Hebrew graffiti rules OK
By Richard S. Hess
Apollos. 432 pages. £17.99
‘I bless you by Jehovah and Asherah!’ Archaeologists were surprised when they found Hebrew graffiti saying that 35 years ago. Bible readers would not be surprised; the prophets constantly condemned their compatriots for their faithlessness. No sooner had the Israelites agreed that ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ than they broke their word. They found local religions appealing because they were less demanding, lacking moral discipline, so ‘everyone could do as they pleased’.
Images of gods and goddesses, temples and shrines stood in many places across the Holy Land. Did the Israelites revere them? Some of those found are certainly Canaanite, some come from the days of the Kings, but Canaanites and foreigners living among the Israelites could have created them. Yet it is clear there were many apostate Israelites. In this thorough study, Hess surveys approaches to religion in general, and to the Israelite in particular, with sensible criticisms of widely held ‘liberal’ views. He works through beliefs current before Israel entered her land and those of her neighbours until, on page 209, he reaches ‘Early Israel and the United Monarchy’, completing his chapter on ‘Exilic and Post-Exilic Religion’ on page 346. Outside the Bible there is little written evidence for Israelite religion, only graffiti and personal names. Remarkably, hardly any names invoke pagan deities, incorporating only El, ‘God’, or the divine name in the forms Jeho- or -jah. That is true within the Bible, in hundreds of Hebrew seals recovered mainly from tombs and in notes scribbled on potsherds (ostraca). Hess can title his book ‘Israelite Religions’ because he recognises the great difference between the orthodox faith the Old Testament teaches and the practices widely current in ancient Israel. Archaeological discoveries seem to attest the latter, although some objects are hard to explain and Hess honestly admits that. For example, many scholars declare that pottery female figures depict the goddess Asherah, yet they bear no signs marking divinity and Hess demonstrates that they served as charms connected with childbirth, a conclusion the reviewer also maintains. On the other hand, apart from written records, it is impossible to show from archaeological evidence that there were worshippers of Jehovah alone, yet there is no need to doubt the witness of biblical texts to that.
Comparison with religious practices among Israel’s neighbours reveals how much she shared with them, so that foreigners in Israel would not have found the orthodox rituals incomprehensible. Sacrificing animals was common, with priests involved in complex rites set out in details in ancient texts from several areas, some notably similar to the Levitical prescriptions and from the time of Moses’s life, implying that the biblical texts need not be dated to the time of the Exile or after, as often asserted. Hess offers a particularly good description of the material on pages 179-92. On the other hand, he limits his discussion of Israel’s monotheism to a summary and critique of recent studies, without the fuller exploration it deserves.
Rick Hess has produced a major scholarly and positive study in which he makes a wealth of up-to-date information about archaeological discoveries and biblical research accessible to any careful reader.
Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Liverpool