Ancient Israelite Religion cover
Ancient Israelite Religion
by Susan Niditch
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Oxford University Press; 1997; 16 pp.
Genre: Non-fiction
Category: Religion/spirituality
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The people and culture behind the Hebrew Bible fascinate the public as never before. From Bill Moyers's PBS series on Genesis to the massive circulation of Biblical Archeological Review to such bestsellers as The Book of J and Who Wrote the Bible?, evidence abounds of an intense interest in the day-to-day reality reflected in the scriptures. Now Susan Niditch offers a perceptive, accessible account of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites, analyzing the complex and varied ways in which Israelites present and preserve themselves in the Old Testament.

In Ancient Israelite Religion, Niditch illuminates the life and the customs of this ancient people, whose religion has so influenced human history. Drawing on the most recent literary scholarship and archaeological evidence, the book gives readers a compelling account of how Israelite culture changed through the three great periods of their past--the distant pre monarchic age, the monarchies of Israel and Judah, and the Babylonian exile and return. The heart of her book is a rich account of the Israelites' religious life, as revealed in the anthology of ancient Israelite writing called the Hebrew Bible. Niditch explores how they described their experience of God, drawing out consistent themes in the Biblical stories. For example, God is often identified with fire (as in Moses' encounter with the burning bush), and several women experience annunciations--revelations that they will give birth to a male hero. Niditch offers fascinating insight into the practices of folk religion, surmising that Israelites often made contact with the dead through mediums--a practice seen in the story of King Saul, who had the spirit of Samuel conjured up. She notes that the Bible is filled with condemnations of these and other customs, suggesting how widespread they actually were. Niditch goes on to explore the Israelites' mythic narratives, and the legal and ethical dimensions of a faith founded upon the Israelites' covenant with God. Strikingly, their code includes much that is unsavory to the modern mind, such as slavery and the stark subordination of women, and there are hints in the Bible of the practice of child sacrifice. The author also paints a detailed picture of the complex rituals--many centered on the purifying power of blood--that Israelite writers portray as framing their daily and annual patterns of life.
Most important, Niditch's account allows us to see the world through the Israelites' eyes, as she reconstructs both their habits and their larger worldview. Her insightful, subtly nuanced portrait brings to life this ancient people whose legacy continues to influence, and fascinate, the world today.