah among the sins of Jeroboam (though this is originally singular, as in 1 Kgs 16:19, and refers to the calf-images of 1 Kgs 12:28-29). REB translates ha’asherah here as the divine name, but the sacred pole is probably intended. 2 Kgs 21:7 states that Manasseh ‘set up an image of the ’asherah,’ which again appears to refer to the goddess (so REB). But the verse should perhaps be harmonised with v 3, which simply alludes to the sacred pole. Finally within the Deuteronomistic History, 2 Kgs 23:4-7, in the account of Josiah’s reform, v 4 refers to items made labba’al vela’asherah ‘for (the) Baal and for (the) Asherah,’ while v 7 speaks of the ‘clothes’ (bottim: perhaps ‘shrines’?, WIGGINS 1993:165) the women wove for the ’asherah. The first of these verses can only refer to the goddess, while the second is ambiguous, since it may be a matter of hangings for the sacred pole.

Among the other 16 references to the ’asherah, 15 are in the plural, and thus clearly do not denote the goddess. They range from Exod 34:13 (thoroughly Deuteronomistic in style), through 11 references in 2 Chr (of which only 15:16 [1 Kgs 15:131 is singular), most of which parallel the same data in Kgs, two references in Isaiah (17:8 and 27:9) and one each in Jeremiah (17:2) and Micah (5:13). The paucity of prophetic references is striking, and raises the possibility that the violent objection to goddess and cult object belongs to one particular theological school (viz. the Deuteronomistic) in Judah. Above all, the absence of any reference in Hosea is cause for surprise. (WELLHAUSEN’S proposal for 14:9 [Die kleine Propheten (Berlin 18983) 20] remains conjectural.) The few prophetic allusions noted are all best explained as later additions to the text. All the plural forms are in the masculine, with the exception of 2 Chr 33:3, which has the feminine plural. Since the parallel in 2 Kgs 21:3 has the singular, there is a case for emendation here. All the plural occurrences in the Deuteronomistic History are also masculine, and since we have already discounted Judg 3:7, it means that the only genuine plural form is masculine. (There may be a case for a further instance of the masculine plural use: I Sam 7:3 has in MT veha’ashtarot but LXX reads … kai ta alse, presupposing ha’asherim.

Why is the masculine form used in the plural usage? WIGGINS (1993:169-170, 186) suggests that in the Deuteronomistic History the usage is in accordance with the double redaction principle: the feminine singular references are by and large preexilic, the masculine plural ones exilic. This then becomes normative, among later editors and writers who may have only the vaguest idea, if any, what the singular term actually denoted. The plural term is a code-word for something cultically deviant.

The usage of ‘asherah in the singular denoting the goddess or the cult object, and in the plural meaning the latter, and developing the vaguer sense just noted, is an excellent basis for discussion of the whole Israelite and Judahite attitude to imageworship (‘idolatry’ is a pejorative term). The first principle in the understanding of this is the deliberate perversity of the biblical view (e.g. at Isa 17:8; 44:9-20; Jer 2:27-28) which recognises the inherently ‘incamational’ thought of image-worship, that man-made objects can, through cultic use, become the media for hierophanies, and yet turns this argument in on itself as a parody of true religion. The real significance of Isa 17:8, with its reference to ‘the work of his hands, and what his fingers have made,’ is however to be determined by Isa 2:8, where the identical formula, with singular suffixes in a context of plural verbs, can only indicate that it is Yahweh’s hands and fingers that have made the objects. And this is no simple statement of creatureliness, but a metaphor of theogony. The asherah is indeed the work of Yahweh’s hands and fingers, but in a mythological sense (see WYATr 1994). The Isaianic reference to the asherah is thus fully aware of the dangerous power of the goddess. Her reality is not in question, and the distinction between deity and cult object is ultimately not an ancient, but a modem one.

This brings us to the intriguing question of the supposed ‘Yahweh’s Asherah,’ turning up as the only extra-biblical evidence for the goddess, if to be so construed, in two sites, Khirbet el Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud. On walls at the former, and on pithoi at the latter, inscriptions have been found, giving rise to a lively debate. For a thorough survey see HADLEY (1989). Space precludes lengthy discussion here. The inscriptions refer to yhwh w’srth, yhwh smrn w’srth and yhwh tmn w’srth, “Yahweh (Yahweh of Samaria, Yahweh of Teman [probably = K. Ajrud]) and his ‘asherah.” In all cases the deity and his ‘asherah are invoked for blessing and protection. The status of the ‘asherah is problematic. It cannot be the divine name according to the grammatical rule which precludes a proper noun taking a suffix; but we have seen that the use of the article in MT is not determinative in the debate. If it is the cult object, it may nevertheless have been viewed as noted above, that is with no practical distinction drawn between object and the deity symbolised. Some kind of divine reference is supported by two iconographical features found in context. Inscription 3 at Khirbet el Qom is written above an engraved hand. This has a widely attested apotropaic significance (SCHROER 1983), but may also be tentatively linked with the hand symbol of Tanit of Carthage, the prototype of which appeared on a stela at Hazor. A link between Tanit and Asherah is possible, though unproven (see discussion in HVIDBERG-HANSON 1979:115-119). One of the K. Ajrud pithoi has three figures drawn below the inscription. To the right a seated figure plays a stringed instrument. To the left two figures are flanked by a diminutive bull. Attempts to identify these figures with Bes are quite unwarranted. MARGALIT’S explanation of them as “Yahweh and his consort” (1990:277, see above etymology) is cogent, and consistent with details of the drawings. But perhaps judgment should be reserved.

The conclusion many scholars have drawn that Asherah was the consort of Yahweh may be approached from another angle. If Yahweh developed out of local Palestinian forms of El, then we might expect a simple continuity of the old ElAsherah (Ilu-Athirat) relationship which appears to obtain at Ugarit. But it has been increasingly argued in recent years that Yahweh has ‘baalistic’ characteristics, or is even a form of Baal himself. It has been argued that Baal effectively usurps El’s role at Ugarit, and takes El’s consort at the same time. There is no evidence from Ugarit to support this, and the hypothesis is based on a reading back of the Hurro-Hittite Elkunirsha myth to its putative Canaanite prototype (which need not have been the pattern at Ugarit). Within the biblical context, it has been supposed that Yahweh-Baal is thus the consort of Asherah, since Baal and Asherah were the local ‘Canaanite’ deities evidenced at Judg 3:7 MT. But we have seen that MT’s reading here is to be rejected. The hypothesis has nothing to commend it.

The theology of the goddess remains obscure in spite of the complex evidence noted above. We cannot be certain that every Ugaritic trait was preserved in the later environment, and even there much remains unknown. The firmest evidence, i.e. that cited from the Keret story above, and the goddess’ role in choosing Athtar as king in the Baal cycle, points to her role in kingship rituals, as ‘incarnate’ in the chief queen, who in Ugarit appears to have borne the title rabitu, ‘Great Lady,’ (GORDON 1988) which is used of Asherah herself as well as of Shapsh, and which would correspond to the office of gebira, also something like ‘Great Lady’ in Israelite and Judahite royal ideology. Maacah, a gebira, is noted for her particular devotion to Asherah in 1 Kgs 15:13, and Bathsheba is undoubtedly to be seen fulfilling the role in I Kgs 2:13-19 (WYATT, ST 39 [1985] 46; UF 19 [1987] 399-404). AHLSTROM very appositely calls the Judahite queen “the ideological replica of the mother of the gods…” (1976:76; cf. ACKERMANN 1993). It is this inseparable tie with the royal cultus which may explain the goddess’ apparently complete disappearance from the post-exilic world, though echoes of her are discernible in the figure of Wisdom (LANG 1986:60-81).

Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (eds.)


I. The name ba’al is a common Semitic noun meaning ‘lord, owner.’ Applied to a god it occurs about 90 times in the OT. The LXX transcribes Вααλ, Vulgate Baal, plural Вααλιμ and Baalim. Though normally an appellative, the name is used in Ugaritic religion as the proper name of a deity. Also in the Bible, the noun occurs as the name of a specific Canaanite god.

II. According to Pettinato the noun ba’al was originally used as a divine name. It is attested as such already in third millennium texts. The mention of dba4-alx in the list of deities from Abu Salabikh (R. D. BIGGS, Inscription from Abu Salabikh [OIP 99; Chicago 1974] no. 83 v 11 = no. 84 obv. iii 8′) provides the oldest evidence of Baal’s worship. Since the Abu Salabikh god list mentions the god amidst a wealth of other deities, each of them referred to by its proper name, it is unlikely that ba’al should serve here as an adjective. The appellative ‘lord,’ moreover, has a different spelling, viz. be-lu or ba-ah-lu. In texts from Ebla (ca. 2400 BCE) the name Baal occurs only as an element in personal names and toponyms.

PETTINATO (1980) makes a case for Baal being an originally Canaanite deity (so also DAHOOD 1958:94; POPE & ROELIG 1965: 253-254; VAN ZIJL 1972:325), and argues that he should be distinguished from Hadad. Their identity is nevertheless often emphasized in modem studies. Many scholars hold that Hadad was the real name of the West Semitic weather god; later on he was simply referred to as ‘Lord,’ just like Bel (‘lord’) came to be used as a designation for Marduk (so e. g. O. EISSFELDT, Baal/Baalat, RGG 1 [19573] 805-806, DAHOOD 1958:93; GESE 1970:120; DE MOOR & MULDER 1973:710-712; A. CAQUOT & M. SZNYCER, LAPO 7 [1974] 73). Yet the parallel occurrences of b’l and hd (Haddu) in, e.g., KTU 1.4 vii:35-37; 1.5 i:22-23; 1.10 ii:4-5 do not necessarily support this assumption. It could also be argued, with KAPELRUD (1952:50-52), that the name of the Mesopotamian weather god Hadad/ Adad, known in the West Semitic world through cultural contact, was applied secondarily to Baal. If Baal and Hadad refer back to the same deity, however, it must be admitted that, in the first millennium BCE, the two names came to stand for distinct deities: Hadad being a god of the Aramaeans, and Baal a god of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites (J. C. GREENFIELD, Aspects of Aramean Religion, Ancient Israelite Religion [FS. F. M. Cross; ed. P. D. Miller, Jr., et al.; Philadelphia 1987] 67-78, esp. 68).

In the texts from Ugarit (Ras Shamra) Baal is frequently characterized as aliyn b’l, ,victorious Baal’ (see e.g. KTU 1.4 v:59; 1.5 v:17; 1.6 v:10; 1.101:17-18); aliy qrdm, ,mightiest of the heroes’ (KTU 1.3 iii:14; iv:7-8; 1.4 viii:34-35; 1.5 ii:10-11, 18; for a closer analysis see DIETRICH & LORETZ 1980: 392-393); dmrn, ‘the powerful, excellent one’ (KTU 1.4 vii:39; cf. KTU 1.92:30); or b’l spn (KTU 1.16 i:6-7; 1.39:10; 1.46:14; 1.47:5; 1.109:9, 29 Zaphon, Baal-Zaphon). The latter designation is also found, in syllabic writing and therefore vocalised, in the Treaty of Esarhaddon of Assyria with king Baal of Tyre (SAA 2 [1988] no. 5 iv 10′: dBa-al-sa-pu-nu). It also occurs in a Punic text from Marseilles (KAI 69:1) and a Phoenician text from Saqqara in Egypt (KAI 50:2-3). The Baal residing upon the divine mountain of Sapanu (the Jebel el-Aqra,’ classical Mons Casius, cf. the name Hazi in texts from Anatolia) is sometimes referred to in Ugarit as il spn (KTU 1.3 iii:29; iv:19; note, however, that the latter designation may also be used to refer to the collectivity of gods residing on Mount Zaphon). Apparently, in the popular imagination, Baal’s palace was situated on Mount Zaphon (KTU 1.4 v:55; vii:6; cf. srrt spn, ‘summit of the Sapanu,’ KTU 1.3 i:21-22; 1.6 vi:12-13, and mrym spn, ‘heights of the Sapanu,’ KTU 1.3 iv:l, 37-38; 1.4 v:23). In a cultic context Baal was invoked as the god of the citystate of Ugarit under the name b’l ugrt (KTU 1.27:4; 1.46:16 [restored]; 1.65: 10-11; 1.105:19; 1.109:11, 16, 35-36).

Such genitival attributions as b’l ugrt may be compared with those that are known from Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions: b’l krntrys (KAI 26 A 11: 19); b’l lbnn (‘Baal of the Lebanon,’ KAI 31:1-2); b’l sdn (‘Baal of Sidon,’ KAI 14:18); b’l smd (KAI 24:15); b’l smyn (‘Baal of the Heavens,’ KAI 202 A 3); b’l smm (KAI 4:3, Baal shamem); cf. also b’l ‘dr (KAI 9 B 5); b’l hmn (KAI 24:16; Hermon); b’l mgnm (KAI 78:3-4). For other special forms of Baal see the survey by POPE & ROELLIG 1965:253264. It is also to be noted, finally, that the Ugaritic Baal in his capacity as lord over the fertile land is said to be bn dgn, ‘the son of Dagan’ (KTU 1.5 vi:23-24; 1. 10 iii: 12, 14; 1.14 ii:25; iv:7). Yet as a member of the pantheon, the other gods being his brothers and sisters, Baal is also the son of Elsince all gods are ‘sons of El’ (KTU 1.3 v:38-39; 1.4 iv:47-48; v:28-29; 1.17 vi:2829; once Baal addresses El as ‘my father,’ KTU 1.17 i:23). There is no particular tension between these two filiations; they should certainly not be taken as an indication to the effect that Baal was admitted into the Ugaritic pantheon at a later stage. On the contrary: the appellative bn expresses appurtenance to a certain sphere. Baal was judged to be a member of the Ugaritic pantheon, and as such he was a son of El. Inasmuch as his activity was concerned with the fertility of the fields he was a son of the grain god Dagan.

