Ancient Israelite beliefs


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Reconstruction of the Ark of the Covenant

Ark of the Covenant

David slays Goliath, Caravaggio painting

David's story

Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael

Abraham's story

Reconstruction of the horned altar at Beersheba


Symbol of magic

Witchcraft, magic

Jacob and Rachel, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Rachel and the terephim

Map of the kingdom of David and Solomon

Maps of ancient Israel






Israelite beliefs

Bible Study Resource

Over and over again the Old Testament describes the people's infidelity to the God of Israel. The Hebrews seem always to be turning to other gods. Their waywardness is likened to a woman who deserts her husband (Jeremiah 3:1-10).  

There are three areas in which the people apparently fail:

  • they remain faithful to the nature gods, and practise the rituals of the fertility cults

  • they want to be able to communicate with the dead

  • they believe in witchcraft and/or sorcery - indeed, Jesus was accused of being a sorcerer.

Ordinary people often tried to use rituals to control problems in their daily lives. They were anxious if it did not rain or if it rained too much; they were afraid of death; and they sought to control frightening aspects of daily life such as illness or accidents. In the modern world we do the same: we worry about climate change, we try to avert death at all costs, and we believe wholeheartedly in medical remedies and the power of doctors to cure us.

 A larium from PompeiiPeople in the ancient world tried many different ways to come to terms with the forces of Nature. Every country had different rituals and religious practices to keep bad luck at bay and to coax Nature into behaving in a way that would help, not harm, humanity. 

At right is a Roman shrine to the lares, the spirits protecting a family and household. Offerings of food and drink were made every day to these spirits in the hope they would bring prosperity and good luck.We in the modern world offer prayers to God to keep us from harm.  In many ways, the teraphim hidden by Rachel are similar to the Roman lares (see Women in the Bible: Rachel and  Genesis 31:22-35)

The burial practices of each country enabled them to cope with the grief of losing people they loved, and with anxiety when they lost someone who was valuable to the community.

Stele honoring the god of fertility and water/rain, BaalWitchcraft and sorcery gave them a sense of control over possible disaster. A spell or charm could, they believed, ward off bad luck or illness, caused by malignant forces in the universe. These practices
were common in the ancient world, as was worship of fertility gods (see the stele of the power/god of water and rain, Baal, at right). People have tried to control the forces of Nature since prehistoric times. They still do. The fertility cults were practised in the 'high places' - temples and altars built on the tops of mountains; 'on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree' Deuteronomy 12:2.

The prophets of the Old Testament taught the people that prosperity, peace and safety depended on Israel's obedience to God, and that people themselves had an obligation to help the unfortunate, the poor and the weak. 

Despite this, many of the people still found the ancient religious practices attractive, and continued to worship other religious deities or forces of Nature right throughout the biblical period.

Stone pillars

Stone pillars are the most ancient evidence we have of organized religious practice. We know they were erected 

  • Standing stones, Israelto honour supernatural forces 

  • to give thanks for some favour granted or 

  • to mark territorial claims or boundaries. 

Sometimes they could be for all three reasons. Jacob set up pillars near Shechem and Bethel, and one as a token of his covenant with his father-in-law Laban (Genesis 31:44-45). The stone itself gave witness to the contract between God and the person who erected it, and was tangible evidence of this relationship for all to see.

High Places
Upright stones at Gezer The high or holy places at which God revealed Himself to the Patriarchs were associated with natural objects: 

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree near Beersheba and called the site Adonai 'El'Olam (My Lord, God of the World; Genesis 21:33). The site of God's revelation to Hagar, is called 'Ata 'El Ro'ee' (You are a God of Seeing; Genesis 16:13). 

Does this association of God with natural objects suggest the survival of animistic beliefs in the religion of the Patriarchs? 
It's difficult to say. The Patriarchs were commemorating an event, but not using the spot to hold a festival, or celebrate a holy day with a sacrifice, though we do know of ceremonies of libation of oil or wine on newly built altars. These altars were the ancient predecessors of shrines, temples and the institution of the priesthood.

A family group (with priestesses?) brings a lamp for sacrifice, Greece 530BC. 
This sort of ritual often marked an important family event or milestone.

Abraham and God

The Covenant and the relationship it represents between the Patriarchs and their God is one of the basic ideas of Genesis. Under this Covenant, God protected his family/clan/people. The Covenant was made for all time, the divine promise being renewed to the later Patriarchs.

This golden ram with its front legs caught in a bush was excavated at the ancient city of Ur. It bears a striking resemblance to the ram that Abraham found in a thicket when he stepped back from sacrificing his son Isaac.

This golden ram with its front legs caught in a bush was excavated at the ancient city of Ur. It bears a striking resemblance to the ram that Abraham found in a thicket when he was stopped in the act of sacrificing his son Isaac. 

The concept of a personal god, with whom one could talk on intimate terms, was one of the things that characterized the religion of the Patriarchs. By showing that God revealed Himself to the Patriarchs at different places, the biblical narrators emphasize the traditional belief that God wished to show that he followed His Chosen People wherever they went, and watched over and cared for them. In exchange He demanded implicit loyalty in times of prosperity as well as adversity. 

