Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches.
(London and New York: Continuum, 2001), xx, 821 pp.
ISBN 0-8264-4728-7. $150
Reviewed by Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

This is by far the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to the subject of religion in Iron Age Israel ever undertaken. It is deep, synthetic, even-handed, often provocative, and at ever turn of the page, appropriately self-conscious with respect to the author’s perspectives, biases, and methodologies. Throughout Zevit combines a close study of biblical texts, epigraphic remains, and archaeological data, and configures all of the evidence within a conceptual matrix that draws heavily upon methodological advances and models more commonly known to scholars at home in the comparative study of religions, and in the humanities generally. Its exhaustiveness and methodological sophistication make it an important reference work and its timeliness marks it as representing a turning point in biblical scholarship.

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is its accessibility. Zevit has intended it for a diverse, but informed, audience.

This book is written for the undergraduate and graduate students studying Bible, archaeology, and history, for seminary graduates, and for scholars. All students. It presupposes at least introductory-level knowledge of the methods used by biblicists in their research and archaeologists in their field-work, a sense of Israelite history and religion as these subjects have been taught since the 1980s, and familiarity with some of the ongoing discussions about Israelite religion (p. xiii).

Since Zevit intends to be fiercely self-critical with respect to his own assumptions and approaches to the material, he first sets out to provide the reader with a definition of what he means by “Israelite religions.”

Israelite religions are the varied, symbolic expressions of, and appropriate responses to the deities and powers that groups or communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their worldview (p. 15).

This definition then informs the remainder of the tome which attempts to

… determine what may be known about Israelite religions during the Iron Age, c. 1200–586 bce, through an integration of classified archaeological, epigraphic, and literary data usually considered in isolation, and … to synthesize these within the structure of an Israelite world view and ethos involving kin, tribes, land, traditional ways and places of worship, and a national deity (p. xiv).

In the first chapter Zevit lays the groundwork for his later analyses by providing the methodological and theoretical contexts into which to place the study of the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religions. He is extremely aware of historically shifting definitions and paradigms and of their utility (and limits) for understanding the topic at hand (though the section on “pithy definitions” of religion is somewhat selective in its representation and lacking in depth [pp. 15–16], and therefore, less useful). Zevit’s self-critical style helps to clarify for the reader where he positions himself in the sociology of knowledge.

In Chapters Two, Three, and Four, Zevit sets out to investigate the archaeological evidence for Israelite cult places and material culture suggestive of cultic use. Far from being merely a descriptive treatment, Zevit attempts to interpret the textual and artifactual remains as “material texts” (p. 84). Zevit’s eminently sensible interdisciplinary analysis of the archaeological data demonstrates a discontinuity between the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age populations strongly suggestive of a new ethnic group. He effectively removes from further consideration the argument that Israelites derived from the local Canaanite populations.

… the dominant ethnic group in Cisjordan, Iron Age Palestine was not descended from its Late Bronze inhabitants. Arguments that Iron Age Israelites derived from the Late Bronze Age, Cisjordanian Canaanite population as ideological rebels or as semi-nomadicized peasants are not supported by available archaeological evidence (p. 85).

His close analyses and critical treatment of these “texts” provides a useful survey, especially with regard to the archaeological and methodological claims for the historicity or ahistoricity of biblical accounts of Israelite history.

Throughout, Zevit is sensitive also to the architectural environment of the cultic places he investigates and careful to apply this information to his interpretation of how these sites were used. Such an approach allows him to include evidence for cultic sites not usually discussed at length in works on Israelite religion, such as fields and caves. He also discusses several sites often neglected in the study of Israelite religious architecture, for example, the twenty-five tumuli discovered west of Jerusalem.