The excavations at Ras Shamra have supplied us with various figurative representations of the god Baal (A. CAQUOT & M. SZNYCER, Ugaritic Religion [Leiden 1980] pl. VIII c (?), IX a-d, X, XII). Such iconographic representations are known from other places in the Syro-Palestinian area too, though their interpretation is fraught with difficulties; an unambiguous identification with Baal is rarely possible (P. WELTEN, Goetterbild, maennliches, BRL [19772j 99-111; cf. R. HACHMANN [ed.] Fruehe Phoeniker im Libanon: 20 Jahre deutsche Ausgrabungen in Kamid ‘el-Loz [Mainz am Rhein 1983] 165).

The worship of Baal demonstrably pervaded the entire area inhabited by the Canaanites. During the period of the Middle Kingdom, if not earlier, the cult was adopted by the Egyptians, along with the cult of other Canaanite gods (S. MORENZ, Aegyptische Religion [RdM 8; Stuttgart 19772] 250-255). In the wake of the Phoenician colonization it eventually spread all over the Mediterranean region.

The domain or property of the god consists either of a natural area or one created by human hand; the relationship of the god to his territory is expressed with a genitival construction: Baal is the lord of a mountain, a city, and the like. The place may either coincide with a sanctuary, or contain one. Since the separate population groups within the Syrian-Palestine area each knew their own Baal, as the literary documents show, it may be assumed that people had a well circumscribed image of the god as a deity of fundamental significance for the human existence (cf. A. CAQUOT & M. SZNYCER, LAPO 7 [1974] 77). The conclusion is confirmed by the frequency of Baal as theophoric component in personal names (IPN 114, 116, 119-122; KAI 111, 45-52; F. GROENDAHL, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit [Rome 1967] 114-117.131-133). Also in the Amama letters there occur proper names compounded with the divine name Baal (if d1m may be read as ba’lu, e.g. EA 256:2, 5; 257:3; 314:3; 330:3).

Since the information concerning Baal in the Bible is negatively biased, a characterization of the god and his attributes must be based in the first place on texts from the Syro-Canaanite world. The examination of the Iron Age inscriptional material, however, be it Phoenician, Punic, or Aramaic, is not especially productive. Though Baal or one of his manifestations is frequently mentioned, he usually appears in conjunction with other gods, his particular field of action being seldom defined. Only the Phoenician inscription of Karatepe (8th century BCE) yields information in this respect (KAI 26). It tells about Baal in a way that is reminiscent of the mythic tradition of Ras Shamra. King Azitawadda calls himself ‘steward’ (brk, cf. Akk abarakku, Ebla a-ba-ra-gu, see M. KREBERNIK, WO 15 [1984] 89-92) and ,servant’ (‘bd) of Baal (KAI 26 A 1:1). He claims that the god appointed him in order that he (i.e. the king) might secure for his people prosperous conditions (KAI 26 A 1:3, 8; 11:6). A possible counterpart may be found in the Aramaic inscription of Afis (8th century BCE) where King Zakir (or Zakkur) of Hamat and Lu’ash says that Baal-Shamin appointed him king over Hazrak (KAI 202 A 3-4) and promised him aid and rescue in distress (lines 12-13). On occasion, Baal is asked to grant life and welfare (KAI 26 A 111:11; C 111:16-20; IV:12; cf. 4:3; 18:1,7; 266:2). In the Karatepe inscription, as in the inscription from Afis (B 23), the heavenly Baal (Baal-shamem) is mentioned besides other gods as guarantor of the inviolability of the inscription (A 111:18; cf. KAI 24:1516); it is an open question whether he differs from the god Baal or whether he is really the same deity approached from a different angle. Some random data may be culled from the remaining texts. The Phoenician incantation of Arslan Tash (KAI 27), presumably dating from the 7th century BCE (unless it is a forgery, as argued by J. TEIXIDOR & P. AMIET, AulOr I [ 1983] 105-109), has been thought to mention the eight wives of Baal (1. 18); it is also possible, if not more likely, that the epithet b’l qds refers back to Horon, whose ‘seven concubines’ are mentioned in line 17 (cf. NESE 2 [1974] 24). A Neo-Punic inscription from Tunesia refers to Baal-hamon and Baal-addir (KAI 162:1), apparently as gods that are able to grant pregnancy and offspring.

These few testimonies give only a very general idea of Baal. The capacities in which he acts, as kingmaker and protector, benefactor and donator of offspring, do not distinguish him from other major gods.

Far more productive are the mythological texts from Ras Shamra ca. 1350 BCE, which contain over 500 references to Baal. They help us to delineate the particular province of the god. The myths tell how he obtained royal rule and reigns as king (KTU 1.2 iv:32; 1.4 vii:49-50). He is called sovereign (Judge,’ Lot, a title more frequently applied to the god Yammu) and king (KTU 1.3 v:32; 1.4 iv:43-44). Several times his kingdom, his royal throne and his sovereignty are mentioned (KTU 1.1 iv:24-25; 1.2 iv:10; 1.3 iv:2-3; 1.4 vii:44; 1.6 v:5-6; vi:34-35; 1.10: 13-14). His elevated position shows itself in his power over clouds, storm and lightning, and manifests itself in his thundering voice (KTU 1.4 v:8-9; vii:29, 31; 1.5 v:7; 1.101:34). As the god of wind and weather Baal dispenses dew, rain, and snow (KTU 1.3 ii: 39-41; 1.4 v:6-7; 1.5 v:8; 1.16 iii:5-7; 1.101: 7) and the attendant fertility of the soil (KTU 1.3 ii:39; 1.6 iii:6-7, 12-13 [note the metaphor of ‘oil and honey,’ for which see also the Hebrew phrase ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ in Exod 3:8.17; Lev 20:24; Deut 26:9; cf. Amos 9:13; Ps 65:12]; KTU 1.4 vii:50-51). Baal’s rule guarantees the annual return of the vegetation; as the god disappears in the underworld and returns in the autumn, so the vegetation dies and resuscitates with him. Being the major one among the gods, or rather perceived as such, Baal was naturally a king to his Ugaritic devotees. Yet kingship is not Baal’s sole characteristic; it is merely the way he is extolled. His nature is far more rich.

Baal is seen at work not just in the cyclical pattern of the seasons. He is also called upon to drive away the enemy that attacks the city (KTU 1.119:28-34), which shows that the god also interferes in the domain of human history. His involvement in matters of sex and procreation, though often mentioned in secondary studies, is not very explicit in the texts. A passage in the Epic of Aqhat narrates how Baal intercedes with El, that the latter might grant a son to Dan’el (KTU 1.17 i:16-34). Yet this is almost the only testimony concerning Baal’s involvement in the province of human fertility. The other texts referred to in older studies are either misinterpreted or highly dubious. Thus KTU 1.82 is not an incantation asking Baal to grant fertility, but a text against snake bites (G. DELLETE, La religi6n cananea segun la liturgia de Ugarit [Barcelona 1992] 251-255). KTU 1.13 may indeed be an incantation against infertility, with Baal in the role of granter of offspring (J. C. DE MOOR, An Incantation Against Infertility, UF 12 [1980] 305-310), but other interpretations can also be defended with some plausibilty (see, e.g., LAPO 14 [1989] 19-27). On the whole it seems mistaken to infer from Baal’s role as bestower of natural fertility that he fulfilled the same role in the domain of human fertility. Also, at Ugarit, there are other gods who might equally be called upon to bless a family with children.

A further theme in the myths is the antagonism between Baal and Yammu the god of the sea (KTU 1.2). In addition to this tablet from the Baal Cycle, other texts allude to the theme; they speak of Baal’s combat against the River (Naharu) and the monsters tnn (Tunnanu, Tannin), ktn ‘qltn (the twisted serpent), ltn btn brh (Litanu, the fugitive serpent; Leviathan), and slyt (Salyatu; KTU 1.3 iii:39-42; 1.5 i:1-3, 27-30)—all belonging to the realm of Yammu according to KTU 1.3 iii:38-39. It is interesting to compare these data with the account by Philo Byblius: “Then Ouranos [= El?] again went to battle, against Pontos [= Yammu]. Yet having turned back he allied himself with Demarous [= Baal]. And Demarous advanced against Pontos, but Pontos routed him. Demarous vowed to offer a sacrifice in return for his escape” (Eusebius, Praep. Ev. 1.10.28; cf. H. W. ATTRIDGE & R. A. ODEN, Jr., Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History [Washington 1981] 52-53, 190 nn. 119-120).

These reports might lead to the conclusion that Baal is revered as the god who protects against the forces of destruction. More particularly, however, his defeat of Yammu symbolizes the protection he can offer sailors and sea-faring merchants. Baal is a patron of sailors (C. GRAVE, The Etymology of Northwest Semitic sapanu, UF 12 [1980] 221-229 esp. 228; cf. M. BIETAK, Zur Herkunft des Seth von Avaris, Aegypten und Levante 1 [1990] 9-16). In the Baal temple of Ugarit a number of votive anchors have been found. Sailors could descry from afar the acropolis temple, so they knew where to turn to with their supplications for safekeeping and help (cf. M. YON, Ougarit et ses Dieux, Resurrecting the Past: A Joint Tribute to Adnan Bounni [ed. P. Matthiae, M. van Loon & H. Weiss; Istanbul/Leiden 1990] 325-343, esp. 336-337). This observation is confirmed by a reference in the treaty of Esarhaddon with king Baal of Tyre. It shows that Baal Zaphon had power to rescue at sea, since the curse speaks about the possibility of Baal Zaphon sinking the Tyrian ships by means of a sea-storm (SAA 2 no. 5 iv 10′-13′).

Finally attention should be paid to a rather different aspect of the way believers thought Baal might intervene in their lives. It concerns Baal’s connection with the netherworld, as it is expressed in the myth about Baal’s fight with Mot (personified death). Mythological fragments not belonging to the Baal Cycle have increased our knowledge of this side of the god. Baal is called with the epithet rpu Rapi’u), ‘healer’ (cf. Hebrew rope’). DIETRICH & LORETZ have shown that Baal is called rpu in his capacity as leader of the rpum, the Rephaim (1980:171-182). They find the epithet in KTU 1.108:1-2 and guess KTU 1.113 belongs to the same category of texts. The Rapi’uma (Hebrew repha’im are the ghosts of the deceased ancestors, more especially of the royal family. Baal is their lord in the realm of the dead, as shown by the circumlocation zbl b’I ars (‘prince, lord of the underworld’; DIETRICH & LORETZ 1980: 392). According to KTU 1.17 vi:30 Baal is able to vivify, which DIETRICH & LORETZ interpret to mean that he activated the dece ased and thus played a major role in the ancestor cult. The expression adn ilm rbm (KTU 1.124:1-2) may also be understood as an epithet of Baal, designating him as ‘lord of the great gods,’ i.e. of the deified ancestors (1980:289-290).

111. The biblical references in which means ‘husband’ (e.g. Gen 20:3; Exod 21:3.22) fall outside the scope of this article. Only Hos 2:18 is ambiguous in this respect. Evidently the verse did not originate as a dictum of Hosea; it was written at a later time (so already W. W. Graf BAUDISSIN, Kyrios als Gottesname im Judentum und seine Stelle in der Religionsgeschichte [ed. 0. Eissfeldt; Giessen 1929], Vol. 3, 89-90; recently J. JEREMIAS, Der Prophet Hosea [ATD 24/1; Gottingen 1983], ad locum). In the eschatological future, according to the prophet, the Israelites will call Yahweh ‘my man’ and no longer ‘my Baal.’ Since otherwise Baal is never used as a designation of Yahweh, both ‘my man’  and ‘my Baal’  are to be understood as ‘my husband,’ even though the former is more common in this sense than the latter (Gen 2:23; 16:3; Lev 21:7; Num 5:27 and often). In the background, however, the verse is a polemic against the cult of Baal (thus also the LXX by the plural Baalim

The name Baal is used in the OT for the most part in the singular, and rarely in the plural; it is generally preceded by the article (Num 22:41 is no exception because it characterizes a cultic place). On the basis of this data, EISSFELDT has denied that there were a great number of Baals, distinguished from each other by reference to a locality or some other specification, such as a genitival attribute (Baal-berith) or an apposition (Baalzebul, thus to be read instead of Baal-zebub; see 0. EISSFELDT, Ba’al-samem und Jahwe, ZAW 57 [1939] 1-31, esp. 15-17 = KS 11 [19631 171-198, esp. 184-185). The many local Baals are rather to be understood as manifestations of the one Baal worshipped among the Canaanite population (thus DE MOOR & MULDER 1973:709-710, 719-720; but note the critical observations by KUEHLEWEIN 1971:331).

The frequent occurrences of the name Baal in the OT are instructive about the kind of relations that the Israelites entertained with the deity. During the early history of Israel the name was by no means applied to Yahweh, as is sometimes affirmed (pace KAPELRUD 1952:43-44). The proper name Bealiah (I Chr 12:6[5]), meaning ‘Yahweh is Baal/Lord,’ is insufficient evidence to prove that Baal was a customary epithet of Yahweh. The theophoric component ‘Baal’ in proper names reveals most bearers of these names to be worshippers of Baal, or to come from a family of Baal worshippers. All kinds of observations in the Bible document the fact that the Israelites addressed a cult to Baal. From a religio-historical point of view this comes hardly as a surprise. Also among the Ammonites Baal enjoyed a certain popularity (see Gen 36:38-39 for Baal as theophoric element in an Ammonite personal name; the god is possibly mentioned in the Amman theatre inscription, see K. P. JACKSON, The Ammonite Language of the Iron Age [HSM 27; Chico 1983] 45 and U. HUEBNER, Die Ammoniter [ADPV 16; Wiesbaden 1992] 21-23; b’I occurs as a theophoric element in a personal name on a seal from Tell-el-‘Umeri: b’lys’ HUBNER 1992:86; B. BECKING, JSS 38 [1993] 15-24). In addition to the more general references in Judg 6:31-32; 1 Kgs 18:21.26; 2 Kgs 10: 19-20.28, there are references to the temple of Baal (I Kgs 16:32; 2 Kgs 10:21. 23.25-27; 11:18); his altar (Judg 6:25.28.30-32; 1 Kgs 16:32; 2 Kgs 21:3); his cultic pillar (2 Kgs 3:2; 10:27); his prophets (I Kgs 18:; 2 Kgs 10:19); and his priests (2 Kgs 11:18). It cannot be said that the cult of Baal flourished only in certain periods or in a number of restricted areas; nor was it limited to the Canaanite part of the population (assuming that Canaanites and Israelites were distinguishable entities). The general impact of his cult is proven, in the negative so to speak, by the reports about its suppression in Israel and Judah (I Sam 7:4; 12:10; 2 Kgs 10:18-28; 11:18; 23:4-5; 2 Chr 23:17; 34:4), and by the references to the handful of faithful who had not bowed to Baal (I Kgs 19:18; 2 Chr 17:3). Similarly the increasingly sharp pol emics which came to dominate the Israelite literature (cf. KUEHLEWEIN 1971:331) attest to the fact that during the early Iron Age the god Baal played a large part in the belief of the Israelite population. F. E. EAKIN, Jr. (Yahwism and Baalism before the Exile, JBL 84 [1965] 407-414) correctly emphasizes that until Elijah, the worship of Yahweh and the cult of Baal coexisted without any problem. It should be remembered, moreover, that the cult of Baal did not cease to be practised, notwithstanding the notice in 2 Kgs 10:28 which says that “Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel.”

