The Fascination, Challenges, and Joys of Being a Historian of Ancient Israelite Religion

What is entailed in writing a history of ancient Israelite religion? How might the concept of divinity be used as an organizing principle to explore the wide variety of religious experiences? What skill-set is needed for such an undertaking, and what is the nature of our dataset? What can we conclude with any confidence when we acknowledge that we stand at such a vast distance?

See Also: The Origin and Character of God: Ancient Israelite Religion through the Lens of Divinity (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Theodore J. Lewis
Blum-Iwry Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Johns Hopkins University
August 2020

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a historian. The powerful attraction of exploring mysteries of the past from the meager clues left behind brings out the detective in us. I recently explored the ways in which an Aramean king legitimized his claim to the throne against a backdrop of regicide, usurpation, economic devastation, the death of his father on the battlefield, and Assyrian vassalage—all couched within what I called, evoking Agatha Christie, “the problem of a missing corpse.”[1] In the Persian period, the disappearance of Zerubbabel, God’s messianic designate, fascinates me to this day as it is a mystery within a mystery. How and why did the Signet of God (Hag 2:21-23) disappear? Even more intriguing, why do our texts say nothing about it?  Are clues to a cover-up by his assassins sitting in plain sight on the pages of the Hebrew Bible?[2] Oh, the joys of being a historian, especially of the ancient past, as it intersects with biblical texts still in daily use. And yet, being a historian of religion provides even more fascination.

Let me back up. After two decades, I’ve just completed a massive (1096 page) history of Israelite religion[3]; it has put me in a reflective mood. Historians of religion (note, not religious historians) can struggle to find their legitimacy in a field that often privileges military, political, economic, and legal history. And for those writing on Israelite religion, there’s a handy canard thrown at us: Isn’t this just a cover for writing yet another dusty “Old Testament Theology” (ghosts of von Rad or Eichrodt) under another name?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of religion, properly studied, involves exploring the military, political, economic, and legal issues at every turn. In contrast to theology (or at least systematic theology), history is messy. Really messy. With meager data (textual and archaeological), the task is daunting. Therein lies the challenge. Therein the appeal.

The Parameters

The historian of religion is able to examine the widest of parameters. She can explore the use of religion as a window to the historical, sociological, political, and the performance of the cult,[4] the ideological and the aesthetic. Humans (past and present) represented their deity/deities through literary and iconographic portrayals and represented themselves in so doing. Humans (past and present) engaged in all manners of ritual performance related to that which they assign the highest of value. The academic study of religion—with its broad focus centering as much on humans as on the gods—should be the glory of the humanities.

For ancient Israelite religion, the parameters are endless and with hard-to-synthesize concepts that resist soundbite quips. The history of scholarship alone can captivate researchers, many of whom have found enough intrigue to stop right there, writing intellectual histories on how scholars (e.g., Julius Wellhausen, William Robertson Smith, Hermann Gunkel, Yehezkel Kaufmann, William F. Albright, Rainer Albertz, Carol Meyers) and their views consciously or subconsciously reflect their times. Caveat lector. The subject matter offers a full meal for every palate: the concept of divinity and what the ancients imagined that the gods (God) are (is) up to; variations of what God/gods may have looked like in text and object (anthropomorphic? bulls? blocks of stone? fire? invisibility?); sacred time, sacred space and cultic paraphernalia; the performance of religion, varying from one geographic group to another; and religious personnel, where we should concentrate not only on priests, prophets and diviners but also on kings as the primary cultic sponsors (even actors) and the religious (and economic) domains of women that are tied to familial and local cults.

What we look for when we study religion is a mirror that tells us about ourselves. Are we drawn to the religion of the powerful and prestigious, or do we include that of commoners, what our field calls domestic or household religion, with ever-increasing data coming from the archaeological record? Do we look at the use of religion for power, status, and self-aggrandizement, or do we examine the reflective and aesthetic sides of religion? Do we study religious ethics focusing on concern for the poor and the marginalized? For the performance of cult, do we study male ritual actors at the expense of the female? 

The study of Israelite religion covers all of the above, and at every turn, the researcher will find a world of fascinating complexity. Our source material proclaims a militant Yahweh (even as a dragon-fighting cosmic warrior), for in the ancient world, known for violence and brutality no more than ours, gods were thought to fight for their adherents. For whatever reason (the desperate petitions of the victims of brutality crying out for justice, or the legitimizing of a self-serving monarch), gods were perceived as and needed to be powerful—to right wrongs, protect crops, and vanquish ene­mies. As a shock to our modern perspective, to say that a god is “holy” can em­phasize that he is militarily powerful. 

