Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel

The following paper* was first presented at the twenty-third annual Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies, Department of Judaic Studies, University of Cincinnati  on May 11, 2000

Copyright: 2000 Judaic Studies Department,
University of Cincinnati
*Paper used with permission from J. Berlinerblau
& the University of Cincinnati

By Jacques BerlinerblauAssistant Professor Comparative Literature and Languages
Director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies
Hofstra University

    Yehezkel Kaufmann’s eight-volume Religion of Ancient Israel, begun in 1937 and completed in 1956, is a classic that continues to entice (and enrage) biblical scholars to this very day.1 The Russian-born professor of Bible at Hebrew University (who passed away in 1963) surely advanced one of the most counter-intuitive hypotheses in the history of modern biblical scholarship. His central thesis was that the ancient Israelites were never a polytheistic, mythological, non-exclusively-God-of-Israel worshiping people. A thesis rendered all the more remarkable since the very words of the Hebrew Bible seem to indicate that at many points in their history the Israelites were a polytheistic, mythological, non-exclusively-God-of-Israel-worshiping people.

    One thinks of the prophet Jeremiah, who repeatedly and rancorously castigates his co-religionists: In chapter two he laments:

They said to wood, “You are my father,”
To Stone, “You gave birth to me,”
While to Me they turned their backs and not their faces (Jer. 2:27)2

    Elsewhere Jeremiah testifies to the incorrigible apostasy of his community:

[The people of Israel and Judah] . . . built the shrines of Baal which are in the Valley of Ben-hinnom, where they offered up their sons and daughters to Molech (Jer. 32:35)

    Such sentiments, of course, are not confined to the masterpieces of literary prophecy. Any reader of the Book of Judges, for example, repeatedly encounters a similar theme:

The Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord; they ignored the Lord their God and worshiped the Baalim and the Asheroth (Judg. 3:7)

    Indeed, the examination of the Israelites’ wickedness is a veritable leitmotif in the collection of writings commonly attributed to the Deutoronomistic historians. Witness the following passage from Judges 10:

The Israelites again did what was offensive to the Lord. They served the Baalim and the Ashtaroth, and the Gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, the gods of the Philistines; they forsook the Lord and did not serve him (Judg. 10:6)

    That derogatory remarks of this nature number in the hundreds is a fact well known to anyone who is biblically literate. Indeed, only an apologist could fail to see that many of the biblical sources are singularly obsessed with delineating the religious and ethical shortcomings of the ancient Israelites. They are accused of being a rebellious brood, steadfastly ignoring Torah, worshiping under every green tree and whoring after foreign gods, to name but a few elementary transgressions. As Kaufmann himself observed, the Bible is “a chronicle of human rebellion” (1972: 295).

    It is this incessant critique, or better yet, self-critique which renders this text, for me at least, one of the most astonishing documents produced by the species. For the Tanakh is a work that repeatedly chastises its own. It thereby renounces the flawed moral equation–an equation as ancient as it is contemporary– that my people are good people. It is a Bible of critics and the critic’s Bible. It is this omnidirectional critique, which is the rhetorical hallmark of the Dtr. source and, I submit, ancient Judaism’s most enduring contribution to humanity. Any endeavor to make sense of Israelite religion must take notice of the Tanakh’s unrelenting censure of its own.

    Kaufmann, for his part, advanced a bold explanation of this phenomenon. For him, the types of criticisms mentioned above are mere quibbles. They are not to be interpreted as evidence of the polytheistic orientation of the ancient Israelites. The complaining prophets, he alleged, were merely complaining about fetishistic idolatry. They were not referring to genuine belief in other gods (1972: 13, 14, 137, 145, 147, 404; 1951: 189, 196-97), for the Israelites had no idea that an idol of, let’s say, Baal had anything to do with a well-known ancient Near Eastern deity named Baal. The idol was a signifier that signified nothing.

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