The polemics gained prominence as the worship of Yahweh gained ground. Their typical means of expression is the accusation that the Israelites turned away from Yahweh at a very early stage in their history; they allegedly preferred to bring sacrifices to the Baalim or to Baal, and they continued to do so until the end of the existence of the independent states of Israel and Judah (see e.g. Judg 2:11-13; 1 Kgs 16:31-32; 2 Kgs 17:16; Hos 11:2; Zeph 1:4; Jer 9:13). In Judaism the substitution of the reading ‘Baal’ by boshet, ‘ignominy, disgrace, dishonour’ became customary (Bashtu); the Septuagint used the terms aischune (I Kgs 18:19.25; with Aquila and Theodotion Jer 11:13) and eidolon (Jer 9:13; 2 Chr 17:3; 28:2). The few references suggest that the Greek pejorative names were seldom used. Yet it should be noted that Baal is often preceded by the feminine article, which fact must be interpreted as a reflection of a reading e aischune The Vulgate throughout renders Baal and Baalim (for the historic development of that usage Cf. DE MOOR & MULDER 1973:719).

The figure of Baal which the Bible presents as being worshipped by the Israelites must have resembled the Baal known from Syrian and Phoenician sources, most notably the Ugaritic tablets. As the biblical data are unyielding with information about the nature of Baal, however, the researcher is often reduced to guesses based on comparative evidence.

The first source to be dealt with is the cycle of Elijah narratives, as they are con cerned with the competition between Baal and Yahweh—or rather the respective groups that claim loyalty to the one or the other. The central issue of the battle is the ability to produce rain, and hence to grant fertility to the fields (cf. I Kgs 17:1.7.14; 18:1.2.41-46). It is Yahweh’s prophet who announces the withholding of the rain and its ultimate return. His message is that rain and fertility of the soil do not depend on Baal but on Yahweh (cf. Hos 2:10). Apparently I Kgs 18:38 (“Then the fire of Yahweh fell”) is to be understood as a reference to lightning and thunder. It has often been noted that this implies a transference of certain qualities of Baal onto Yahweh. Elsewhere, too, Yahweh has assumed characteristics of Baal. He is associated with winds, clouds, rain, flashes, and thunder (Exod 19:9.16; Amos 4:7; Nah 1:3; Ps 18 [= 2 Sam 22]:14-15; 77: 18-19). It is Yahweh who gives the ‘dew of heaven’ and the ‘fatness of the earth’ (Gen 27:28)—something normally associated with Baal.

Baal’s chthonic aspect should also be taken into consideration. It, too, has been transferred and projected upon Yahweh, thus widening his sphere of action. Yet a distinctive difference remains. Unlike Baal in the Ugaritic tradition, Yahweh is never said to be descending into the netherworld for a definite amount of time, in order to fortify the dead. Yet Yahweh was believed to possess the ability to perform acts of power within the realm of the dead inasmuch as he was able to resuscitate from the dead, or to interfere in matters of the underworld. The texts that say so (Amos 9:2; Hos 13:14; Isa 7:11) date from the 8th century BCE. They voice a conviction not formerly found; it was a prophetic innovation with far-reaching consequences. The ground for it had been prepared by the popular belief that Baal, as an important deity in human life, must equally have power over the realm of the dead. In the mind of the believer, there are no fixed limits to the power of the god.

The tradition of Baal as the slayer of the sea and its monsters was also known in Palestine (Leviathan). This is shown, for instance, by the fact that in later times Baal’s victories have been ascribed to Yahweh. In passages which are almost literal echoes of certain Ugaritic texts and expressions, Yahweh is celebrated as the one who defeated Yammu and the sea dragons tannin, liwyatan, nahas, bariah respectively nahas ‘aqallaton (Isa 27:1; 51:9-10; Jer 5:22; Ps 74:13-14; 89:10-11). In addition there is the defeated monster Rahab, so far absent from the mythology of Ras Shamra.

The Canaanite cult of Baal as described in the Bible, and practised by the Israelites, has certain traits that are not without parallels outside the Bible. The ecstatic behaviour of the Baal prophets described in 1 Kgs 18:26.28, the bowing to the image of the god (I Kgs 19: 18), and the kissing of his statue (Jer 2:8; 23:13) are hardly typically Israelite (cf. R. DE VAUX, Les prophetes de Baal sur le Mont Carmel, Bible et Orient [Paris 1967] 485-497).

Considering the data about Baal surveyed until now, it cannot be excluded that the Palestinian Canaanites called their god Baal with the title ‘king’ as well—in the same manner as the Ugaritic texts do. El too may have received the title. Such practices will undoubtedly have been an influence in the Israelite use of the epithet in relation to Yahweh (cf. SCHMIDT 1966). Yet we are not in a position to determine exactly when and how the transfer of the title came about.

Because of the similarity between the two gods, many of the traits ascribed to Yahweh inform us on the character of the Palestinian Baal. For lack of other data, it is impossible to say whether the resulting image is complete. Also, it cannot be excluded that the Palestinian cult of Baal, and its theology, differed at various points from that which is found in the Ugaritic texts. The case of Rahab, mentioned before, offers a telling illustration. Something, however, which can hardly be correct about the Palestinian Baal is the accusation that child sacrifice was an element in his cult (Jer 19:5; 32:35). The two texts that say so are late and evidently biased in their polemic; without confirmation from an unsuspected source their infor mation should be dismissed. Similarly the idea of cultic prostitution as an ingredient of the Baal cult should not be taken for a fact. This too is an unproven assumption for which only Jer 2:23 and Hos 2:15 can be quoted in support; neither text is unambiguous (Cf. DE MOOR & MULDER 1973: 717-718).

Baal held a unique position among the inhabitants of Palestine. People experienced the pattern of the seasons, and the regular return of fertility, as an act of Baal’s power. Yahweh was initially a god acting mainly in the realm of history. Owing to his growing place in Israelite religion, his sphere of influence gradually widened to eventually include what had once been the domain of Baal as well. His rise in importance was only possible, in fact, through his incorporation of traits that had formerly been characteristic of Baal only.

R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, pp. 294-302

The desert sanctuary: the Tent

Before passing on to Israel’s own sanctuaries in the Promised Land, we must study another set of traditions about the first beginnings of the cult of Yahweh. The Bible tells us that in the desert, the Israelites had a tent as a sanctuary, which has become known in Christian literature, through the influence of the Vulgate, as the Tabernacle. This Tent is called in Hebrew the ’ohel mo‘ed, the Tent of Re-union, or, of Meeting, or, of Rendezvous. In fact, it was the place where Yahweh talked with Moses ‘face to face’ (Ex 33:11), or ‘mouth to mouth’ (Nb 12:8). These texts belong to the oldest tradition, which stresses the role of the Tent in oracles: everyone who wanted ‘to consult Yahweh’ went to the Tent, where Moses acted as his spokesman before God (Ex 33:7). The Priestly tradition kept the name, with the same meaning: the Tent of Re-union was the place where Yahweh ‘met’ Moses and the people of Israel (Ex 29:42-43; 30:36). This tradition, however, prefers to call it the Dwelling, or Abode, mishkan, which seems to be a term originally used for the temporary dwelling of a nomad (cf. the very old text in Nb 24:5, and the corresponding verb in Jg 8:11; cf. also 2 S 7:6), i.e. a tent. The Priestly tradition chose this archaic word to express the way in which the god who resides in heaven dwells on earth. By doing so, they were pleparing the ground for the Jewish doctrine about the Shekinah, and St John too remembered how ‘the Word. . . pitched a tent among us’ (Jn 1:14).

Nevertheless, in the Priestly tradition, the divine presence in the Tent appears to be more stable than it was in the old Elohistic tradition. The latter tells how the presence of Yahweh revealed itself by the descent of a cloud which covered the entrance of the Tent, and Moses spoke with God inside the cloud (Ex 33:9): again (Nb 12:4-10), it says that the cloud came down over the Tent when Yahweh was arriving, and left it when he was departing: both of these accounts suggest visits rather than a permanent abode. Accord­ing to the Priestly tradition, the cloud covered the Dwelling as soon as it was erected, for Yahweh was taking possession of his sanctuary (Ex 40:34-35); afterwards, it apparently stayed over the Dwelling all the time, doing duty for the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire which had guided the Israelites during the Exodus: it indicated where and for how long they were to set up camp, and when the moment had come to strike camp (Nb 9:15-23; cf. Ex 40:36-38). The two traditions do not agree about the position of the Tent: according to Ex 33:7-11 and Nb 11:24-30 (Elohistic), it stood outside the ramp, while Nb 2:2, 17 says it stood in the middle of the camp. Ex 25:8 adds that Yahweh lives there in the middle of his people, and Nb 5:3 gives this as the reason why the Israelites must keep careful watch over the purity of their lamp (Priestly texts).

The most ancient texts give no indication what this Tent looked like, how it was set up, or what its furnishings were. The Priestly tradition, on the other hand, gives a lengthy description of the Dwelling when Yahweh orders it to be built (Ex 26) and when Moses carries out the order (Ex 36:8-38). This description is very difficult to understand, and it is hard to see how the various elements it mentions can be combined. The Dwelling was made of wooden frames which were put together and made a rectangular building of 30 by 10 cuibits, and 10 cubits high: it stood open on the eastern side. The building seems then to have been covered with bands of fine-woven material, sewn together to make two big pieces, which were then fastened together with hooks and clips: they were embroidered with figures of cherubim. Next, goat-skin bands were stretched ‘like a tent over the Dwelling’: they were a little wider and a little longer than the first material, and fell down over the sides of the Dwelling. Lastly, the whole construction was covered with the skins of rams, dyed red, and then by very light leather hides. There was a curtain over the entry to the Dwelling, and a costly veil drawn across the innermost ten cubits marked the division between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Behind the veil, in the Holy of Holies, stood the Ark: in the Holy Place, there stood the candle-stick and the table of shew bread. The altar, with the basin for washing, stood outside the entrance of the Tent (Ex 40:30). Around the Dwelling there was an open court of 100 by 50 cubits, the edge of which was indicated by a barrier of bronze posts and silver curtain­rods from which linen curtains fe1l down to the ground (Ex 27:9-19). It is only too obvious that much of this description is merely an idealization: the desert sanctuary is conceived as a collapsible temple, exactly half as big as the Temple of Jerusalem, which served as the model for this reconstruction. However, not everything in the description is made up, and the notion of a ‘prefabricated’ sanctuary clashes with the idea―so firmly rooted in tradition that the authors of this description could not wholly remove it―that the dwe1ling was a Tent.

This tradition fits in excellently with Arab usage, ancient and modern. Bedouin tribes have a little tent, a sort of palanquin or litter, which they call ‘utfa, merkab, or abu-Dhur. When the tribe is moving camp, they always take it with them and it is the last object they pick up when leaving. It is carried on a camel. In combat, the sheikh’s daughter or another beautiful young girl used to ride in it to spur on the fighting men. It is considered to be blessed with supernatural power, and sometimes a sacrifice is offered to the ‘utfa or to the divinity who is thought to dwell in it. There is an evident analogy with the Ark of the Covenant and its role in the early wars of Israel, and also with the Tent, the travelling sanctuary of the desert years. From the thirteenth century onwards, caravans making the pilgrimage to Mecca from Damascus or Cairo were led by a camel carrying a mahmal, a little cubic tent containing a copy of the Koran. In spite of the apparent resemblances, however, it is not altogether certain that the mahmal was related to the ‘utfa of Bedouin tribes: and on the other hand, it is quite certain that the modern ‘utfa is a continua­tion of a pre-Islamite institution, the qubba. This was a little sacred tent of red leather in which the stone idols belonging to the tribe were carried. It was carried on camel-back in religious processions and in combat, and young women looked after it. In camp, it was set up beside the sheikh’s tent, and men came there to seek oracles. Here we perceive the role of the desert Tent in the giving of oracles (Ex 33:7), and even the colour, red, of the ram-skins which covered it (Ex 26:14). Indeed, the very women who looked after the qubba recall the women who ‘were in service’ at the entrance to the Tent of Re-union, according to the somewhat enigmatical text of Ex 38:8. This qubba of the pre-Islamic Arabs itself had Semitic antecedents. Diodorus (XX, 65, 1) tells us that in a Carthaginian camp a sacred tent was set up near the chief’s tent. Little statues of baked earth originating from Syria represent women (i.e. goddesses or assistants in the cult) riding on camel-back in a litter covered by a pavilion. A bas-relief from Palmyra, of the first century A.D., shows a religious procession in which a camel is carrying a little tent still bearing traces of red paint, and there are other Palmyra texts which contain the word qubba. In the Bible, the word qubba occurs once only, in Nb 25:5, and it may mean a tent, or part of a tent: the Tent of Re-union is mentioned in the same passage (verse 6), but it is not clear what connection if any, it has with this qubba.

