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Did God Have a Wife?Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel
By William G. Dever
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDefining and Contextualizing Religion
Our first task in approaching the religions of ancient Israel is obviously to specify what we mean by "religion." Surprisingly, virtually none of the dozens of works in the field, many of which we will survey in Chapter II below, attempts even a simple working definition. An exception is Ziony Zevit's The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (2001), whose openness to the archaeological evidence, like mine here, may have prompted him to be more "realistic" than most commentators.
The Phenomenon of Religion
If religion reflects as universal and timeless a dimension of human experience as I maintain, there will have been millions upon millions of notions of what religion is and does. Among modern, more explicit formulations are those found in the classic works of anthropologists and folklorists such as E. B. Tylor (1871); W. Robertson Smith (1894); James G. Frazer (1925); Emile Durkheim (1915); E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1951); Mary Douglas (1969; 1975); and Clifford Geertz (1966). Other definitions are offered by philosophers and philosophers of religion such as William James (1985) and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1967). Still other definitions come from more modern "religionists," such as Mircea Eliade (1969; 1979); R. R. Cavanagh (1978); Jonathan Z. Smith (1987; 1990); Hans H. Penner (1989); and Wilfrid Cantwell Smith (1997).
Some of these writers' views of religion are summarized by Zevit (2001:11-22), whose own working definition of religion as it concerns us here is:
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 world view (2001:15).
The key terms here are "world view," "community," "value," "deity," "response," and "symbolic." These terms figure prominently in virtually all other definitions of religion. But the most important focus is, of course, on the divine, or "supernatural," and the driving force is something that we may call "ultimate concern." A recent definition summing up these ideas, yet quite simple, is that of Hans H. Penner: "Religion is a 'verbal and nonverbal structure of interaction with superhuman being(s)'" (1989:7, 8). Penner says that he is not completely happy with this definition, but he "cannot think of anything better." Neither can I, so I will employ it here. But "concern" for what? What is it that is thought to be something other than ephemeral, that is, "ultimate"? And of "ultimate concern" to whom?
Religion as "Ultimate Concern"
In order to organize the following inquiry into a framework for discussing "folk religion," let me try to specify some of the dimensions of the concerns that ordinary folk in ancient Israel had. Some of these may seem rather pedestrian to us, because, of course, we are presumably more sophisticated. But they were the stuff of real life for the ancients.
(1) The concern for survival. This was no doubt the overall concern, and it could scarcely be more fundamental or more urgent. By "survival" I do not mean simply the animal instinct to live, although that is assumed. I give the ancients enough credit to suppose that they could be more "philosophical" than that, even if they could not always analyze or articulate their feelings as we might. Existing under extraordinarily difficult conditions, in a marginal economy, they knew existentially that they lived in a mysterious, unpredictable, perilous world (which we would call Nature). In the midst of all their uncertainty and anxiety, they faced the ultimate threat: extinction. This would not be merely death by famine, disease, or natural and manmade disasters, but the possible obliteration of one's self, one's family, one's heritage and posterity. Today we might call this the threat of non-being, Soren Kierkegaard's "abyss" into which any individual might fall at any time. I suggest that for the ancients the threat derived from the perception that the universe was not "friendly." It was disordered, chaotic, fundamentally dangerous, if not evil. Even the gods could kill you, often for no apparent reason. Israelites could not comfort themselves with the much later (and non-Semitic) notion of the "immortality of the soul." When the body died, that was the end. Religion thus had first of all to deal with the problem of survival, in the most brutal, elementary sense.
(2) Aligning one's self with the universe. If personal survival was at stake, literally every moment, then it was essential to "personalize" the numinous powers that ultimately ruled the universe and to "get on their side." And these powers were perceived as the "other," the sacred. This was what Rudolf Otto may have had in mind when he coined the phrase the "idea of the Holy." Yet we must remember that the distinction between "sacred" and "secular" (or profane) is a modern one. It is a concept that would have been totally foreign and indeed incomprehensible in the ancient world generally. Religion was so taken for granted that biblical Hebrew, for instance, has no specific word for "religion." Human life was filled with ideas and experiences that were, of course, "religious," and there are many terms in the Bible for these. But religion could not be abstracted and analyzed; nor could it have been an option, as we moderns suppose. Living in antiquity was being "religious," as I shall stress throughout this work. That meant identifying, however difficult, with the gods who alone could confer on human life order, wisdom, power over evil, dignity, and in the end meaning and purpose. That larger sense of well-being was what fleshed out mere survival, made the concern "ultimate."
