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About the Author
Baruch A. Levine is the Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University.
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Introduction to World ReligionsCommunities and Cultures
By Jacob Neusner
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJUDAISM: BEGINNINGS
Baruch A. Levine
Religion of Ancient Israel
The Israelites of biblical times left us an exceptional narrative, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), that relates how they came into being as a nation after taking possession of the promised land, governed themselves over a period of centuries, and survived empires. As part of that narrative, the Hebrew Bible projects the religion of the Israelites and describes it elaborately. The Hebrew Bible expounds on the will of the God of Israel by revealing God's plan for God's people, Israel, and for all humankind.
What is the religion's overriding concern? What makes the system self-evidently valid to the community of the faithful?
Biblical Conceptions of God
The national God of the ancient Israelites is most often designated in the Hebrew Bible by the Tetragrammaton Y-H-W-H, based on the verb h-w-h, "to be, exist"; in the causative stem, "to bring into existence," a meaning alluded to in the Hebrew Bible itself (Exod. 3:1116). It is most often vocalized in the Hebrew Bible as 'adonai, a form of the Hebrew 'adon, "Lord." Whereas the cultural origin of the deity named Yahweh remains obscure, Hebrew inscriptions as early as the late ninth century B.C.E. and the famous Moabite-Mesha inscription from the mid-ninth century B.C.E. attest to the consonantal Y-H-W-H and its shorter forms.
The Israelite God-idea has evolved, expanding in response to new sociopolitical challenges. These challenges first came from the diversified population of Canaan, then from nearby nations, and finally from world empires. In this context, biblical attitudes toward Egypt are curious. Egypt was a major power in Canaan at various periods, and Egyptian expeditions traversed Canaan more than once. And yet, we find less anxiety about how Egypt might harm the Israelites and more concern over the danger of periodically relying on Egypt as an ally against Mesopotamian empires. One cannot escape the impression that the emphasis on the liberation from Egypt in biblical tradition bears a religious agenda, namely, that "the gods of Egypt" (Exod. 12:12) had been invalidated long ago, when Israel's God defeated them.
Other approaches to ancient Israelite religion tend to harmonize progressive biblical conceptions of Yahweh so as to represent universal monotheism as the original God-idea, often in cosmic terms that express age-old notions of heavenly sovereignty. So we read that Yahweh, Creator of the world and of humankind, revealed himself to the patriarchs, beginning with Abraham, later to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai and in the wilderness, and subsequently to the prophets. In contrast, critical approaches to biblical literature bring into bold relief statements about Yahweh that are better understood as henotheist, rather than as monotheist, strictly speaking. That is to say, such statements command the exclusive worship of Yahweh by all Israelites, going to great lengths to condemn paganism and idolatry, while at the same time acknowledging the existence and power of other gods worshiped by other nations. As the Israelite God-idea subsequently expanded, "oneness" came to mean that Yahweh was the only deity in all the earth (cf., Zech. 14:9).
Although the transition from henotheism to universal monotheism has been difficult to pinpoint, its clear footprints can be seen in late prophecy. Deutero-Isaiah of the Exile transmits Yahweh's declaration to Cyrus the Great: "I am Yahweh, and there is none other; except for me, there is no divine being [Hebrew 'elohîm]. I girded you with strength even though you do not acknowledge me, so that it may be known from the rising of the sun unto its setting that there is naught except for me. I am Yahweh and there is no other" (Isa. 45:5-6; this and all subsequent translations in this chapter are the author's own).
Returning to an earlier period of crisis, we perceive how First Isaiah had expounded the doctrine that Israel's God rules over all nations. This was after Jerusalem had been spared from destruction by Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who was Yahweh's "rod of rage" (Isa. 10:5-15) to punish Israel; but in time, Yahweh would bring down the arrogant conqueror. Endorsing the doctrine of submission to empires, Jeremiah, about a century later, referred to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and exiled Judah, as Yahweh's "servant" (Jer. 25:9). In effect, First Isaiah's monotheist declaration introduced a new power concept, one that transcended military might and imperial power.
It is possible to identify three phases in the development of the Israelite God-idea: selective polytheism, Yahwist henotheism, and finally, universal monotheism.
(1) Selective polytheism. There is a fairly late tradition, preserved in Joshua 24, that the ancestors of the Israelites in Haran of Syria (Gen. 11:31) had worshiped "other gods." Of greater interest is the memory that the early Israelite settlers in Canaan proper, the patriarchs and the judges, had themselves once worshiped Yahweh, their national God, alongside familiar deities of the West Semitic pantheon, such as Baal, El, and probably a consort of Yahweh's named Asherah. We learn of this early phase primarily from biblical texts that raise objections to such practice, where both leaders and the people are admonished to worship Yahweh alone. However, there are nonjudgmental, neutral references as well. Thus, the patriarch Jacob worshiped El at Bethel (Gen. 31:13), and the Balaam orations credit El for the liberation from Egypt (Num. 23:8; 24:8). In contrast, the later poem in Deuteronomy 32 emphasizes that it was Yahweh alone who accomplished this feat: "Yahweh, alone, leads him on, and there is no other god at his side" (Deut. 32:12). Similarly, the Gideon narratives assure the hero that it is Yahweh who will bring Israel victory in battle, not Baal (Judg. 6). The confrontation between Elijah and the cult prophets of Baal epitomizes the henotheist commitment: "How long will you persist in straddling both of the hedges? If Yahweh is the [true] God, then follow him, and if it is Baal, follow him!" (1 Kings 18:21).
