Ancient Jewish Religion and Culture

Israelite religion shared a number of characteristics with the religions of neighboring peoples. Scholars have long noted parallels between the creation and flood myths of Mesopotamia and Egypt and those found in the Hebrew Bible.  The Israelite god, YHWH, also shares many characteristics and epithets with the Canaanite gods El and Baal.

The Israelites’ relationship with YHWH, however, set them apart from their neighbors.  This relationship was based on a covenant binding YHWH and Israel to one another through a series of obligations. Thus, the biblical authors depicted a direct correlation between the patriarchs’ (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) prosperity and their fidelity to YHWH.  Similarly, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt into the Holy Land is cast as being conditional on the Israelites’ following YHWH’s precepts.  It follows that the biblical authors attributed the misfortunes that befell the Israelites (e.g. plagues and military failures, etc.) to the Israelites’ failure to comply with terms of this covenant.

The establishment of the Temple under David and Solomon (c. 1000 BCE) marked a major development in Israelite religion.  The Temple, intended to be the official focal point for Israelite religion replacing the family shrines and cultic places of earlier periods, served as a primary place for sacrifices, worship, and regular pilgrimages.  Perhaps most importantly, the Temple served as a symbol of YHWH’s presence among the Israelites, and by extension, divine protection.

Despite this effort to centralize the Israelite cult, biblical and archaeological evidence indicates that traditional cultic sites and family shrines continued to exist throughout the monarchy (c. 1000–587 BCE).

The biblical prophets played a special role in Israelite religion.    They fervently condemned religious infidelities, including the worship of foreign gods. They were also very vocal in their intolerance of social injustice, especially abuses of power committed by Israelite elites.  The eighth-century BCE prophet Isaiah went so far as to declare that religious practices, including sacrifice and observance of festivals, were meaningless as long as social injustices remained.   

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