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Religions of the Biblical World

Beliefs, practices, and attitudes in worship throughout the ancient Near East. An understanding of any religion begins by first studying the texts of that religion, but also the material culture—thus establishing the belief and the practice. Discerning the attitude comes by understanding the relationship of the text to the material culture, creating a wide array of religious attitudes within the ancient Near East but ultimately purposed in attaining cultural stability for the worshippers.

Non-Israelite Religions

One of the fatal flaws in trying to establish a norm for any historical religion is the problem of translatability. This is that fact of every culture that interaction between one culture and the next necessarily results in some aspect of assimilation, thus religions tend to blur with one another over time when cultures collide (Smith, God in Translation). An example of this could be the similarities between Astarte and Aphrodite from a collision of Phoenician, Greek, and local Cypriot culture first represented on the island of Cyprus, but further expanded as the Phoenicians traveled farther west.

  • [Note the evolution from Marduk > Ba'al > Zeus > Jupiter due to cultural translation.]

From the earliest times religion has been fluid. Upon the arrival of Semitic immigrants, the religion of pre-patriarchal Canaan transformed from the worship of an unknown goddess to the worship of El and his pantheon leading into the patriarchal period. As the children of Israel went down into Egypt, so Ba'alism arrived into the land from Mesopotamia, dethroning El but adopting a Canaanite culture. Though fluid, the core principle of Non-Hebraic thought and religions appears to be a continuity among humanity, nature, and the world of the gods (Oswalt, Bible Among the Myths). So, it can be said that what happens in one realm also occurs in the other two, thus establishing this sense of normality among the three. Examples can most easily be seen in those deities relating to some aspect of nature, like storms—when the storm god is healthy, rain comes, and the people prosper, but when the storm god is troubled, as in the Mt. Carmel epic of Kings, rain is withheld.

Because of this, the people of the ancient Near East began to develop systems of manipulation: religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices weren't so much an appeasement of the gods but a way to keep stability in the land (whether through harmony and repetition as in Egypt or expansion to support the populace as in Mesopotamia). Thus, omens, examining of entrails, and other religious practices all could lead to a prescribed answer to the question how can we bring normality back to the land in times of trouble?

Translatability and Israelite Religions

Translatability in Israel exists in the mixture of biblical Yahwism with local Canaanite Ba'alism, forming a hybrid religion often referred to in Kings as the "sin of Jeroboam." This syncretistic religion lasted throughout the history of the Northern Kingdom with the exception of the Ahabite parenthesis, that period of time in which pure Ba'alism of Phoenician import pushed out the blended Yahwism/Ba'alism of Jeroboam. Note that the Ahabite parenthesis lasted a short period of time, as Jehu took the throne and resorted back to the sin of Jeroboam - blended religious practices.

Even though this blended religion is apparent throughout Israel as a whole (primarily seen in the Northern Kingdom, but also in the Southern Kingdom as well), heroes of the faith continued to exist and teach pure, biblical Yahwism. While a combination of the Israelite religious texts and the material culture in the two kingdoms does indeed show cultural syncretism, the biblical wisdom literature helps to reveal a relationship often overlooked by Old Testament scholars, i.e., what an attitude of true worship looks like. Specifically, the book of Proverbs appears to create a look not only geared toward the letter of the law, but a spirit of renewal and of a relationship with the divine. Passages in Proverbs in reference to the duality of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly (philosophical counterparts in the text) teach an attitude of relationship in worship. Here, the average Israelite is called upon to chase after Lady Wisdom in an apparent attempt to marry her; in contrast, he is urged to withdraw from Dame Folly as she brings death and destruction. Lady Wisdom seems to be a type of the Fear of the Lord, which is compared to keeping the law in Deuteronomy 10. Folly, on the other hand, is the opposite of wisdom and therefore represents anything that is contrary to the Law.


Coogan, Michael David, and Mark S Smith. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Hess, Richard S. Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Nottingham, England: Baker Academic ; Apollos, 2007.

Keel, Othmar. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998.

Miller, Patrick D., and Paul D. Hanson. Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross. Fortress Press, 1987.

Oswalt, John. The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.

Schneider, Tammi J. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011.

Smith, Mark S. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010.

Oldenburg, Ulf. The Conflict Between El and Ba'al in Canaanite Religion. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.

—Justin Singleton

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