Folk Religion in Early Israel: Did Yahweh Have a Consort?

By William G. Dever

Does the Hebrew Bible provide an adequate account of the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Israel? The answer is a resounding no. The Bible deals extensively with religion and even seems preoccupied with the subject; and it does provide a record of a developing monotheism associated with the reforms of the Judahite kings Hezekiah (727–698 B.C.E.) and Josiah (639–608 B.C.E.). But it is ultimately limited as a source of information about the great variety of Israelite cult practices.

The Hebrew Bible is not an eyewitness account. Rather, it was edited into its present form during the post-Exilic period (beginning in the latter part of the sixth century B.C.E.), centuries after the events it purports to record. It thus reflects the religious crisis of the Diaspora community of that time. The Bible is also limited by the fact that its final editors—the primary shapers of the tradition—belonged to orthodox nationalist Yahwist parties (the Priestly and Deuteronomic schools)a that were hardly representative of the majority in ancient Israel. The Bible, as a theologian friend reminds me, is “a minority report.” Largely written by priests, prophets and scribes who were intellectuals and religious reformers, the Bible is highly idealistic. It presents us not so much with a picture of what Israelite religion really was but of what it should have been.

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