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date: 05 October 2022

Israelite Religionfree

Israelite Religionfree

  • Richard S. HessRichard S. HessProfessor of Old Testament, Denver Seminary


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.


  • Ancient Religion
  • Biblical Studies
  • Judaism and Jewish Studies


The study of Israelite Religion must define the two terms that appear as the topic: “Israelite” and “Religion.”1 The adjective refers to a specific period of time and place in which a group of people who self-identified and were identified by others as Israelites lived. This people first appear in contemporary records at the end of the 13th century bce, where they are identified by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah as a group of people (rather than a city or land) who live in an area related to the cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanaom. Ashkelon lies in the southeastern region of the Mediterranean Sea’s coastline. Gezer lies some miles inland. Most locate Yanaom east of the Jordan River. If a line is drawn through these three sites, its center passes across the central hill country of Palestine/ Israel. Circa 1200 bce this region saw an explosion of settled habitation, from about two dozen sites in the preceding century to a number approaching 300 villages and other centers of occupation. The fact that Merneptah was the last New Kingdom pharaoh to publish an itinerary of a campaign into southern Canaan, and yet the first to mention Israel, suggests the appearance of this people group shortly before his mention of them.

If Israel appears in the central hill country at the beginning of the Iron Age (or just before), then its continued existence into the first millennium bce is attested by mention in Moabite, Aramean, Assyrian, and Babylonian sources. All of these testify that the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were bordered to the north by Aramean and Phoenician kingdoms such as Tyre and Damascus, to the east by Ammon and Moab, to the south by Edom, and on the west by the Mediterranean coastal plain towns such as Tel Miqne (Ekron). The Assyrian conquest and assimilation of the northern kingdom of Israel occurs c. 722 bce, according to Neo-Assyrian chronicles and records. The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah takes place in the early decades of the 6th century bce. Both the ostraca found at the Judean cities and forts of Lachish and Arad, and the absence of external witness to an independent nation after this period (in Egyptian or Babylonian records), as well as evidence of destruction in Jerusalem and elsewhere, bear witness to this. See also the mention of Jehoichin, king of Judah in Babylon, who receives rations from the Babylonian sovereign.

As for the definition of the term “religion,” this is difficult. There is no agreed-upon definition in the sociological literature. Oxford dictionaries online provides the following as its first definition of the noun: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” At best this serves as a heuristic device. Presumably any belief, practice, object, or text that can relate to deities or the world they inhabit can serve as a source for understanding “religion.”


Methodologically, a survey of the religion of Israel must necessarily be selective. Therefore, those objects and texts that provide the best examples of religion, and those interpretations that either dominate or represent the mainstream understanding, will be considered here. Pre-Israelite religious sources include important pre-Bronze Age sites such as the open-air sanctuaries in the Negev, and the Chalcolithic temple at Ein Gedi. There are important written sources from the Bronze Age of the second millennium; whether the letters from the 18th century bce, that contain prophecies, or the 13th century Ugaritic myth texts that mention deities associated with ancient Israel, or the religious calendars and instruction texts from Emar. The pictorial evidence in the iconography can display deities and reveal attitudes of worship. Personal names often contain confessional statements with divine names of deities and some manner in which they aid the name-bearer. As for the Hebrew Bible, there is no universal agreement on the dating, origins, or accurate representation of any of the biblical texts. Nevertheless, these texts cannot be ignored because they remain close to the culture of ancient Israel and address its religious context. This study will therefore reflect the texts as witnesses. It will use these witnesses in correlation with the archaeological and extra-biblical textual witnesses, noting especially points of correlation in the earlier period between these different sources. As we move toward the period of the middle of the first millennium bce we will consider more extensively the biblical texts, especially those purporting to providing historical information and prophetic indictment.

Pre-Israelite Religious Sources

The most important sources outside of southern Canaan occur in texts from 18th century bce Mari, and the 13th-century bce archives in the sites of Ugarit and Emar. All of these sites are located in northern Syria and were known centers of trade in the second millennium bce. From Mari come texts that mention ecstatic prophets who engage in strange activities (such as eating part of a living animal) while transmitting messages from the chief deities, such as Addu. These messages reference the storm god’s defeat of the sea, as also pictured on a seal. There, one deity casts a spear into moving waters while an older male figure sits on a chair at the source of the rivers. Mari texts also use similar terms for prophets and for tent shrines such as appear in the Bible with reference to orthodox prophets and to the Tabernacle as well as God’s appearance at Mount Sinai. The written materials witness to a tradition of prophecy throughout the Semitic world and beyond. They anticipate the 8th- and 7th-century Neo-Assyrian texts that provide more detailed prophecies to the Assyrian kings concerning battles they would fight against their enemies. Aspects of the construction of these texts and their predictions of defeat for national enemies parallel contemporary writing prophets in the Bible.

A second area for understanding West Semitic religious views that may lie behind those of earliest Israel occurs in the texts and archaeology of 13th-century bce Ugarit, an ancient city near the Mediterranean shore of the land of Syria. Textually there are important myths that recount the adventures of the chief deity, El, and his consort, Asherah, the storm god, Baal, the warrior goddess, Anat, and various other deities that personify natural forces: Mot (death), Yam (sea), Shapshu (sun), and Resheph (Pestilence). Of these, Baal is the only deity who has a myth tale that covers multiple clay tablets of Ugaritic. At Ugarit there is also the funerary festival that comes to be known as the marzeach, the designation of legendary warriors of old as Rapiuma (biblical Rephaim), and the concern of kings for offspring. Asl at Mari Baal builds a house and fights and defeats Sea. He receives permission from El to build his house or temple and celebrates its dedication. Baal is defeated and killed by Mot who is then killed by Anat. After that, Baal reappears.

Ugarit also preserves mention of the Rapiuma, who seem to be legendary warriors not unlike the Rephaim of later biblical sources. The marzeach meals appear, as do sacrifices that correspond to the Levitical burnt offerings, sin (purification) offerings, and fellowship (peace) offerings. Unlike Israelites’ later practice, citizens of Ugarit buried their dead directly beneath their homes in the city. This practice also occurred at the site of Tell Ashtaroth. It and Edrei (modern Der’ah) are both connected with stories related to Danel at Ugarit and with Israel’s defeat of Og, king of Bashan, “last of the Rephaim” (Deut. 1:4; 3:1–3).

There are many ritual texts from Ugarit. Some of these record lists of sacrifices for various deities, with numbers of animals to be killed that far exceed anything in the ritual texts from the Pentateuch. Others include king lists of deceased (perhaps deified) kings of Ugarit and rituals for them. One ritual (KTU 1.40) records sacrifices and prayers to be repeated for what appear to be offenses of an ethical nature (such as anger), of a ritual nature (regarding sacrifices), and regarding groups of foreign and other peoples. There is no consensus as to whether this is a ritual of national unity (so Pardee, pp. 77–83) or a national atonement rite, similar to Leviticus 16, or something else.2 Several of the terms used to describe sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., burnt offerings, peace/ fellowship offerings) also appear as sacrifices at Ugarit.

