Emerging from the academic study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during the Enlightenment and Reformation, Israelite religion became a topic of study in terms of the presentation in the Bible of Israel’s worship of its God. Gradually this separated into a synthesis of biblical teachings on worship and its prescribed practices, on the one hand, and a study of the history of biblical Israel in terms of beliefs and practices toward one or more deities, on the other. The former branch evolved into biblical theology, while the latter developed into the topic of Israelite religion. Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern texts preceding and contemporaneous with the period of the Bible broadened the picture. Comparing and contrasting archaeological and textual sources with the application of anthropological models derived from comparative religious studies led to modern syntheses of the subject. Initially these were heavily based upon the biblical text, often with the application of theories of literary and historical criticism. Since the 1980s, however, a focus on texts from the same time and region, as well as interpretation of artifacts with religious significance, has challenged older models of Israelite religion. Influences and the interactions of believers and their deities appear increasingly complex. No longer is there an understanding of a mere one or two religions in Israel (e.g., worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal). It now seems clear that various religious practices and texts attest to the presence of multiple religions followed by people in the region of ancient Israel, sometimes reflecting differences in gender, culture, ethnicity, and other factors. While a form of worship as described in biblical accounts may have been followed, there were other forms which, in various ways, syncretized Yahweh with other goddesses and gods. This has led scholars to question the factors that led to, and the time of emergence of, belief in a single deity in Israel, as well as to question the nature of that deity. Answers and models remain in a state of flux; evidence remains to be reviewed and interpretations demand critical interpretation.
Richard S. Hess
Mark S. Smith
The Ugaritic texts provide a rich resource for understanding the Late Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit, located on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded about two thousand tablets in Ugaritic, the West Semitic language of this city-state, and about twenty-five hundred tablets in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as many texts written in seven other languages. These reveal a cosmopolitan, commercial center operating in the shadow of two great powers of the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Egyptians and the Hittites. The Ugaritic texts offer innumerable literary and religious parallels to biblical literature. The parallels are so rich and in some cases so specific that it is evident that the Ugaritic texts do not merely provide parallels, but belong to a shared or overlapping cultural matrix with the Hebrew Bible. Ugaritic literature may not predate the earliest biblical sources by much more than a few decades, but the bulk of biblical literature dates to centuries later. Moreover, unlike the coastal, cosmopolitan center of Ugarit, ancient Israel’s heartland lay in the rural inland hill-country considerably to the south in what is today Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. Despite these important differences, Ugaritic and biblical literature are not to be understood as representing entirely different cultures, but overlapping ones.
In everyday English parlance, God’s name is simply “God.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the God of Israel has a personal proper name, similar to “Susan” or “Teddy”: the four-lettered name YHWH, also known as the Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”). This name is by far the most common designation for God in the Hebrew Bible. Four texts within this body of literature give special attention to God’s disclosure of the divine name to humankind: in Gen 4:25–26 shortly after the creation of the first humans; and in Exod 3, Exod 6, and Ezek 20 at the time of God’s emancipation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. English translations obscure the prominence of God’s name by replacing Hebrew YHWH with the common noun “Lord,” written in small caps. As it turns out, this practice has an ancient pedigree: already in the Second Temple era, spoken recitations of the Hebrew Bible replaced Hebrew YHWH with the Hebrew word for “Lord,” adonay, and written manuscripts marked the name YHWH with special orthography. Later Christian copies of the Greek Old Testament would bring the oral tradition directly into the text itself, substituting Greek κύριος, “Lord,” for YHWH. These customs probably trace back to the influence of several other biblical texts, including the fourth commandment of the Decalogue (Exod 20:7//Deut 5:11) and Lev 24:16. The Talmud (Pes. 50a) also records a rabbinic interpretation of Exod 3:15 according to which God says “This [YHWH] is my name to conceal.” But God has other names in the Hebrew Bible, too. Several names are formed by joining YHWH together with a second word, for example: YHWH ṣebaoth, a phrase that is usually translated into English as “the Lord of hosts”; or again, another example: YHWH elohim, translated “the Lord God.” The second part of this compound name is also an important name for God in its own right. The word elohim in Hebrew means “god” or “gods.” It is technically a plural noun, although most of the time in Hebrew it refers to a single divine agent. It is also typically a common noun similar to the English word “god”; that is, it signifies one among a class of divine beings. However, also as in English, Hebrew elohim occasionally functions as a proper name: capital-G God. Another Hebrew noun for god, eloah, shares a similarly dual purpose: mostly it is a generic word for divinity but sometimes it is the caption for the one God of Israel (i.e., YHWH). These two names—YHWH and its compound forms as well as elohim in its usage as a name—cover the majority of instances when the Hebrew Bible names God. A few other divine titles are name-like but not, properly speaking, names. The first among these is the word Shadday, but also the series of so-called “el-epithets” found in the book of Genesis: El Elyon, El the Creator of Heaven and Earth, El Roi, and El Olam.