Indeed, his comparative approach often leads him to break new interpretive ground. For example, Zevit uniquely and persuasively argues for the two-stage development of Israelite altars. He also cautiously suggests that the Hebrew word hammanim (with dotted h) mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Ezek 6:4, 6:6, 2 Chron 34:4–7, etc.) refers to model shrines, the likes of which have been found at Arad, Hazor, Gezer, etc., and which Zevit discusses in his book (see, especially, p. 340). Zevit also offers a new interpretation of the archaeological evidence for the Temple of stratum XI at Arad which suggests that two separate deities were worshiped there (pp. 168–169). Zevit also opines that the temple’s placement on the northern side of Arad, Hazor, Dan, and Jerusalem suggests the possibility that they were positioned there for “religious, mythic reasons … ” or “constructed on public land usually allocated on the north side of a site” (p. 250). His treatment of figurines, various types of altars, fenestrated and plain cultic stands, model shrines, as well as scarabs and seals is as comprehensive as it is sensitive to archaeological context and literary parallels.

Zevit is careful not to read too much into the evidence. In fact, he more frequently prefers not to interpret the evidence when the data is insufficient. Indeed, such an approach leads him to conclude that a number of sites hitherto labeled as “cultic sites” do not provide sufficient evidence to qualify them as cultic including the complex from Arad stratum XII; the eighth century room at Ein Gev; the seventh century complex from Jerusalem; the ninth century complex from Makmish; the Tel Michmal complex (ninth to eighth centuries); the tenth century gate installation at Megiddo; the complex at Samaria dating from eighth to seventh centuries; and the tenth century structure at Ta`anach (p. 247). His survey and analyses of the archaeological data lead him also to conclude:

Large, open-air cult complexes within a temenos with a primary cultic focus exemplified at the Bull site and Mt. Ebal are features of the twelfth-century Israelite landscape. Qitmit indicates that this type of place continued into the sixth century, but it is not attested at Israelite sites. Cult caves appear to be an eighth to seventh-century phenomenon. Cult rooms appear concentrated in the tenth and ninth centuries, whereas temples span from the eleventh to the end of the eighth century (p. 247).

From the archaeological evidence, Zevit then proceeds to textual data, turning his attention to the epigraphic remains that bear on Israelite religion (Chapter Five), and then to Israelite and Judaean historiography and historiosophy as found in the biblical texts (Chapter Six). These two chapters, and those that follow, offer in-depth examinations of the texts, and provide the texts themselves in Hebrew and in English translations. In them Zevit examines the inscriptions and artistic remains discovered in the Judaean desert cave, as well as at Khirbet el-Qom, Kuntillet `Ajrud, and the cave at Khirbet Beit Lei, as well as a host of biblical data that place the Deuteronomistic writer in his ancient Near Eastern context. Of the many conclusions reached by Zevit in the latter chapter is that Israelite religion (as opposed to Judahite religion):

… was essentially a matter dependent only nominally on the king who may have provided some support personally for a few important for favorite shrines and much support for a few: e.g., Dan, Bethel, and the house of Baal in Samaria. Such institutions in the north may have been politically important but were not particularly powerful elements. This situation is paralleled by that in contemporaneous Egypt. By the end of the twentieth dynasty (1196–1070 bce), the kings shared power and wealth with priestly temple establishments and sought legitimation from the priests and through divine oracles (p. 457).

Zevit also concludes that the Deuteronomistic writer “employed the same sort of historigraphy in writing about the Judahite kings as he did in writing about Israelian ones” (p. 479), and that “Judahite kings were not dependent on cultural institutions for their authority; on the contrary, they had authority over cultic institutions,” (and sometimes served a coercive role over the cultic life of Judahites “beyond the confines of the temple” (p. 479). Nevertheless, “they were consistent supporters of the Yahwist cult, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other cults” (p. 479). Zevit also observes that some religious institutions and practices in Judah “functioned independently of the monarchy” (p. 479).