The inland city of Emar, lying along the Euphrates north of Mari, preserves an archive of cuneiform texts from the 13th century bce. Although the city was influenced by and remained under the hegemony of the Hittite empire for much of this period, the majority of the attested personal names from Emar are West Semitic. Religious texts found here resemble some important ritual materials in Exodus and Leviticus. There is the zukru ritual text, for example. This describes a seven-day ritual that concerns the barley grain harvest and has significant parallels with the Passover and unleavened bread rituals of Exodus 12–13 and Leviticus 23. These similarities include, but are not limited to, specially prepared meat, distinctive bread, the significant role of twilight, and the significant nature of the annual festival in the middle of the month. Again, the half-year ritual calendar at Emar is unique in the cuneiform world, paralleled only by the half-year ritual calendar in the Hebrew Bible, and most closely by that found in Leviticus 23. There are similarities in the beginnings and endings of both calendars in the autumn and spring (or vice versa), in the manner in which the festivals are introduced (according to the day of the month on which they occur), in the emphasis on festivals in the spring and autumn, and even in the classic presentation of editorial activity in Leviticus 23:33–36 and 39–43, which describe the same festival using two different sets of nomenclature. Traditionally, vv. 39–43 are seen as an addendum by a later editor. However, a parallel set of texts appear in the Emar calendar. There, as well, two feasts are described in two separated “paragraphs” using different language but taking place on identical days. Yet in this text there is no evidence of editorial activity. Rather, the whole piece dates from no later than the 13th century bce.

A third text describes in detail the installation of the high priestess of the storm god at Emar and resembles the installation of the priests in Leviticus 8–10. The seven-day period of installation, the use of various sacrifices, and even the appearance of fire at the end of the ceremony all provide points of comparison between the two cultures and texts. Perhaps most significant is the practice of anointing with oil as part of the installation ceremony. For a long time scholars considered this ritual in Israel to have no parallel with the ancient Near Eastern world. Instead, they assumed that this was a late post-exilic practice invented in order to substitute for the well attested anointing of kings, who were no longer present in Jerusalem because it and the province of Yehud had become part of the Persian empire. It is now apparent that priestly figures were anointed, at least in the 13th century bce.

There is much more one could mention from the Bronze Age. For example, there is the largest three-room West Semitic style temple ever uncovered in the eastern Delta city of Tell ed-Dabʿa, whose material culture in the 18th and 13th centuries bce resembles that of Southern Canaan and Israel. This is the Egyptian site of Avaris during the occupation of Lower Egypt by the West Semitic Hyksos rulers c. 1750–1550 bce. It was likely at this time that West Semitic deities such as Resheph, Anat, Astarte, Qudshu, and Horon appear in Egypt. Baal becomes syncretized with Seth. After the pharaohs (beginning with Ahmose) drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and established the New Kingdom empire in southern Canaan, the Egyptian deities Hathor, Horus, Bes, Amun, Re and others became attested in Canaan. Tell ed-Dabʿa may be the city of Pi-Rameses, attested in the 13th-century bce Egyptian records and perhaps related to the Ramesses of Exodus 1:11.

There is also the iconography of the period, as represented by seals and by other artistic pieces such as the bronze calf “guarding” the entrance of 18th-century bce Ashkelon, the Megiddo ivory carving from several centuries later that depicts a war chariot leading bound prisoners of war and a seated monarch attended by women, the gold leaf image from Lachish of a naked goddess standing on a war horse and holding lotus flowers, and the 13th-century bce tent sanctuary (cf. the portrayal of Ramsses II’s war tent in an Abu Simbel relief, the use of religious tents mentioned in texts from Mari and Ugarit, and the biblical Tabernacle of Exodus 25–40) in the Timna Valley copper mining center in the southern Negev.3 The imagery represents an interests in sexuality and reproduction and in martial themes. The former call to mind the search for an heir in the Genesis stories (Abraham and Sarah) as well as in the Ugaritic myths of Keret and Aqhat. The latter consider the importance of the “holy war” stories in Numbers, Joshua, and Judges, as well as in the Ugaritic myths and the annals of the Hittites and Egyptians. In addition to the gold plaque at Lachish, a ewer from c. 1220 bce has a picture of ibexes flanking a tree, symbolic of the goddess Asherah. The accompanying text probably reads, “Mattan. An offering [to] my [la]dy Elat (goddess).” Male statuary appears, as in the case of the Late Bronze Age figurine from Hazor, perhaps representing Baal.4

Much more could be noted regarding the narrative texts of the Pentateuch which purport to date from this early period. In the accounts of Genesis 12–50 the religion of the ancestors involves mainly El Shaddai, a family or clan deity who provides protection and guidance, and who promises land, many heirs, and that Abraham’s offspring will be a blessing to all nations. The religion of these narratives is different from the remainder of the Hebrew Bible in significant ways: it is inclusive; there is no war with the Canaanites; there are no prescribed places of worship, no Sabbath and no food laws; prophets and priests (except the unusual Melchizedek) are not present; moral obedience is not prominent; and Jerusalem does not play an explicit role. The religion predates Yahwistic religion.

The Exodus event, with its escape of Israelite slaves and defeat of the Egyptian army, is the most significant theological event in Israel’s memory. It is remembered in a prose and poetic account (Exodus 14 and 15). If there had been no oppression and exodus, why would any Israelite author invent such a humiliating origin for their people? It is true that Yahweh’s power over the Red (Reed) Sea calls to mind the Ugaritic myths where the chief deity Baal is victorious over the deified Sea. However, neither at Ugarit nor elsewhere is this understood as a redemptive act set within the history of a people, as it is for Israel.

The suzerain–vassal treaties of the Hittites in the 14th and 13th centuries bce compare favorably with a transformation of the treaty’s purpose as the structure of the covenant between God and Israel in Deuteronomy (Suzerain’s Titulary—1:1–6; Historical Prologue—chs. 1–3; Stipulations—chs. 4–26; Witnesses—e.g., 30:19; Blessings and Curses—ch. 28) and other biblical texts. Some scholars find the curses of the Neo-Assyrian treaties (8th–7th centuries bce) and the discovery of a treaty in the temple of Tell Tayinat compelling for a 7th-century date.5

Feder and others have associated the West Semitic idea of expiation through blood sacrifice with Hittite and Hurrian rituals of the second millennium bce.6 Unlike other peoples and areas, such as Mesopotamia, the connection of animal sacrifice with divine forgiveness and restoration of favor seems to be special to these groups in the ancient Near East.

Iron Age I Religious Sources

The Bible places the events found in the books of Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings 1–11 into Iron Age I (c. 1200–925 bce). In Judges and 1 & 2 Samuel, the text’s witness to Israel’s place of residence coincides with the sudden appearance of hundreds of villages in the central hill country. Although figures such as Solomon visit Philistine cities, the Israelites for the most part live in villages. The religious culture there lacks temple or shrine architecture, nor are there any figurines or expensive cult objects. Rather, simpler religious practices dominate, with the use of standing stones (for commemoration or worship; we cannot tell) and, occasionally, specially decorated pottery.

This contrasts with the “fortress temple” that was standing during this period at Shechem, or the huge Hazor temple that lasted into the 13th century bce, when it was burned and destroyed along with the whole Canaanite city (for this and other temples see Ben-Tor7). The mutilation of (divine?) images by cutting off their heads and the simple culture that followed subsequent to the destruction of Hazor’s acropolis suggest a different people and religion. If the Shechem temple features in Judges 9, does the Hazor destruction relate to Joshua 11?

Two sites in the hill country challenge this picture of simple religious culture outside the Canaanite cities c. 1200 bce. The first may appear about 8–10 km (5–6 miles) east of biblical Dothan in the hill country of Manasseh. The site, Dhahrat et-Tawileh, is small. Amihai Mazar’s excavation there revealed an oval-shaped sacred area marked off by a row of stones, with a standing stone and a bronze bull figurine made of copper (92 %), tin (4 %), and lead (4 %). The figurine stands 12.4 cm high and 17.5 cm long (about 5 × 7 inches). The shape of the bull resembles that found among the zebu-style bulls of Syria, including artistic examples at Hazor; and among the Sea people images in the land battle with the Egyptians portrayed at Medinet Habu. Such a bull may reflect an older deity such as El at Ugarit, or it may represent an alternative image of Yahweh, or another deity. The site may be Israelite, Canaanite, or venerated by other groups, possibly from Syria.

