Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah

PART I

Introduction

Today I begin a series of studies dealing with prophetic reaction to religious syncretism in Judah and Israel. Syncretism is the process by which the practices and beliefs of one religion are incorporated into another religion. The result of this union of different and, at times, opposing religious practices is a change in the fundamental nature of the religion that absorbed the foreign religious elements.

This series of studies will cover a period from the united monarchy and the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon in 922 BC to the time of the prophets Micah and Isaiah who prophesied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the eighth century BC.

This series of study will cover several areas of syncretism in the North and the South. It will begin with the religious reforms of Jeroboam I; the religious innovations established by Omri and Ahab, kings of Israel, and the reaction of the prophetic community under Elijah; the revolution under Jehu and its aftermath; the religion of the North as seen by Amos and Hosea; and the religion of the South as seen by Micah and Isaiah.

The Problem of the Sources

Most of the information for this study will come from the books of 1 and 2 Kings and recent archaeological discoveries. The two books of Kings (the two books of Kings are only one book in the Hebrew Bible) are part of the history of Israel and Judah that begins with the conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua and ends with Judah in exile in Babylon. This history is commonly known as the Deuteronomic History. The writer of this history is commonly called the Deuteronomic Historian. This history was written from a perspective of the people who lived in the Southern Kingdom, also known as Judah.

The religious traditions of the Northern Kingdom, also known as Israel, were preserved by editors who lived in the Southern Kingdom. They were the ones who gave the final shape to the material available to them. It is difficult to evaluate sources that have a Northern origin. The prophetic sources available are the Elijah cycle and the books of Hosea and Amos. These sources address the religious situation of the Northern Kingdom, but their final redaction was done with a Jerusalemite bias.

The books of Kings and parallel accounts in Chronicles, together with Micah and Isaiah, provide information about the situation in the South. Together, these sources serve as the basis for an understanding of the religion of Israel and Judah in the early pre-exilic period.

The Reign of Saul

Before Israel established a united monarchy under Saul, the nation functioned as a loosely organized tribal league. The threat posed by the Philistines forced the leaders of the twelve tribes to call for a centralized form of government to deal with the Philistine threat.

The election of Saul as the first king of Israel brought a sense of unity to the confederacy. However, the election of Saul did not bring much political, religious, or economic change to Israel. Although Saul was anointed as the king of Israel, he actually functioned more like a judge. He gained power through the anointing of Yahweh and through his position as the leader of the army. Saul’s kingship was modest. Under his leadership, Israel did not develop a central structure that was characteristic of later kings. Saul did not have a palace, he did not have a harem, and probably did not have a system of taxation.

In addition, tribal structure did not change much since the tribes clung tightly to their independence and it was not until Saul died and the Philistine threat increased that the nation recognized the need for a more centralized government.

The Reign of David

When the elders of Israel came to Hebron to anoint David as king of Judah and Israel, David recognized the need for a centralized government. One of his first acts as king of Judah and Israel was to conquer Jerusalem and establish the city as the capital of the united monarchy and as the center of the political life of the nation. He also brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The presence of the Ark in the new capital established Jerusalem as the religious center of the nation.

David’s priority was to complete the conquest of the land. With his victory against the enemies of Israel, David incorporated the conquered people into Israelite society. This large influx of non-Israelites into Israel forced the new king to introduce some foreign elements into the social and religious life of Israel in order to accommodate the needs of this large number of foreigners.

David’s appointment of Zadok and Abiathar as priests demonstrates his deliberate effort to keep a balance between the two segments of the population and their religious traditions. Abiathar was from the family of Eli, whose line came from those who had served at the sanctuary in Shiloh. His appointment was an effort to address the religious needs of the people of Israel.

The appointment of Zadok, a priest who probably represented the Jebusite population, served to meet the needs of the Canaanite population that continued to live in Jerusalem. By appointing Zadok as a co-priest, David was attempting to assimilate a foreign cultic tradition that existed side-by-side with traditional Yahweh worship. Later on, when Solomon became king, he banished Abiathar and established Zadok as the only priest.

The establishment of the united monarchy served to promote the worship of Yahweh. Although the monarchy was mostly a political necessity, the establishment of the covenant between Yahweh and the house of David ensured Yahweh’s blessings upon the descendants of David and the people and ensured the people’s devotion to Yahweh.

Next: The Reign of Solomon

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to Religious Syncretism in Israel and Judah

  1. fencekicker says:

    I was not aware that Zadok was a Jebusite or a Jebusite priest. What leads you to believe that he was a Jebusite?

  2. Dear Fencekicker,

    Thank you for your questions about Zadok. Scholars differ on whether Zadok was a Jebusite or an Israelite. I believe that he was a Jebusite but the explanation for my view requires a longer explanation that what I can provide here. In a few days I will post a blog explaining the reason I believe Zadok was a Jebusite.

    Thank you for your comment to my post on syncretism.

    Claude Mariottini

  3. Pingback: What Is Syncretism?

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