Religion of the Hebrews

HEBREWS, RELIGION OF THE. Hebrew religion was unquestionably unique in character in the ancient Near E. From geographical origins in Mesopotamia it was gradually fostered through the patriarchal period until it assumed its normative covenantal character at Sinai. The subsequent history of Heb. religion to the Exile was one of periodic relapse from covenantal ideals, followed by prophetic exhortations and occasional revivals of religion. The idolatry that was responsible for the deterioration of Israelite faith was purged by the Exile, and in the postexilic period, a theocratic religious community in Judea gave rise to the Judaism of the immediate pre-Christian period.


From the standpoint of method, any attempt to study the religion of the Hebrews must be grounded firmly in an awareness of the nature and functions of ancient Near Eastern religions generally. This is necessary because the Near E was coterminate with the world of the OT, and its religious concepts and ideals had a continuous bearing on those of the Heb. people. It is also extremely important to see Heb. religion in the wide geographical, historical, and cultural setting to obtain a correct perspective with regard to ideas of its growth. Nineteenth cent. a.d. scholars who studied the subject usually followed an evolutionary methodology popularized by Wellhausen, which thought of the mature Israelite faith as having grown from the animism and totemism that was attributed to patriarchal worship, and which, under the influence of the literary prophets, was thought to have developed slowly into ethical monotheism. This approach, which leaned heavily on Hegelian philosophy and on the concept of biological evolution current in the mid-19th cent., stood in marked contrast to the OT view of Heb. religion that attributed monotheism to the earliest of the Hebrews, and placed the appearance of ethical concepts at an early rather than a late stage in Israelite religious history. On the basis of a vastly wider range of historical, archeological, and religious information than was available during the first three decades of the 20th cent. it is now possible for the religion of the Hebrews to be correlated with its counterparts in the ancient Near E at each phase of development for purposes of comparative study and proper methodology. Most important, it can now be asserted that the prehistory of Heb. religion is to be sought, not in primitive or late Bedouin sources, but in the mature cultures of the ancient Near E.



Religious attitudes in ancient Mesopotamia

Archeological excavations have made abundantly clear that the oriental world had left such practices as animism for centuries before the Heb. patriarchs came on the historical scene, and that the animism or polydemonism in which they and their pagan contemporaries were thought by earlier scholars to have indulged were nothing more than the survivals of religious conservatism from the Neolithic period. Accredited temples dating from the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 4th millennium b.c. have been unearthed from the Ubaid period at Tepe Gawra, Eridu, Uruk and elsewhere, from which were recovered rough models of animals, along with human figurines, generally of the female, with exaggerated sexual characteristics. A similar shrine from the prepottery Neolithic at Jericho was found to contain some plastic studies of groups of human beings, prob. of a family. These artifacts suggest that an animistic phase had long since passed, and this conclusion is further strengthened by the highly developed polytheism that typified Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion in the 3rd millennium b.c. By this time, the Mesopotamian nations had applied categories of personality to the great cosmic powers that comprised their pantheon, and were venerating them in temples that were thought of as their earthly residences. Furthermore, they had abstracted the concept of divinity from the divine beings of the pantheon, and were already associating it with all that they knew to be of positive value in social relationships. The desirability of positing a single head for any complex organization had led them to infer the existence of a single power behind the manifold operations of the universe. The high god in charge of the cosmos was known to the Egyptians as Re, the sun deity, whereas for the Sumerians of Erech it was An, the god of heaven, who was so worshiped. In Canaan, the supreme being was the god El, whose offspring Baal wielded executive power ov er gods and men alike. As far as their votaries were concerned, each of these high gods embodied goodness and power in social relationships, making it evident that a comparatively sophisticated cultural and religious situation prevailed in the Near E long before the Patriarchal period. Babylonian thought viewed happenings as individual events, with the result that the phenomena involved were given qualities of personality and will. Because natural occurrences were thought of in terms of human experience, the confrontation of man by the forces of nature or environment involved a mode of cognition far beyond that normally attributed to animism. In Babylonia, this attitude was most fully expressed in the yearly akitu festival, which was intended to secure an identification with the ruling powers of the cosmos and an assurance of blessing and fertility for the land. Even this procedure went far beyond the animism of the Neolithic period in its emphasis and intent. The same is true regarding totemism, of which Egyp. religion used to be held up as a prime example, but which on examination has none of the characteristic features of totemism as found in Australian, African, or North American forms. If the existence of a genuine totemistic phase in Egyp. religion is suspect, there are even more reasons for denying it to Mesopotamian religion, where there is almost no association whatever of the names of deities with animals or plants. Certainly as far as the sophisticated culture of the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia was concerned, the original significance of any possible animistic survivals had been long obscured with the passing of time.