A second site appears on Mount Ebal, north of Mount Gerazim and ancient Shechem. While this is the highest peak in the central hill country, surface surveys have revealed, with a single exception, no occupation on Ebal between 3000 bce and the Persian period (after 539 bce). The exception is an installation on the third-highest peak of the mountain, built of field stones and surrounded by two concentric small-stone enclosure walls. The site is some distance from the ridge. Scarabs found in the earlier ash fill date it to sometime between 1250 and 1200 bce. A peaceful transition led to the second phase from 1200 to 1150 bce, when the stone installation was constructed. Thousands of people could gather at this unique site on the mountain. Excavator Adam Zertal identified the stone structure as an altar with two layers of ash and some 2,800 animal bones in and around it. The bones were mainly of sheep, goat, cattle, and some fallow deer. The meat was roasted, and cut marks remain on the bones. There were no sickle blades found, and this, together with the absence of dog and donkey bones, contradicts any proposal that this was a domestic site. The theory of a watchtower seems problematic because the structure is not located directly on the ridge, and the question remains as to what or who benefited by watching for animals on an otherwise uninhabited mountain.

Despite the lack of images or other figurines, the excavator, Adam Zertal, identified the structure as an altar with an access ramp and a veranda around the top. He noted that the use of fieldstones and the absence of steps conformed to the instructions of Exodus 20:24–26 for altar construction. Clearly, the absence of figurines, of cut stones, of standing stones, and of votive offerings separated this site from the typical Canaanite religious center and altar. It as an atypical cult center for Iron Age I whose location corresponds to (but does not identify it with) the altar of Joshua 8:30–35. A single altar might suggest a single deity. While having no Canaanite antecedents, such an altar resembles the later altar of burnt offering at Arad and the one at Tell Moza.

Missing from the Ebal site and from other hill country sites of this period are any traces of pig bones. The highlands were suited for pig production. Despite their absence in the hill country, pig bones occur at traditionally Philistine sites on or near the coast (Ashkelon, Miqne, Timnah) and in Transjordan (Heshban). This has led many scholars to suggest a religious “taboo” on pig consumption in early Iron Age hill country sites, not unlike that of Leviticus 11:7 and Deuteronomy 14:8.

From Iron Age I come the finds at the non-Israelite fortified town of Tel Bethsaida, north of the Sea of Galilee and associated with the kingdom of Geshur.8 Here was discovered a major gate shrine with a position for an image and the offering of libations, dating from the 10th century bce. Also found in this part of the city was a stele with a crescent image and a horned bovine figure, perhaps connected with moon worship.

Human (child) sacrifice is related in Judges 11, with the account of Jepthah and his daughter, in fulfilment of a vow and following a military victory. In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but then forbids the killing. Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2–5 also prohibit child sacrifice as something outside the scope of permitted acts of worship. Its relation to Canaanite practice (Leviticus 18:3, 24) may occur in the late 13th-century bce Egyptian relief of the siege of Canaanite Ashkelon. There smaller humans (children?) are hung over the walls as though to sacrifice them, asking for the gods to look with favor upon the Canaanite inhabitants. At Carthage, a settlement of the Phoenicians (or Canaanites), the Tophet reveals hundreds of burials of sacrificed animals and of children, also buried in the same manner. This is suggestive of what the Bible and Classical sources regarded as the Canaanite practice of killing children as a sacrifice to appease their deities, especially the god Molek, who was associated with the dead.9

The passing of the judges and the rise of kingship is recorded in the book of Samuel. However, Israel’s first king, Saul, usurped the priestly role of sacrificing and lost favor. It is suggested in 1 Samuel 28 that necromancers were consulted in Israel from the earliest period of the Monarchy. In this story, Saul, having banned consultation with the dead from his kingdom, nevertheless visits a necromancer where the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel appears. He predicts Saul’s death in battle the following day. David, the second king, was a man after Yahweh’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14) who enquired of God and trusted in him. An ancient covenant between David’s line and Yahweh is related in 2 Samuel 7. The absence of an image in Israel’s worship of Yahweh is universally attested in the Pentateuch and the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. In some West Semitic traditions empty thrones as well as more broadly attested standing stones represented deities. The explicit written rejection of any image was deeply rooted in Israel’s covenantal traditions (Exodus 20:3–6; Deuteronomy 5:7–10) in a manner not found elsewhere. In its place there is the memory of an “ark” that was constructed as a symbol of Yahweh’s presence with his people (Exodus 25:10–22; 37:1–5; 40:20–21). It consisted of a gold-covered box 1.14 meters (3.5 feet) long and just over 0.7 meters (2 feet) high and wide, with a slab of gold on top (the place of atonement). It was carried with poles inserted in rings attached to either side. Most of the time it remained in the most holy place of the tabernacle (or later the temple) where the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a goat on it once a year for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins and the restoration of a relationship with God (Leviticus 16). David brought the ark to Jerusalem, accompanied by a dance (2 Samuel 6:12–23), followed by cakes he gave to all Israel who attended. This is not unlike Baal’s defeat of his enemies and his distribution of food in his house, as found in the Ugaritic myths.

However, while Baal celebrated with the construction of his house, David would not build Yahweh’s temple. His son, Solomon, constructed a temple with architecture similar to contemporary Syrian three-room temples at Tell Ta’yinat and ’Ain Dara. This appropriation of Canaanite culture proclaimed to the other nations that the greatest nation possessed the greatest god in the greatest temple. The temple’s construction and dedication is described in 1 Kings 5–9 in a manner closely resembling the building descriptions and archaeological evidence found in Mesopotamia and especially Canaanite Syria from the 15th to the 9th centuries bce.

Farther to the southeast, the 10th century saw the emergence of a fort at Arad, along the southern border of Judah. There, too, was a three-part temple, built into the northeast corner. Its outer courtyard had a sacrificial altar. An adjacent broad room opened to a small niche on the far side with one or two standing stones and two altars containing traces of animal fat.10

By this time, at the northern end of the country, Tel Dan experienced the construction of a large rectangular ashlar platform with a four-horned altar and some side rooms for food preparation. This invites comparison with the biblical account of the Israelite king Jeroboam I’s erection of worship centers at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:26–30).

Iron Age II Written Sources

Biblical and Related Portrayals

The biblical books of 1 and 2 Kings provide insights into the religious practices of the kings of Israel and Judah. Jeroboam I (c. 931–911 bce) became the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel. In addition to erecting the gold calves mentioned above, he created his own priests for the sanctuaries and moved the celebration of the Feast of Booths from the seventh month to the eighth. During the reign of Ahab (c. 875–853 bce) Baal was worshiped by bowing and kissing. He built the temple of Baal. Jehu’s destruction of the temple left a national Asherah image unaffected. According to the account of 1 Kings, the distinction between the religious practices of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah begins no later than the division of the kingdoms c. 931 bce, and continues throughout their history.11

In the southern kingdom of Judah, the books of King relate that Solomon’s (c. 971–931 bce) worship places for Astarte, Chemosh, and Milkom continued for almost four centuries. Kings Asa (c. 912–871 bce) and Jehoshaphat (c. 871–849 bce) expelled the qedeshim, who may have been non-Judean poets and cultic personnel. However, the kings did not address the bamot (high places) where worship of other deities occurred. Jehoshaphat had a son (Jehoram c. 871–849 bce) whose widow Athaliah (c. 841–835) may have been Ahab’s daughter and who followed the “kings of Israel” in their worship of other gods. Baal-zebul (“Prince Baal”) of Philistine Ekron was mocked as Baal-zebub (“lord of flies”) in 2 Kings 1.