It is reasonable thcn to suggest an hypothesis which fits the evidence of the texts and to assert that the ancestors of the Israelites, during their nomad life, had a portable sanctuary, and that this sanctuary was a tent, like their own dwelling-places. It would be quite in order for this sanctuary to disappear when they settled in Canaan. The Tent of Re-union was set up in the Plains of Moab, the last station before the entry into the Promised Land (Nb 25:6), and this is the last indisputable mention of it. The tradition which speaks of the Tent’s being at Shiloh under Joshua (Jos 18:1; 19:51) is late, and in Ps 78:60 (a late psalm) the mishkan and the Tent of Shiloh are poetic expressions. Moreover, the sanctuary which housed the Ark at Shiloh towards the end of the period of the Judges was a building (1 S 1:7, 9; 3:15). The tent under which David is said to have put the Ark in Jerusalcm (2 S 6:17) is evidently meant to recall the desert sanctuary, but it is no longer the Tent of Re-union, though it is so called by a glossator in 1 K 8:4. The same anxiety to connect the new worship with the old inspired the Chronicler when he pretended that the Tent of Re-union stood on the high place of Gibeon under David and Solomon (1 Ch 16:39; 21:29; 2 Ch 1:3-6).

The Ark of the Covenant

Ex 26:33 and 40:21 state that the Tent was designed to house the Ark of the Testimony (’arôn ha-‘edûth). This ‘Testimony’ or ‘Solemn Law’ means the two ‘tablets of the Testimony’, i.e. the stone tablets on which the Law was inscribed: God had given them to Moses (Ex 31:18) and he put them inside the Ark (Ex 25:16; 40:20). That is why the Tent containing the Ark was called the Tent of the Testimony (Nb 9:15; 17:22; 15:2). The Ark is described in Ex 25:10-22; 37:1-9. It was a chest made of acacia wood, about 4 feet long, 2½ feet wide and 2½ feet high: it was covered with gold plates and had rings attached, through which the poles used for carrying it could be passed. Over the Ark was a plate of gold, of the same size as the Ark, and called the kapporeth, which is sometime translated ‘propitiatory’ or ‘mercy­-seat’, in accordance with the meaning of the verbal root and the role the kapporeth played on the Day of Atonement (Yom ha-kippurim: Lv 16). Two cherubim stood at the end of the kapporeth and covered it with their wings. According to Dt 10:1-5, Moses built an Ark of acacia wood at Yahweh’s command, and put inside it the two stone tablets on which Yahweh had written the Ten Commandments. Dt 10:8 says that the honour of carrying this chest was entrusted to the Levites, and that it was called the Ark of the Covenant (’arôn habberith) because it contained the ‘tablets of the Covenant’ which Yahweh had made with his people (Dt 9:9). The ‘second Law’ of Deuteronomy was eventually itself placed ‘beside the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh’ (Dt 31:9, 26).

Nb 10:33-36 says that when the Israelites left Sinai, the Ark of the Coven­ant went before them, and signalled the halts. When it was leaving, tbey cried: ‘Arise, Yahweh, and let thy enemies be scattered. . .’, and when it came to rest: ‘Return, Yahweh, to the countless thousands of Israel’. And Nb 14:44 adds that when the Israelites, disobeying Moses’ orders, attacked the Canaanites and were defeated, the Ark of the Covenant did not leave the camp.

These are the only explicit details about the Ark of the Covenant men­tioned in the Pentateuch, aud it is obvious that they stem from different traditions. The texts from Exodus belong to the Priestly tradition, and, like the description of the Tent, they are influenced by the memory of the Temple of Solomon, where the Ark stood in the Holy of Holies, overshadowed by the Cherubim (1 K 8:6). The Deuteronomic tradition gives no description of the Ark, and does not connect it with the Tent. It has therefore been suggested that it was a cultic object adopted by the Israelites (from the Canaanites!) only after the settlement in Palestine, and later attributed to tbe years in the desert by the authors of the Priestly traditions. Two considera­tions are fatal to this theory: first, the passage in Nb 10:33-36 (except verse 34, an interpolation) is quite certainly a very old text and it too connects the Ark with the journeying through the desert; secondly, the Ark plays the same role of guide in the traditions about the entry into the Promised Land (Jos 3-6), where its part in the story cannot be suppressed.

The Ark, then, like the Tent, was part and parcel of the worship in the desert, but it had a longer history than the Tent. The Ark, without the Tent, stood in the camp at Gilgal (Jos 7:6), and when Jg 2:1-5 says that the Angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bokim, near Bethel, we should of course take it to mean that the Ark was transferred. In fact, it is next mentioned at Bethel (Jg 20:27). (True, Jos 8:33 notes that it was at Shechem, but the pas­sage is part of the Deuteronomic redaction of the book.) We are on much firmer ground when the Ark is said to be kept at Shiloh, during Samuel’s young days (1 S 3:3). From Shiloh it was taken to the battle of Apheq (1 S 4:3f), where it was captured by the Philistines (1 S 4:11). After its travels from Ashdod to Gath, and from Gath to Eqron, it was given back to the Israelites at Beth-Shemesh and housed for a while at Qiryath-Yearim (1 S 5:5―7:1), until David brought it to Jerusalem and installed it in a tent (2 S 6). Solomon built his Temple to house the Ark in its holiest place (1 K 6:19; 8:1-9). From this time onwards, the historical books do not mention it again, but it prob­ably shared the fate of the Temple, and disappeared only when the Temple itself was destroyed in 587 B.C. (cf. Jr 3:16, which is later than 587). An apo­cryphal tradition used in 2 M 2:4f. says that before the final ruin of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had hidden the Ark, along with the Tent (!) and the altar of incense in a cave on Mount Nebo.

What, then, was the religious significance of the Ark? The texts concern­ing it allow us to glimpse two notions which, according to many critics, are irreconcilable: the Ark is presented as the throne of God and as a receptacle for the Law.

In the very detailed passages of 1 S 4-6; 2 S 6 and 1 K 8, the Ark is the visible sign of the presence of God. When it arrives in the Israelite camp, the Philistines say: ‘God has come into their camp!’ (1 S 4:7), and the capture of the Ark is taken as the loss ot God’s presence: the ‘glory’ has been taken away from Israel (1 S 4:22). Similarly, in the very old text of Nb 10:35, when the Ark leaves, it is Yahweh who is arising. Psalm 132:8 sings of the transfer of the Ark by David (2 S 6) in similar terms: ‘Arise, Yahweh, into thy rest, thou and the Ark of thy strength!’ When the Ark is brought into the Temple of Jerusalem, the ‘glory of Yahweh’ takes possession of the sanctuary (1 K 8:11), as it had once filled the Tent in the desert when the Ark was put there (cf. Ex 40:34-35). In the desert wanderings (Nb 10:33-36) and in the holy wars (1 S 4; 2 S 11:11), the Ark was the palladium of Israel. Since it was the sym­bol of Yahweh’s presence, its power was formidable: the Philistines felt its effect (1 S 5), and seventy men from Beth-Shemesh were struck down for not rejoicing when the Ark appeared (1 S 6:19); Uzzah was struck dead for touching it (2 S 6:7), and according to the Priestly Code, the Levites approached it only when it had been veiled by the priests (Nb 4:5, 15), and carried it by poles which were never taken off it (Ex 25:15; cf. 1 K 8:8).

In the account of the Philistine war, the Ark is called ‘the Ark of Yahweh Sabaoth who sits above the cherubim’ (1 S 4:4), and this epithet, which was presumably applied to the Ark from the time of its stay at Shiloh, continued to be used in later days (2 S 6:2; 2 K 19:15=Is 37:16). In 1 Ch 28:2, the Ark is the ‘foot-stool’ of God, and it is clearly the Ark which is meant by the same expression in Ps 99:5; 132:7; Lam 2:1. When Is 66:1 says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth my foot-stool! What kind of a house could you huild for me?’, the protest is certainly directed against the Temple, which the Jews wished to rebuild when they returned from the Exile, but it refers directly to the sacred furniture of the old Temple, i.e. to the Ark, which was considered as the ‘throne’ or the ‘foot-stool’ of God: the text is, as it were, an echo of Jr 3:16-17. Ez 43:7 should be taken in the same way: Yahweh, returning to his Temple, says: ‘Here is the place of my throne, the place where I put the sole of my feet’. It has been suggested that we should make a distinc­tion between the foot-stool and the throne, i.e. between the Ark, and a throne which was attached to it during its stay at Shiloh, and which was later trans­ferred, along with the Ark, to the Debir of the Temple. There seems little foundation for this theory: in the prose texts, the throne is never mentioned as an object distinct from the Ark, and there is no evidence that there was anything other than the Ark and the Cherubim inside the Debir. When Jr 3:16-17 offers some consolation for the disappearance of the Ark by fore­telling that in a future age all Jerusalem will be called ‘the throne of Yahweh’, it assumes that the Ark could be considered either as the throne or as the foot­stool of God. More precisely, the Ark, with the Cherubim, could be said to represent both the footstool and the throne of Yahweh. Since the religion of Israel forbade all images, the throne was empty, but even this is not without parallels. Oriental and Greek religions had among their sacred furniture empty thrones, or thrones on which only a symbol of the god was set: some of them, originating from Syria, are flanked by winged sphinxes which remind one of the Cherubim. It is pointless to ask how the Cherubim and the Ark could be both a throne and a foot-stool: it is like asking how Yahweh could actually sit down there, and the question would have seemed as absurd to the Israelites as it does to us: both Cherubim and Ark were the all-to-­inadequate symbol of the divine presence, the ‘seat’ of this presence. When the idea became an image, in the minds of visionaries, it took on various shapes which had nothing to do with the Ark: it is called a throne by Isaiah (Is 6:1), and a chariot by Ezechiel (Ez 10; cf. Ez 1).

According to the Priestly tradition about the desert cult, Yahweh ‘met’ Moses and spoke to him from above the kapporeth, from between the Cheru­bim (Ex 25:22; cf. 30:6; Nb 7:89). This kapporeth stood on top of the Ark but was distinct from it (Ex 35:12); it is described at length and seems to have been more important than the Ark itself (cf. Ex 25:17-22; 37:6-9). In the ritual for the Day of Atonement, which stems from the same tradition, the high priest sprinkled blood on the mercy-seat, and in front of it (Lv 16:14­15); this makes us suspect that the mercy-seat was something more than the simple gold plate which, in the description given of the desert worship by the same tradition, covered the Ark; moreover, there is no suggestion of any role for the Ark or for the Cherubim in this ritual of Lv 16. It is justifiable to con­clude that the kapporeth was a substitute for the Ark in the post-Exilic tradition, for no new Ark was ever made (cf. Jr 3:16); this would be con­firmed by 1 Ch 28:11, where the ‘room of the kapporeth‘ stands for the Holy of Holies. This kapporeth fulfilled the role formerly ascribed to the Ark: it was the seat of the divine presence (Lv 16:2, 13 and the texts cited at the begin­ning of this paragraph). In the end, it too disappeared: Josephus (Bell., V, v, 5) tells us that in Herod’s Temple there was nothing in the Holy of Holies at all.

Leaving aside the kapporeth then, it seems probable that the Ark and the Cherubim represented the throne of God in the sanctuaries of Shiloh and Jerusalem. But can we say the same of the simple Ark of the desert period, in which there were neither Cherubim nor kapporeth below them? It is possible to do so, for the oldest tradition of the Pentateuch, in Nb 10:35-36, which links the Ark with the movements of Yahweh, seems to look upon the Ark as the support of the invisible godhead, a pedestal rather than throne―if the distinction is of importance: but the religious idea was the same.

Yet there is a second interpretation of the Ark’s significance to be con­sidered. According to Dt 10:1-5 (cf. 1 K 8:9), the Ark appears to be nothing more than a small chest containing the tablets on which the Ten Command­ments were written: from this it takes its name as ‘the Ark of the Covenant’ (b’rith). The idea is not limited to the schools of Deuteronomy, for the Priestly tradition uses a synonymous expression, ‘the Ark of the Testimony’ (‘eduth), and in this tradition eduth is the name used for the Law which was kept in the Ark (Ex 25:16; 40:20). However, as extra-biblical documents show, there is no contradiction involved in the vivid contrast presented by the notions of the Ark as a pedestal or throne and of the Ark as a receptacle. A rubric of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (ch. LXIV) reads: ‘This chapter was found at Khmun on an alabaster brick, under the feet of the Majesty of this venerable place (the god Thot), and it was written by the god himself’: the comparison with the tablets of the Law, written by God’s own finger and placed in the Ark which was his foot-stool, is obvious. The finding of the Book of the Dead under the feet of Thot is no doubt a legendary detail, but it fits in with a cus­tom attested by historical documents. Hittite treaties stipulate that the text shall be placed in a temple at the foot of an image of a god. A letter from Ramses II about his treaty with Hattusil is most explicit: ‘The writing of the oath (pact) which I have made to the Great King, the king of Hattu, lies beneath the feet of the god Teshup: the great gods are witnesses of it. The writing of the oath which the Great King, the king of Hattu, has made to me, lies beneath the feet of the god Ra: the great gods are witnesses of it’. In the same way, the Decalogue was the official instrument of the pact between Yahweh and his people, and was put into the Ark, under the feet of Yahweh.

We still have to clarify the connection between the Ark and the Tent. If we look at the Pentateuchal traditions in the probable order in which they were committed to writing, it is noticeable that the oldest tradition speaks of the Tent (Ex 33:7-11) and of the Ark (Nb 10:33-36; 14:44) but never connects the two. Again, Deuteronomy knows of the Ark (Dt 10:1-5; 31:25-26) and mentions the Tent (Dt 31:14-15) apart from the Ark. Later the Priestly tradi­tion describes both the Ark and the Tent as things connected with worship in the desert: the Tent houses the Ark which contains the Testimony, and the Tent is the Dwelling of Yahweh who reveals himself above the Ark (Ex 25-26; 36-40).

