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Ancient Israel: Religious Beliefs, Figures & Places

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ancient Israelite religion was not as simple as belief in Yahweh, but also had some conception of other deities as well. This lesson will discuss this ambiguity as well as some of the important figures and holy places of Israelite religion.

Deities of Ancient Israel

The religion of ancient Israel was not as simple as most people might think. There were three major deities that were important to the Israelites and their surrounding nations, Yahweh, Ba'al, and Asherah.

Yahweh is traditionally thought of as the Israelite god who is the main god of the Tanakh (sacred Jewish scriptures). The name ''Yahweh'' is used throughout much of the Tanakh and in Exodus, Yahweh reveals this divine name to the prophet Moses. Unlike the following deities, ''Yahweh'' is typically translated into English as ''Lord.'' Yahweh is portrayed throughout the Tanakh as an anthropomorphic god, taking on human characteristics and actions like walking, talking, or having hands and a face.

Ba'al was a Canaanite storm god who was worshiped by the Israelites and other surrounding people who were not following the commandments of Yahweh, according to the narrative in the book of Kings.

Ba'al and Yahweh were often seen as competing deities. This is best seen in the scene where Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba'al to have their god start a fire before Elijah, a prophet of Yahweh, can.

Another important deity of the Ancient Near East was Asherah, a mother goddess figure of the sea. In some instances, it is suggested that Asherah was actually the consort (spouse or companion) of Yahweh--in Jeremiah, she is referred to as the ''queen of heaven.''

Regardless, Asherah was worshiped by some Israelites during their time ''astray.'' This often took the form of an Asherah pole which would probably be a carved image of deities, similar to a Native American totem pole.

Baal, the storm god
Baal

The Israelites: People of Yahweh?

Although many people claim that the ancient Israelites were purely monotheistic, meaning they only worshiped one god, there is some indication in the Tanakh that the Israelites were probably polytheistic (worshiped more than one god) up until at least the monarchic period.

When the Ten Commandments are given to the Israelites, they are commanded to have no other gods before Yahweh and they claim there is no god like Yahweh--indicating that there are actually more gods that they worship besides Yahweh, but that he is the most powerful. In fact, the first clear statement of monotheism does not occur until the second part of the book of Isaiah which was probably written during the Babylonian exile after the monarchy had been destroyed.

Yahweh is frequently identified as ''El,'' the chief Ugaritic god, in the Tanakh and moments of supposed idolatry often have more to them. For example, in Exodus 32, there is a scene where Aaron, the brother of Moses and first high priest of the Israelites, melts down the gold the Israelites have to make a golden calf. While many read this as idolatry, the Israelites were probably trying to make a vehicle for Yahweh, similar to what other deities had.

Priests

Religion was probably the most important thing to the ancient Israelites. Because of this, religious leaders played important roles in the society and throughout the Tanakh.

One of these categories was priests, religious leaders typically chosen by the Israelites. However, there were qualifications that had to be met: a priest had to be a Levite, meaning they were from the tribe of Levi.

The high priest who was responsible for making a yearly sacrifice for atonement also had to be, after the split of the united kingdom, a Zadokite. Zadok was the high priest during the ''Golden Age'' of Israel under King Solomon when Israel flourished. Mainstream Jews therefore thought the high priest also had to come from this line as well as the tribe of Levi.

Prophets

Prophets, literally ''messengers'', were also important religious figures--but they were typically described as being appointed by Yahweh. While they were sometimes Levites, like Moses, they did not have to be.

Prophets typically had traditional call narratives: they were called by Yahweh, objected to their call because they did not feel worthy or able, then accepted a quest or task after being reassured by Yahweh. The prophets were not really involved in predicting the future, as they are often understood today, but typically acted as a messenger or mediator between Yahweh and the people.

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