(3) How to placate the deities and secure their favor. If the gods really were in control, how could individuals act practically so as to avoid their wrath and secure the specific blessings that would enhance survival? Although the ancients would not have rationalized matters thus (how could you "rationalize" the supra-rational?), I suggest that the practical strategy involved the "care and feeding of the gods." That meant (a) accepting the myths about them as true, thus acknowledging not only their existence but their reality as all-powerful forces; (b) inquiring diligently as to what the gods by reason of their transcendence required of humans; (c) obeying the gods, fearing them, and paying them homage in the form of gifts, offerings, sacrifices, rituals, services at sanctuaries, prayers, and vows; and (d) in some cases augmenting the life of piety with what was considered ethical behavior (more on this later). On a higher theoretical and moral plane, all this and other religious activity could be construed in ancient Israel as "fearing God and loving him," that is, obeying him gladly and thus achieving harmony with the divine order, or what we might call "salvation." But at the more mundane, everyday level, most of ancient religion in Israel and elsewhere was directed at placating the gods (and evil spirits), averting the evil that they might bring, and securing their specific blessings.
"The Care and Feeding of the Gods"
Blessings, of course, would be understood in terms of the practical benefits alluded to above, relating to survival and well-being: the health of oneself and one's progeny; material prosperity; escape from disaster; the continuing heritage of the family, clan, and people; and, I would argue, above all that sense of identity and pride that still dominates the thinking of people in the Middle East today. The gods could grant all this and more; but they could also take it away. It made sense to placate them, not by coming up with abstract theological formulae, or promising the devotion of the "pure in heart." Much more practical and efficacious was to give back to the gods a token portion of what they had graciously given. That was what sacrifice was: gifts of food and substance and even life. And it worked-or so it appeared when things were going well. (See further Chapter IV.)
Such a pragmatic definition of religion may seem to us primitive, even debased, as though religion were simply "magic." But that's precisely what religion is, or at least was, however much that may offend modern sensibilities. We want religion to be "nice": beautiful, aesthetically appealing, uplifting, ennobling, "spiritual," and above all tidy. But ancient religion was, as the anthropologist Eilberg-Schwartz (1990) puts it, rather messy. It was in fact "savage" - a brutal, often bloody, life-and-death struggle, the outcome of which was by no means certain. The modern, idealistic, romantic portrait of ancient Israelite religion is a comfortable delusion, but one that obscures the reality. Here I shall try instead to look at the religions of the real Israel, "warts and all."
On "Folk Religion"
The portrait that I have just painted may seem to some readers just another modern caricature - the bias of an archaeologist who is preoccupied with the material aspects of religious life and therefore minimizes its spiritual aspects. That raises the question of whether there were, in fact, two religions of ancient Israel. More than two? And if so, how am I justified in focusing so exclusively on one? At the outset I stated that this will be primarily a study of "folk religion," implying that this was the polar opposite of something else that we might call "official religion" or "state religion," or, better, "Book religion." In Chapters II and III, I will show how many scholars have assumed such a distinction, and how it has affected their understanding and presentation.
Here let me anticipate this discussion by setting forth my understanding of "religion in two dimensions." These categories are not rigid, of course. And they are somewhat artificial, since the ancients would not have recognized such distinctions. Nevertheless, they may be useful as theoretical antitheses, out of which might develop a synthesis. Here are some characteristics and focal points that I suggested provisionally years ago (1995), in chart-form.
"State Religion" "Folk Religion"
Literate Popular Texts Artifacts Canon Improvisation Belief Practice Mythology Magic Verbal Symbolic Theology Cult Ideology Action Intellectual Emotive Dogma Praxis Rational Mystical Ceremonial Ritual Public Private Social Individual National Local State Family Ethics Piety Political order Right relations "Sacred" "Profane" Orthodoxy Customary practice
Is there some validity to juxtaposing such polar opposites? Does each column represent a separate version of Israel's religions; and if so, which was normative? Did they overlap along a continuum? Virtually all scholars do recognize some such dichotomy, although there is great confusion about terminology, apart from the general state or official religion on the one hand, and "folk" religion on the other. (Below I shall adopt "Book religion" for the former.)
