Israelite Religion

The religion developed by the Israelites (the ancient ancestors of the Jewish people) during the early Iron Age is often given credit for being the first purely monotheistic religion in human history. Israelite religion called for worship of a deity named Yahweh and focused on a system of sacrifices conducted in the great temple in the Israelites' capital city of Jerusalem. Their religion also mandated a strict set of ethical and ritual behaviors which helped set the Israelites apart from other national groups in the ancient Near East and which were set down in the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible some time during the first millennium, BCE.

The Hebrew Bible is collection of a diverse array of texts, which were written by numerous different authors over the course of several centuries. These texts collectively tell the story of the creation of the world by Yahweh, and of the formation of a covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents. The narrative traces the history of these descendents, the Israelites, as they were enslaved in Egypt and then subsequently were rescued by God to journey back to their original homeland on the Jordan River. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites, eventually founded a monarchy which flourished under King David and his son Solomon, before subsequently splitting into two separate Israelite states, the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BCE while Judah persisted a while longer before being conquered by the Babylonians during the 6th century. According to the Biblical narrative, a portion of the elites of Judah were forcibly deported to Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed, languishing there for several decades before being allowed to return to their homeland after Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persian Empire. The Hebrew Bible places all of these events within a religious context, asserting that the Israelites prospered when they were true to the worship of Yahweh and were punished when they indulged in idolatry and the worship of pagan deities.

The Documentary Hypothesis

The earliest portion of the Hebrew Bible is comprised by the first five books-- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy-- which are called the Torah (“Teaching” or “Law”) in Hebrew. Later Jewish tradition holds that the Torah had been written by Moses, a legendary figure whom the text credits with leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. This view of the Torah as a unified work written by one author remained largely unquestioned until the nineteenth century, when a generation of scholars steeped in the more skeptical traditions of the Enlightenment devised a new theory of biblical authorship in order to make sense of some of the more problematic features of the Torah.

This theory, known as the documentary hypothesis, uses discrepancies within the text such as the two different and distinct creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, or the shifting details of the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, as well as variations in theme, word usage, and linguistic style, to argue that the Torah was actually a composite work in which one can detect several different authorial voices. In its classic form, the documentary hypothesis proposes four distinct sources of the Torah:

The documentary hypothesis holds that these four original sources were gradually redacted or edited together over time, and that the Torah only came to assume the form in which we know it today sometime during the 5th century BCE, after the Israelites were allowed by the Persians to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem and its central temple.

In the century and a half since it was first proposed, the documentary hypothesis has been criticized and refined, and several contemporary scholars have argued that its proposal of four distinct authorial sources represents an overly simplistic way of viewing a text which contains so many different themes and voices. Still, the notion that the Torah is composite work based on several earlier sources which were subsequently edited together has been largely accepted by the modern scholarly community. This particular theory of biblical authorship means that there are certain difficulties which face a student trying to understand the development of monotheism among the Israelites, however. In particular, although the text represents pure monotheism as the original religion of the Israelites (and indeed, of all of humanity), it is difficult to tell whether monotheism as such was in fact an early development or whether it only represents the point of view of the redactors of the Bible who were editing the final text of the Torah during the 5th century BCE.

The Evolution of Israelite Monotheism

Ultimately, the fact that the authors of the Torah continuously criticize the Israelites for straying throughout their history from the worship of Yahweh alone to dabble in the worship of the deities of the surrounding pagan peoples has led most modern scholars to conclude that Israelite monotheism developed only very gradually, and that it may initially have been a form of monolatry, acknowledging the existence of other gods, even as it urged the worship of Yahweh alone. After centuries this focus on the cult of Yahweh probably evolved into a genuine monotheism which held that only one divine being really existed. Early Judaism seems to have lacked any firm belief in an afterlife and was focused on a system of temple sacrifices not dissimilar to those mandated by pagan religions of the region. It was only after close Jewish contact with Persian Zoroastrianism following their return from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE that Judaism seems to have developed its more familiar modern doctrines of a diabolical adversary for God and belief in an afterlife in Heaven or Hell for human beings. Even into the modern era, Judaism has remained a national religion for the Jewish people specifically, rather than a faith seeking to spread among all people.

So ultimately it seems that the monotheistic idea was one which developed only slowly, and which was ultimately the product of considerable debate and strife within Israelite society. Even once the Jews were predominantly monotheistic, their religious opinions did not necessarily have much impact on the surrounding peoples of the western world, who remained firmly pagan in their religious practices. Ultimately, it was not until the much later development of Christianity during the 1st and 2nd century CE, and of Islam during the 7th century CE-- both offshoots of Judaism-- that the monotheistic idea truly began to have an enormous impact on western religious culture.


David G. Bradley. A Guide to the World's Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963.

Martin S. Jaffee. Early Judaism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Susan Niditch. Ancient Israelite Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Herschel Shanks, ed. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Washington, DC: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Burton L. Visotzky and David E. Fishman, eds. From Mesopotamia to Modernity: 10 Introductions to Jewish History and Literature. Westview Press, 1999.

Robert Wright. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Author: Douglas Campbell, Ph.D.

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