Religion of Ancient Israel, The

Religion of Ancient Israel, The

Hagan, G Michael

The Religion of Ancient Israel. By Patrick D. Miller. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000, xx + 335 pp., n.p.

Patrick Miller’s study of ancient Israelite religion fits nicely between the detailed, two-volume work of Rainer Albertz (A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, 1994) and the introductory treatment of Susan Niditch (Ancient Israelite Religion, 1997). It provides a carefully argued examination and reconstruction of ancient Israel’s religion in light of the growing material findings of archaeology, current understandings of religious practices from the biblical texts, and recent studies of ancient iconography and comparative Semitics. This work has been much anticipated by scholars, and it rarely disappoints.

Many studies of the religion of Israel emphasize one area of evidence with a disregard for others. One study might focus on comparative evidence to such an extent that the biblical record is neglected. Miller strikes a balance of extrabiblical and biblical evidences. He outlines issues with great care, weighing the pluses and minuses. He tries not to go beyond the evidence and is quick to observe when consensus is not available, although this may prove frustrating to the reader. In some instances, he does not take a position because the evidence is too scanty. Again, this is frustrating, but often the evidence does not warrant an interpretation at this time. We might wish that the OT gave more explanation than it does. Thus we need studies like Miller’s.

Miller presents his study topically. He believes that the student of the religion of Israel gains a clearer picture of various areas or dimensions of Israel’s beliefs and practices by taking each subject area in a systematic way, examining the OT records, bringing to bear ancient Near Eastern parallels, and developing socio-historical models for evidence that cry out for reconstruction. The book moves from an analysis of the deity, Yahweh, at the center of ancient Israel’s worship (chap. 1), turns to the various types of religious practice in ancient Israel (chap. 2), examines sacrifice (chap. 3), discusses holiness and purity (chap. 4), and ends with leadership and participation in Israelite religion (chap. 5). Miller demonstrates historical development within the topical analyses in each chapter, often reserving additional detailed discussion of scholarly viewpoints to the extensive endnotes, a real treasure (pp. 212-88). He does an excellent job of describing issues and weighing positives and negatives of possible evidences.

Yahweh sits at the center of Israel’s religion. In chap. 1 Miller traces briefly his understandings of the origins, names, and covenant relationship of Yahweh with Israel. Biblical images of warrior, judge, and king take additional space. Extrabiblical evidence offers two problems that Miller examines carefully, one being aniconism, the position in Israelite religion against any images of Yahweh, and the other the problem of a feminine dimension in relationship to Yahweh. Miller points out that the material findings from archaeological evidence support an early development of aniconism. Biblical support for aniconism comes from Exod 33:18-19, where holiness and the jealous nature of God lead to restrictions on images. However, the bronze serpent made by Moses, Gideon’s ephod, and Micah’s idol in Judg 17:2-3 muddy the waters. In the biblical record the first two are condemned eventually. Deuteronomistic prohibitions safeguard exclusive worship of Yahweh. Miller proposes a socio-political argument that aniconism reflected a resistance to kingship (p. 22). This additional support derives from a reconstruction from comparative sources and does not aid our understanding of Israelite rationale.

The problem of a female consort to Yahweh has arisen from epigraphic and iconographic findings at two sites, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Kom, along with reexamination of the cult stand from Taanach (see his Excursus 2 on the Taanach cult stand). Miller believes that the feminine dimension may be found in Yahweh himself, but he also thinks that in all times feminine dimensions reared themselves as either ababerrant worship or at least a modification of true worship. His judgments on this subject are valuable and balanced.

Chapter 2 looks at the multiform nature of religion in ancient Israel. Both biblical and extrabiblical evidence support the diverse nature of Israel’s religion.

Orthodox or normative belief describes the primary features of Yahwism, including exclusive worship of Yahweh, means to communicate with God, places to meet him, actions that reflect obedience to God’s instructions, and so on. “Heterodox Yahwism” grows out of features that seem to be in conflict with some aspect of orthodoxy. For example, diverse cultic objects, such as plaque-type figurines, seem to have been incorporated at various sites, coming into favor and going out of favor at different times, if the artifactual evidence is interpreted correctly, but they were not approved by normative Yahwism. Biblical support for changing viewpoints on cultic practice may be seen in the rise and fall of “high places” or in varying attitudes towards the consultation of the dead (compare 1 Samuel 28 with Isa 8:19). Why these elements arose in Israel is difficult to determine. “Syncretistic Yahwism” receives specific attention by the prophets (see especially Ezekiel 8). Representative elements of syncretism include the worship of Baal, worship of the “Queen of Heaven,” and child sacrifice. Miller provides plausible explanations for these elements from biblical and comparative evidences.

The chapter continues with three religious types or forms of religious practice and conceptuality: family religion, local and regional cults, and state religion. These types may be traced as part of historical development. Community religion is added in the postexilic era.

The evidences and discussion in this lengthy section help put often disparate elements in the evidence into perspective. Miller examines family religion with its personal and social deity, sacred areas or shrines, festivals, and practices. Local and regional cults came about when families joined together to worship as a larger community. Some sanctuaries and cult places excavated may have witnessed the worship of Baal or other deities, but they may also reflect a heterodox or syncretistic worship of Yahweh. Larger community worship often revolved around the whole of Israel coming together for one of the festivals at a central shrine and eventually focused in Jerusalem and the temple. Miller’s explanations of these aspects in various biblical texts draws from scholarly consensus, often aided by the viewpoints of his teacher, Frank Cross.

Chapter 3 describes Israel’s system of sacrifices and offerings. His definitions and descriptions weave a careful path through diverse interpretations. After examining the main kinds of offerings and sacrifices, Miller attempts to place them in a conceptual framework. He portrays them as serving a social purpose (support and welfare), a concern for order and restoration from disorder (clean from unclean, etc.), a sacred ritual (flesh and blood), and a concern for community and solidarity (food and gift). Miller shows that no one explanation of Israel’s understanding of offerings and sacrifices explains the complexity, but he suggests that the idea of a “gift” to God is central (p. 130). This chapter and the fourth one take on a flavor of reflections from OT theology.

The prophets spoke words of rejection against the sacrifices and offerings of Israel, not because they needed to abandon the sacrificial system, but because they had failed to obey the requirements of the Law in terms of moral life and justice. Chapter 4 turns to this subject and looks at holiness and purity. The holiness of Yahweh was supposed to be reflected in the life of Israel. The final chapter reviews religious leadership through the priests, prophets, king, and the sage-scribe. It finishes with cultic participation.

The strength of this book lies in Miller’s in-depth knowledge of the ancient Near East. He has often personally viewed specific artifacts to determine his understanding. In addition, he is a clear communicator who spells out all sides of possible interpretations. Even though his historical reconstructions that provide the framework for his topical discussions in the book are themselves based on questionable reconstructions of biblical traditions, his approach is conservative compared to many interpreters in this area. This treatment is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the religion of Israel.

G. Michael Hagan

North American Baptist Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Jun 2003

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