Patriarchal religion



Divine names.


Contractual agreements of various kinds were a common feature of ancient Near Eastern life, ranging from international treaties to covenants made between individuals for private purposes. In the case of Abraham (12:1-31), God made an unconditional promise to bring him into a new land, increase his offspring, and make him a blessing to others. Indeed, pagan nations would have cause to bless themselves because of the influence of Abraham, a theme that was continued in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. A subsequent covenant instituted by God was of a more particular and detailed nature (Gen 17:2-14), and provided that God would make of Abraham a mighty nation, protecting him and his descendants in Canaan in return for their undivided allegiance and worship. On this occasion, the rite of circumcision was adopted to mark out specifically those who were members of the covenant family. This act seems to have been of great significance in designating the ancestors of Israel as a distinctive unit, since it is known that, unlike the Egyptians, the peoples of Babylonia did not practice circumcision.

The Mosaic period

Despite apparent trends toward monotheism in the 2nd millennium b.c. religious life of Mesopotamia, it seems hardly possible to describe the Heb. patriarchs as thoroughgoing monotheists, if only because of their evident contact with pagan deities. Instead, the origin of OT monotheism must be sought within the area of those events that occurred in the time of Moses. The Biblical sources for this period have now been accorded a much greater degree of historicity by the majority of scholars than was the case in the last cent. and there can be little serious doubt as to the reliability of the tradition that credited Moses with founding the Israelite religious system. Although there are no extant inscrs. from ancient Egypt which testify to the historicity and work of Moses, the external circumstances of the bondage and Exodus periods suit the first half of the Egyp. nineteenth dynasty admirably. The Egyp. training and upbringing of Moses are entirely credible, as is his flight (Exod 2:15) and the revelation of God in the region of Horeb (Exod 3:1ff.).

The divine name of YHWH.

The form of this name has provoked considerable discussion among scholars, many of whom have assumed that it was vocalized to read “Yahweh.” The original pronunciation, however, is unknown, and all attempts to reconstruct it are purely conjectural. The presence of the Tetragrammaton, as the letters YHWH are sometimes called, has been noted in ancient poetic fragments of the OT and also in extra-Biblical material such as the Moabite Stone, which implies that the four letter form was earlier than shortened VSS such as “Yah” or “Yahu.” Some scholars suggested that Moses first learned of the name YHWH through marriage into the household of Jethro and subsequent initiation into the Midianite cult of YHWH, but there is no evidence for this in Exodus. In any event, the God of Israel was explicitly the God of the patriarchs and not exclusively of their Kenite cousins. Certain tr. problems appear in the text (Exod 6:2, 3), such as the supposed presence of an elliptical interrogative, according to which v. 3 would read, “I allowed myself to appear to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, for did I not let myself be known to them by my name YHWH?” However, if a dynamic attribute is associated with the Tetragrammaton, the textual difficulties are less acute, and the v. would then read, “And I showed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob in the character of El Shaddai, but in the character expressed by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.” Such a rendering does not deny to the patriarchs the knowledge of YHWH as a name for the deity, but merely prevents them from appreciating the full significance of what that name implied. Quite obviously, the Book of Exodus did not mean to deny that the Tetragrammaton was older than Moses or unknown in his day, but was trying to make pl ain that it had no divine authorization of usage prior to the time of Moses. When God revealed Himself to Moses in the wilderness He appropriated the name and gave authority to it as part of a fuller manifestation of His grace and saving purpose for Israel. The antiquity of the designation YHWH is clear (Exod 6:3), which does not say, “my name YHWH was not known to them,” but “as to my name YHWH, I did not become known to them.” Consequently it would seem that whereas the patriarchs knew of the name YHWH, they were unaware of its true significance. Modern philological studies have shown that the name is a regular substantive in which the preformative y precedes the root hwh. As a proper name the Tetragrammaton is thus the designation of a Person and stands contrasted with such titles as El Elyon, El Olam, and the like. Ancient Near Eastern peoples placed great emphasis upon the idea of a “name” as exemplifying the functions and personality of the individual concerned, and this custom has considerable bearing upon the significance of the revelation to Moses of the name YHWH.

