Ancient Israelite Religion
A review of Susan Niditch's, "Ancient Israelite Religion," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Niditch, Susan Ancient Israelite Religion. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 146 pp. Paperback, $12.95.
As the conclusion suggests, this work is a sociological study of Israelite religion based upon a critical reading of certain biblical texts. This reading reflects the Albright tradition as maintained through the influence of scholars such as Cross and Freedman (the book borrows its title from the 1987 festschrift in honor of Frank Cross) who accept that early and even premonarchic legal texts and poetry can be found in the Hebrew Bible.
The introductory chapter provides a short survey of the Old Testament story and briefly mentions some of the most important archaeological discoveries, particularly ones that have excited attention recently. There is also a short discussion of religion and worldview, using the categories of Ninian Smart, which will form the outline for the remainder of the book: experiential, mythical, ethical, ritual.
Niditch’s view of the experiential considers covenant making with men (Genesis 15; Exodus 3, 19), annunciations to women (Genesis 16, 18, 25; Judges 13), Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28), Moses on his return to Egypt (Exodus 4), visions of heaven (Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1-3), and Saul’s encounter with the dead Samuel (1 Samuel 28). The powerful vision of Job is missing, however, and awaits a later discussion.
The examination of a variety of biblical texts addressing God’s creation and victory over chaos monsters leads to the identification of similar patterns in Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and other Mediterranean myths. The same is true of texts addressing the state of the dead. The need to read creation texts in mythical terms makes this the most problematic of chapters when it comes to actual interpretation of the texts. To what extent the language and imagery of chaos conflicts are chosen from an inventory of metaphors that were common in Israel and to what extent they reflect an authentic belief in myths similar to Baal, Yam, and Anat or to Marduk and Tiamat requires more cautious examination of the literary contexts.
Consideration of the legal and ethical aspects of Israelite religion draws heavily on the legal collections of the Pentateuch. These are read from a perspective of promoting patriarchalism and male dominance. Niditch’s most provocative observations appear in her study of ritual aspects of Israelite religion. She finds in Exodus 12 (the Passover) the transition from slavery to freedom remembered by stripping the feast down to the basics. The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) stresses the key role of the high priest. The trial of the woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5) is filled with symbols of the woman’s sexuality (barley) and powerlessness (the uncovering of her hair). The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11: 29-40 mirrors a young woman’s transition from nonmarriage to marriage. A chronological chart and discussion questions appear at the end, as do three maps of archaeological and biblical sites as well as a bibliography. The chart, questions, and the bibliographical guides that appear at the end of each chapter suggest that this book was written to be used as a classroom text. However, except for the maps and brief allusions, there is no careful discussion of the understanding of Israelite religion that the (extrabiblical) textual, onomastic, iconographic, and archaeological evidence suggest throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. This is a serious gap in the study of Israelite religion. Even so, the book itself provides a useful and important introduction to the Bible’s witness to ancient Israelite religion.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament