Biblical Studies God, Ancient Israel
by
Ryan Bonfiglio
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0212

Introduction

In the Hebrew Bible, the term “God” (Hebrew ʾĕlōhîm or ʾĕlôah; Aramaic ʾĕlāh) typically indicates the supreme deity of ancient Israel. Biblical authors refer to this deity using a wide range of titles, descriptive terms, and metaphors that bring to light God’s various roles, activities, and attributes. God’s personal name, Yahweh, is revealed in theophany (Exod 3:13–15), is invoked in priestly blessings (Num 6:24–26), and introduces most prophetic oracles (“thus says the LORD”). This name must be treated with the utmost reverence (Deut 5:11), and in later Jewish tradition, it cannot even be uttered. Although many biblical texts make a sharp distinction between Yahweh and certain Canaanite deities (especially Baal), it is likely that the Israelite concept of divinity emerged from a Canaanite background and shared numerous common features with it, such as the belief in a divine council and the notion of God as a Divine Warrior. The earliest forms of Israelite religion did not exclude the belief in, or worship of, other deities, perhaps even a goddess (Asherah). More exclusive forms of monotheism probably emerged near the end of the monarchic period, if not later. The notion that Israel’s God is inherently invisible, immaterial, and uncircumscribable might be implied by the second commandment of the Decalogue. However, archaeological evidence suggests that the worship of Yahweh was not always and everywhere purely aniconic. Due to the complex and multifaceted nature of the topic, biblical scholars approach the study of ancient Israel’s God from a diversity of methodological perspectives (literary, historical, sociological, etc.) and use data gleaned from various sources (the Hebrew Bible, comparative ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, iconographic materials, and archaeological artifacts). In addition, the study of the nature, character, and activity of ancient Israel’s God is central to the whole task of Old Testament theology and is crucial for understanding the Jewish background of the New Testament.

General Overviews

A number of volumes offer a broad overview of topics pertaining to the study of ancient Israel’s God. Westermann 1979, a classic and often-cited introduction, provides an excellent starting point for beginning students and laypersons, especially those with theological interests. Other volumes, such as Miller 2007 and Mettinger 2005, are more historically oriented in their approach, situating understandings of ancient Israel’s God within the cultural and social context of the ancient Near Eastern world (see also Historical Approaches). However, there are important differences between these two volumes. Although Mettinger 2005 tends to emphasize the distinctiveness of Yahweh in contrast to the gods of Canaan, Miller 2007 underscores numerous points of continuity between Israelite and Canaanite religions. Other volumes focus specifically on the character of God (see also Characteristics of God). Turner 2010, for instance, identifies several dozen literary images of God found throughout the HB and offers concise exegetical reflections on each. Mills 1998 is also interested in images of God but, in contrast to Turner 2010, proceeds in a canonical fashion, highlighting key themes found in specific books in the HB. Lang 2002 outlines God’s character in terms of three thematic categories, each of which is derived from a certain aspect of God’s activities on behalf of the world and humanity. Snaith 1944 focuses on the influence of the HB on the concept of God in the New Testament (NT). Snaith argues that although there is a unity of ideas about God in the Bible as a whole, these ideas are quite distinct from those found in the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world. Shah 2012 offers a helpful comparison of the general concept of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and would be an excellent starting point for students interested in interreligious perspectives on the topic.

  • Lang, Bernhard. The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

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    Attempts to understand the character of Israel’s God in terms of three heuristic categories: the gifts and practices of wisdom, victory in war, and life through fertility, food, and prosperity. For each category, Lang identifies relevant biblical texts and associated topics.

  • Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Translated by Frederick H. Cryer. Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005.

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    Brings together historical and theological approaches to the study of God’s names, titles, and roles in the HB. Emphasizes the distinctiveness of Yahweh from Canaanite deities and downplays points of continuity. This volume is intended for nonspecialists and reflects a Christian theological perspective.

  • Miller, Patrick D. Religion of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

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    The first chapter of this volume, “God and the Gods: Deity and the Divine World in Ancient Israel,” offers an excellent survey of key topics in the study of ancient Israel’s God. Included are a balanced discussion of Yahweh’s relationship with Canaanite deities and the question of the goddess.

  • Mills, Mary E. Images of God in the Old Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1998.

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    Appropriate for beginning students, this concise book identifies key ideas about God as presented in different parts of the HB, including “God of Law and Covenant” (Exodus), “God and the Temple” (Ezekiel), and “God of Power and Justice” (Psalms). Highlights the diversity of theological perspectives evident throughout the canon.

  • Shah, Zulfiqar Ali. Anthropomorphic Depictions of God: The Concept of God in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Traditions: Representing the Unrepresentable. Washington, DC: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2012.

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    An important comparative study of how the three Abrahamic faith traditions attempt to make sense of God both in their sacred texts (HB, NT, and the Quran) and in later theological debates. Focuses especially on what the author considers to be the problematic implications of anthropomorphic or corporeal depictions of the deity.

  • Snaith, Norman H. The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament. London: Epworth, 1944.

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    Examines key ideas associated with God in the HB including holiness, righteousness, covenant love, and spirit. The author argues that these concepts not only strongly influence the NT’s view of God but also sharply differentiate the biblical concept of God from that found in Greco-Roman and other ancient cultures.

  • Turner, Mary Donovan. The God We Seek: Portraits of God in the Old Testament. St. Louis: Chalice, 2010.

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    This brief volume presents more than sixty images of God used throughout the HB. For each image, Turner provides brief exegetical comments. The book is theologically focused and is explicitly concerned with questions about the contemporary significance of the HB’s portrayal of God.

  • Westermann, Claus. What Does the Old Testament Say About God? Translated by Friedemann W. Golka. Atlanta: John Knox, 1979.

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    Traces the contours of the HB’s “story” about God. It highlights the distinction between God’s saving and blessing activities as well as God’s judgment and mercy. Also included is a discussion of the human response to God in words and actions.

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