Sinai Covenant.

Although YHWH had been the God of the patriarchs, He was soon to be seen in a broader theological perspective by the fledgling Israelite nation. His self-disclosure would make it clear that He was no merely local numen, restricted to one specific geographical area, but was the supreme controller of all cosmic forces. Unlike the other gods of antiquity, He stood alone without either consort or offspring, and all His actions were grounded in the highest of ethical and moral considerations. Although the Mosaic tradition represented the God of Sinai in a manner suggestive of human form, the tangible depicting of deity in material terms was strictly prohibited to Israel. Despite the consistent association of the covenant with the Sinai region, it is important to note that there was no special cult connected with this particular location, as was the case in other Near Eastern religions.

The ancient nature of the covenant form in Exodus, and its reiteration in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is in fact a covenant renewal document, is thus apparent from secular suzerainty treaties, mostly recovered from Hitt. sources, and dated somewhat before the time of Moses. As with the suzerainty treaties, the Sinai covenant was not a matter of an agreement between equals, but was nothing less than the acceptance by a vassal of terms offered by an overlord. It was, however, the logical extension of the personality of God, since it incorporated the Israelites into the larger sphere of divine activity and gave them a sense of election and mission unique among the ancient Near Eastern peoples. The terms of the agreement provided that God would supply all things necessary for the well being of His people, including the promise of a land in which to live, if they for their part would agree to acknowledge Him as the one true God and offer to Him their continuous and undivided spiritual loyalty. In the enactment ceremony (Exod 24:1-8), the Israelites pledged their allegiance to the proposals made by God, after which Moses sprinkled sacrificial blood on the altar and also on the people in token of ratification. The descendants of the patriarchs thus became the “chosen people,” participators in the divine revelation and witnesses in contemporary society to the power of God in human affairs.

The events at Sinai made the Hebrews unique in antiquity for their attempts to interpret their entire national life in terms of a solemn covenantal relationship with a single deity. This God was revealed in the stipulations as a supremely moral Being who demanded similar qualities of character from His people. Though beneficent toward them when they were obedient, He could be angry and insistent upon maintaining His own rights when the principles of the covenant relationship were threatened by such tendencies as apostasy. Israel had thus come into being through covenant acceptance of divine favor and overlordship, and would continue to exist as a nation so long as the stipulations were honored. If Israel became apostate and disobedient she could expect to meet with divine displeasure. This situation accounts for the importance of law in Israel throughout the historical period, and also explains the reason for subsequent prophetic onslaughts on national sin.

The concept of a Torah, or body of doctrine regarded as authoritative in nature, can be attributed with complete confidence to the time of Moses. Such a usage is paralleled in the rites of the Aten cult of Egypt, whose votaries used the term sbayet or “teaching” to describe their received corpus of instruction from the deity, in a manner closely related to the later Lat. term doctrina. Hebrew legal tradition began with Moses and reached its normative standard in the earliest period. In form, the laws of the Torah fall into two categories, casuistic (“if a man...”) and apodictic (“Thou shalt [not]...”). The former can be paralleled on numerous occasions in Mesopotamian law codes, whereas the latter type is distinctive to the Israelites and states the basic stipulations of the covenant.