King Ahaz (c. 735/731–715 bce) built a new altar, changed the Jerusalem temple, built bamot in Judean cities, and passed his son through the fire (likely a human sacrifice). Hezekiah (c. 715–687 bce) removed the bamot, the standing stones (or mazzebot), the asherim, and the Nehustan (the bronze serpent of Numbers 21) which had become an object of worship. His son and successor, Manasseh (c. 687–642 bce) rebuilt the bamot, established altars to Baal, placed an image of Asherah in the Jerusalem temple, passed his son through the fire, and divined (with necromancers; Deuteronomy 18:11; Leviticus 19:31; Isaiah 8:19; 19:3). King Josiah (c. 640–609 bce) undid all that Manasseh had done. He removed the Solomonic bamot on the Mount of Olives, forced foreign cultic officials to stop their practices, restricted the Judahite priests, and killed the Israelite priests of other deities. Josiah’s sons reversed his reforms.

The historical books of the Bible mention prophets from the earlier Deborah during the time of the judges (4:4), and Nathan, David’s prophet (2 Samuel 12 et al.), to the prophetic figures in the books of Kings that occupy the largest amount of text, Elijah and Elisha. Elijah seems to have been a loner but his disciple, Elisha, had a school (or company) of prophets. These 9th-century bce prophets were based in the northern kingdom, at sites such as Carmel and Dothan. They initiated sacrifices, used music, healed, provided food for the hungry, cursed enemies, commanded rain and drought, interceded for others, and addressed kings. The most public and well-known event is described in 1 Kings 18 where the solitary prophet Elijah confronted and defeated 450 prophets of Baal. The text records 400 prophets of Asherah in attendance (1 Kings 18:19). While critics have argued that this is a later redaction, its authenticity seems possible in light of the dominant interpretation of “Yahweh and Asherah” inscriptions from approximately this period (see “Epigraphic Evidence”).

The Hebrew Bible’s prophetic books record visions, symbolic and magical acts, predictions, persecutions, and the indictment of wealthy kings, priests, and people who have no regard for God or those who are in most need. The 8th-century bce prophet Hosea, who spoke mainly to the northern kingdom, indicted Israel for: seeing Yahweh as a manifestation of Baal, sexual immorality, worshiping the calf images, and human sacrifice. Amos spoke in a similar time and context as Hosea. He also decried polytheism, immorality (2:7–8), and the worship of astral deities (5:26). He mentions feasts (6:3–7; possibly the earlier attested marzeach) where the rich enjoyed luxuries while they exploited the poor. Micah, writing to both Israel and Judah a few decades later, attacked the sculpted images of Samaria, the prostitute fees, portable images of guardian deities, divination, Asherah poles, and child sacrifice (5:10–14; 6:6–7). Living and prophesying at this time was also the prophet Isaiah. While sharing themes of corruption and lack of belief among the leadership, the scroll of Isaiah also lists ceremonies, singing, nighttime processions, and lighting fires in fire pits as examples of religious practice.

More than a century later Jeremiah (32:35) and Ezekiel (20:28–33) recalled child sacrifices.12 Gardens were dedicated to deities in Israel (Isaiah 1:29) as in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. The ancient Sumerian myth of Dumuzi dying and rising in accordance with the annual vegetation cycle corresponded to the wailing ritual for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14). People prostrated themselves before images in their gardens and elsewhere. Isaiah 57 refers to various idolatrous practices, some associated with fertility and others with Molek. Isaiah 65 also describes rituals with pig’s blood and meat, perhaps connected with the underworld and with fertility. The idol parodies of Isaiah 40–47 describe the creation of an image from the same block of wood used to build fires to warm oneself.

Jeremiah 2–3 describes prophets prophesying by Baal and Judeans engaging in sexual immorality on hills where they worshipped other deities. In 2:27–28, Baal and Asherah were worshiped for salvation. Jeremiah 8:1–2 describes how leaders’ bones were spread out before host of heaven. In 7:17–18 and 44:3, 15–19, the domestic cult celebrated the Queen of Heaven (Astarte?). Women baked cakes and both genders poured libations and offered incense. If the Queen of Heaven saved them, they promised to renew her cult and continue it in Egypt. Jeremiah 16:5–9 explicitly mentions the marzeach as a funerary feast not to be celebrated because of the terrible judgment on the land. None of these rites would prevent God’s judgment against Israel for its sins. Jeremiah 19:12–13 and 32:29 describe rooftop rituals where incense and libations were offered to astral and other divinities.

An important text for the practice of religions occurs in the prophet’s tour of the abominations in the Jerusalem temple in Ezekiel 8. Verses 3–17 describe a seated figure in one place, a dark chamber with figurines and figures of animals, the previously mentioned Tammuz ritual wailing, rituals connected with Dumuzi/ Baal/ Adonis, sun worship, and rites connected with the sixth day of the sixth month (as opposed to the biblical rituals of the seventh month?). Elsewhere in Ezekiel we find, for example, rituals of nets and breadcrumbs (13:17–21) or dungballs and figurines (14:3–8), of child sacrifice (23:37–39), of bamot and images of male deities and the burning of foodstuffs (16:15–21), and of offerings to royal ancestors and prostitution (43:7–9). Habakkuk (2:18–20) describes how the images are silent and cannot promote divination. Zephaniah (1:4–9) identifies officials called kemarim and priests who worship Baal, astral deities, and perhaps Molek.

In the psalms, various Israelite religious practices can be found. Psalm 20 praises Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. The psalm also appears in the Egyptian Papyrus Amherst 63 (dated by most to the Hellenistic period). However, there, in Demotic, Horus replaces Yahweh as the deity named. The psalms address the themes of death and resurrection, and the place of the dead in Sheol. Psalm 16:10 describes how God will not abandon his faithful one to Sheol, which is unfit for one who trusts in Yahweh. Alongside this text, Psalm 49:15; Proverbs 15:24; and Job 19:25–27 may suggest life after death in a place other than Sheol. However, Sheol plays a dominant role in descriptions of death in the Hebrew Bible.

Ezekiel 37, with its vision of the valley of dry bones that regain skin and life, portrays the resurrection of a nation. Verse 11 clearly identifies the allegory as Israel. While national resurrection is part of the prophetic vision, the belief in an individual resurrection is not as explicit. In its context, Isaiah 26:19 seems to suggest a bodily resurrection. The verse begins, “But your dead will live, lord, their bodies will rise” (NIV). Daniel 12:2 goes further and endorses a general resurrection of the body: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (NIV).

In terms of the family, the oldest living male led the family cult, including annual sacrifices and feasts such as Passover and Purim, the Sabbath, male circumcision, the naming of children, prayers and blessings, a shrine/ text at the entrance to the home to mark the family’s faith (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), and offerings at family tombs (26:14; contrast later Tobit 4:17 and Sirach 30:18). They also usually controlled the teraphim, images related to the family; perhaps ancestor images concerned with inheritance rights (but see below).