We have tried to prove above that both the Ark and the Tent existed in the desert; if this is admitted, how can one explain that the oldest traditions never connect the two? Perhaps this is an indication that the two objects belonged to different groups among the ancestors of Israel. The Priestly tradition, tak­ing its inspiration from the Temple of Solomon, combined the two objects of worship in its literature, just as the two groups who had each possessed one of the objects had combined together in history. But it is more probable that the Ark and the Tent were in fact originally connected with each other. If the oldest tradition does not mention this connection explicitly, that is because the final redactors of the Pentateuch have preserved only fragments of this tradition, and have omitted what was described well enough in a later tradition. And in fact the old texts referring to the Ark and the Tent seem rather out of place in the middle of a Priestly tradition. There is one text about the Tent (Ex 33:7) which may even contain the proof that it has been torn from a context which also mentioned the Ark: ‘Moses took the Tent and set it up for him (or, for it) outside the camp’. The pronoun him may refer to Moses or to Yahweh, but it can also be translated ‘it’, and might then refer to the Ark, which is masculine in Hebrew and which, originally, might have been mentioned immediately before. This interpretation is accepted by some distinguished exegetes, and it would mean that in the oldest traditions the Ark and the Tent were related in exactly the same way as in the Priestly descrip­tion. But even without relying on this text, we may call on one argument of a general nature: the Ark needed to be sheltered, and the normal shelter in the desert is a tent. Conversely, the Tent itself must have covered something: we have compared it with the qubba of the pre-Islamic Arabs, which contained divine symbols. It would appear, then, that we ought not to separate the Ark and the Tent, and that the Priestly description of the desert sanctuary―how­ever deeply influenced by Solomon’s Temple and even (for the kapporeth) by the post-Exilic temple―did preserve an authentic tradition.

Krijn van der Jagt, 2002. Anthropological Approaches to the Interpretation of the Bible, UBS Monograph Series, No. 8.

Chapter 3

Religion and Culture in the Ancient Near East

The most powerful reading scenario for the Bible is the religious system of the Ancient Near East. Religious values and concepts are dominant structures in the entire Bible. A large part of the Bible can be characterized as ancient religious text. It is therefore essential to present a brief analysis of the ancient religions of the Near East in general, and of the ancient religion of Israel in particular. Although religion did not exist as a separate domain in ancient cultures as it does in modem times, I will focus on the religious realm since the religious system functions as the backbone of the overall world‑view. At this point I need to clarify the relationship between religion and culture, taking into account that this a fundamental issue in my discourse.

Religion as Cultural System

Religion is part of culture. It can be viewed as a specific symbolic structure within the overall system of a given culture. Geertz defines religion in the following way: “A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (2000:90).

Geertz’s definition does not need further explanation at this point; I only would like to reiterate that he sees religion as the central symbolic system of a culture. It is worthwhile to focus on the religious system of a culture. What is, in actuality, specific to religion and how does the religious system relate to the other symbolic structures of a given culture? These questions are most relevant in this particular area of research.

Religion as Communication

The anthropologist, Jan van Baal, emphasized the aspect of communication in religious systems. Religion is a system of symbols for communication (van Baal 1981). Religion is in fact communication, as the Latin word religere already indicates since the verb religere means to connect, to bind together. It is through religious systems that human beings communicate with the world around them. They feel both a part of the cosmos and alienated from it. As a subject, man experiences a distance between the cosmos and himself and he constantly seeks integration in the whole. He is therefore religious by his very nature.

Humans are both conscious and social beings. As conscious beings, they are aware of themselves. This awareness opens up the possibility of expressing what is felt and thought. Their social nature drives them to express thoughts and feelings. Human beings experience a strong urge to habitually communicate their state of mind to others. For the very purpose of communication, symbolic forms are needed as vehicles to carry messages.

The human being shares his social nature with other mammals. He has a strong drive to live in close contact with other members of his species in family groups as well as in wider social units. Individuals feel an urge to share their experience of life with others and create a common symbolic world where they feel united with one another. Expression and communication are therefore basic human conditions.

Religion and the Search for Identity

Religious systems are used to confirm and reinforce the identity of people. The human being is in search of meaning. He needs to create a symbolic world in which he and the group he belongs to find a home. All communities create narratives about the origins of the group and about the distant past when the ancestors invented and created the basic institutions of the group. People live in a proverbial narrative world. This implies that they tend to create narratives about themselves that provide both spiritual roots and identity. In ancient times a person was part of his kinship group. His individuality was not developed and the group he belonged to by and large determined his identity. Comparatively, people in modern societies have a much higher degree of individuality and privacy. The group determines the identity of a modern person considerably less.

Oral traditions have been instrumental in building up the identity of the ethnic groups of the Ancient Near East. This was also the case with the tribes of Israel. The Biblical texts stem from very ancient oral traditions that served to reinforce the identity of the ancient Israelites.

The Centrality of the Religious System

The religious system is the central part of the symbolic world. It functions as the backbone of the overall world‑view of the community and it offers a basic and fundamental orientation towards reality as perceived by a given community. By referring to the centrality of the religious system, I have already indicated what is specific to religion. In addition, I would like to point out yet another element, namely the aspect of transcendence. The religious system entails symbolic forms that refer to a world beyond the empirical world. This is the world of gods, powers, and spirits. Religion can be viewed as a set of beliefs concerned with what lies beyond the empirical world.

The overall world‑view that a community holds is composed of a more or less coherent set of representations and beliefs. These representations and beliefs are embodiments of what the community holds as basic truths concerning the world, I have mentioned both representation and belief as elements of a religious system. In order to indicate more precisely what I mean by these two terms, I need to make matters more concrete. I will do this by referring to specific representations and beliefs from the Ancient Near East.

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology

The cosmology of the Ancient Near East can serve well as a paradigm for a specific set of representations and beliefs. The representation of the world as a three‑storied house was widely held in the Ancient Near East. The core metaphor of a house is interconnected with a variety of associated representations and beliefs. For instance, there was the representation of the sun as a personified power responsible for upholding the world. The perception of sunset in the west and sunrise in the east led to the belief that the sun sojourned through the lower story of the building during nighttime and started its day journey through the upper story in the morning. Aside from this, the sun was believed to be the ultimate judge of all people. In the Ancient Near East, the sun was associated with the concept of justice. The lower story, the netherworld, was believed to be the abode of the dead. It was further believed that the deceased ancestors were in contact with the sun in the netherworld. This was a crucial thought. People thought that the ancestors sat together with the sun in a council to judge the lives of the living. Thus the deceased were thought to be in a position where they could influence the lives of their living relatives. It is therefore quite obvious that the cult of the ancestors was linked with basic cosmological concepts.

It was also widely believed in the ancient world that the inspection of the internal organs of a sheep could reveal the hidden causes of misfortune. When animals were sacrificed, the priests or other specialists were reading the signs in the intestines and liver of the sacrificial animal. This practice went back to the universal belief that the sun god used the internal organs of sheep as a writing table. So common ritual and magical practices in the inspection of the internal organs of animals were interconnected with beliefs.

All over the Ancient Near East, people respected their ancestors and honored them with sacrifices. The cult of the ancestors was the heart of family religion. This was also the case in ancient Israel. The sun was not only associated with justice, but also with fertility. Ancestor worship and fertility cults were interconnected in the Ancient Near East. It was also believed that when the moon disappeared each month for three days, it stayed in the netherworld during its absence. The appearance of the new moon was a special moment; the east of the new moon was associated with particular rites and beliefs related to ancestor worship.

I have made use of two terms thus far, namely, representation and belief. I should like to add that I do not make a clear‑cut distinction between the two. It is, however, helpful to use these two terms for different aspects of religious systems. I use the term, representation, to refer to the images people make of the world around them, so it is closely associated with perception. I use the term, belief, to refer to the mental constructs people make about a reality beyond the empirical and, thus it is linked with cognition.

We have seen that Ancient Near Eastern cosmology is made up of interrelated sets of representations and beliefs. This means that the cosmology is the product of creative perception and cognition. The representations and beliefs of a given community are expressed and communicated through symbolic structures.

Religious Texts of the Ancient Near East

When we find ourselves studying an ancient text from the Bible we look at a specific symbolic structure, which is part of much larger symbolic structures. A particular Biblical text refers to representations and beliefs of the ancient people of Israel.

The Biblical authors used “thick” description, local concepts, narrative forms, poetic structures, and metaphors to confirm, to extend, and to modify the representations and beliefs of their time. A modern reader often has great difficulty in finding out what the text is all about, and what the author was attempting to communicate. The reader may not even find enough clues at some places to be able to situate the text within its context.

Characteristics of Ancient Texts

During the last hundred years, archaeologists have discovered thousands and thousands of clay tablets containing a variety of texts written in cuneiform script. These texts were written at the centers of civilization, in Mesopotamia, roughly between 2500 and 1000 B.C. The Sumerians, who created the first city‑states in Southern Mesopotamia in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C., invented the cuneiform writing system sometime during the third millennium. Their legacy to humanity contains much more. The invaluable inventions of the wheel, the wagon, the boat, the plough, and pottery can also be accredited to them.

The Sumerians created a very rich and interesting literature. They developed religious structures that have influenced the cultural evolution in the Near East to a large extent. The cosmology of the Ancient Near East is largely the product of Sumerian thought. Scholars are still working on the translation and interpretation of these ancient texts. This is a very complicated and time‑consuming task. The ancient texts of the clay tablets are part of a world that is largely unknown to the people of our time. It is, therefore, difficult to interpret this type of text contextually. Ancient texts are often incomplete. The work of the scholar can be compared to a person trying to reconstruct a whole mosaic with access to only a limited number of pieces. These ancient texts provide us with broken off lines both literally and figuratively, incomplete information, and, above all, with many allusions to beliefs and representations we have little knowledge of. The large amount of allusion and the apparent lack of precision are both characteristics of these ancient writings.

Ancient Conventions of Writing

We need to be aware of the ancient conventions of writing texts. When writing systems were first developed, writing was used for recording information rather than for communication purposes. In the temples and palaces of the Sumerian cities, writing was used for the preparation of lists of goods. It can then be said that the list was the first literary genre, in a manner of speaking. Ancient writings often retain and are influenced by the style of a record or list. This is also the case with the Bible. The description of the beautiful temple King Solomon built, which we find in the Biblical book of 1 Kings, do not communicate feelings and emotions to us as modern readers, but rather have the appearance of lists of objects and their dimensions. It is, however, obvious that the author intended to communicate feelings and emotions.

In the ancient world, texts were also recorded for magical purposes. Curses and spells reduced to writing were believed to have more or less automatically an effect even if other human beings did not read them. The prayers and curses written on foundation stones of temples, palaces, and city walls served a magical purpose. They were not meant to be read by people since they were hidden in the earth; they served as magical tools.

Writing for communication developed gradually in the Ancient Near East. The communication of messages became very important when contacts and trade between the cities of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia developed. The discoveries of the archives of the cities of Mari, Ebla, and Ugarit in recent years have given us many examples of ancient writing for communication. We now have a wide variety of genres at our disposal: treaties, contracts, letters, praise songs, chronicles, epic literature, myths, and legends. However, there are still many clay tablets that have not been deciphered and translated. As far as larger literary works are concerned, we have to turn to the Bible where we find the oldest composite works. The books of the Bible however are ancient books; they differ in many aspects from modern books. Translators and publishers of the Bible need to be aware of the differences between ancient and modem books and should anticipate the problems modern readers have with ancient writings.

Ancient Books

Many Biblical books contain typical elements of oral literature due to the fact that these texts pre‑existed in oral form and were incorporated in written texts. Folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, folk sayings, oracles, formulas of oaths and blessings, prayers, and other forms of verbal ritual appear as oral strata in the written texts. These oral texts have a specific form and structure, and the Biblical authors and editors reproduced these forms literally in their texts. This gives a special flavor to the ancient texts.

It is important to realize that the ancient legends that were at one point incorporated in a larger literary work had a particular status and authority in the community that had created it. People believed that legends revealed important information about the past. An ancient legend often was reshaped by an editor and became part of a larger composition of recounted legends. It retained however a great deal of its original meaning. Many Biblical books are stratified and this complicates the interpretation of the text to a high degree.

Biblical books differ from modern books in many aspects, one of these aspects being structure. Most books in the Hebrew Bible are both compilations and compositions of texts. The book of Genesis is a composition of narratives and many prophetic books are compositions of oracles. A modem reader of a book expects a chronological order and a more or less coherent discourse. Yet most Biblical books lack these features.

Biblical texts feature tremendous amounts of redundancy and repetition. The authors make heavy use of epithets when referring to persons and gods and employ highly formulaic expressions and other types of standard phrases. Redundancy and repetition often have pragmatic and semantic implications, and modem readers who are not used to this specific use of language often misread the text or miss the point the author is making.

Ancient texts reflect modes of thought that are different from the current thought patterns of modem societies. The logical, discursive mode of thought, which is extensively used in modern societies, is not at all dominant in ancient texts. Ancient texts often mirror analogy and association. For example, in the legal texts of the book of Leviticus we find that stains and swellings on human skin and stains on clothes and walls of houses are all referred to as leprosy. Obviously, there is no logical and biological connection between the skin disease and the problems with walls and clothes the text refers to. Hence we are dealing with an analogy. Furthermore, according to ancient thought, swellings and stains were associated with growth and fertility. Fertility is cultic sensitive, so the treatment of stains and swellings on walls, clothes, and human beings called for a similar approach in the ancient culture of Israel (see Douglas 1999:182‑185). Translators of ancient texts must be aware that they are dealing with culturally different texts and help their readers to accommodate to unusual and unexpected thought patterns.

Biblical books are not just the fruits of thought of an individual, particular author; they are the fruits of tradition. They thus reflect beliefs and representations of communities. The text of a Biblical book is much less the individual property of a particular author than is the case in a modern literary work.

Each Biblical book conveys a particular message. A reader must grasp the essence of the message, otherwise he misses the purpose of the book. Biblical scholars often disagree on the main message of the book. Obviously, there is quite a bit of room for speculation. The author of the book is often unknown; this means that the community he belonged to cannot be traced. A further complication lies in the composite nature of the text. The text contains strata from different periods of time. Even more complicated is the significance of the date of publication. When was the book published, what was the role of the editor, and what was the publication strategy behind the actual publishing event? All these questions need an answer in order to obtain clarity about the overall message of the book. When we ask the question when the book of Genesis was published and what the publication strategy was behind the publication, we hear different answers. Mark G. Brett (2000) argues that the publication strategy must be seen in the context of the politics in the Persian Empire. The editors and publishers wanted to counteract the policy of keeping the Jewish race pure from other ethnic groups. The narratives of Dinah, Tamar and Joseph served as a tool for legitimizing the incorporation of foreign ethnic groups into the nation of Israel. I have argued that the core of Genesis was composed, edited and published during the Davidic‑Solomonic period and that the book served as a political charter for the United Kingdom in which many different ethnic groups were integrated (van der Jagt 1994). It may well be possible that both points of view can be successfully defended. It may be plausible that an early version of Genesis was published during the Davidic­-Solomonic period and a later one during the Persian period, when the entire Pentateuch was published.