Chapters Seven and Eight broaden the discussion and provide literary, social, and historical contexts for the inscriptions as well as for the biblical texts that reflect on Israelite mantic practices. Here Zevit demonstrates that “no distinction can be made between the so-called ‘ecstatic’ and the so-called ‘rhapsodic’ prophets as religious types” (p. 511). Zevit’s objectives in this chapter, however, are different and four-fold:

… first, to compile, translate, and annotate all relevant passages bearing on the non-Yahwistic cults celebrated by Israelites mentioned in the body of literature; second, to comment on these passages focusing on the cultic phenomena that underlie them … third … to identify a preliminary interlocking series of matrixes within which the hundreds of individual data may be analyzed further, and … fourth … to venture preliminary observations contributing toward such an analysis (p. 513).

Though the examination is thorough and fascinating, the biblical texts are organized according to their “canonical” order (p. 513, by which Zevit undoubtedly means the Jewish canon). Given the emphasis that the author has placed on methodology, one would much rather see this information organized chronologically (though Zevit does provide a table to assist such an approach on p. 514). In this chapter Zevit also provides a number of categories of Israelite religious practices which collate the biblical texts by citation according to Baal rituals, birds, Baal/Yahweh worship, bowing to the East, caves, underground chambers, and tombs, child sacrifice, covenants with gods, cults of the dead, divination, dogs, extending life, fertility in nature, garden rituals, incense rituals, the manufacture of images, the marzeah, pigs, phylacteries, protection, purification rituals, the queen/host of heaven, rituals for exposing bones, cultic sexual activities, thanksgiving, tophet rituals, trapping souls, trees/stones, women’s rituals, and worship in artificial or natural stone chambers (pp. 583–584).

Based on his collected categories Zevit observes that “those that involve rituals presuppose traditional lore about the qualifications for the rituals and the choreography of their various prescribed, sanctioned acts” (p. 584). He also notes that “most of the rituals did not necessitate a recognized or sanctioned priesthood” and that “the perceived ‘rights’; of the performers, must have been common knowledge and commonly performed” (p. 584).

In Chapter Nine Zevit turns his attention to the names of Israelite gods (besides Yahweh) as attested in theophoric personal names and toponyms, both of which he also lists according to their tribal affiliations. This information is then compared with archaeological data and epigraphic remains (mostly from seals), which allows Zevit to break down the evidence again according to its tribal distribution and also by archaeological period.

Zevit’s tenth and concluding chapter synthesizes the preceding material in order to provide a cogent portrait of Israelite religions. Among the many fascinating conclusions that Zevit reaches are that: 1) the worship of non-Yawhistic deities often corresponds to tribal or clan identity (p. 649); 2) “the view that somehow Jerusalem was the seat of official religion occupying a select trend-setting position is supported neither by textual nor archaeological data” (p. 658); 3) “Israelite religions in general were characterized by tolerance” (p. 667); and that 4) Yahweh was worshiped in a variety of manifestations as “the prime deity of the Israelite tribes, occupying in their pantheon the position that Qos occupied in that of the Edomite tribes, Kemosh in that of the Moabite tribes, and Baal in different manifestations among the cities of the Phoenicians and Aramaeans of the Iron Age” (p. 651). Thus, the picture of Israelite religions that emerges is one characterized by diversity and complexity Zevit remarks:

These data demand a dynamic picture of Israelite religions allowing for polydoxies and polypraxises within Yahwism, significant local variations, as well as the worship and adoration of other gods and goddesses. They also argue that in ancient Israel, however that the sacred may have been encountered by individuals alone or in collectives, the society as a whole esteemed the visual experience of seeing the sacred (p. 349).

In sum, this book is a formidable tour de force, a magnum opus. It rewards the interested reader with a wealth of information, new insights, and a number of directions for future research. It clarifies in many definitive ways the complexities involved with studying the religions of ancient Israel and provides a greater appreciation for the sheer diversity of forms of Israelite devotion and rituals. Its numerous charts, diagrams, maps, drawings, photos, tables, and copious footnotes, as well as its exhaustive indices and bibliography only add to its value. Doubtless, it will be a valuable scholarly resource for years to come, one that also will be the focus of much discussion and debate in a number of disciplines.