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Topics / RELIGION : Scholar Probes Beliefs of Ancient Israelites


The ancient Israelites were flailed for centuries by biblical prophets as shameless, compulsive idolaters who scoffed at God's laws. Now a Jewish scholar hopes to give them a much-belated fair hearing.

Ziony Zevit of the University of Judaism in Bel-Air, who has been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship that begins next month, said he will use the time and money to go beyond the biblical polemics to determine the range of beliefs of the Israelites, the people whose religion eventually gave rise to modern Judaism and Christianity.

What seems to be emerging from his eight years of research, Zevit said in an interview, "is that the monotheists (believers in one god) were a small and insignificant movement until after the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple--not the mainstream religion from which everybody was falling away" when the biblical prophets excoriated them for backsliding.

That means, Zevit said, that the Bible is not representative of what most Israelites were thinking 25 centuries ago because the later victors in the ideological struggles obscured the beliefs of polytheists, who believed in many gods and who apparently dominated Israel's early history.

"They thought that polytheism can be nothing other than stupidity, so they couldn't represent it fairly," said Zevit, professor of biblical literature and northwest Semitic languages at the university, which is aligned with the Conservative branch of Judaism.

He said he expects to be helped by inscriptions and other material from ritual sites discovered by archeologists in recent years.

Veteran archeologist William Dever of the University of Arizona, in a telephone interview, praised Zevit as eminently qualified in archeology as well as historical-critical analysis of the Bible--which Dever called a rarity among scholars specializing in that era.

"He is deeply committed to Judaism but is willing to look at new sources, no matter how disturbing," Dever said. Zevit's history of Israelite religion "will be a landmark study," Dever predicted.

Most of the books of what became the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians, were written between 1100 and a period shortly after 586 B.C., when the temple of King Solomon, called the First Temple, was destroyed by the Babylonians.

The biblical texts represent the viewpoint of the priestly elites of Jerusalem, monotheists who ultimately prevailed over Israelite polytheists, Zevit said. The Judaism of rabbis and synagogues developed several centuries later.

Zevit said that important inscriptions have been found at three sites in lands once populated by the early Israelites that link Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and Asherah, "the name of the goddess we know very well from Canaanite mythology." The Canaanites were Semitic neighbors of the ancient Israelites.

"The Bible usually links the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah, but here we have sites where Yahweh and this goddess are clearly associated," he said, indicating they were once worshiped together.

"We know that Israel's neighbors in that time seemed to have their own national gods," he said. "The Israelites may have been hedging their bets or had divided loyalties: 'The God of Israel takes care of these things and these other gods take care of other things.' "

The Jerusalem Temple built during Solomon's reign was supposed to be the only place of worship for the Israelites, but to the south in Arad have been found the remains of a temple-fortress that functioned for almost 300 years during the Israelite period, he said. "Furthermore, at the temple at Arad they find curved standing stones, which are specifically prohibited in the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses)."

A 10th-Century temple was also excavated at Hazor. The Bible has to be seen as a collection of partisan documents--sometimes preaching to the converted but also written to persuade others, he said.

He said the final authors of the book of Kings were advancing an answer to the question of why the Israelites were then in enforced exile: "Here is the history that proves that you have blown it consistently. Why? You haven't obeyed these laws and these laws, and you can't plead ignorance. Why? Because God sent the prophets."

But in contrast to the biblical picture that monotheism had reached the status of an orthodoxy that backsliders or pagans resisted, "Israelite religion was very heterogeneous in a lot of its practices--much more than the biblical literature would allow us to suspect.

"It's not enough to say, 'Oh, that's not Israelite religion, that's paganism,' " he said. "Paganism is the name we give to something we don't like. . . . The struggle that monotheism underwent to be accepted was long and immense."

Zevit said he will spend a year working primarily in two Jerusalem museums during his fellowship and visit several archeological sites.

"A lot of people out there--Jews, Christians, believers, nonbelievers, affiliated, non-affiliated--still take the Bible seriously as an intellectual monument to the past," he said.

"They are very curious about it," he added. "The religious can be curious about what their spiritual forerunners believed. Atheists and agnostics can be interested in what their intellectual forerunners thought. 'Ah,' they say, 'that's the religion I don't believe in but I didn't know about it before.' "

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