The prehenotheist mentality is also evident in early Hebrew epigraphy, such as in the inscriptions found at Kuntillet 'Ajrud, an ephemeral caravan site of the late ninth to early eighth centuries B.C.E., on the southern border of Judah. These inscriptions include blessings in the name of Yahweh as well as hymns to Baal and El.
It may be that in the early stages of settlement it seemed that coexistence with the Canaanites and other elements of the population was possible, and this prospect induced a more relaxed religious policy. But many battles ensued with Egyptians and so-called Amorites, and with Canaanites and Philistines, as well as with neighboring nations in the interior such as Midianites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Aramaeans. These hostile encounters gave rise to a problematic situation: Israelites were, in fact, venerating some of the same gods that their fierce enemies were worshiping! The response of some of the religious leadership was to adopt an exclusionary policy, breaking away from the commonly shared West Semitic pantheon. One who reads Deuteronomy with this subject in mind will perceive the blatant connection between (a) enmity toward the Canaanite population and foreign nations, and (b) strict henotheism (see Deut. 7:111).
(2) Yahwist henotheism. The issue of the exclusive worship of Yahweh came to a head in the late ninth to early eighth century B.C.E., first in northern Israel, as First Hosea (Hos. 1–3) and the already cited Elijah episode in the Carmel range (1 Kings 18) both indicate. So long as the Israelites, north and south, were triumphant and reasonably secure, the promise of Yahweh, perceived as the national God, would have been fulfilled in principle, and the notion that Yahweh alone protected Israel would have retained credibility. This all changed, however, when the Neo-Assyrian Empire, under Tiglath-pileser III, followed by Sargon II and then Sennacherib, advanced on western Asia in repeated waves, beginning in the third quarter of the eighth century B.C.E. The Assyrians annexed northern Israel in 721 B.C.E., and in 701 B.C.E., after ravaging much of Judah, the Assyrian forces reached the gates of Jerusalem, as mentioned above. At this point, the henotheist God-idea would have lost its credibility because it could no longer account for Assyrian power, to which Judah had no effective military response.
(3) Universal monotheism. Against this historical background, the monotheist doctrine pronounced by First Isaiah is to be seen above all else as a response to empire. We note that in the history of religions there is often a lag between the promulgation of new doctrines and policies and their acceptance and implementation. There is value, nevertheless, in tracing the origins of new ideas so as to understand the forces that produced them initially. Thus it was that for most of the following seventh century B.C.E. in Judah, the conflict between selective polytheism and Yahwist henotheism persisted under the less than devout Judean king, Manasseh. In the near-exilic period, under a more devout Judean king, Josiah, exclusive henotheism seems to have predominated in royal circles, as we may infer from the proliferation of Yahwistic names preserved on impressions of cylinder seals (objects known as "bullae"), which date from that period. And yet, Zedekiah's refusal to heed Jeremiah, and his decision to rebel against the Babylonians, suggests, among other things, that the doctrine of submission to empire had yet to override other strategic considerations. It was only during the Babylonian Exile, and afterward in the period of the return, that universal monotheism was fully endorsed by the Judean leadership whose horizons had, indeed, broadened as a consequence of dramatic historical experience. The people and their leaders were now dealing with world empires on a prolonged basis, so that when Cyrus the Great issued his edict in 538 B.C.E. allowing exiled Judeans to rebuild the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, sufficient numbers of Jews ultimately maximized this opportunity.
In contradistinction to their developing God-idea, which was singular, the central concerns of the ancient Israelites were normal for a people in their circumstances. Most of all, they wanted collective security, victory over their enemies, and prosperity in the land for themselves and their "seed." We encounter in biblical literature a strong awareness on the part of the Israelites that they were immigrants in a land that had belonged to others and over which their hold was chronically threatened. The greatest blessing would be to produce generations of descendants who would inhabit the land in perpetuity. One can infer from the poignancy of this often expressed, fervent desire a deep apprehension on the part of the Israelites that they might not become "old timers" in the land (Deut. 25:1).
How do we know about this religion? What classics define the norms?