Tabernacle worship.

The historicity of the Tabernacle has now been rehabilitated by archeological discoveries, in contrast with 19th-cent. liberal views that dismissed it as artificial or else regarded it as a late idealization of a much less complex tent in terms of the Solomonic Temple. The initial evidence came from comparatively late Arab. sources that referred to the qubbah, a miniature tent often made of red leather, which was used for carrying the idols and cultic objects of the tribe. Some of these qubbahs were big enough to be erected on the ground, and others were smaller and were mounted on the backs of camels. These structures were credited with the power of guiding the tribe in its wanderings, and in time of war were of special value for the degree of protection afforded. The qubbah was accorded a degree of sanctity only slightly less than the sacred objects which it contained. It was used as a rallying point, a place of worship, and a locale for the giving of oracles. Since most tents in antiquity were dark in color, the fact that the sacred shrine was a conspicuous red (cf. Exod 25:4) indicates a religious tradition that goes back to remote antiquity. Far earlier evidence for such portable shrines is now available. The fragmentary Phoen. histories of Sanchuniathon, from the 7th cent. b.c., referred to a portable shrine drawn by oxen, whereas a bas-relief from the time of Rameses II (c. 1285 b.c.) depicted the tent of the divine king set up in the center of the Egyp. military encampment. The cultic use of a tabernacle was also familiar to the people of Ugarit, as attested by one of the texts that spoke of King Keret performing certain rituals in a tent. It may be that the Canaanite deity El actually had some sort of portable shrine as a regular feature of cultic worship in the Amarna Age (15th and 14th centuries b.c.). If this was the case, it would point to a still earlier nomadic phase in Canaan when such shrines were in normal use. Prefabricated structures of various kinds were well known in ancient Egypt, one of the most elaborate being the portable bed canopy of Queen Hetepheres I (c. 2600 b.c.). It comprised a series of beams at the top and bottom which were separated by means of upright rods and corner posts distributed on three sides of a rectangle. The rods and beams were fitted together by means of tenon joints, enabling the whole structure to be dismantled very easily, as with the Heb. Tabernacle. In addition, the bed canopy was overlaid with gold leaf for decorative purposes, and was supplied with a series of hooks from which draperies could be suspended. Sculptures found in tomb chapels from the fourth, fifth and sixth dynasties have made clear the prevalence of such canopies in Egypt between 2850 and 2200 b.c.

In the light of this and similar evidence, it is obviously incorrect to assign structures such as the Tabernacle to a post-Mosaic origin, since they were of a desert origin, and in any event foreign to sedentary Canaanite custom.

Sacrifices and priesthood.

The uniform witness of OT tradition thought of the whole pattern of cultic sacrifice as divinely prescribed through the agency of Moses. Beside the three festive occasions laid down in the Book of the Covenant (Exod 23:15, 16), a number of others were entertained as part of Israelite life. Much detail surrounds the legislation for sacrificial offerings (see Sacrifice and Offerings), but for practical purposes they can be broken down into two main groups, vegetable and animal. The former included offerings of flour, cakes, parched grain, and drink offerings of wine, and were frequently associated with the thanksgiving made by fire. Unblemished oxen, sheep, and goats not under eight days old and not normally older than three years, were regarded as acceptable for animal sacrifice. In cases of poverty, doves could be offered, but wild animals and fishes were prohibited. Generally the offerings were presented to the officiating priests in the outer court, but sometimes sacrifices were carried out elsewhere (cf. Judg 2:5; 1 Sam 7:17, etc.). In all the rituals, the worshiper was required to present himself in a state of ceremonial purity (Exod 19:14). As an animal was being sacrificed the priest identified himself with the offering by laying his hand on it and dedicating it to the purposes of atonement through vicarious offering. One of the most important sacrificial prescriptions was connected with the Day of Atonement, an annual occasion of great solemnity when the collective sins of the inadvertence of Israel were confessed and atoned for sacrificially. This was the only time when the high priest was permitted by the law to enter the most holy place. It should be noted that the Heb. sacrificial system was meant to cater primarily for sins of accident, inadvertence, ceremonial defilement, and so on, and no atonement was provided for transgressions committed in a spirit of sheer obduracy against the covenant ethos (Num 15:30).