Yet our texts are broad enough to give voice to counternarratives where God is a force of peaceful existence. Tales of divine warfare are balanced with powerful rhetorical aspirations of disarmament. People can choose to beat their swords into plowshares to learn of war nevermore. Surprisingly, we come across juxtaposed similes that depict Yahweh as both “like a warrior” and “like a woman giving birth” (Isa 42:13–14). Such language gives us a thirst for the ways in which the ancients saw Yahweh as a compassionate family god. How is it that the warrior God can stoop to dry one’s tears? Using the language of family religion, our texts portray Yahweh as a caring father to his child Israel, like a mother nourishing her newborn. Sociologically, the flavors here are those of ancestral traditions, the so-called God of the Fathers—standing apart from the religion of a centralized state and hierarchical priestly cult. The locus of cult shifts from that of a centralized Temple of ashlar masonry to sacred space on a small scale (stones, small altars, figurines, and trees) within households and at local shrines and burial sites.

Just as pondering Yahweh as a family god provides a window into the domestic cult, so turning to view Yahweh as king helps us to peer into the royal cult—including long-standing debates on whether Judean kings were considered divine as in Egypt. (Spoiler alert: While at times Davidic kings could be “infused” with the language of divinity, they were never the object of cult.) The nature of our enterprise requires a close look at the intersection of religion and power dynamics. (Was there [is there] ever a “separation of church and state”/“religion and politics”?)  The benefit of using a dataset covering hundreds of years and from many perspectives is that the messiness of history is on full display. This is particularly the case with the legal aspects of ancient Israelite religion. As Yahweh was seen as the chief magistrate and divine lawgiver, so ideologically, Judean monarchs were ordained of God to ensure justice and equity. Some kings are held on high as “kings of justice,” to borrow a phrase from their Mesopotamian neighbors. Then as now, reality is far from such judicial ideals, and counter discourses are at the ready. Prophetic critiques of the abuse of religion and power push back against ideological spin; sages (Qoheleth, Job) will press the case of an absurd world or even calling God into account with intense theodicean probing.

The parameters of Israelite religion also include fascinating material for those interested in the sociology of religion and ritual performance. Here consider the wealth of material having to do with the management of cult—much of this found in the P and H traditions.[5] One text after another reveals how the actions of individuals within a sacred location and the delimiting of sacred space correlate with social and cultic status. For the hierarchy of cultic actors, as Saul Olyan (2000: 35) perceptively notes, there is nothing more intriguing than to see how “among the ranks of the cultic elite, distinctions of status . . . are often expressed through the idiom of holiness.” One need probe no further than P’s adamant assertion that only Aaronid priests are holy, and holiness itself has to do only with the exercise of the cult. This is ideological holiness pure and simple—used to construct and reinforce rank, power, and privilege. Only by appreciating this sociological dimension can we then see how striking the H source is with its comprehensive notion of holiness that includes the entire community (not only priests) and covering a wide array of cultic, economic, judicial, moral, and social parameters.

The priestly traditions are goldmines for the study of ritual performance. It’s a shame that biblical scholars are not regularly schooled in the studies of Catherine Bell and others on ritual performance and the ritual body. Such perspectives breathe new theoretical life into our well-worn studies. We can see afresh how the ritual acts of clothing and anointing serve to construct and reinforce social realities and hierarchies. The ritual clothing of Aaron’s body then stands out an act of investiture that formally bestows and confirms the authority due his rank as high priest. Vestments are used to mark both his subservience before God and his elevated status before humans. The ritual substances (oil and blood) and the manner (pouring versus sprinkling) of anointing also denote sacerdotal rank.

In short, the parameters of studying ancient Israelite religion touch on all aspects of ancient life, intersecting the familial, the royal, the priestly, the personal, the prophetic, the aesthetic, and the reflective traditions. It’s nothing short of a historian’s delight!