It is important to clarify that the religion of biblical Israel is nowhere practiced at the present time in all of its forms— by Jews or by others— although many of its major features survive to the present day. This situation is because the religion of biblical Israel was both nation bound and land bound. Only a people inhabiting its homeland could fulfill all of its performances and obey all of its commandments. The beginnings of what later became Rabbinic Judaism hark back to the period of the return after the Babylonian Exile (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E.), when the national religion was being restructured to serve the needs of Diaspora Jewish communities as well as those of the restored communities in Jerusalem and Judea. Judaism taught fidelity to the revealed Torah, as it was interpreted. Jewish communities, wherever they lived, reaffirmed their identity as a people, with strict attention to their Israelite lineage. Furthermore, Judaism held to the biblical hope of national redemption through restoration to the land of Israel. For their part, Christianity, and later Islam, formed new polities and projected different eschatologies. It is most significant, nevertheless, that both Christianity and Islam continued to acknowledge the God of the biblical Israelites as the universal God. This is what makes it so important to treat the religion of biblical Israel under a separate heading, thereby directing our attention to the early emergence of universal monotheism, which constitutes its enduring, central idea. It was the capacity of the ancient Israelites to expand the God-idea in response to successive challenges that accounts for the survival of the religion of biblical Israel into late antiquity. The long-term result was that prophetic monotheism ultimately served as the common matrix of the three monotheistic world religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims may all be identified as "the children of Abraham," after the biblical patriarch traditionally identified as the first monotheist.
Some "Need to Know" Background
Taken together, this evidence identifies the Israelites as a people composed of tribes and clans who first inhabited ancient Canaan, east of the Mediterranean, during the transitional period of Near Eastern history at the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.). The Israelites continued to inhabit this land throughout the Iron Age and thereafter, with some interruption and contraction. Determining the ultimate origins of the Israelites is currently an issue of scholarly debate. The approach taken here endorses the consistent biblical view that the Israelites were not native Canaanites. At the same time, it is conceded that their places of origin remain uncertain, as one may gather from differing traditions preserved in the Hebrew Bible itself. After gaining dominion over large parts of interior Canaan, the Israelites established two kingdoms— Judah and northern Israel, respectively— which, though they were separate and at times in conflict with each other, acknowledged their common Israelite lineage and identity. The Hebrew Bible records the brief existence of a united monarchy under David and Solomon, with its capital in Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah retained its capital in Jerusalem, whereas the capital of northern Israel shifted.
The Israelites were eventually exiled from their promised land in two principal waves: first by the Assyrians in the last quarter of the eighth century B.C.E., when they annexed the northern kingdom, and then in the early sixth century B.C.E. at the hand of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II. Judeans later returned in sufficient numbers to reconstitute their life as a temple-centered community in Jerusalem and Judea under Persian imperial rule (538–332 B.C.E.), and to persevere in a similar mode under the Seleucids and early Romans. As prophecy gave way to apocalypse, there was considerable literary creativity under the Seleucids, some of it associated with the Maccabean revolt (167–164) and its long-term consequences.
The Hebrew Bible provides various self-identifications of the ancient Israelites. Two terms of reference are particularly informative in this regard: (1) Hebrew 'am, "people," is a kinship term. It configures the entire Israelite people as one large family descended from common ancestors, most notably the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the human-divine encounter, Israel is seen as God's own family, his 'am (Exod. 3:10; 33:13). (2) Hebrew gôy, "nation," bears a territorial connotation, reflecting the reality that the Israelites possessed a land of their own (Gen. 12:1-2). Implicitly, the Israelites were an 'am from the outset, but only later became a gôy. As the Hebrew Bible tells it, monarchic government emerged as a concession to the unavoidable need for further political development (1 Sam. 8; Deut. 17:8-20). Prior to that, the 'am was governed by various types of leaders, mostly tribal or military, as for example the charismatic judges. In sociological terms, Israelite societies throughout the biblical period were predominantly patriarchal, with inheritance descending down through the male line. The status of women was generally subordinate to that of men, especially in the public domain, which is not to say that women were without considerable authority in the domestic household. In recent decades, feminist biblical scholarship has pioneered, with mixed results, a reassessment of the role of women, revealing some of the stratifying consequences of patriarchy that were either overlooked or unacknowledged in earlier scholarship.
Excerpted from Introduction to World Religions by Jacob Neusner Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A “Humanly Relevant” Cosmos: What We Study When We Study Religion William Scott Green vii
Judaism: Beginnings Baruch A. Levine 1
The Formation Jacob Neusner 21
Judaism in Modern Times: Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism; Zionism Jacob Neusner 37
Christianity: Beginnings Bruce Chilton 51
Roman Catholicism Lawrence S. Cunningham 67
Orthodox Christianity J. A. McGuckin 85
Protestantism Martin E. Marty 101
Islam: Beginnings Th. Emil Homerin 119
The Shi'i Tradition Liyakat Takim 133
The Sunni Tradition Th. Emil Homerin 149
4 Hinduism Douglas Brooks 163
Buddhism: Beginnings Mario Poceski 181
The Theravada Tradition Kristin Scheible 197
The Mahayana Tradition Mark L. Blum 215
6 Daoism Mark Meulenbeld 233
7 Confucianism Mark A. Csikszentmihalyi 251
8 Shinto James L. Ford 265
9 Indigenous Religions
Indigenous Religious Tradition Jualynne E. Dodson Sonya Maria Johnson 283
African Indigenous Religions Jacob Olupona 291
10 New Nineteenth-century American Religions Danny L. Jorgensen 309
11 New Twentieth-century American Religions Dell deChant 327