Vegetable or bloodless sacrifices were made up of meal offerings (“meat offerings,” KJV; “cereal offerings,” RSV) and drink offerings. The former (Lev 2:1-16; 6:14-18) comprised fine flour, cakes or wafers of unleavened bread or wheat grains or grain generally, accompanied by salt as a symbol of purity and on occasions with frankincense. Only a portion of the offering was consumed on the altar, the rest becoming the perquisite of the priests (6:16; 10:12, 13). The cereal offering accompanied the other offerings except the sin offering on all important occasions (7:11ff.), and invariably followed the morning and evening burnt offering. The drink offerings were made only in association with the vegetable offerings accompanying all votive or freewill peace and burnt sacrifices (Num 6:17; 15:1-12), but did not accompany either sin or trespass offerings. The drink offerings consisted of wine poured out on the altar, prob. upon the flesh of the sacrificial animal.

Mosaic monotheism.

While it has been found rather difficult to regard the Heb. patriarchs as true monotheists in the usual sense, it is possible to look to the age of Moses for the assured basis of this concept. In this respect it must be emphasized that Heb. monotheism cannot be traced to any one specific characteristic, but instead it represents an entire complex of factors inherent in the religion of the Mosaic era. Care must be taken to insure that the estimate of Mosaic monotheism is not distorted by Hellenic rather than Semitic categories of thought. With these considerations in mind it can be asserted that, although Moses was not specifically regarded in the Pentateuch as rejecting the existence of all other gods, this attitude was certainly basic to his assertion that the God of the covenant was the one supreme Deity of existence, who had created the cosmos and who exercised careful control over the forces of nature and the fortunes of men alike. Whereas others could place their trust in inanimate creatures or worship idols of gold or silver, Moses had experienced a form of personal relationship with the living God that convinced him of the utter futility of attributing the slightest power or potential to the pagan deities. Moreover, the revelation that he had received showed that God was a holy and righteous being whose qualities of character were unique by comparison with those attributed to contemporary pagan gods. Consequently, it is possible to regard the theology of Moses as thoroughly monotheistic in spirit, but with an emphasis upon the empirical and ethical, rather than on the speculative philosophical aspect of the situation.

The conquest and settlement


After the initial conquests in Canaan, the invading Heb. tribes were associated rather loosely with one another, yet united by a common ancestry and heritage, the latter under the provisions of the Covenant. The visible token of this spiritual unity was the Ark of the Covenant, housed in the tent shrine that finally came to rest at Shiloh. To this place the clans and tribes would come on special days of celebration to commune with God and renew their allegiance to Him. Although other shrines doubtless existed and were tolerated by the tribes, the one at Shiloh represented the heart of the covenant league of tribes. Though a permanent structure may have been built there (cf. 1 Sam 1:9; 3:3), the tent tradition of earlier wilderness days persisted (cf. 2 Sam 6:17; 7:6, 7). This shrine had a ministry that claimed Levitic ancestry and that was apparently hereditary (1 Sam 1-3). Although sacrifice was a feature of religious life in Canaan, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the annual feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Exod 23:14-17; 34:18-24).

Except for the Passover, the feasts were of agricultural origin. The Passover celebration commemorated the deliverance from Egypt by divine power (10:2; 12:8, 14), whereas the Feast of Weeks, later known as Pentecost because it was celebrated on the fiftieth day from the Sabbath that began the Passover, was marked by a holy convocation and the offering of sacrifices. Tabernacles or the “feast of booths” (Lev 23:34) brought the Israelites outdoors for seven days to dwell in booths and gather in fruit (see Feasts).

