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Research on Ancient Israelite Religion


Religion ResearchThis paper will be exploring the way in which the Israelite religion developed through considering three main themes: the use of covenants within the Hebrew Bible, the Law of Moses, and the influence of the prophets. This will be accomplished through:

I. The Abrahamic Covenant:

i. The significance of covenants within the Hebrew Bible.

ii. The way in which this affected Abraham and his descendents.

II. The Law of Moses:

i. The use of symbolism within the Hebrew Bible.

ii. The way in which the gods of other cultures influenced the Israelites, and how this was dealt with through the Law of Moses.

III. Prophecy:

i. The nature of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and the way in which it influenced the Israelite nation.

I. The Abrahamic Covenant:

The Abrahamic Covenant, although not the first agreement or promise recorded in the Bible (see Genesis 9), was the first covenant that sealed the relationship between the god of the Hebrews and the man from whom it states that the Israelite nation was born – Abraham. In other words, it was the agreement that is considered as being the initiation of ancient Israelite religion. The covenant contains a repetition of all the promises that the god made from the time that Abraham left the Ur of the Chaldeas to the time of his apparent accord to sacrifice his child of the promise in Genesis 22. These include (a) that Abraham will be the father of many nations; (b) that the Israelites will receive their own land; and (c) that through the seed of Abraham all nations would be blessed (Genesis 15).

i. The Significance of Covenants Within the Old Testament.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the god had already attempted to establish a relationship with his “creation” through the only man that he had considered as being “righteous” - Noah. In Genesis, for example, it describes how the god had destroyed humanity, except for Noah and his family, because of their wickedness, through causing a global flood (Genesis 7). Through this covenant, although there was no religion established, the god promised “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (v15b-17).

Covenants, however, were clearly a current practice within the surrounding culture because they are present throughout the book. Abraham, for example, used a covenant to resolve a water problem (Gen.21:22, 23), David and Jonathan used a covenant to establish their bond of friendship (1 Sam. 18:3), while a covenant was used to affirm David's kingship (1 Sam 23:18). Jacob also made a covenant with Laban, his father-in-law, in which both parties agreed to not harm the other, while Jacob promised to provide and care for Laban's daughter (Gen 31:43-53).

ii. The Way in Which This Affected Abraham and His Descendents.

“The LORD had said to Abraham, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you'” (Gen. 12:1-3).

Whatever the true state of affairs, the Hebrew Bible clearly indicates that many of these promises were fulfilled, although there was much suffering and testing by the god before any promises were kept. The son of the promise, for example, was ultimately born (although the god tested the faith of his follower by pretending that he was going to sacrifice him), and, of course, there is also the account of the subsequent enslavement by the Egyptians and the Israelites ultimate exodus. The most important promise, however, concerned that of the land of Canaan, which according to the Hebrew Bible, was possessed after the tribes had been given the Law of Moses. In consequence, the Israelites believed (and still believe) that they had a god-given right to the land that was originally belonged to descendents of Ishmael (the Arab peoples).

II. The Law of Moses:

The Law of Moses is the fundamental basis of the ancient Israelite religion and central to its beliefs and conceptions. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex.20), and basically involved the ten commandments.

I. The Use of Symbolism Within the Hebrew Bible.

Although symbolism can be found throughout the Bible, its use concerning the giving of the Mosaic Law is significant because it is used to establish the truth of the god's existence, his words, and his promises to the Israelites. Some examples of symbolism previous to this concerns the notion of descendents of the promise, which is symbolized in the birth of Isaac. The establishment of covenants themselves were also filled with symbolism, such as the rainbow in the covenant made between the god and Noah. However, from the time of the god initiating the Abrahamic Covenant, the god becomes far more present and is seen as being personally involved in what is taking place. In the ritual conducted within the Abrahamic Covenant, example, he is shown as being the primary initiator of the covenant, with him conducting the binding ceremony while Abraham sleeps (Genesis 15:12-21).

The symbolism found within the story of the subsequent enslavement, exodus and the giving of the laws by Moses, however, appear to become more and more dramatic as the story unfolds. Filled with disease, miracles, fire, smoke, clouds, and the apparent thunderous voice of the god, all of these wonders took place just before the god gave the Israelites his ultimate promise and blessing - the land (Deuteronomy 3). This was the absolute confirmation that they were the chosen people of the god, although it did not stop them continually disobeying the rules that had been given to them. However, the ancient Israelite religion was established through the apparent fulfillment of the promise concerning the land, which meant that the religion became the official belief of the new nation, with practices and laws that attempted to reflect this notion.

II. The way in which the gods of other cultures influenced the Israelites, and how this was dealt with through the Law of Moses.

Numerous examples are given throughout the Hebrew Bible of the way in which the Hebrews failed to remain faithful to their god and the way in which he dealt with such disobedience through the Law of Moses. When the Israelites entered the promised land following their apparent isolation in the wilderness, the came into contact with the beliefs, practices, and values of the surrounding cultures. Time after time, they chose to commit what their god considered as being idolatry, during which they departed from his rules as outlined in the Hebrew Bible, and began to follow the practices of other belief systems.

The Law of Moses, however, contained extremely strict laws to enforce members of the twelve tribes to remain faithful to the culture's beliefs. Persons committing such an offense, for example, were punished by death by stoning (Exodus 22:20), with the person's family being responsible for both denouncing any offender and throwing the first stone (Deut. 17:2-7). Any attempts to seduce others into such practices was also punished in the same manner (Deut.13:6-10), while any difficulties experienced by the nation as a whole, such as a battle defeat, was seen as being the god's punishment for idolatrous practices (Jeremiah 2:17).

III. Prophecy:

I. The nature of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and the way in which it influenced the Israelite nation.

Prophecy was used by followers of the god to reinforce religious beliefs. Prophets of the Hebrew Bible claimed to be tellers of the god's will and what he planned for his chosen people. This was based upon the belief that such men had a private access to the god, who was believed to be the creator of the world, and the ruler of history - past, present, and future. Prophecy acted as a significant aspect of the Israelite's theopolitical structure, and had its beginnings with the prophet Samuel who established the Israelite monarchy.

The powerful mixture of prophecy with that of the laws of the religion, and the strict punishments that existed for those who failed to keep them, enabled the Israelite religion to become firmly established. The prophet proclaimed the message given to him by the god, which he or she often saw through a vision (Numbers 12:6,8), in dreams (Genesis 37), or through hearing the god's voice (Exodus 3). In consequence, the prophets were considered as being the god's spokesperson, and were considered as being powerful, often dangerous men and women. The essential task of the prophet was seen as correcting the continuous moral and religious disobedience among the Israelites, and to proclaim the character of the god, which lay at the very foundation of the governing structures within ancient Israel.


The establishment and development of the ancient Israelite religion was mainly enforced through the use of covenants that held the promises of the god, strict rules that were enforced through harsh punishments, and the use of prophets. Hebrew identity was found within these concepts, which included the notion that the god was with them, and that he would never fail the people that he had chosen.

The Abrahamic Covenant, the Law of Moses, and the messages given by the prophets all contain highly symbolic elements that reflected the nature of the god, who was viewed as being different to the deities worshipped by surrounding cultures. Underpinning every aspect of Jewish life, the Hebrew Bible meticulously details the way in which the god wanted his people to live, and the way in which the nation was to be governed. In consequence, when the children of Israel (Jacob), entered the land, they created a form of government and a theocracy that reflected the newly established concepts of Hebrew religion.

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