Women played key roles in prayers for their family and its well-being, often in naming children (Eve in Genesis 4:1 or the women of the Bethlehem in Ruth 4:17), and in female imagery that occurs in the prayers and poems of the Bible (Psalm 131:2). Publicly, women participated in composing songs and in musical performance (1 Samuel 2:1–10; 18:6–7).13 Queens would entertain priests (1 Kings 18:19). Other women dedicated their children to priestly service (1 Samuel 1:24–28) and supported and created images (Judges 17:3; 1 Kings 15:13). Although women were not part of the priestly line of Israel (neither were most men as it was restricted largely to the line of Aaron, according to Exodus 28:3; 31:10), they served as prophets both early (Deborah who is also a judge in Judges 4–5) and late (Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14–20) in Israel’s pre-exilic history. They are connected with religious traditions of cultic prostitution (Tamar in Genesis 38) and the use of teraphim (Rachel in Genesis 31:19–35; Michal in 1 Samuel 19:13). Ruth becomes a convert from Moabite religion to the worship of Naomi’s God; as is also true of the Canaanite Rahab. These two women provide some of the best examples of confessions of faith in the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9–11; Ruth 1:16–17). See “Iron Age II Archaeological Evidence” for discussion of the female images, especially the Jewish Pillar Figurines.

Elsewhere among classical texts, Eusebius, the 4th century ce church historian, cites Philo of Byblos (1st century ce) who, claiming access to much earlier witnesses regarding Phoenician/ Canaanite religion, mentions worship of the dead, Asherim, and mazzebot (standing stones).


Seals and seal impressions (bullae), as well as epigraphic sources from Iron Age Israel, provide about 2,000 personal names. Many have the name of a deity as part of the personal name. Regarding Israel, Jeffrey Tigay counted 46 % of the total number of names with Yahweh, 6 % with ’el (general term for “god”), and less than 1 % with any other divine names.14 These only occur during the Monarchy (before that few or no Yahwistic names occur, with the Bible the only source of evidence to any extent). The only exception to this picture is the Samaria ostraca from the early 8th century Northern Kingdom capital where we find a number of baal names (probably the god Baal but possibly a general epithet for “lord”). This is different from surrounding contemporary cultures. For example, in Ammonite state where we have 170 or more personal names with divine elements: 150 are ’el; only about nine or ten are built on the Ammonite deity Milkom; and the remaining few are those of other deities including Baal (2) and Yahweh (3). Thus, in the neighboring country with the largest sample of names the picture is different from Israel and Judah, where their national deity dominates among such theophoric personal names. The same is true in other nearby regions where there are numerically significant samples. Something different was taking place in Israel. By the latter period of the monarchy, Yahweh names far surpassed the name of any other deity.

Epigraphic Evidence

In considering the extra-biblical Iron Age II written evidence that is relevant, we begin with an inscription from a non-Israelite. The Mesha of Moab stele (9th century bce) mentions the Moab deity Chemosh. However, Yahweh is alone the god of Israel. He is mentioned here for the first time in extra-biblical sources in an undoubted manner. Further, the defeat of an Israelite town brought into Moab’s possession a religious object (altar hearth?) concerning which the king boasts, but no image of the deity Yahweh is mentioned.

In the Jordan Valley the site of Deir ‘Alla yielded texts written in black and red ink and dating from the late 9th century bce. The reconstructed plaster pieces resulted in a text in an Aramaic/ Hebrew dialect that mentions Balaan son of Beor, the deity El, a divine council of Shaddayin. The writings describe a world turned upside down.

From the same c. 800 bce period, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a site in northeastern Sinai has produced numerous inscriptions.15 This site was likely a caravanserai-type of structure, designed to provide safety for overnight travelers. It included a room with inscriptions and drawings, that reflected religious purposes. Among the inscriptions are the following examples: “bless Baal on the day of w[ar…] to the name of El on the day of w[ar]” “I [I b]lessed you to yhwh of Samaria and to Asheratah” “I blessed you to yhwh Teman and to Asheratah.” Asheratah is best understood as the second and early first millennium bce name of Asherah, though some read a third masculine suffix and translate, “his Asherah.” The latter option has grammatical difficulties wherein Hebrew does not accept a pronominal suffix attached to the proper noun. There are also those who do not accept the existence of the goddess Asherah in these inscriptions. They suggest this is a symbol of Yahweh. However, there is limited evidence for this interpretation.

Assuming that the goddess is mentioned, then these texts are dramatic witnesses to an otherwise unknown belief that Yahweh had a consort, Asherah. Like the consort of El in the Ugaritic myths, the chief deity of Samaria (and Teman) had a wife or partner in these texts. Thus, Yahweh was part of a polytheism that included Asherah and perhaps other deities. Perhaps these inscriptions were the musings of a single individual otherwise unattested. However, excavations at Khirbet el-Qom, about 13 km (8 miles) west of Hebron and likely the Old Testament site of Makkedah, resulted in a tomb inscription reading: “I bless Uryahu to Yahweh … for the sake of Asheratah save him …” Here is a second independent witness from ancient Judah of the 8th century bce. There was a belief that Yahweh had a consort among some in Judah and Israel during the late 9th and early 8th centuries bce.

A small 8th-century bce(?)ivory pomegranate was first purchased from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer. The writing was declared authentic by epigraphist André Lemaire. However, the Israel Museum (IAA), though originally purchasing and displaying the artifact, has become skeptical. The issue of authenticity concerns the date of the patina over the lettering. Sophisticated tests have produced different results. The text itself is best translated, “Belonging to the tem[ple of Yahw]eh, holy to the priests.” Placed on a staff and used for cultic processions, if authentic it may be the single object remaining from the temple of Solomon.

Along the shore of the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, an inscription from c. 700 bce was found in a cave. Possibly dating from the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, the text reads, “cursed is Ashur(?) … Blessed is yhwh. Blessed among the nations … he will reign. … Blessed is ’dny … ” ’dny is the Hebrew form of “my lord,” a designation for Yahweh known from the Hebrew Bible.

In the following century at Khirbet Beit Lei, a burial cave situated five miles east of Lachish, drawings and inscriptions were found. The following is an example: “yhwh … God … Jerusalem … Absolve(?).”

Close to the time of the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 bce, official correspondence on ostraca (potsherds used for writing notes and letters) from Lachish and Arad regularly use formulaic blessings that mention only Yahweh. For example, there is: “May yhwh have regard for your well-being.” At Arad, text 18 mentions the “temple of yhwh.” Is this the temple in Jerusalem or the religious center in the fort at Arad? A Lachish ostracon mentions a “prophet” who says “Beware!” Dating from these final decades of an independent Judah are tombs west of the City of David at Ketef Hinnom. Excavated by Gabriel Barkay in 1979, important discoveries include two rolled-up silver strips with writing whose paleography can be dated to the mid-7th century bce. Both strips contain parts of the blessing of Aaron in Numbers 6:24–26. This forms the oldest fragment of a biblical text found. One of the strips also refers to “the rebuke of the [Ev]il” and may contain part of the text of Deuteronomy 7:9. The purpose of the scrolls may have been as amulets to ward off evil. Other biblical texts from so early a period would not have survived. Scribes wrote most of these on papyrus or vellum which can only be preserved for millennia in extremely dry climates such as Egypt or the area of the Dead Sea. Nevertheless, the early witness to a priestly text, such as Numbers 6, suggests that more biblical texts may have been written during the time of the Judean Monarchy.

Iron Age II Archaeological Evidence

Jerusalem Cave 1 and Samaria Cave E207 represent nonconformist cult centers outside of the mainstream. Dating from the late 8th century, both sites have yielded animal, horse-and-rider, and pillar figurines alongside other items. West of Jerusalem about twenty tumuli have been discovered, identified with the twenty-kings who ruled in Jerusalem between David and Zedekiah. The city of Jerusalem has some 250 rock-cut caves and bench tombs, the latter often exhibiting Hathor-style headrests.

