Ancient Israelite Religion

Doctrines The ancient Israelites seem to have distinguished themselves from other religious groups by their belief in a god called Yahweh who had shown special compassion towards their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants, intervening in history on their behalf in many spectacular ways and establishing a special relationship with them known as the "covenant". He rescued them under the leadership of Moses from slavery and oppression in Egypt, and led them through the wilderness of Sinai to a land he promised would be their own. They practised animal sacrifice under the supervision of a hereditary priesthood, and observed a unique set of religious and moral instructions revealed to them at Sinai. The core of these is the "Ten Commandments" (or "Decalogue"), which prohibit the worship of other gods, the use of images, and all kinds of work on the Sabbath (every seventh day), as well as murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting.

History Our knowledge of the religion of ancient Israel is almost totally dependent on the Hebrew Bible, a text written many hundreds of years after the events it describes (see Ancient Judaism), and the historicity of the biblical legends cannot be assumed. The earliest certain occurrence of the name "Israel" outside the Bible is on an Egyptian stone inscription dated c.1230 BCE, where it refers to a people living in north central Palestine. By c.1000 BCE this people were united under King David in a single state covering most of Palestine from the Negev desert in the south to the sources of the River Jordan to the north. His son Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem, the religious and political capital of the new kingdom, but on his death pre-Davidic tribal loyalties erupted and the northern region broke away from Jerusalem and Judah in the south, to become a separate kingdom, significantly larger than the southern state, and known as "Israel". During the 9th and 8th centuries BCE a series of charismatic miracle-working reformers known as prophets, including Elijah, Hosea, Amos and Isaiah, challenged the social, moral and religious climate of their day. Their predictions that both kingdoms would be punished by divine intervention were fulfilled in 722 BCE when the northern capital Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians, and 586 BCE when the city of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. A large proportion of the citizens of Samaria and Judah were forcibly resettled in Babylonia.

Symbols Despite Israel's unique prohibition of all images in worship, the Hebrew Bible preserves some ancient traditions concerning the use of bull images in Samaria, a bronze serpent in Jerusalem, and the lavishly decorated "Ark of the Covenant" which seems to have functioned as a kind of throne for the deity. All of these symbols were lost without trace, however, by the time of the Babylonian exile. Only the symbolism of Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem survived, though even it was not without political opposition.

Adherents The population of ancient Israel was probably about 300,000 at its maximum in the time of David. This is based on estimates of about 10,000 for capital cities like Jerusalem and Samaria, 2000-3000 for regional centres like Dan, Megiddo and Beersheba, and 500-1000 for small country towns or villages.

Main Centre
 Jerusalem until the death of Solomon, then divided between Jerusalem in the south, and several religious centres in the north, including Bethel, Shechem and Dan. From the mid ninth century BCE the newly built city of Samaria became the political capital of the northern kingdom.