The Messy Source Material

But this doesn’t mean that it’s easy. The exact opposite is true. The dataset we have to work with includes texts (the Hebrew Bible, epigraphic material, and onomastica [see definition below]), material culture, and comparanda from the entire ancient Near East. The Hebrew Bible, an artifact with multiple layers of textual transmis­sion, constitutes a (perhaps the) primary source of information. The enduring importance of textual criticism is evidenced by the energy devoted to producing new text editions (e.g., Biblia Hebraica Quinta; The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition). Such advances in the field need not come at the cost of equally exciting advances in the study of reception history. The fields of source and redaction criticism, despite their lack of consensus, re­main as vital analytical tools for the historian of religion. With their focus on diverging information and presentation, these critical tools force a close reading of texts—and in many cases of intertextuality, analyzing the rewriting and revising of texts. By grappling with contradictions (real and apparent) and mixed evidence, we can better account for (and better appreciate) the diversity of testimony on cultic practice as it now resides in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

The field of epigraphy has breathed new life into the history of Israelite religion in such dramatic ways that the studies of past generations are becoming obsolete. Consider the revolution that has occurred with the discovery of the Kuntillet ʿAjrud inscriptions documenting “Yahweh and his A/asherah” and iconography thought by some to represent the divine pair (decidedly not in my view, as they are Bes-like figures likely used apotropaically  [i.e., deflecting evil]). Suffice it to say that the field has never been the same since. Every treatment now incorporates this material as it demonstrates how Israelite religion was far more pluralistic than one might have guessed from a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible. Whereas the Hebrew Bible has notable passages disparaging the abominable Canaanites, here we have Yahweh paired with one of the best-known Canaanite goddesses. 

Onomastic science is the study of personal and place names and their meanings, origins, and history. As a subset of anthropological lin­guistics, it has been a mainstay in the field of Israelite religion ever since the publication of Martin Noth’s Die israelitischen Personennamen in 1928, followed by the appearance of approximately ten thousand Amorite per­sonal names, especially from Mari. Due to the astonishing growth of onomastics within ancient Near Eastern research in recent years as well as comprehensive synthetic studies (especially the work of Rainer Albertz [2012]), these datasets have never been more relevant. Seth Sanders (2015: 59) boldly asserts that “inscribed names provide our single clearest source of evidence for early Israelite religion.”

Using material culture has also been a mainstay in the field of Israelite religion as archaeology adds rich new cultic data every season. Yet analyses can be marked by unevenness, with archaeologists having less (sometimes little) training in ancient languages and textual scholars having less (sometimes little) training in archaeology. As each discipline has become more sophisticated and more specialized, the gulf has grown wider.[6] At the same time, there is an abundance of encouraging signs expanding beyond studying sacred space and the practice of cult. In recent years, archaeology and cultural anthropology have contributed to theoretical constructions of identity formation, gender, ethnicity, and cognitive issues of beliefs and ideologies. The cognitive issues are particularly relevant for the study of religion. In addition, the growing interest in ma­teriality and monumentality throughout the social sciences and humanities has resulted in textual scholars moving beyond philological study to examine how physical objects (including texts) provide windows into human be­havior and cognition. History adheres to material objects. Consider, for example, how excavations at Tell Tayinat reveal how a copy of Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty was placed in the inner recesses of a dark temple for its symbolic and com­municative value (cf. Deut 31:24–26; Exod 25:16; Josh 24:26). Similarly, the Ketef Hinnom amulets inscribed with a priestly blessing can be taken into the tomb, where the apotropaic power of a biblical text facilitates Yahweh’s rebuking the Evil One (Lewis 2012). In the years ahead, the study of the dynamic nature of texts and their life cycles will certainly generate new understandings of religion as scholars go beyond treating texts as passive objects.

Ever since the discoveries of the Rosetta Stone, the Gilgamesh Epic, Enuma Elish, and the Ugaritic texts, humanists, biblicists, and historians of Israelite religion have had to wrestle with how the core text of Western civilization (and Holy Writ for confessional traditions) had antecedents. Comparativists have filtered these amazing discoveries through two distinctly different lenses. The “parallelomania” approach rushed to propose putative sim­ilarities between ancient Israel and neighboring cultures with little concern for differences in Sitz im Leben [life-setting], chronology, function, and literary genre. A wide variety of religious concepts and practices were thought to be homogenous, transhistorically and transculturally. In contrast, the “demonization” approach was employed most often by biblicists who used ancient Near Eastern comparanda as just another platform to continue the Deuteronomistic tra­dition of ridiculing the Canaanites in order to underscore the supremacy of bib­lical religion.[7] Thankfully today’s comparative studies are as vibrant as ever and with only a rare hint (if any) that the major civili­zations of the Near East should function as subservient handmaids to the Bible. The field has matured. Current studies emphasize the shared cultural legacy between ancient Israel and its neighbors yet without drawing overreaching conclusions that would ignore the wide geographical, chronological, and societal divides.

