Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

By Duguid, Iain M. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey


Duguid, Iain M., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. By Richard S. Hess. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007, 432 pp., $34.99.

The study of Israelite religion(s)-exploring what real ancient Israelites actually did believe and do, rather than the ideals that the biblical writers set forth as normative for God's people-has been burgeoning in recent scholarship. Yet with a few notable exceptions, evangelical contributions to this field have been limited. That void has been commendably filled by this new book from Richard Hess.

The title of the book is descriptive of its contents. Hess's goal is to explore the diverse range of activities of the inhabitants of ancient Israel and the belief structures that they illuminate (hence "Israelite Religions"), using a combination of data from archaeology, ancient Near Eastern texts and the Bible. The distinction between what Israelite practice actually was and what the OT seeks to inculcate reminds us that the Bible has always been a counter-cultural document. Had it been otherwise, the prophets would have had a lot less to lament over in the people's behavior (see e.g. Jer 44:16-18). One suspects future archaeologists of twenty-first century "Christian" America will likewise have to make a distinction between the normative worship described in the Bible and the actual practice of those who live in this contemporary melting pot of faiths.

In order to reach his goal, Hess creatively synthesizes a vast quantity of archaeological and textual material, both biblical and ancient Near Eastern, along with a full range of secondary literature (attested by the 44-page bibliography). He succeeds in a way that commands the respect of secular scholarship, as the commendations on the cover demonstrate, while at the same time showing how that data is consonant with a wide variety of conservative conclusions.

Hess begins by surveying previous and current approaches to the study of religion in general. Here he argues for the wise use of sociology and anthropology as descriptive rather than prescriptive disciplines, seeking to elucidate the complexity and uniqueness of particular cultures instead of assuming the power to predict how rituals function in one society based on their use in another. He then examines previous approaches to Israelite religion, arguing for the necessity of bringing together the study of texts and material data. This chapter includes a judicious evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the Documentary Hypothesis, concluding that while the evidence from the language and a variety of editorial glosses suggests a date of composition for the Pentateuch somewhere in the first half of the first millennium bc, there is no evidence of an evolutionary development of religious ideas from one "document" to the next. Rather, each "type of Pentateuchal literature" may preserve "traditions of greater antiquity than commonly asserted" (p. 58). In many places in the rest of the book, Hess backs up this claim to the antiquity of Pentateuchal material with solid archaeological data and evidence from comparative literary studies. He also stresses the importance of literacy in Palestine and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, even prior to Israel's first appearance in the land, as evidenced by numerous early inscriptions. …

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