Before further defending my preference for a term to designate the phenomena in the right-hand column - my focus here - let me note briefly the terminology of other scholars, with some critical comments that may make a choice easier. John S. Holladay's seminal and widely quoted article in 1987 distinguished on the one hand "established, conformist, State" religion, and on the other hand "distributed, nonconformist, local" religion. Susan Ackerman's pioneering book (1992) used the term "popular religion" throughout, but she defined it mainly as "an alternate vision, a non-priestly, non-Deuteronomistic, non-prophetic view of what Yahwism was" (1992:216). That is accurate, but it sees this form of Israelite religion mostly in terms of what it was not, rather than in terms of what it was (although in all fairness Ackerman's treatment overall is more positive; see Chapters II, VI, VII).
Rainer Albertz's monumental history of Israelite religion contrasts "official religion" or "official syncretism" with "family religion," "personal piety," "internal religious pluralism," and "poly-Yahwism" (1994:19; 83).
Karel van der Toorn's initial work dealt with the "popular religious groups" (1994), but later he developed a term that I find one of the most helpful, "Book religion," or the canonical religion of the literary tradition as preserved in the Hebrew Bible (1997).
Jacques Berlinerblau (1996) has provided the most extensive and cogent analysis yet, complaining of the lack of terminological precision heretofore. Yet in the end, he too accepts the dichotomy of "official" versus "popular" religion, although he stresses the variety, as well as the legitimacy, of the latter (his "groups"; 1996:22).
Othmar Keel's and Christoph Uehlinger's monumental work on Israelite iconography is absolutely fundamental to a study of folk religion. But curiously, they do not define their focus except to call for going beyond the "state cult" to a consideration of levels of "family," "local," and "national" religion (1998:406).
Patrick Miller's landmark study The Religion of Ancient Israel (2000) contrasts "State religion" - orthodox, heterodox, and syncretistic Yahwism - with "family religion" and "local and regional cults." Mark Smith's survey of various deities (2002a) speaks of "popular religion" throughout. Ziony Zevit's tour de force simply stresses pluralism, speaking throughout of the many "religions" of ancient Israel.
None of these choices is without problems, as many of the authors admit. On the one hand, to refer to "State" or "official" religion presupposes that the religious establishment and the Israelite state were in agreement, if not in league with each other, and that the state had the power to enforce religious conformity. I very much doubt that. And the implication until all too recently that this biblically sanctioned, monolithic form of Israelite religion was "normative" must be rejected altogether. On the other hand, speaking of "popular" religion implies that it constituted a form of religious life that was not represented in the priestly and court circles in Jerusalem but was widespread only in the countryside. And that cannot be the case either.
The truth of the matter is that the various expressions of "native" Israelite religious beliefs and practices (not "syncretism"; below), under the rubric of "Yahwism," overlapped. And they were all tolerated in various combinations at one time or another. That is why we can never write a satisfactory history of any one "Israelite religion." And it is also why Zevit ends his 690-page discussion with a one-page "Reductio," stating that
The multiplicity of Israelite religions attested in the different types of data considered in this study can all be explained reductively as biopsychological expressions of citizenship in a cosmos perceived as disharmonious (2001:690).
Given the problems enumerated here, as well as my deliberately narrow focus, I shall speak somewhat arbitrarily of "folk religion" throughout what follows.
Folk Religion: Toward a Methodology
I shall advance in Chapter III the proposition that in history-writing of any kind, the choice of method is fundamental, because to a large degree it determines the outcome of the inquiry. Where you arrive depends not only upon where you think you're going, but also upon how you decide to get there. Having announced as my goal the elucidation of folk religion, how do I propose to do that? In particular, is there a specific method that might differ from that suitable for an inquiry into religion in general?
In Chapter II I explore the approaches of various traditional "schools," such as the "history of religions," which is diachronic and comparative, and "biblical theology," which tends to be topical and normative. Then I argue that neither is satisfactory, the first because it is too broad, and the second because it is too narrow. Neither focuses on the reality of the religions of ancient Israel-especially theology, which even in its most innocent guise remains essentially an enterprise of apologetics, and moreover seems to conceive of religion merely in terms of ideas rather than of practice.
Excerpted from Did God Have a Wife? by William G. Dever Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
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