Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
THE FIRST ISRAELITE SANCTUARIES

1. The places where the Patriarchs worshipped

THE Israelites attributed the foundation of certain sanctuaries to the Patriarchs. Obviously, the historian of to-day cannot verify this assertion, but he must acknowledge that the tradition is in perfect agreement with two proven facts: first, the places in question all stand along the line of demarcation between arable land and the zone where shepherds and goat-herds pastured their flocks; and this corresponds perfectly with the social position of the Patriarchs, who were semi-nomads. Secondly, these sanctuaries were not the most popular ones in the period of the Judges and under the monarchy, as they would have been if the tradition had been invented at a later date to provide an illustrious origin for certain places of worship. (Bethel is an exception, but it owed its importance under the king of Israel to political reasons.) From the time of the monarchy all these patriarchal sanctuaries became, apparently, suspect to orthodox Yahwists: they were certainly very old even in those days.

The last chapter described the rules which governed the choice of a place for worship, and the patriarchal sanctuaries were founded in accordance with these principles. Sanctuaries were erected where nature manifested the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--near a tree, for example, or on a natural height, or by a water-source: but they were erected principally in places where God had shown himself in a theophany. Sanctuaries of this kind are found all along the route the patriarchs travelled.

(a) Shechem. According to Gn 12: 6-7 (Yahwistic tradition), Abraham's first stop in Canaan was at Shechem. He stopped at the maqôm, i.e. at the holy place where the Oak of Moreh stood: it was also called the 'Oak of the Teacher' or 'of the Soothsayer', and must therefore have been a tree where oracles were sought. It was in fact a Canaanite sanctuary, as the text itself recognizes by adding the explanation: 'the Canaanites were living in the country at the time'. But Yahweh appeared there to Abraham and promised the country to his descendants. So Abraham built him an altar there. Here, in skeleton form, is a typical story about the foundation of a sanctuary: theophany, divine message, beginning of the cult.

The origins of this sanctuary, however, have deeper roots in the Elohistic tradition, in its stories about Jacob and his sons. When Jacob was returning

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