High Context and Low Context Societies

The sociologist, Edward T. Hall, distinguishes between high context societies and low context societies. He places the Ancient Near Eastern societies among the high context societies (1976:106‑111). Writings produced in high context societies have no clear demarcation between the text and the extralinguistic world of the general culture. Communication to a wide audience is not in focus. Texts are produced for cultural insiders only. These texts contain a great amount of implicit information, missing links, and allusion. Modern western societies are low context societies. Texts written in low context societies must be precise and communicate without ambiguity.

The Hebrew Bible is an example of a high context document. It contains documents that were written in accordance with writing conventions of high context societies. The translator intending to prepare a meaningful translation of the Bible for readers in a modern, low context society is forced to render a considerable amount of implicit information explicit in his translation. An anthropological approach to the Biblical texts takes the wider context of the ancient text fully into account. This means that the interpretation of the text must be related to the overall culture of the Ancient Near East in general, and to ancient Israelite culture in particular. Since Biblical texts are mostly religious, we must be able to situate these texts in the context of Ancient Near Eastern religions. This implies that we should present a brief sketch of Ancient Near Eastern religions at this point. This is not an easy task, considering that the data of these ancient religions are incomplete and our understanding of the phenomena limited.

The Evolution of Religious Systems in the Ancient Near East

Some historical background

Anthropologists now largely agree that Homo sapiens originated from the African continent. Our early ancestors migrated from East Africa and spread from there all over the world. We can say that the cradle of Homo sapiens stood in Africa. We can also extend this metaphor by claiming that their nursery was situated in the Ancient Near East. There people developed writing systems and religious systems that became instrumental in the further evolution of the human mind.

We have little factual knowledge about the long history of human evolution. We do not know exactly how the growth of consciousness took place, in what phases the evolution proceeded, and what triggered what in the process. The development of language must have played a decisive role. It is through language that the human being can effectively create a symbolic world. The development of a full‑fledged language and the discovery of writing down language in a later stage must have been prerequisite for the evolution of religious systems.

The ancestors of the peoples who formed the Ancient Near Eastern societies came from Africa around 80,000 B.C. Sometime around 10,000 B.C., they began to domesticate plants and animals; this is what is commonly referred to as the agricultural revolution. Around 5000 B.C., people started to build walls around their expanding settlements. This development can be seen as the first stage of the urban revolution. Both the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution shaped merging religious systems in the Ancient Near East. Again we must add that we do not have any consistent record of the religious developments and thus cannot resort to more than mere educated guessing.

Between 3000 B.C. and 500 B.C., a rapid cultural evolution took place in various locations in the Ancient Near East: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant. This cultural evolution gave birth to sophisticated religious systems. The symbolic structures of these systems became instrumental in a further development of human thought.

Early Sources of Ancient Near Eastern Religion

Our sources of the early forms of religion in the Ancient Near East do not provide us with a coherent and complete account. This means we have to reconstruct the religions from incomplete pictures. The literature created by the Sumerians provides us with useful information about the early forms of religious thought. The most relevant texts for research of ancient Mesopotamian religions are the hymns, the epic poems, and the myths. It is enlightening and illustrative to look at one of the very early written sources of the Ancient Near East, the Sumerian epic poems of the hero Gilgamesh.

The Gilgamesh Epic

The Gilgamesh Epic is one of the oldest larger documents of mankind. Most parts of this epic were already written in the first centuries of the second millennium B.C. Gilgamesh, the protagonist of the epic, was the king of Uruk, one of the Sumerian cities. The most complete and probably the latest recension of the epic was found in the famous library of King Assurbanipal of Assyria, who lived in the seventh century B.C. This king collected a vast amount of documents from different epochs in his library in Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Gilgamesh Epic must have been known in centers of civilization all over the Ancient Near East during the last two millennia B.C., as archaeological findings suggest.

Gligamesh’s search for immortality

The story of Gilgamesh is the story of a tragic hero. Gilgamesh was the legendary founder and king of the walled city of Uruk, situated in southern Mesopotamia. He was two‑thirds god and one‑third human. His beauty and strength were unequaled in the world. Everything he undertook succeeded. He killed monsters, challenged goddesses, and proved to be on top of all things.

One of the poems tells us that one day Gilgamesh met his equal in strength and beauty in the person of the wild man Enkidu, who lived with wild animals far from the centers of civilization. This Enkidu was brought to Uruk and the two became friends. The story tells us that among other things the two friends killed the monster Hubumba. However, the gods turned against the two friends after Gilgamesh had rejected the goddess Ianna as his bride. They even killed the bull of heaven sent by the offended Ianna to destroy the city of Uruk. It was then decided by the gods that Enkidu, the friend of Gilgamesh, had to die. Enkidu became ill and died. The death of Enkidu caused a crisis in the life of Gilgamesh, as he could not accept death as the final destiny for his friend. He set out on a journey to find the secret of life, the antidote against death. In short, the Gilgamesh Epic harbors all the features of a quest, where the hero of the story embarks on a long and difficult journey in search of something of great value: the plant of life.

Gilgamesh goes as far as the place where the sun sets; he travels through the netherworld up to the fields of gold near the gate where the sun leaves the netherworld in the morning. There he finds Ushnapistim, his ancestor, the only survivor of the great flood, who has received the gift of immortality from the gods. It is this old man who shows Gilgamesh the plant of life, the plant that gives immortality. After receiving the plant of life, he decides to return home with it. On the way back to Uruk, Gilgamesh unfortunately loses the plant of life. A snake eats it. This tragic loss brings about a fundamental change in the mind of Gilgamesh. He accepts death as his own fate and as the fate of his friend Enkidu. When he returns to Uruk, he has become an altered being; he has changed into a human being conscious of his limitations and reconciled with the fate of death.

The Gilgamesh Epic presents us with glimpses of ancient Mesopotamian religion. The narrative world of the epic is the scene of heroes, ancestors, gods, goddesses, and monsters. Ordinary people do not play a role; they simply serve as background material. Furthermore, it may strike the reader that values are of no particular importance. The world of the narrative is a typically amoral world; neither gods nor heroes are bound to the established moral values of human beings.

The Gilgamesh Epic points out three areas of religious representation: polytheism, the ancestor cult, and the magical world of the monsters. Representations and beliefs in those areas largely dominated the world‑view of the Ancient Near East. People lived in a polytheistic, ancestral and magical world. In the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, we find similar themes and motifs. In Chapter 10 1 compare the two stories carefully, as both accounts stem from the same cultural setting and reflect similar thought patterns.

The Sumerian concept and representations of creation

The Sumerian creation theology influenced the thought patterns of the entire Ancient Near East. They invented and developed the concept of a primordial ocean, which existed prior to the creation of heaven and earth. It was the air god Enlil who separated heaven and earth and thus created the world humans live in. The parallel with the first two verses of the book of Genesis is striking (Kramer 1963:1971). In the Sumerian creation poems, creation is thus presented as an act of separation. In some instances it is represented as creation by the word, by divine command, so this too is a concept of Sumerian origin. Also, the more anthropomorphic idea of molding is found in ancient Sumerian creation poems. Man was fashioned of clay and given divine breath by the creator god.

According to Sumerian mythology, the gods decided to create humans in order to be relieved from the hard work they had to perform in order to sustain themselves. The gods retreated at one point from the world and began to live together on the mountain of the gods. This complex of ideas underlies the main representation of the world of the gods. This representation dominated ancient theology and its traces are also found in the Bible. The thought that each god had a special interest in and authority over a particular territory goes back to the time that particular god actually resided in that area.

In the Biblical creation narratives there are significant differences; God created Adam as the one who had to preserve the Garden of Eden, the garden where the LORD himself walked around in the coolness of the evening. He was not assigned the hard work of feeding the gods, but became

• partner of the LORD. Adam represented the God of heaven and earth, not

• local god.

The Sumerians developed concepts, representations and beliefs that influenced the religious systems all over the Ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites, who wrote their literature much later than the Sumerians wrote theirs, undoubtedly used Sumerian concepts and ideas in their writings as is evident from the Biblical literature. They resorted to the framework s of the Sumerians, but also innovated new concepts, enlarged and modified the Sumerian representations, and built a unique theology of creation that we can find in the Bible.

The Polytheistic World‑View

In his stimulating book on the history of Mesopotamian religions, The Treasures of Darkness, Thorkild Jacobsen sketches the development of polytheistic systems prevalent in the land between the Euphrates River and the Tigris River, roughly between 3000 B.C. and 500 B.C. His work highlights important developments in the growth of human consciousness and is not just a textbook on religion, but also a documentation of the cultural evolution of the human being. Jacobson sees an evolution in the religions in Mesopotamia in particular, and in the Ancient Near East in general. Three main phases can be distinguished. Each phase produced a certain type of gods. These include nature gods, city gods or warrior gods, and personal gods.

Nature gods

Jacobsen relates the earliest forms of religion in Mesopotamia to the growing awareness of human weakness. People experienced an apparent lack of life force and became conscious of their incapacity to rejuvenate themselves. They also became aware of the powerful forces in nature giving birth to all sorts of life. Water and earth, for instance, were able to produce life in great abundance. In the time of spring, new life emanated from these sources and this miracle astonished people from the olden days and filled them with awe. The earth, the sweet waters of the rivers, and the warm rain bringing wind, plants, trees, foods and liquids, such as grain and wine, appeared to be sources of the life force. At a certain point, people began to personify these natural elements and consequently symbolized these in language. As people felt dependent on these personified forces, they began to relate to them in their various forms of worship. Hence the personified natural phenomena became gods. These gods were seen as diffuse and immanent, and generally did not have anthropomorphic features. The representations people made of them were more of a monstrous, anomalistic and bizarre nature, thus lacking the familiar traits of the human being.

It is quite plausible that the invention of gods stems from the personification of natural phenomena, as Jacobsen suggests. Considering the fact that nature harbors a great variety of forms, it is quite understandable that many different gods came into being. In addition, cultural innovations were interpreted theistically. Each cultural instrument had its specific god who invented it and was responsible for its proper working. For instance, according to Sumerian tradition, it was the god Dagan who invented the plough and oversaw its proper use.

In the Old Babylonian Empire (2004‑1595 B.C.), over 2000 gods could be counted. The world of the Ancient Near Eastern people was indeed dominated by hundreds of gods. These gods were not equal. Clearly the god who governed the sun was much more powerful than the one governing the pruning hook. The gods were not operating in the interest of preserving peace and harmony among themselves and among human beings on earth. The ancient mythology reveals a constant struggle for position and power among the gods and quite often the fights between gods led to human suffering. Ancient man lived in a symbolic world in which life was presented as uncertain and fragile. The gods were highly unreliable, moody, and morally unstable. The human being was rendered powerless, at times a toy of the gods and at times a victim of these powers. Thus he was never quite on top of things and in control of his own well‑being.

The mother goddess

There is ample archaeological evidence supporting the idea that dating back as far as the Neolithic period, people worshiped mother goddesses. People have attributed supernatural force to the procreative capacity of the woman since the distant past. This force has been personified into representations of mother goddesses. Womanhood and motherhood became metaphors for the forces of life and were associated with fertility, love, sexuality, and the struggle for life itself. Ianna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, is the oldest example of a mother goddess known from written sources. Her Akkadian name, Ishtar, is attested from later versions in the Akkadian language of the Gilgamesh Epic. Ishtar fell in love with Gilgamesh and caused him lots of troubles in the aftermath of their affair.

We find forms of this type of goddess worship under different names but with similar functions and relationships all over the Ancient Near East. Astarte, Anat and Asherah are well‑known goddesses featured in West Semitic sources. Quite often these goddesses appear as the spouses of the head of the pantheon, although they also function as goddesses in their own right. In many contexts the great goddess is associated with the evening and morning star, Venus. It follows that the title, Queen of Heaven, was often in use to refer to this type of goddess. The cult of the mother goddess was a widespread and popular cult in the Ancient Near East, and it functioned in different forms in a great variety of religious systems and social settings, from Neolithic times to the Roman period. Similarly, in ancient Israel the Queen of Heaven was worshiped. In the book of the prophet Jeremiah the cult of the Queen of Heaven is described as a common practice:

Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger (Jer 7.17-­18).

City gods

During the third millennium B.C., many more city‑states were founded in Mesopotamia. The economic surplus, a result of the successful agricultural revolution, needed to be piled up and securely stored. Walled cities became fortified storage areas, where people also were safe from the attacks of invaders. The third millennium B.C. was not yet the time for the creation of great empires. There were not yet times of peace in large areas for sustained periods as in later epochs. The epoch was one of turmoil and upheaval, particularly because of the frequency of sudden attacks on cities by tribes from the plains and mountains.

This general air of insecurity caused feelings of vulnerability and life was perceived as being precarious. It was held under constant threat, not because of the unreliability of the forces of nature, but because of other people’s greed. People living in cities needed additional types of gods and powers, ones who could protect the cities and their inhabitants.

We see that during the course of the third millennium new types of gods emerged. These new gods were portrayed as mighty warriors, protectors of the cities. They possessed particular human traits. They were not human in the sense that they were compassionate and truly concerned with human beings. A city god was a majestic and despotic ruler who owned the city and resided in a magnificent house in the middle of it. He was, in actuality, the god of the city’s king before the people. The king was the representative of the city god and his most important assignment was to honor and feed him.

The kings of the ancient Mesopotamian cities were not perceived as normal human beings either. It was believed that they possessed extraordinary powers. Consider, for instance, that Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, was said to be two‑thirds divine and one‑third human. We know from the ancient literature that the kings were called sons of gods and appointed as rulers of particular cities by the counsel of the gods.

The worship of the city god was not a popular religion. It was a state affair and the king was the officiator. He could delegate his duties to a group of priests, but he remained personally responsible for the cult of the god. Ordinary people were not allowed to enter the temple, the house of the city god; only the king and the priests could have contact with the protector god of the city.