Excavations at Tel Moza, about 7 km (4.5 miles) northwest from Old Testament Jerusalem, revealed a 10th and 9th centuries bce temple with figurines and cult vessels buried in the packed-earth floor. There is a fieldstone altar at the center of the courtyard area, ash and animal bones, a nearby pit, and figurines that suggest a non-Yahwistic center.

At Lachish to the west, cult room 49 includes a four-horned incense altar and a basalt standing stone. Such incense burners appear on the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s royal reliefs from his palace. They depict their removal from Lachish during the Assyrian conquest of 701 bce.

In the north, Dan is the largest state sanctuary discovered in Iron Age Israel. It contains a high place, a large podium, monumental stairs, a three-room food preparation (lishka) area, three iron shovels, a stone altar “horn” twenty inches high suggesting a huge altar about twenty feet square, and other cultic materials, such as the groups of standing stones at the area of the southern gate.

At Arad the previously mentioned three-room sanctuary continued in use in the 8th century bce and possibly later. The outer altar “of burnt offering” contained a core of earth and fieldstones, and was faced with field stones. Its plastered top held a flint slab for burning on it. The Arad ostraca included personal names linked with Levitical families in the Hebrew Bible.

These various cult centers do not resemble one another. The biblical bamot or high places could likely be found within walled population centers. The standing stones (mazzebot) at such sites could serve as memorials or represent deities.

Model shrines, representing actual shrines in miniature, have been found at many sites, most significantly at a Philistine favissa near modern Tel Aviv. There, these terracotta miniatures of houses and temples include male and female figures (deities or humans?) peering out from windows and doors. Musicians can also be found, as are images of bovines, lions, sphinxes, and various trees.

At Taanach one of the cult stands dated from the later 10th century bce preserves remarkably varied and significant artistic detail. The front side exhibits four panels with separate scenes. On the bottom panel at the center is a female nude framed by two lions facing the observer. The female is a form of a goddess whose association with lion imagery suggests the figure of Asherah or Astarte. Above this panel is one with an empty center. Nothing is broken off from the surrounding frame where two sphynxes or cherubim flank the empty area. This is an “image” of an imageless (i.e., aniconic) deity. It forms a significant association with the portrayal of Yahweh in 1 Kings 5–9, the invisible deity between the cherubim in the most holy part of the temple. The third panel has as its focus a tree. It frames two ibexes, one on either side. On the outside are two lions, identical in form and arrangement to the bottom panel. The best interpretation of this image is the tree of life which symbolizes the goddess Asherah or Astarte. The top panel is either a calf or a horse, facing to the left and framed by columns. If it is a calf, this could be an image of the calf deity associated with the Northern Kingdom’s version of Yahweh (1 Kings 12:28–30), or it could represent a young, strong male deity such as Baal. If a horse, it suggests martial imagery and brings to mind the horses dedicated to the sun in the Jerusalem temple (2 Kings 23:11), a view supported by the winged sun disk above the head of the animal. If the identification with Asherah and Yahweh is correct, then one has (from bottom to top) an A–B–Aʹ–Bʹ pattern similar to that found in prose and poetry. A and B represent Asherah and Yahweh in anthropomorphic form, while Aʹ and Bʹ depict symbols of these deities.

A second group of images occurs on the pottery sherd at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud that contain blessings to Yahweh and (his?) Asherah. On one, in the midst of other symbols and simpler forms, there appears a drawing of a lyre player and of two human-like figures facing the observer and possessing bovine features. Although some have found Yahweh and Asherah here, there is no necessary identification with the writing. The best interpretation, on the basis of comparative analysis of the forms of the figures, may be that they represent Bes figures. Bes was an Egyptian deity associated with fortune. His image has been found throughout the Iron Age and later in southern Canaan and elsewhere around the Mediterranean coast. These may thus be images designed to bring good luck.

The Judean pillar figurines (JPF), zoomorphic figurines, model furniture, and horse-and-rider figurines represent power, fertility, and abundance. In Transjordan, drummers and figures of identifiable deities are prevalent. In Judah more than 800 pillar figurines dominate the art of the period between 722 and 586 bce. Four hundred and five were found in Jerusalem alone. Often appearing in domestic contexts, some have interpreted them as goddesses, especially Asherah, who would provide women with an object of religious devotion when the temple banned female priests.16 Erin Darby has noted the greater complexity of the social context for these images and the possibility of their use by men as well as women.17 Some have suggested they served as good luck charms or as a physical expression of prayers. They are all cheaply made of clay and often mass produced; aspects not characteristic of divine images.

While the 12th and 11th centuries bce saw a simplicity of cult at village shrines, high places began in the 10th century and could be found at Megiddo, Taanach, and Lachish. Although each was distinctive, Dan and Arad remain the two major sanctuaries during the period of the Divided Monarchy. They attest to sacrificial ritual and to eating, and both exhibit the phenomenon of aniconic representation of deities.

In the 10th century bce Egyptian-style anthropomorphic representation disappears. The Northern Kingdom exemplifies a greater use of symbols to represent deities. Goddesses appear in trees and lions. There is the theme of the Lord of the Ostriches, which may present Yahweh as God of the Steppe. From 925 to 722 bce the Lord of the Ostriches continues as an artistic theme. There is also the presentation of Yahweh as Lord of the caprids. Worshipers appear as deer in Israel and as does in Judah. The lion and the sun are symbols of strength, as in the Bible. The four-winged youth appears, perhaps representing Baal. Israel uses the solar disk and lotus flowers to represent regeneration. Pillar-based female figurines begin to appear.

From 722 to 586 bce, the Assyrian influence brings Ishtar into Israelite iconography. There are more appearances of the lunar disk and the crescent moon. There is evidence for more Assyrian influence during the time of Josiah at the end of the 7th century bce. Five hundred ivory fragments were discovered at Samaria from the 9th and 8th centuries bce. They portray lions, bulls, sphinx, and deities such as Isis, Horus, Ra, and Osiris. The theme of the woman at the window is also found.

Jerusalem’s monarchy saw the creation of tombs east of the city in modern Silwan, as well as north of the Old City. Hewn bench tombs were not uncommon. In such tombs the body was placed on a stone bench with a Hathor-style headrest. In the first century ce Josephus noted that tombs north of the city included those of the later Judean kings. The 8th and 7th centuries bce was a period when bench tombs were common in highland areas of Israel and Judah. The lowlands had simpler cist tombs.

Burial was considered essential (Ecclesiastes 6:3; Deuteronomy 21:22–23). The tombs of Israel, like those of earlier Ugarit, demonstrate evidence of feeding and mourning the dead, and perhaps also of consulting them. The food and drink, as attested by the presence of vessels for this purpose in the tombs, may have been provided for the journey to the netherworld.


The religion of the Divided Monarchy, as attested by the texts and the archaeology, suggests a continuum.18 At one end was the prophetic religion of Yahweh alone. The approved prophets and kings of the Hebrew Bible texts attest to this. The Ketef Hinnom silver strips and the single altar at Beersheba also suggest it. In this religious practice one could find dreams, the casting of lots, sanctuary worship that focused on Jerusalem alone, pilgrimage festivals for Yahweh’s acts, morality, and justice, and the leadership of the approved priests and prophets of the Bible.

At the other extreme on this continuum was the Baal cult from Tyre, brought to Israel by Jezebel and to Judah by Athaliah. The Ugaritic texts, Philo’s account, the Canaanite temples, and some personal names (as for example the Baal names on the 8th-century bce Samaria ostraca) attest to this belief.