In times of oppression during the settlement period, the tribes remembered their covenant bond and united against their enemies. Such combined action was rare, however, and the removal of the danger was usually followed by a time of assimilation to Canaanite ways. Intermarriage and the adoption of pagan Canaanite fertility practices tended to identify Yahweh with Baal, the fertility deity, rather than with the God of their ancestors who had redeemed them from Egypt. The covenant ideals were further weakened by the introduction of such Canaanite cult objects as the sacred post, or ’asherah; the stone pillars, or maṩṩebôt; and the hammanîm, or altars of incense. The lewdness and depravity of Canaanite religion were notable in antiquity, and its infiltration into Israelite life during the settlement period presented a serious threat to the existence of covenant fellowship between Israel and her God. The nature of Canaanite cultic worship as depicted in texts from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) was clearly one of the utmost moral depravity, being the very antithesis of the ethical monotheism for which the Sinai covenant stood. The expression of its religious zeal in terms of ritual prostitution, snake worship, child sacrifice, and immoral behavior could never be embraced by the truly moral Israelite, as subsequent religious leaders were quick to point out. The end of the settlement period saw increasing laxity in Heb. worship, a situation matched by a disorganized state of society (Judg 17:6; 21:25). Lack of central authority curtailed the control that the sanctuary at Shiloh might otherwise have been able to impose (18:31), and allowed numerous shrines to flourish that paid scant heed to Mosaic legislation.




Religion in the monarchy



The united period.

The divided period.

In the last days of Solomon came a resurgence of Canaanite idolatry, spurred no doubt by his own contacts with pagan faiths, and when the kingdom divided, the northern tribes followed the idolatrous lead of Jeroboam I in worshiping golden calves at Bethel and Dan, sanctioning the institution of a non-Levitical priesthood, and appointing a new festival to be celebrated in the eighth month. Calf worship encouraged the syncretism of Yahweh-veneration with the depraved rites of the Baal cultus, and threatened the ethic of the Sinai covenant afresh. As the memory of the agreement between God and their forefathers diminished, the Israelites alallowed the dissolute cultic rituals of Canaan to gain a stranglehold on the worship of the one true God in the northern kingdom.

The disintegration of society that began under Solomon was never reversed. Wealthy landowners in Israel amassed increasing amounts of property and dispossesed and enslaved the poor as a result. By disregarding covenant law, the courts became instruments of injustice, and in social life venality, graft, dishonesty, personal immorality, and debauchery were prevalent. Not the least of the offenders were the priests, who encouraged the people to believe that indulgence in cultic forms was synonymous with the true religion of the heart. The kingdom of Judah suffered somewhat from the periodic swings of mood between phases of laxity that encouraged Canaanite idolatry, and the occasional attempts to institute a thoroughgoing religious reformation.

The literary prophets and Hebrew religion

Eighth-century B.C. writers.

Seventh-century B.C. writers.

As the end drew near for Judah, prophetic thought dwelt increasingly on the processes of divine justice. Jeremiah was particularly concerned with the national sin of idolatry, which cultic religion had perpetrated. In this connection he mentioned Baal, Moloch, and the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jer 19:5; 32:35; 44:11ff.), which were the result of apostasy after Josiah’s death, following the idolatrous tradition of Manasseh. Jeremiah was uniformly antagonistic to the cultic priests and the prophets of his day. The priests were accused of using their office for private gain, and the false prophets confirmed the duped people of Judah in the false belief that the Jerusalem Temple would never fall to Babylon (cf. 8:10-17; 23:9-40). While rejecting the cultus as corrupt and immoral, Jeremiah prepared the people for the ordeal of spiritual survival in Babylonia in the absence of outward cultic forms by insisting upon the predominance of character and motive in worship and everyday life alike. He maintained that, by an act of divine grace, a new and purified people would emerge from exile, freed from the destructive influences of a pagan faith and ready to follow the ideals of a new covenant (31:31ff.).

Sixth-century B.C. writers.