The Skill-Set

I would venture to guess that most scholars of the Bible can reflect on their naïveté when they first undertook “serious bible study.” Did you have any guess about how difficult the road would be and what it would take? Hebrew. Aramaic. Greek. Language study alone can be a challenging experience. The same applies should one innocently dream of being a historian of Israelite religion. Should one want to be serious about the endeavor (going beyond dabbling around that can, admittedly, be lots of fun), be forewarned.

Ideally, the investigator would be able to work with texts, including epigraphy, onomastica, textual criticism, Northwest Semitic philology, compara­tive Semitics, linguistics, exegesis, source criticism, redaction criticism, genre theory, and a wide array of literary analyses, modern and postmodern. Archaeological training is similarly varied. The perfect skill-set would go beyond training as a field archaeologist and embrace archaeological theory and a knowledge of landscape archaeology, which asks new questions about the effects of water pathways and climate on culture, including religion. Visual representations have their own complex narratives that complement as much as challenge textual narratives, so ideally, training in art history is also a requisite. Obviously, the social sciences must be included since no tapestry about texts and objects can be woven without the fabric of society. From sociolinguistics to ritual performance to gender to ethnicity to spatial theory, the social sciences are imperative for understanding the ideological nature of cult, where social actors negotiated status, power, and prestige.

Describing such a high bar is not meant to be discouraging (I hope you are still reading!), and certainly there’s no need for despair. This is what collegiality is all about. Such large undertakings teach us that we become wiser when we work with others across disciplines outside our skill-set. The great friendships that can result are an added blessing.

The Challenges: Limited Data and the “Propp Principle”

It never ceases to amaze me how often biblical scholars with considerable expertise make assessments that statisticians would quickly challenge due to the questionable nature of our dataset. Time and time again, exegetes make pronouncements as if we have a complete or nearly com­plete dataset of lexemes, rendering our assessments statistically valid. In truth, we have a very small dataset with which to work. It is minimally representa­tive of language use both chronologically (across the entire Iron Age and later) and spatially (across the southern Levant). At other times, writers of the Hebrew Bible are simply silent on matters of cult that were out of their purview or which they dismissed as illicit. Scholars then incorrectly read into that silence (e.g., there were no incantations in ancient Israel because they are not attested in the Hebrew Bible) rather than interrogating the silence (see Lewis 2012).

Then there’s the way we treat what little data that we have. In my recent history of ancient Israelite religion (Lewis 2020), I coin a phrase (the “Propp Principle”) in honor of a most delightful classmate from my school days, William Henry Covici Propp, long a professor in the Department of History at UC San Diego. At one point in his stimulating Exodus commentaries—with their clever “speculation” digressions—Propp (2006: 793) challenges the “scholarly axiom” that “we are obliged to adopt as provi­sional truth the most likely and parsimonious reconstruction, based on the evi­dence available” (italics Propp’s). In response, Propp boldly writes:

"No doctrine could sound more innocuous but be so pernicious. What obliges us? Who? Given the gaps in our knowledge, the complexity of historical pro­cesses and our inability to conduct proper experiments, we should aim rather for multiple, parallel hypotheses, as complex as the events they purport to ex­plain. We can and must take into account the 95 percent of information hidden from our view, the sea bottom connecting solitary islands of data. The only sen­sible response to fragmented, slowly but randomly accruing evidence is radical open-mindedness. A single, simple explanation for a historical event is gener­ally a failure of imagination, not a triumph of induction."

In short, historians of religion need to ponder the sober reality that our dataset is extremely limited. (Is saying that we possess even 5 percent too generous?) We need to be appropriately agnostic. In addition, we need to be appropriately humble with our conclusions given our cultural and historical distance. At the same time, we should be adventurous enough to, articulate measured statements about which scenarios are more likely to be on the right path.

The Joys Set Before Us

Echoing Qoheleth (12:13) at the end of the day, what can be said?  The study of religion (Israelite religion and otherwise) is endlessly fascinating and provides the best of windows into a given culture. Yet, it is not for the faint of heart. First, one needs to know going in that a significant skill-set is required as is working in collaboration with those whose expertise outstrips ours. Second, one needs to be sober and humble when it comes to our results. We stand at such a great distance from these ancient cultures and our source materials (textual and archaeological) are sparse.

When asked what we can conclude with confidence, the first soundbite out of our mouths should be: “It’s complicated. History is messy—especially the history of religion.” But immediately we need to keep the door open by quickly adding, “but let me explain . . .”  And then it’s up to us to synthesize the wonders, mysteries, joys, and frustrations of the ancients—to paint accurate portraits of the people who lived in ancient Judah and Israel—to articulate their religious practices and beliefs—to present their ideas faithfully, ideas that should captivate a modern audience (religious and secular) for their intrinsic quality and their historical relevance.



[1] See Lewis (2019).

[2] See Lewis (2005).

[3] See Lewis (2020).

[4]  In contrast to its use in everyday English, historians of religion use the term “cult” to designate the performance of reli­gion (cf., Latin cultus, “care, worship”).  The technical use of the word “cult” is not a value-laden term.  It is certainly not used in a pejorative sense to mark excessive devotion or anything socially deviant.

[5] P and H are designations used in source criticism with the former referring to the Priestly Source that contains items such as the Tabernacle = tent shrine (Exod 25-31; 35-40); the sacrificial system (Lev 1-7); the consecration of priests (Exod 29; Lev 8-10); the Day of Atonement (Lev 16); impurity laws (Lev 11-15); the cultic calendar dealing with the festivals of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, Tabernacles, New Year’s Festival (Rosh Hashanah); Yom Kippur (Lev 23); and the Jubilee Year (Lev 25). The latter designation refers to the Holiness Code that has conventionally be defined as Lev 17-26, though some scholars argue for an expanded H. For an introduction to this complex material, see Collins (2018: 143-160).

[6] Add to this dire cutbacks in some archaeological programs. A recent example is a well-known seminary’s decision to eliminate its archaeology program altogether. For some good news resulting from the benevolence of Mark Lanier and Lipscomb University, see…

[7] The designation “Deuteronomistic” refers to the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, also known as “the Former Prophets.” Modern scholars assign the adjective “Deuteronomistic” to this material because the ancient editors evaluated this history using the book of Deuteronomy as their benchmark. For an introduction to this material, see Collins (2018: 187-304).


Albertz, Rainer. 2012. “Personal Names and Household Religion.” Pages 245-386 in Rainer Albertz and Rüdiger Schmitt,  Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Collins, John J. 2018. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Lewis, Theodore J. 2005. “The Mysterious Disappearance of Zerubbabel.” Pages 301-314, 534-609 in Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Edited by R. L. Troxel, K. G. Friebel, and D. R. Magary. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Lewis, Theodore J. 2012. “Job 19 in the Light of the Ketef Hinnom Inscriptions and Amulets.” Pages 99-113, 319-320 in Puzzling Out the Past: Studies in Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures in Honor of Bruce Zuckerman. Edited by M. Lundberg, S. Fine and W. T. Pitard. Leiden: Brill.

Lewis, Theodore J. 2019. “Bar-Rakib’s Legitimation and The Problem of a Missing Corpse: The End of the Panamuwa Inscription in Light of the Katumuwa Inscription.” ARAM Periodical 31.2: 349-374.

Lewis, Theodore J. 2020. The Origin and Character of God: Ancient Israelite Religion though the Lens of Divinity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Olyan, Saul M. 2000. Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult. Princeton: Princeton University.

Propp, William H. C. 2006. Exodus 19-40. New York: Doubleday.

Sanders, S. L. 2015. “When the Personal Became Political: An Onomastic Perspective on the Rise of Yahwism.” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4: 59-86.


Article Comments

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Tue, 08/25/2020 - 04:17


What do you think about Psalm 82 and the religious beliefs of ancient Israel, especially the divine council? Do you think originally Israel believed in many gods with one highest G-d or always in only one G-d?

Dear Kenneth, I’m so glad you highlight Psalm 82 as it is so fascinating, especially with its language of the divine council and a plethora of legal vocabulary. The primary crux of Psalm 82 is the identity of ʾĕlōhîm in verses 1, 6 and 8. I align myself with those scholars who interpret all four instances of the word ʾĕlōhîm as referring to divinity. In my book, I present three scenarios for interpretation that I don’t have the space here to rehearse. In short, how the ancients understood Psalm 82 (as well as how we moderns understand it) is determined by where the author, audience, and interpreter stand on the mythopoeic-mythopoetic continuum. The mythopoeic has to do with “myth making”— though often recasting older Near Eastern myths in Israelite dress rather than creating new myths. In contrast, the mythopoetic describes the use of “mythic imagery,” where only echoes of myths are preserved in attenuated form. In ancient Israelite society, there were likely advocates of the mythopoeic as well as those advocating the mythopoetic. What understanding do we have in the Masoretic Text of Psalm 82? While remnants of mythopoeic traditions seem to seep through the letters, the Masoretic tradition stands fully in line with those acknowledging one deity only as absolute judge. It leans heavily toward the mythopoetic and then some. Hope this helps rather than muddying the waters. Ted

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