In between was the de-facto official religion in the north and sometimes in the south. Yahweh was the national state deity. Baals and other deities appeared on a local level.

Closely related was the popular religion where Yahweh, as the state deity, had Asherah as a consort in at least some of these expressions. This could be found in the Kuntillet inscriptions, the probable interpretation of the Taanach cult stand, the marzeach (funerary?) banquets, the cult centers and figurines, and perhaps the personal names. These popular religions fell into two broad types.

First, were those that made no formal acknowledgement of other deities but publicly approved of Yahweh alone. This could include the use of standing stones (mazzebot); pillar figurines; high places; calf images; bronze serpent; asherim as cult objects of Yahweh; necromancers; a cult of the dead; teraphim; marzeahs; and the vessels found in tombs.

A second type of this religion involved the formal acknowledgement of other deities. It could be found in Jezebel’s priests; the temple of Baal; Baal names in the Samaria ostraca; child sacrifice; and the practices found in Ezekiel 8.

After the Exile

The period of the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period witnesses the departure of “Israelite” as a commonly accepted category and the advent of the designation of “Jew.” These are the inhabitants of the Persian province of Yehud after 539 bce as well as the inhabitants of Elephantine on the Nile of Upper Egypt and those of the Diaspora in Babylonia and beyond. In Yehud, the archaeological evidence is meager regarding cultic and religious concerns. Bench tombs continue with cist and shaft tombs added. In the second century bce Ben Sira (30:18) condemns feeding the dead while Tobit (4:17) may refer to the practice. Praying for the dead is attested in 2 Baruch 85:12 and Pseudo-Philo 33:5.

The biblical texts of Haggai and Zechariah bear witness to the period of the latter part of the 6th century bce and the concern for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple under the influence of a high priest by the name of Joshua. The strong priestly control of the exilic period was shared with Zerubbabel, the governor of Yehud and possible successor of Jehoiakim.

In the middle of the following century appear the governor Nehemiah and the scribe Ezra who seek to restore a form of legislation in conformity with texts such as Deuteronomy. They also appreciate the value of justice and equity among the inhabitants of Yehud.

In the Babylonian exile the Jews preserved Yahwistic personal names.

The late 5th-century bce Jewish mercenary colony of Elephantine saw their temple to Yahu burnt to the ground by enemies. They wrote the religious officials in Jerusalem for permission to rebuild it. According to preserved letters in Aramaic, they were given this permission but were not allowed to offer blood sacrifices. The syncretistic nature of the community, and its association with other West Semitic groups mentioned in the documentation, are witnessed by the use of compound divine names such as Anatbaal, Anatbethel, Eshmenbethel, and Herembethel.

Diversity and Distinctiveness

A few observations may be made regarding ancient Israel’s religions and their influence. First, it is clear that ancient Israel was home to a variety of religious beliefs and practices that developed from earlier West Semitic beliefs and practices attested in Bronze Age archives and cult centers.

Second, there is a sense in which the religion of ancient Israel emerges as a distinctive set of practices and beliefs. Above all there is the exodus tradition of Israel’s redemption from slavery from Egypt by its god, and of Yahweh and his unique covenant with them, given in the form of a treaty. This is recalled again and again in every major section of the Bible. Yahweh’s own revelation of his distinctive name, and his origins in the mountains to the south, also have no known precedent. The growing emphasis on Yahweh as the sole deity, and his intolerance of other gods and goddesses, as well as their cults, is unique. There is also the aniconic nature of Yahweh.

A third point is the gradual evolution and change in ancient Israel. Although the texts and archaeology indicate a diversity of religious practice present from the beginning until the end of the period, there are clear signs that as the centuries progressed this people became increasingly devoted to Yahweh alone and to his religion, as attested in the biblical texts.

The religion of ancient Israel should be seen as more than a singular collection of beliefs and practices arising out of a peculiar concatenation of political and economic factors. It rather held within itself the schema of a faith that could avoid that which was tied only to the temporal, could adopt and transform that which had value from other religions, and could identify and nurture those distinctions that set it apart and enabled it to foster the great monotheistic religions of the Western world.

Review of the Literature

Modern study of Israelite Religion begins with the work of Julius Wellhausen. He published his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels in 1878. The English translation, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, quickly followed, and was reprinted most recently in 1973.19 Wellhausen summarized and advanced the previous century’s work in literary criticism of the Pentateuch with a study that divided the text into four major documents. These traced the history of Monarchic, Exilic, and Post-Exilic Israel in terms of religious and political interests. J, the earliest document preserving a narrative from creation (Genesis 1) until the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34), was written in the 10th or 9th century bce in the Jerusalem court as part of a larger project to justify the Davidic monarchy. E, an 8th-century document from the northern Israelite court of Jeroboam II, preserved narrative pieces particularly connected with prophets and northern cultic sites such as Bethel. D, a reform document “planted” in the temple and discovered by Josiah c. 622 bce, justified the centralization of Yahweh worship next to the king’s palace in the Jerusalem temple. P, a document reflecting priestly laws and concerns from the late 6th and early 5th centuries bce, provided a basis for theocratic aspirations of the postexilic priesthood. Although the dating and specific constitution of the “documents” is debated, this approach remains an essential part of the academic study of Pentateuchal religion.20

Alongside this literary critical approach there emerged tradition history as represented by Hermann Gunkel c. 1900 and his student, Albrecht Alt.21 These scholars examined the recently published ancient Near Eastern texts from Mesopotamia that included creation and flood stories. Finding in them themes that they could trace into the biblical traditions, they considered the origins and developments of these as well as sacred names and practices. Martin Noth and Gerhard von Rad continued this method by identifying major tradition complexes in the Pentateuch (and Joshua).

The middle and late 20th century saw the rise of many areas of further research, in line with discoveries of texts and artifacts in and around the area of ancient Israel. From the selection of outstanding authors and works, William F. Albright remains as a synthesizer of what was known of the advances in archaeology as well as the publication of religious texts from Ugarit and Mari and elsewhere.22 He concluded that Israel began its history with the worship of a single deity. Albright’s student, Frank Moore Cross, emphasized the themes behind the Ugaritic myths as informative for some of the early poetry in the Old Testament.23

Whatever consensus this had created was dramatically challenged with the discovery and publication of a site in northeastern Sinai, Kuntillet ’Ajrud. Drawings and inscriptions there from c. 800 bce revealed blessings written to Yahweh and (his) Asherah. The initial announcement in 1978 (followed by the excavator’s publication24) led many scholars to the conclusion that Yahweh had always been part of a pantheon or at least had been envisioned alongside a goddess. The belief in a single deity, Yahweh, was no longer accepted as an early phenomenon, much less as a product of revelation. Mark S. Smith produced an erudite, widely read, and often accepted synthesis that argued for an evolutionary development of Yahweh from a lesser god in the Canaanite pantheon, El, to a single God who replaced El and experienced the convergence of various characteristics from other deities.25

Several works addressed this formulation in different ways. Ziony Zevit re-examined and catalogued the mass of epigraphic and archaeological evidence, noting the presence of sites with single altars that could suggest a single deity.26 R. Hess continued with this theme by creating a model that allowed for two strands throughout early Israel’s history.27 One held belief in a single deity while another included groups that accepted various religions with multiple deities, some with Yahweh and some without. On the other side of the question there were many who accepted multiple deities as the norm, whether in family life, as found in the interpretation of divine imagery in domestic and in naming contexts, or in the swelling collection of iconographic evidence from seals and other images, or in the identification of Asherah with the Judean Pillar Figurines.28 Collections of essays were authored that argued for a belief in one god no earlier than the Exile.29 The evidence, if it takes the student anywhere, moves in the direction of an increasingly complex religious environment in which no single model will exhaust all the possibilities of religious practice and belief.

Primary Sources

There are many primary sources in the artifacts, cult sites, iconography, personal names, and textual areas. The relevant artifactual material, along with cult sites and other primary sources, is well surveyed by Zevit (2001).30 The best study of iconography remains Keel and Uehlinger (1998).31 Far-ranging work on domestic artifactual material and on personal names can be found in Albertz and Schmitt (2012).32 The most thorough review and synthesis of all relevant non-written and much of the written material appears in Dever (2017).33 The non-specialist should begin here for an understanding of the history, culture, and religion of ancient Israel and Judah as found in the archaeology. An important anthropological perspective on gender roles and its significance in Israelite religion can be found in Meyers (2012).34

The synthesis of Hess (2007) remains a basic introduction to the study of Israelite religion and touches upon all the previous discussed areas as well as the texts.35 There are many potential textual sources: major ones are discussed in the above works. Zevit (2001) re-examined all the relevant Hebrew inscriptions to produce his own readings. For a comprehensive survey of the relevant textual sources, one can hardly do better than to consult the four volumes of The Context of Scripture, edited by Hallo and Younger (volume 4 by Younger alone).36

One can consider collections of ancient Near Eastern textual sources in various genres. For relevant wisdom literature (specifically of the Late Bronze Age), see Cohen (2013).37 For prophetic texts, the work of Nissinen (2003) remains essential.38Beckman’s second edition (1999) of Hittite treaties is important.39 However, the most comprehensive presentation of almost one hundred biblical and ancient Near Eastern treaties and covenants is the three-volume set by Kitchen and Lawrence (2012).40

For those who seek more textual sources and details, some important publications of the most significant collections for Israelite religion include the translations of the Mari letter by Heimpel (2003) and Sasson (2015).41 Ugarit also provides a wealth of relevant material from the second millennium bce, including poetic mythological texts (Parker 1997) and ritual and cultic texts (Pardee 2002).42 While many of the relevant Assyrian, Babylonian, and Elephantine texts can be found in The Context of Scripture volumes, an important collection of cuneiform documents of Judean exiles appears in Pearce and Wunsch (2014).43 From within and outside the geographical area of ancient Israel the Amarna letters of the mid-14th century bce are particular relevant. Their translation is now updated by the late Anson Rainey and completed by Schniedewind and Cochavi-Rainey (2015).44 The remaining major texts found in the land of Israel include the cuneiform materials primarily from the second millennium bce and the Hebrew and cognate texts from the Iron Age of the first millennium bce. For the former, see Horowitz, Oshima, and Sanders (2018); and for the latter, Aḥituv (2008).45


  • Ackerman, Susan. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Aḥituv, Shmuel. Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Jerusalem, Israel: Carta, 2008.
  • Albertz, Rainer, and Rüdiger Schmitt 2012 Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012.
  • Albright, William F. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.
  • Alt, Albrecht. Essays on Old Testament History and Religion. Trans. R.A. Wilson. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.
  • Arav, Rami. “Toward a Comprehensive History of Geshur.” In Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee. Vol. 3. Bethsaida Excavations Project. Edited by R. Arav and R. A. Freund, 1–48. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2004.
  • Beckman, Gary. Hittite Diplomatic Texts. 2nd ed. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 7. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1999.
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon. Hazor: Canaanite Metropolis: Israelite City. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2016.
  • Cohen, Yoram, Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 29. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.
  • Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  • Darby, Erin. Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual. Forschungen zum Alten Testament II/69. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
  • Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.
  • Dever, William G. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017.
  • Dewrell, Heath D. Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017.
  • Feder, Yitzhaq. Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning. SBL Writings from the Ancient World Supplement Series 2. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
  • Fleming, Daniel E. The Legacy of Israel in Judahs Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Traditions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Golub, Mitka R.Personal Names in Judah in the Iron Age II.” Journal of Semitic Studies 62, no. 1 (2017): 19–58.
  • Greengus, Samuel. “Covenant and Treaty in the Hebrew Bible and in the Ancient Near East.” In Ancient Israels History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources. Edited by Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, 91–126. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014.
  • Gunkel, Hermann. Israel und Babylonien: Der Einfluss Babyloniens auf die israelitische Religion. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1903.
  • Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger Jr., eds. The Context of Scripture: Vol. 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger Jr., eds. The Context of Scripture: Vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.
  • Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger Jr., eds. The Context of Scripture: Vol. 3: Archival Documents from the Biblical World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
  • Hamori, Esther J. Womens Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Heimpel, Wolfgang. Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003.
  • Herzog, Ze’ev. “The Fortress Mound at Tel Arad: An Interim Report.” Tel Aviv 29, no. 1 (2002): 3–109.
  • Hess, Richard S. Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.
  • Horowitz, Wayne, Takayoshi Oshima, and Seth L. Sanders. Cuneiform in Canaan: The Next Generation. 2nd ed. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2018.
  • Keel, Othmar, and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of Gods in Ancient Israel. Translated by T. H. Trapp. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A., and Paul J. N. Lawrence. Treaty, Law, and Covenant in the Ancient Near East. Part 1: The Texts. Part 2: Texts, Notes and Chromograms. Part 3: Overall Historical Survey. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2012.
  • Lauinger, Jacob. “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty at Tell Tayinat: Text and Commentary.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 64, no. 1 (2012): 87–123.
  • Meshel, Ze’ev, ed. KuntilletAjrud (Ḥorvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
  • Meyers, Carol. Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • De Moor, Johannes, and Paul Sanders. “An Ugaritic Expiation Ritual and Its Old Testament Parallels.” Ugarit Forschungen 23 (1991): 283–300.
  • Nissinen, Marttí. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 12. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Ornan, Tallay. “‘Let Baal Be Enthroned’: The Date, Identification, and Function of a Bronze Statue from Hazor.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 70, no. 2 (2011): 253–280.
  • Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 10. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
  • Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 7. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997.
  • Pearce, Laurie E., and Cornelia Wunsch. Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer. Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 28. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2014.
  • Rainey, Anson F., William Schniedewind, and Zipor Cochavi-Rainey, eds. The El-Amarna Correspondence: A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the Site of El-Amarna Based on Collations of All Extant Tablets. Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section 1, Ancient Near East, vol. 110. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.
  • Sasson, Jack M. From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015.
  • Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Stavrakopoulou, Francesca, and John Barton, eds. Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. London, U.K.: T & T Clark.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey. You Shall Have No Other Gods. Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions. Harvard Semitic Studies 31. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986.
  • Tilly, Michael, and Wolfgang Zwickel. Religionsgeschichte Israels: Von der Vorzeit bis zu den Anfängen des Christentums. 2nd ed. Darmstadt, Germany: wbg, 2015.
  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Gloucester, U.K.: Peter Smith Reprint, 1973.
  • Younger, K. Lawson, Jr., ed. The Context of Scripture: Volume 4: Supplements. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017.
  • Zehnder, Markus. “Building on Stone? Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s Loyalty Oaths (Part 1): Some Preliminary Observations.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 3 (2009): 341–374.
  • Zehnder, Markus. “Building on Stone? Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s Loyalty Oaths (Part 2): Some Additional Observations.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19, no. 4 (2009): 511–536.
  • Zevit, Ziony. The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches. London, U.K.: Continuum, 2001.