Personal gods

In the second millennium B.C., a new type of god emerged. Jacobson calls them personal gods. As human consciousness continued to grow, people became more and more aware of their own personality. They began to see their lives as a narrative, as a unique history with its ups and downs, with its luck and misfortune. People discovered their “self’ as something vulnerable and fragile. Individuals began to look for patron gods, powers who could protect and bring them luck. Prosperity was generally attributed to the divine. Luck personified as a divine being in the ancient world. In the course of the second millennium B.C., a new type of divine being, the personal god and goddess, emerged.

In religious texts of the second millennium, we notice that the possessive pronoun is widely connected with the divine. Ordinary people speak in letters and prayers of “my god” and “my goddess.” Common people refer to gods and goddesses as those who help and support. They are the ones who bring luck. The people of that time could choose their god out of a large group of gods and goddesses. It was often a matter of trial and error. If a particular god or goddess had proven to answer a particular need, an individual could decide to choose that divinity as his or her god. Ancient people attributed their luck or misfortune to their personal deity.

The personal gods were not immanent natural forces, nor despotic divine warriors and rulers, but beings who were concerned with the well‑being of individuals. These new gods were concerned with values such as justice and honesty; they felt pity with the suffering of people. They were helpers and saviors of their devotees and truly became gods of justice and mercy, who listened to the prayers of the oppressed and the afflicted. The personal gods became gods of values and people.

The personal gods were very much treated as if they were human parents. The metaphors father and mother for gods occur frequently in the written sources of this period, and this terminology indicates the development of an element of intimacy with the supernatural in the religious thought of that period.

In the second millennium B.C., personal gods became the focus of worship all over the Near East. Written sources from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and the Levant bear witness of this new development.

The Ancestor Cult

Ancestor worship is a universal feature in religions. In many cultures people believe that after death a person undergoes a process of divination. This was also the belief in the Ancient Near East. Ancestor worship in the Ancient Near East was common and interconnected with the worship of gods. The dead were believed to reside in the netherworld, where they were in contact with both the gods of the netherworld and the sun and moon gods, who both sojourned through the netherworld.

The ancestor cult was the core of family religion. By introducing the term family religion, I am turning to a sociological category. At this point I cannot present a full picture of the sociological perspective, but I will deal with this in some detail in Chapter 5. In this chapter I will just underline the importance of the ancestor cult in the Ancient Near Eastern world.

The oldest son of a family, the paterfamilias, was responsible for taking care of the dead, Regular offerings were to be brought to the tombs of the deceased and the names of the dead had to be invoked. In particular, sacrifices to the dead were made during the interlunium, the period between the old and new moon. A sacrificial animal was then killed at the graveside of the deceased and all the members of the family participated in a sacrificial meal.

The bedroom of the paterfamilias was the principal shrine, where daily rituals were held to keep good relationships with the dead. The dead ancestors were, on the whole, considered to be benevolent towards their offspring, but could, when annoyed, turn into dangerous agents of misfortune.

The Magical World

Magic was a very vital part of Ancient Near Eastern religion. The ancient peoples believed they lived in a world dominated by supernatural powers: divine beings, half divine beings, monsters, spirits, and demons. All these powers formed a constant threat to the good life of the people. The worldview of the peoples of the Ancient Near East can be characterized as magical. In a magical world‑view, the world is perceived as a place where there is a constant lack of order and rank. Life is not stable and secure, and anything can happen. People can be transformed into demons, gods can take on animal forms, and so on. Magical potions and fruits can change the destiny of people in an irreversible manner.

In a magical world the causes of fortune and misfortune are difficult to trace as they are hidden beneath the thick veil of ignorance. People in ancient times were simply ignorant of cause and effect patterns in their surroundings. Misfortune, illness, and death perpetually fell upon them, and people continually made attempts to identify the agents of their misfortune. They turned to all kinds of divinatory practices. They also tried to defend themselves at all times by using amulets and other magical means. They attempted to counteract misfortune by engaging in rituals, sacrifices and offerings, and resorted to spells and curses. Diviners, seers, mediums, and magicians held instrumental roles in countering evil, misfortune, and death. Thus they held a considerable amount of power over ancient societies.

The world appeared to be a place of disorder and insecurity caused by a serious lack of structure. Spells and curses seemed to live their own life and were considered irreversible since even the highest powers remained impotent against them. For instance, the highest god could not reverse the curse and blessing of an ancestor lying on his deathbed. The words of a curse or a blessing had magical power that operated independently of other forces and thus could not be controlled by anyone. In the book of Genesis, we read that the blessing of Jacob by his father Isaac was irreversible although he had been mistaken and Esau was the rightful beneficiary of the patriarchal blessing.

Ancient texts often feature magical fruits and potions. In the story of the Garden of Eden, two special trees are introduced, each producing magical fruits. They are the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the magic of the fruit transformed them into divine beings (Gen 3.22). The Creator then decided to chase the two away from the tree of life. The narrator offers the following motivation: if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life, they would live forever. In other words, the Creator could not have prevented Adam and Eve’s immortality if they had eaten from the tree of life. The magical fruit would do its work and even the Creator would be unable to undo the effects of this magic. Magical thought was an important constituent of Ancient Near Eastern religion. Here it is again evident that it is important to distinguish between polytheistic thought and magical thought, although the two thought patterns overlap and complement each other.

The Anthropological Model

In an anthropological approach to the Biblical text, religion is viewed from an anthropological perspective and not from a theological one. It is important to reconstruct what the ancient peoples actually believed, what kind of rituals they used, and what their patterns of thought were.

We need an anthropological model of Ancient Near Eastern religion that can serve as an explanatory model for the interpretation of Biblical texts. Anthropologists see the ancient religion of Israel as part of the culture of the Ancient Near East. We have seen that polytheism, ancestor worship, and magical practices were the main ingredients of Ancient Near Eastern religion. So these elements are the main components of the anthropological model of religion that we apply to the Biblical text.

All religions in the Ancient Near East developed over the centuries and this development can be seen as an evolution. However, this evolution cannot be presented as a unified linear process. Religions are complex; the specific needs of communities and individuals are diverse and produce a diversity of religious phenomena. The evolution of the religion of Israel is a special case within the cultural context of the wider region. The development of a monotheistic type of religion in Israel was a gradual process; it did not eliminate the wide variety of ritual and magical practices at one point in time, although most of these were, in fact, incompatible with pure monotheistic faith. We always need to distinguish between practical and theoretical levels in religions. It is obvious that at a theoretical level, in terms of logic, magic and monotheism are incompatible. In the actual praxis of daily life, emotional needs often have the upper hand on logic and rational thought. As late as the period of the European Middle Ages, magic was still prominent within the context of the monotheistic Christian society although it was theologically incompatible.

Chapter 4

The Religion of Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel

A superficial reading, of the Biblical books of 1‑2 Samuel and 1‑2 Kings may create a highly idealized picture of ancient Israelite society. The ideal that is upheld in these books is the dream of a single unified state with a coherent religious system focused on the worship of one God. This picture of a unified state, comprising a number of ethnic groups under one ruler and united in one faith, Yahwism, was, in fact, a far cry from the reality in the pre‑monarchic and monarchic periods. A more in‑depth reading of the aforementioned books leads precisely to this understanding.

The reality of ancient Israel was a fragmented situation. The different clans and tribes of the Israel had their own religious systems. The religion of the ancient Israelite communities was made up of four complexities: the worship of local gods, the ancestral cult, the cult of the national God, Yahweh, and a wide variety of magical practices. It is safe to say that the unified state and its unified religion emerged as late as the Hasmonean period when Israel was ruled by the high priest (162‑163 B.C.).

The authors and redactors of the books of 1‑2 Samuel and 1‑2 Kings described the history of Israel from a specific point of view. They believed that the history of Israel could be summed up as a progressive corruption. Israel received a unified and pure monotheistic religion in the desert before entering the Promised Land. When they settled in Canaan, they began to mingle with the non‑Israelite tribes and their religion became more and more corrupted by elements of the Canaanite religions. This ultimately led to the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylonia.

The historiographers of the books of 1‑2 Kings judge all rulers of Judah according to the Deuteronomistic law. This law prescribed the centralization of the cult of Yahweh. A direct implication of this was the prohibition of sacrificial practices in the sacrificial sites (bamoth in Hebrew) in all the villages and towns in the countryside. When a king did not make serious attempts to destroy the bamoth, he was regarded as a bad king despite the success he may have had in other areas. The bamoth were the centers of both the ancestral cult and the cult of local gods. By focusing on the bamoth, the Deuteronomistic author attacked the heart of ancient Israelite religion.

The concept of progressive corruption needs to be modified in light of the historical reality. The long‑term development of Israelite religion was not a regression, but rather, an evolution from a polytheistic and ancestral religion towards an exclusive monotheism. This development took place within a period of one thousand years‑roughly between 1200 B.C. and 200 B.C. The real breakthrough took place during the exile in Babylonia. It is not possible to give a full sketch of the evolution in this book; we must pay attention however to the basic dynamics of this development.

The Social Settings of Ancient Israelite Religion

Religion functions within a social setting, it serves the basic needs of the members of a given community. We should keep this in mind as we reflect on the religious situation in Israel around 1200 B.C. Israelites then lived in small villages in the central parts of Canaan, scattered over wide areas. There was no central government and no centralized and unified religion. The society they lived in was a small‑scale society, centered on the head of the extended family, and the religion they practiced was a family religion. The family religion related to the needs of the extended family. It was centered on the veneration of the ancestors and the worship of the local powers that were held responsible for the fertility and general well‑being of the people and domestic animals.

The Cult of the Ancestors

Ancestor worship is a universal element of religion; it is almost as ubiquitous as religion. Also, in the Ancient Near East, it was a common religious feature, and consequently, ancient Israel was not an exception in this respect. In the Hebrew Bible we find almost no trace of the cult of the ancestors. The people who collected, selected and edited the Scriptures of Israel felt embarrassed about the early primitive forms of Israelite religion and cleansed the ancient texts of almost all references to the cult of the dead.

Veneration of the Dead

From the archaeological data available to us, it is obvious that the cult of the dead was a common practice in ancient Israel during the pre‑monarchic and monarchic periods. The Biblical texts give clear indications that this cult was part of common religion. Prohibitions to sacrifice to the dead, as found in the book of Leviticus, suggest the existence of the cult. One cannot easily deduce from that type of evidence how common the forbidden practices actually were in post‑exilic Israel. The following words of the Deuteronomist reveal that the practice existed in ancient Israel:

I have not offered any of it [the first fruits of my harvest] to the dead (Deut 26.14c).

It is unlikely that some people offered from the first fruits of the harvest to the dead while others did not, bearing in mind that ancient traditional society had a high degree of cultural and religious uniformity. Thus we may conclude that offerings ofthe first fruits to the dead were a common practice in ancient Israel. It is plausible that the sacrifices to the dead gradually diminished in the post‑exilic period as the Torah clearly prohibited the ancestor cult.

Family Religion

It is useful to distinguish between family religion and state religion. The first type of religion consists of rituals that are led by the head of a family and are meant to protect the members of the extended family. The rituals of the second type of religion benefit the institutions of the state, in particular, the royal house, the priestly class, and the royal temple. In the narratives of the books of 1‑2 Samuel, we find clear traces of typical family rituals. In one of the narratives of Saul’s anointment as king over Israel, we find traces of rituals belonging to family religion (1 Sam 9‑10). The narrator tells us that when Saul was looking for the lost donkeys of his father, he decided to consult the seer Samuel, who lived in the village of Ramah. Saul meets Samuel when the latter is in the middle of a family ritual (1 Sam 9). Samuel is presiding over a sacrificial meal, and in all likelihood he was the eldest living brother of his extended family, rendering him the head of his family. In that capacity he was in charge of the monthly family ritual when the living share a meal with the dead. When Saul appears on the scene, Samuel offers him, contrary to common expectation, the right hind leg of the sacrificial animal. This symbolized that Saul was viewed as being of higher rank than Samuel, as it was the custom that the right hind leg was always given to the head of the family (van der Jagt 1996).            

The sacrificial meal in the village of Ramah was held at the local shrine (bamah in Hebrew) at the time of the new moon. The appearance of the new moon was a special day for ritual activity. The period of three days between the old moon and the new moon, the interlunium, was a critical time in the perception of the ancient peoples. It was a time of heightened ritual activity (van der Toorn 1996).      

As Saul leaves Samuel after being anointed king, he sets out to return to his father’s place. On the way home he meets several people on the road who appear to be involved in rituals. He meets two men at the tomb of Rachel. Although the text does not say what the men were doing, we can be sure that their visit was not for tourist purposes. They must have been sacrific­ ing at the tomb of the matriarch. The text further adds without any explanation that the men provide Saul with the information that the lost donkeys have returned to his father’s farm. The text does not reveal how these people had received this piece of information, but one suggestion is obvious. People who went to sacrifice at the tomb of an ancestor often spent the night at the graveside and could receive crucial information from the ancestor in a dream.

Saul continues his journey and meets with three men at the oak of Tabor. These men were on their way to “God at Bethel,” as the text states. As Samuel had predicted earlier, these men offered part of their sacrificial gifts to Saul in the form of two loaves of bread. The context suggests that these men were also involved in ritual activity. Karel van der Toorn affirms that special periods such as the interlunium were used for rituals that were related to the family religion. Bethel was undoubtedly a center for a local cult, and the people of the region worshiped the god of Bethel as a local god (van der Toorn 1996:214‑217).

The narratives of Samuel give us mere glimpses of the ancient Israelite religion rather than a complete picture. We hear about the sacrificial meals hel by the extended family or clan. Also, oracles and divination, cults at local shrines, and other religious features are mentioned in passing. Although we do not find a full description of the actual practices, we get ideas about the religion of the ancient Israelites. As our knowledge is incomplete, we often have to guess about what may have happened. Family religion was focused on the veneration of the ancestors and on the worship of a local god; the latter is often referred to as the “‘el [Hebrew for god] of the fathers.” In addition, there were numerous magical rites in use of which we have little knowledge.