The nonsacrificial worship contemplated by Jeremiah became a reality in Babylonia. Deprived of their historic rituals and unable to follow their usual religious patterns, the exiles were compelled to adopt new forms of worship. Those who had learned the spiritual lessons of the Exile were ready to follow the teachings of Ezekiel, who directed them to a rigid monotheism and encouraged a high standard of personal and social morality. It is a testimony to his diligence that pagan practices ceased among the faithful remnant in Babylonia to all intents and purposes. Because worship of the old semipagan type was impossible under the conditions of captivity, a degree of adaptation was a pressing necessity in the expression of Israel’s historic faith. The work of Ezekiel marked an important turning point in Heb. religion, since it coincided with the breaking of the connection between the service of God and the outward form in which it had for many centuries found its embodiment. Under the new situation, it was necessary to improvise in worship and devise new means of expressing spiritual loyalty to God. Memorial celebrations replaced the preexilic feasts, and acts of special significance for the covenant relationship such as circumcision were stressed anew. Open-air meetings by the Kabar canal replaced gatherings in the Temple and its precincts, and a nonsacrificial type of worship stressed confession, fasting, prayer, and the reading of the law. The Book of Daniel indicates that the Babylonians were quite tolerant toward the Jewish captives, and even permitted gifted individuals, such as Daniel, to exert authority in the kingdom. Consequently the Jews did not suffer religious persecution as such during the Exile, despite the aim of the faithful community to differentiate itself as much as possible from its pagan neighbors. With the growth of house gatherings and the importance attached to the knowledge and observance of the Torah, the basis was laid for subsequent synagogue worship after the Return. Of concern to Ezekiel in particular was the role of the Levites, for unlike Jeremiah, who entertained a covenant with the Levitical priests (Jer 33:17ff.), Ezekiel distinguished sharply between the Levitical priests and the Levites (Ezek 40:46; 43:19). He described the former as the “sons of Zadok” who had remained faithful to God (45:15; 48:11), distinguishing them from the Levites, whom he regarded as having gone astray after idols and therefore were unsuited for handling sacred things or approaching the altar (44:10-14). This concept seems to return to the careful distinction between priest and Levite found in Numbers, as a corrective to the rather more lax attitudes of the monarchy.

Postexilic religion and the rise of Judaism

With the return from exile began the growth of Judaism proper. The returned community assumed the form of a theocracy, making it a church rather than a nation in the strictest sense. It felt itself to be the remnant of Israel, brought by divine grace from bondage in a new exodus and summoned to live once again by the precepts of divine law as the people of God. Cultic personnel were prominent in the lists of repatriates, with 341 Levites returning under Joshua and Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:36ff.) along with 4,289 members of priestly families and 392 Temple servants. The disparity between the numbers of Levites and priests may perhaps be due to the fact that in the Exile many Levites adopted priestly status. The other Levites responsible for menial duties in the Temple were apparently reluctant to return with their compatriots (Ezra 8:15-20).

At the laying of the foundation of the second Temple the Levites played a prominent part (3:8ff.) and were also conspicuous when the finished structure was dedicated (6:16-20). The Books of Haggai and Zechariah show that the initial enthusiasm of the repatriates had waned somewhat, requiring considerable stimulation before the new Temple was built. The prophecy of Malachi shows that, about 450 b.c., the Jerusalem priesthood was once again in decline (Mal 2:1-9), and was beginning to exhibit some of those features that had found such fatal expression in the preexilic period. The work of Ezra and Nehemiah brought these tendencies to a halt, however, and gave characteristic expression to the concept that the divine will was to be proclaimed to the Jewish commonwealth through the medium of the priesthood. Ezra was particularly concerned to see that the latter was a suitable vehicle for the task, and accordingly some of his more urgent reforms were directed at the priests. After recruiting the Levites to his side (Ezra 8:15ff.) Ezra instituted a reform to ban marriage with non-Jewish women, a move which affected both priests and Levites (9:1, 2; 10:5-44).