The whole philosophy of the biblical narrators rests on the assumption that while Moses was the actual founder of the people of Israel and formulator of its faith, the origins of both are to be found in Abraham. He is regarded as the recipient of the Promise of the Land of Canaan. This is the fundamental tradition of Genesis. 

The Promise is repeated to Abraham and his descendants, who are destined to settle in Canaan as titleholders to the land, and whose status as His Chosen People is guaranteed by the Covenant to which they are both parties.

Moses and God

The God of Moses was a blend of 

  • the ‘God of the Fathers’ worshipped by his patriarchal forebears, and 

  • El, who had long been the supreme deity of the Canaanites. 

Stele of Hammurabi, front view

(Above) The top part of the Stele of Hammurabi shows the deity Shamash giving the laws to Hammurabi. There is an obvious parallel with Moses and the Stone Tablets of the Law. 
(Below) Laws inscribed on the stele deal mainly with contracts, and family and household matters.

Stele of Hammurabi, rear view

The people who compiled the Bible were well aware of this dual concept. They knew that, on the one hand, God had declared to Moses, ‘I am the God (Yahweh) of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of lsaac, the God of Jacob'. Yet, on the other hand, the Bible has many references to El, whose cosmic identity was part of the God of Israel; and there were still Israelite memories of El’s local manifestations such as Shaddai, Bethel, Elyon, El Roi, connected with revered sanctuaries. People at the time seemed to think not only of a single El but in polytheistic terms as well. And indeed, centuries later, one of the major Hebrew historians (the ‘Elohist’ or northern historian), though he identifies El with Yahweh, still employs the plural form Elohim, while nevertheless ungrammatically treating the word as a singular noun. This apparent contradiction vividly reflects the transition from a belief in many gods to a belief in one. 

This was only one of many ways in which the Israelites continued to use Canaanite imagery to convey the might and majesty of their God. For example, they still saw him as a divinity of the storm (Hadad): and, more particularly, they took over the idea that he was the universal Father and Creator. 

Moses understood that this blend of the patriarchal and Canaanite ways of regarding deity required a new definition, so this God now became known under a different name. His designation, in the vowel-less Hebrew language, was YHWH. How the word was pronounced is not quite certain, because an aversion to uttering it later developed, partly because of a feeling that YHWH was too sacred a word to utter. 

God himself, it was declared, had revealed his new name of Yahweh to Moses. This supposed revelation was the equivalent to the disclosure of his real nature, since a name was regarded as an effective expression of the character of the being it described. Words were power, conveying a sense of forces and energies: knowing the name of a god or spirit might give the knower some control over his or its activity, so that knowledge of the name of Yahweh meant that Moses and his people were initiated into a secret which conferred on them special and potent insight into his purpose. A new name must have seemed a new god, a god at least equal to the chief gods of the defeated Egyptians. 

Lay-out of a Philistine temple/shrine at the time of the Judges

King David and God

David's great success, rising from younger son in a relatively unknown family, to king of Israel,  seemed to show he was specially favored by Yahweh, and he quickly took advantage of this. He saw his kingship in religious terms, and claimed that it enjoyed the authority of divine grace. Furthermore, he skilfully revived the Mosaic covenant in order to highlight his own special relationship with Yahweh, whose partner in the agreement was no longer the people of Israel, but David himself. ‘I have made a covenant with him I have chosen,’ the psalmists make Yahweh declare; ‘I will name him my first-born, highest among the kings of the earth. ... Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of righteousness.” 

To set the seal on this, David brought the Ark of the Lord to Jerusalem. This made it easier to exalt the place as a holy city. David, his position now sanctified by Yahweh’s renewed covenant, could be presented as a priest-king of the same kind: ‘You are a priest for ever, in the succession of Melchizedek.' Following the tradition of older civilizations, he successfully attached prophets, including Nathan, to his court; this was perhaps one of the principal keys to his success. 

Side panel of one of the casings enclosing Pharaoh Tutankhamun's coffin

Side panel of one of the casings enclosing Pharaoh Tutankhamun's coffin, 
which bears an uncanny resemblance to the description of the Ark of the Covenant.

David planned to build a temple to Yahweh but did not do so, perhaps because a temple with a fixed location looked too much like Canaanite practice. David was prone to such influences. Indeed, he himself may originally have borne a Canaanite name, (El-Hanan ‘grace of El’); so did one of his sons, (Beeliada, Eliada). His ‘leaping and capering before the Lord’, to musical accompaniment -- which his wife Michal (embittered because of the eclipse of her House of Saul) rebuked as ludicrously undignified -- was a ritual that went straight back to Canaanite practices. And the state religion over which he presided was not purely Yahwistic at all, but a mixture of Yahwism and Canaanite cult. 

David’s daemonic energy and versatile genius had bestowed upon Israel an unparalleled epoch of prolonged peace and prosperity, so that his reign, for all its bloody acts which the court historian admitted, was looked back upon as a type of Golden Age. 

(The sections on Moses and David are adapted from 'The History of Ancient Israel' by Michael Grant, London, 1984)


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Stone pillars, high places, witchcraft, Abraham, Moses, David

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher