Review of Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

Israelite Religion by Richard HessAuthor: Richard Hess
Baker, 2007)

This is an extremely valuable and helpful book that will earn the respect of a broad array of biblical scholars. Writing from an evangelical point of view, Hess nevertheless is rigorous and dispassionate in cataloguing the archaeological data that pertain to our understanding of Israelite religions (note the plural).

I find Hess’s work valuable personally for two reasons. First, it is a very useable reference book for Old Testament students. I can imagine a good number of people pulling this book off the shelf to get a succinct overview, for example, of the major written and archaeological sources for the divided monarchy (chapters 9 and 10). He presents the data with an economical prose style that exudes first-hand familiarity with the material. Hess is a first-rate scholar of the ANE and ancient Israelite religions, and this work will benefit many.

Second, what I find of great interest is Hess’s attention to Biblical Theological issues vis-à-vis the study of ancient Israel. Although Hess, by virtue of the nature of the volume itself, cannot sustain a dialogue with theology throughout, his introductory chapter portends what I hope will be a more concerted effort on Hess’s part to synthesize “Bible in Context” with theological topics. As I never grow weary of saying, this is a much-needed area of evangelical scholarly attention.

A few remarks on the introduction may help orient interested readers to Hess’s approach.

Hess laments how historically the study of Israelite religion has become dissociated with Old Testament theology, and thus vitally connected to the faith and life of the church, and has become more a study of ancient Israelite practices with no view towards painting some coherent picture.

Having said this, however, Hess understands that the increase in both material remains and epigraphic evidence has not only stimulated renewed interest in ancient Israel, but it has also rendered nugatory simple categorization. For example, the evidence shows that in ancient Israel there were more than just two camps, worshipers of Yahweh and those of Baal. “Yahweh,” as Hess puts it, “has now become a member of the pantheon of Iron Age Palestine.” Of course, Hess is not advocating such a belief, but merely observing/describing where the increased evidence seems to be pointing. Hess also suggests that the postmodern penchant for pluralism affects such a perspective.

Hess’s own goals become clear as early as p. 14. He is not concerned to highlight the role of biblical theology, but “to reexamine the extrabiblical and biblical evidence for the religions of the southern Levant in the Iron Age (c. 1200-586) and to locate features that might be distinctive in terms of the religions of Israel and Judeans.” His thesis is elaborated on the next page. “In the end it [the book] will argue that, while there existed a bewildering variety of religious beliefs and practices in the relatively tiny states that were Israel and Judah, this does not exclude, in terms of logic or evidence, the possibility that a single core of beliefs among some that extended back, perhaps far back, into Israel’s preexilic past.”

One could pause here for quite some time to unpack some of the nuances of this statement. All in all I find it very promising, even a bit exciting, that a respected evangelical scholar would put things quite this way. For one thing, Hess is very clear that the biblical portrait of Israelite religion, although authoritatively descriptive for the church’s faith and life (i.e., the biblical theological dimension), simplifies what “in reality” was actually quite diverse. Everyday Israelite life exhibited a “bewildering array of religious beliefs and practices.” This is what the archaeological record demonstrates. That doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong or deceptive, etc., only that the Bible portrays Israelite religion in a particular way (and we will leave aside here for the purposes of this review just what those reasons might be). In day to day life, Hess acknowledges, there existed Israelite religions.

Hess leaves open the “possibility of a single core of beliefs” that may stretch back very far, even to the preexilic period. This is a statement worth remarking on. Although Hess goes to great pains to distance himself from the Documentary Hypothesis, where the production of Israelite historiography was essentially an exilic and postexilic phenomenon, it seems clear that, on the basis of the archaeological record, it is (only) possible to demonstrate a single core of belief. Moreover, that possibility of a single core of belief may even extend into the preexilic period, which Hess clarifies in a footnote means the monarchic period. (By the way, Hess’s section outlining the weaknesses of the Documentary Hypothesis is a very mature and balanced reflection on the issue.)

Some reading this may be left scratching their heads, but we must remember what Hess’s purpose is here. It is not to defend the biblical description of Israelite religion, but to assess the archaeological record and what it says about Israelite religion(s). For Hess, this assessment of evidence cannot be dismissed, but I sense he is advocating an assimilation of the evidence into a discussion of Biblical Theology.

To Hess’s great credit, he continues with a brief (too brief for me, but we have to remember Hess’s purpose) discussion of the relationship between Biblical Theology and Israelite religion. Hess acknowledges that this is a problem unique to biblical studies, since no one is concerned about the relationship between Mesopotamian religion and the abiding theological prescriptive value of the Enuma Elish. Hess explains himself in what I think is a paragraph of pivotal importance, and worth reproducing in full (p. 16)

In light of Israelite religion, one might add that biblical theology would not accommodate the points of view of many of the ancient Israelites. There is a recognizable distinction between biblical theology on the one hand, which emphasizes the ideals that the biblical writers thought should constitute Israel’s religious beliefs and practices, and the study of Israelite religion on the other, which considers what ancient Israel actually did believe and do in matters of religion. The latter is how we will understand the term in our study. Although there can be significant overlap in the content of the two in the final analysis the study of Israelite religion examines the biblical text for evidence of beliefs and practices that diverge from those the texts advocate. In doing so it is necessary to supplement this material with extrabiblial sources, both written and archaeological. These assist in balancing the polemics of the biblical writers and they can provide a greater depth and illumination to their study. Furthermore, this material allows those who practiced religion an opportunity to “speak” for themselves through their own inscriptions and archaeological evidence. This is essential to understand the whole picture, or as much of it as is available. Nevertheless, complete separation of theology from religion remains impossible.

Translation: if you want to whole picture, the Bible isn’t enough. In fact, the Bible only gives an “ideal” picture rather than an “actual” picture. Historical study looks for evidence of beliefs and practices that “diverge” from the biblical portrait. In doing so, one can uncover the lost voices of the past that have been muted by the “polemics of the biblical writers.”

This raises some questions, namely, why we would want or need the whole picture. Isn’t the Bible enough? I don’t think Hess addresses this question head on (which, again, is fine with me in a volume such as this), but it is a question begging to be asked—why study all this extrabiblical stuff if all it does is confirm that the reality of the matter is much more complex than the Bible lets on? I imagine at least part of Hess’s answer might be in what was cited earlier, that there remains, despite the diversity of Israelite religions, the possibility of a central core of beliefs that might even extend back to the monarchic period. Personally, for me, this is not enough of an answer, as it leaves unanswered some sort of positive theological program of the relationship between biblical and extrabiblical evidence.

I strongly sympathize with Hess’s dilemma. And, like Hess, I do not for one minute want to sidestep the issues raised by a study of ancient history. I am only calling for more of an overt synthesis.

Note also the world that Hess occupies as an historian of ancient Israel. Getting back as far as the monarchic period is, well, pretty good. That is where the academic discussion is today, more or less—not so much in the historical Israel in the 2nd millennium BC but what we can say, if anything, about Israelite history in the monarchic period (c. 1000-586 BC).

There is much more that can be said about the sections cited above as well as the remainder of the introduction, not to mention some scintillating and provocative observations throughout the volume, but space does not allow. Suffice it to say that Hess is a first-rate historian who is addressing the matter of Israelite religion as an historian. His universe of discourse will be in some tension with that of biblical theology (as Hess acknowledges) but also, to be sure, systematic theology. Yet Hess is clear that his field is not the final court of appeal. My hope is that, as more and more people become familiar with the types of data biblical historians, including evangelicals, handle everyday, that more meaningful and substantive discussions can commence regarding the Scripture that we all, by faith, confess as God’s word to his people.