The aspirations of Ezekiel in this direction for the new commonwealth died hard, and even after 171 b.c., a Zadokite priesthood controlled the Jewish temple at Leontopolis in Egypt until the building was closed by Vespasian soon after a.d. 70. The religious community at Qumran rejected the contemporary Jerusalem priesthood in favor of a Zadokite regime, and looked forward confidently to the time when the Zadokites would again be priests in Jerusalem.

In the solemn covenant with Ezra, the nation saw as its spiritual ideal the realizing of the covenant concept of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). It was a community whose interests were governed by covenant and law, both of which were necessary if the life and witness of the theocracy was not to be threatened once more by pagan influences. The incursions of Hellenism in the Gr. period presented a serious challenge to the very existence of Judaism, and the emphasis that Ezra had placed upon the covenant, the Torah, and other distinctively Jewish institutions proved to be the salvation of the theocracy. As the Jews were in danger of being swallowed up by the pagan nations that surrounded them (cf. Neh 13:15-31), it was necessary for Judaism to remain as distinctive as possible in its outlook. The emphasis that Ezekiel laid upon attention to ritual requirements in the worship of the Temple was given prominence in the cultus, and served as an effective safeguard against further infiltrations of paganism. None of the postexilic prophets, however, ever suggested that correctness of ritual would be acceptable to God as a substitute for proper moral and spiritual attitudes. In the theocracy, the principles of Judaism were fostered by the weekly worship of the synagogue, an institution that more than any other gave character to the Jewish faith and brought people in all parts of the land into contact with their religious leaders. The synagogue became the cradle of an entirely new kind of social and religious life, and established the foundation for a spiritual community of universal scope. The early Christian Church was quick to capitalize on this situation, and the Book of Acts shows the significant role played by the synagogue in the propagation of the new Messianic faith. Typical of developed Judaism was the stress on the keeping of the Torah. To clarify obscurities in the written law there arose a body of oral teaching that gradually acquired a status equivalent to that of the Mosaic enactments themselves. This tradition served to safeguard the provisions of the Torah lest they be broken through ignorance or inadvertence. For Judaism, the law exemplified the ideal concept of a people dedicated to the service of God. Although cultic rites were prominent in the postexilic period, the emphasis in spirituality shifted so that Judaism became a religion of the book, namely that of the law. A class of scribes arose in the pre-Christian period who were experts in the study of the Torah and prominent in synagogue worship as a result. After a.d. 70, they became increasingly important for the way they preserved in written form the oral law and transmitted with great fidelity the Heb. Scriptures.

One of the pre-Christian political parties, the Sadducees, was important because of its connection with the high priesthood in NT times (see Sadducees). Both the name and origin of the party are disputed, but they seem to have been a priestly aristocracy of rather boorish disposition that came to prominence under the Hasmonean rulers until the reign of Salome Alexandra (76-67 b.c.), who preferred the Pharisees. The Sadducees were highly conservative, denying the authority of any OT Scripture except the Torah, and rejecting any form of doctrine that could not find support therein. Although a religious minority in NT times, they monopolized the office of high priest, and thus were involved in the condemnation of Christ. The other chief political party in the pre-Christian era, the Pharisees, laid great emphasis upon the keeping of the Torah and its traditional exposition in the belief that the Babylonian exile had been caused by the failure of the nation to observe the Mosaic law at both individual and corporate levels. Whereas the Sadducees held that Temple worship was the center and main purpose of the law, the Pharisees stressed the individual fulfillment of all aspects of the law, of which cultic worship was only one part, since for them inner attitudes were manifested in outward disposition.


A. Alt, Der Gott der Väter (1921); H. Gressmann, Der Messias (1929); G. E. Wright, IB, I (1952), 349-389; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1953 ed.); S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (1953); Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1960); K. A. Kitchen, Tyndale House Bulletin, nos. 5, 6 (1960), 4-18; J. Bright, IDB, II (1962), 560-570; H. H. Rowley, Worship in Ancient Israel (1967); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969), 351-414.

See also