The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches

By Burnett, Joel S. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches


Burnett, Joel S., Journal of Biblical Literature


The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches, by Ziony Zevit. London/New York: Continuum, 2001. Pp. xxii + 821. $69.95 (paper). ISBN 0826463398.

This substantial volume offers an account of Israelite religion during the Iron Age, up to 586 B.C.E., based on a thorough presentation of evidence. Rather than a history of Israelite religion on the order of well-known works by Yehezkel Kaufmann, Helmer Ringgren, and Rainer Albertz or a focused comparative textual treatment like the studies of Frank Moore Cross or Mark S. Smith, Zevit intentionally seeks to offer something different. In so doing, he responds to what he views as a scholarly propensity toward theoretically driven scholarship that is unduly influenced by understandings of religion operative in our contemporary setting, a propensity that, according to Zevit, results in presentations of "the alleged contents of Israel's belief (as reflected in the Bible)" (xiii). As a correction, Zevit takes a phenomenological approach with two aims: (1) to describe Israelite religion based on an integration of biblical, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence; (2) "to synthesize these within the structure of an Israelite worldview and ethos involving kin, tribes, land, traditional ways and places of worship, and a national deity" (xiv).

Chapter 1 locates Zevit's study philosophically and methodologically within the humanities and social sciences broadly considered and more specifically within the scholarly fields of religion and history. In short, Zevit approaches the matter within a modernist paradigm that includes an awareness of the limits of human knowledge about the past, the inevitable role of subjectivity in the historians task, and the constructed and complex nature of knowledge. Early in this discussion, Zevit offers the following definition of his subject: "Israelite religions are the varied, symbolic expressions of, and appropriate responses to, the deities and powers that groups or communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their worldview" (15). Apart from the final chapter, the rest of the book is organized largely by evidence categories.

In ch. 2, "Of Cult Places and of Israelites," Zevit challenges the currently prevailing view in the archaeology of Syria-Palestine that Iron Age Israelites in large part descended from the preceding Late Bronze Age "Canaanite" population. Arguing from the same settlement data and ceramic evidence, Zevit concludes, alternatively, that the Israelites entered the land during Iron I as a population of distinct ethnicity. One logical and procedural consequence for the remainder of Zevit's study is a relative lack of attention to comparative textual religious evidence from the Late Bronze Age, especially from Ugarit-evidence that is regularly invoked in discussions of Israelite religion.

In ch. 3, "Architecture Parlante: Israelite Cult Places," Zevit draws on excavation reports and other published discussion of archaeological sites to give an overview of architectural evidence for religious activity. This chapter deals with the organization of space in various cult places, temples, caves, cultic corners, and shrines. Zevit's survey begins with four sites that are identified as non-Israelite (Philistine, Edomite, and Aramean) but that-because they are located in close proximity to Israelite territory-offer some of the most reliable evidence for cultic space and thus allow one to establish a relatively objective methodological approach and typology for the discussion of Israelite sites. From there he goes on to make an overview of the range of identified cultic spaces at various Israelite sites. Although the data are too sparse and fragmentary to allow for a comprehensive picture, Zevit contends that the heterogeneity of the remains supports the conclusion that there was no single, centralized authority controlling the organization of cultic space for Iron Age Israel. …

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