Statues of Gods and Ancestors

The Biblical sources are vague about the use of actual cult objects, such as statues of ancestors and gods. In the book of Exodus, we read about the following legal procedures for the incorporation of slaves into the household of an Israelite family:

But if the slave declares: “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God [or, the gods; ha­’elohim in Hebrew]. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he [the slave] shall serve him [his master] for life (Exo 21.5‑6).

This text refers to “the gods” or “God” present at the door of the house. It is most likely that “the door” implies the door of the master’s bedroom. The gods were probably statues of gods. The meaning of the Hebrew ha‑’elohim, however, is somewhat problematic. The word ‘elohim can also refer to the dead (see 1 Sam 28.13, where NRSV has “divine being”). It is plausible that ha‑’elohim stands for statues of ancestors at the door of the bedroom in this context.

It is also noted that the teraphim (NRSV “household gods”) mentioned in Gen 31.19­32 are called ‘elohim. Rachel had stolen the gods of her father and was able to hide these in the saddlebag of a camel. We learn that Laban, her father, chased the group of Jacob over a vast distance in order to reclaim his gods. The textual evidence reveals that the objects in question were relatively small but highly valuable. We are, however, in darkness about the precise nature of these statues. Were they household gods, family gods who were believed to protect the family, or were they statues of ancestors? Archaeological findings confirm that small statues, both male and female, were in use in the ancient Israelite houses. We must conclude that statues of gods and ancestors were used in ancient Israelite family religion, but we do not know what role they played in rituals.

Women may have used female figurines in special rites to promote their own fertility. Archaeological findings have provided ample proof that female figurines were present in all Israelites households. These figurines were not just dolls; they may have been images of goddesses or female ancestors (see Mazar 1990:502).

The State Religion of Israel

Family religion functions in the context of family life and family concerns. It reinforces family values and is meant to promote the well‑being of the family members. Religious systems are also used to reinforce the political structures of larger groups such as states and empires. These religions are called state religions and the dominant god concept is the one of the national god.

In a state different ethnic groups are integrated under central leadership. The king, belonging to one particular ethnic group, feels a constant need to unify the different groups. He could resort to religious systems in order to foster unity in his kingdom. In ancient Israel Yahweh was worshiped as the God of all Israel and all clans and tribes were called to honor him. Saul and David actively promoted the cult of Yahweh and reduced the cults of local gods and ancestor worship during their reigns. This policy was crucial to the process of nation building. Saul, who was the first king of Israel, promoted Yahwism among the different tribes of Israel with all his might (see van der Toorn 1996:266‑286). It may be that originally Yahweh was the family god of Saul’s clan and that he was successful in his policy to persuade the other tribes to worship his family god.

The great king Solomon used state religion in the same manner, but he also practiced a different model: state syncretism. This latter model had different objectives, but could be combined with the promotion of a state religion. State syncretism aims at bringing people of different ethnic groups, each with its own culture and religion, into a federal union where the specific religion of each group is respected. It proved to be the right policy for empire building.

The notion that each nation has its own god was universally accepted in the Ancient Near East since the common world‑view was polytheistic and ancient Israel proved to be no exception to the rule. The following example from the Hebrew Bible reflects polytheistic thought:

When the Most High [‘elyon in Hebrew] apportioned the nations,

when he divided humankind,

he fixed the boundaries of the peoples

according to the number of the gods’;

the LORD’s own portion was his people,

Jacob his allotted share (Deut 32.8­9).

This text from the book of Deuteronomy identifies the Most High (‘elyon) with Yahweh, the LORD. It says that Yahweh had appointed different gods over different peoples. He had chosen himself to be the God of Israel (Jacob). This text reflects the polytheistic world‑view of ancient Israel as well as its particular monolatry, which is Yahwism. The Israelites believed that the other gods, the gods of the nations, were lower in rank and less powerful than their own God, Yahweh. However, they did not deny their existence.

Polytheism versus Monotheism

A good number of writings in the Hebrew Bible presuppose a polytheistic world­view. This is remarkable and is quite often neglected as a major constituent of the cultural context of Biblical texts. The Hebrew Bible also expresses an exclusive monotheism. However, an exclusive monotheism is only explicitly formulated in the book of Deutero‑Isaiah (Isa 40‑55). All earlier writings reflect polytheism as the underlying framework of thought, and later writings assume monotheism, but do not explicitly express it.

An exclusive monotheism denies the existence of other gods. It equally implies a universal concept of God; the only god is the God of all peoples. Israel’s monotheism gradually developed through different phases of monolatry. This does not imply that we must think in terms of a unified linear process in time. Some communities may have been forerunners; they may have practiced a monotheistic religion while other groups were still mainly polytheistic in their thought.

Monolatry implies a devotion to one particular god. However, it does not deny the existence of other gods. Monolatry was a practice that was not limited to ancient Israel. The peoples of Moab and Edom also practiced monolatry. It is understandable that the promotion of a state religion often implies a development of monolatry. The Hebrew Bible gives us a full picture of the specific type of monolatry that was part and parcel of the culture of Israel.

The Hebrew Bible reflects the Israelite belief in the supremacy of Yahweh. This supremacy has several aspects that must be considered at this point. First, there is the physical and power‑related aspect. Yahweh’s might surpasses the strength of all other gods; he is a mighty warrior and none of the other gods can meet his strength. Beyond this more primitive concept lies the aspect of value‑related supremacy. Yahweh is a god of righteousness and justice. He is not like the other gods who have no concern for the weak and the poor in the human realm. He is the defender of the widow and the orphan. In Psa 82 we can find the poetic portrayal of a court case that takes place in heaven. God summons the gods and accuses them of practicing injustice in the lands they are responsible for. The gods are presented as corrupt judges who can no longer be preserved in their function and should be dismissed by the highest Judge. The verdict is quite severe in Psa 82.6‑7:

I say, “You are gods,

children of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die as mortals,

and fall like any prince.”

The immortal gods are condemned to death as a consequence of their failure to uphold justice. In the final verse of Psa 82, the psalmist urges the Most High to take over from the gods of the nations and assume the rule over the whole earth:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;

for all the nations belong to you!

The Hebrew Bible gives us the picture of a God who transcends all the powers of nature and the power of the gods. The Most High first appoints gods over the different peoples of the earth and after a time he takes over from them since they fail to execute his plan of salvation for the whole earth. This thought is crucial for the understanding of the overall message of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. However, this message only becomes fully transparent in the cultural context of Ancient Near Eastern polytheism.

The Magical World

The ancient Israelites were not modern, secularized people. They lived in a magical world, a world full of demons and hidden powers. It was widely believed that certain people possessed special power and knowledge which ordinary people did not. Power was also believed to be present in particular objects, such as statues of gods, goddesses and ancestors, and in plants and trees. The people of ancient Israel ascribed magical powers to the king as we can conclude from the following text:

Then David’s men swore to him, “You shall not go out with us to battle any longer, so that you do not quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam 21.17b).

The king by means of his magical powers sustained life in Israel. His death implied more than the loss of a human being; he was considered to be the life‑giving light of Israel. The death of a king was seen as a crisis in the Ancient Near East. Life stopped, and nothing would grow until a new king was installed.

The Covenant Box

Another source of magical power in ancient Israel was the covenant box. It functioned as a magical object that could bring disaster to a whole city, as the narrative of the capture of the covenant box by the Philistines reveals (1 Sam 5). In the book of 2 Samuel, we find another narrative that reflects magical beliefs about the covenant box which are difficult to appreciate for a modern reader. When the covenant box was transported to Jerusalem, a man called Uzzah was killed when he stretched out his hand and touched the box to prevent it from falling from the cart during transport (2 Sam 6). These examples reveal the extent to which magical beliefs dominated thought in ancient Israel. The Biblical authors have a tendency to equate magical power with the power of Yahweh, as in the case of the covenant box; its power to kill was ascribed to Yahweh. This is obviously a monotheistic reinterpretation of an ancient magical belief.

The viewpoint that there was no room for any supernatural power besides Yahweh was an ideal that influenced the later editors of the ancient texts. However, it is obvious, even from the Biblical sources themselves, that the mind of the ancient Israelite was dominated by magical beliefs.


The people of ancient Israel were always in search of knowledge about power itself. Every time disaster struck, the people felt a need to find its cause. Theirs was a magical world and it was never obvious to them what agent had brought about the disaster. In a polytheistic religion there is always the possibility that one of the many gods had become angry because of being neglected. The anger of the gods and ancestors could be evoked by many things and was not just a consequence of an intentional action. A violation of a sacred rule or taboo, a curse, a state of impurity, the neglect of a sacrificial duty, or simply a whim of the gods could result in misfortune, illness or death. The people also believed that the supernatural powers were communicating to them in a mysterious language. They observed nature carefully in order to read the signs. Reading signs, interpreting omens, and consulting oracles were the order of the day, a necessary part of life.

The anger of the gods was believed to be the main source of all misfortune. We should therefore understand that the bulk of ritual was motivated by fear concerning the anger of the gods. The basic operating scheme of Ancient Near Eastern religion can be summarized in three key words: disaster, divination, and atonement.

In ancient Israel a great variety of divining techniques were used in order to find the causes of misfortune and illness. In the Hebrew Bible we cannot find any detailed descriptions of these techniques. When the Hebrew Bible refers to divination, often evasive language is used. The authors and editors used generic expressions, such as “to consult the LORD,” and one is led to believe that the methods used for divination were the ones prescribed by the Mosaic Law. The Biblical sources refer to the use of the Urim and Thummim (Num 27.21; 1 Sam 28.6; Ezra 2.63) as mediums of divination, as well as the ephod (1 Sam 23.9). However, it is not clear how these tools for divination were used.

In actual practice the people of ancient Israel resorted to the common divination practices of the cultures of the Ancient Near East, as the following text suggests:

My people consult a piece of wood,

and their divining rod gives them oracles.

For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,

and they have played the whore, forsaking their God (Hos 4.12).

In the post‑exilic period, the books of the Torah became more and more the main source to know the will of the LORD. Scripture study gradually preempted the need for divination practices.

Concluding Remarks

Ancient Israelite religion was a specimen of Ancient Near Eastern religion. The anthropological model of Ancient Near Eastern religion should be applied to reconstruct the basic structures of this particular religion. A polytheistic world­view, a family religion with elements of ancestor worship, cults of local and patron gods, and a wide variety of magical practices formed the religious context of ancient Israel. However, the religion of Israel also had a unique development. Yahweh became both the personal God of all Israelites and the national God of the entire people. The worship of Yahweh gradually became the dominant force in their total world‑view. After the period of the exile, Israel’s religion developed into an exclusive monotheism.

The Hebrew Bible reflects the evolution of the ancient Israelite religion over the years. The evolutionary development is not represented in the order of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. The reader is able to discover its traces in the specific language of the different writings. We find a wide variety of metaphors for Yahweh which belong to the different phases of the evolution. Yahweh is presented as a tribal warrior god, as a king, as a husband of Israel, as a caring parent of the individual believer, as a judge of the nations, and as creator of the whole world.

In a historical perspective, we are able to see a blending of several elements. The concept of a personal, loving God, concerned with justice, and a national God of Israel and a creator of the universe are blended into the concept of a unique, universal, loving God. We find this universalistic concept of God explicitly expressed in Deutero‑Isaiah (Isa 40‑55) for the first time. This concept is the fruit of a lengthy process of steadily growing s consciousness, which has its roots in the Ancient Near Eastern but grew and found its culmination in Israel. The religion of Israel became a progressive force in the cultural evolution of the human race. It became instrumental to further growth in the consciousness of the human being. We can only understand this when we take the evolution of man as the development of the conscious and responsible self into account. The concept of a universal, value‑related God has its counterpart in the human self.

The elimination of polytheism, the denial of the supernatural power of the ancestors, and the reduction of magical practices do not only lead to an acknowledgment of one universal God, but also lead to the acceptance of the responsibility of the self. The human being was viewed as a toy for the amoral gods in the polytheistic world of the Ancient Near East. The individual was regarded as a passive object for the hidden powers and a rather defenseless victim of sorcery and witchcraft. The Biblical account presents us with an image of the human self who is both accountable and responsible for his life.


‘There is a textual problem with this verse. I follow the Hebrew reading bene ‘elohim as the oldest one.


The Religions of the Ancient Near East

Session One: Cosmology, Asherah, Baal

Readings:        Script up to page 4, King Josiah.

Articles on “Asherah” and “Baal” from Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible.

Study Judges 6:1-32 and do the following:

  1. What does the story of Gideon reveal about the religious activities of the Israelites of the tribe of Manasseh in the time of the Judges?
  2. What do the findings at Khirbet el Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud suggest about the worship of Asherah in ancient Israel? How do you interpret the phrase Yahweh and his Asherah?
  3. Explain why Baal is called a storm god.

Session Two: King Josiah, temples and palaces

Readings:        Script from page 4, King Josiah, to page 7, The zevah sacrifice.

K. van der Jagt, Anthropological Approaches to the Interpretation of the Bible, Chapters 3 and 4.

Study 2 Kings 22 and 23:1-30.

  1. Give a short description of the religious reforms of King Josiah. (1 page)
  2. Who was the Queen of Heaven? Under what names was she worshipped in the ancient world?
  3. Indicate the importance of the cult of the Queen of Heaven in the Ancient Near Eastern world.
  4. Quote at least two texts from the Old Testament that demonstrate that the Queen of Heaven was also worshipped in Jerusalem.
  5. What characterized the religion of Israel in the monarchial period?
  6. Sketch the developments of Israelite religion in later times?
  7. How would you translate the terms “cherubim” and “seraphim” in your language?

Session Three: Zevach sacrifice, tabernacle construction, High Priest’s clothing

Readings:        Script from page 7, Zevach sacrifice, to the end.

R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, pp. 294-302.

Do the following:

  1. How was the meat of the zevah sacrifice divided between the different parties?
  2. Using the script and Exodus 26 and 36, give a short description of the structure of the tabernacle.
  3. Translate Exodus 26:15-16.

Appendix: Text

Exodus 26:15-16

15 You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. 16 Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame.

15 וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִֽים׃ 16 עֶשֶׂר אַמֹּות אֹרֶךְ הַקָּרֶשׁ וְאַמָּה וַחֲצִי הָֽאַמָּה רֹחַב הַקֶּרֶשׁ הָאֶחָֽד׃