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 pastthe 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 annunciationsrevelations 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 mediumsa 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 ritualsmany centered on the purifying power of bloodthat 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.
An overly brief but very well organized and informative overview of Judaism's formative stage during the 13th to 5th centuries b.c.
Bible scholar Niditch (Religion/Amherst Coll.) focuses on the worldview expressed in the Hebrew Bible. She devotes chapters to four aspects of that worldview: the experiential, the mythical, the ritual, and the ethical-legal, largely basing her analysis on close readings of biblical texts. Sometimes, though unfortunately not often enough, she uses insight garnered from archaeological findings or the texts of other ancient Near Eastern religions. Niditch's greatest strength is her succinct, accessible prose; there is solid scholarship, but no academic pretentiousness or jargon here. She is particularly good at capturing and evoking an aspect of ancient Judaism in a sentence or a phrase. For example, after exploring the Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat that is prescribed in Leviticus, she observes how it is linked to other biblical rituals involving uncleanliness and danger, then concludes that "sin, like the seductive personification in the story of Cain and Abel, the one who crouches at the door, is real and visceral, a contaminant which makes impossible a healthful continuation of the covenant community." Also enhancing her book is an excellent bibliography. The work's only weakness is an occasional penchant for deriving conclusions from insufficient evidence. An example: Niditch states that the context and content of the ritual of redeeming the first-born son (see Exodus 22) "seems to be support that child sacrifice was indeed a thread in ancient Israelite religion." Far more evidence is needed for this spectacular claim.
On balance, though, this is a first-rate introduction, for undergraduate and graduate students and all serious students of Judaism, to the social, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual underpinnings of the Hebrew Bible.