Aaron Chalmers, Exploring The Religion of Ancient Israel: Priest, Prophet, Sage & People. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, January, 2013. 176 pp. Hardcover, $30.00.
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
Aaron Chalmers is senior lecturer in biblical studies at Tabor Adelaide in Adelaide, Australia. In Exploring The Religion of Ancient Israel, he lends his expertise to an intriguing subject. In doing so, he adds an important volume to the Exploring The Bible series from IVP Academic.
As Chalmers tells us almost right off the bat, this book is intended for beginning students, and so is not a full scale study of the subject (3). Chalmers is very attentive to the actual full scale studies and running his footnotes to ground will keep advanced students busy. What he does provide here is an approach to “Israelite religion through the lens of its leaders (prophets, priests, and the wise)” as well as “the religious beliefs and practices of the common people.” (3)
This gives you the basic overview of the book. Chapter 1 is devoted to explaining the various sources we have at our disposal for this particular study. We have a three fold collection of sources: the biblical text, other ancient Near Eastern text, and archaeological finds. While the starting point is the biblical text (13), there is much the Bible does not say about the everyday religious practices in ancient Israel. For Chalmers, the other two sources serve to supplement, and in some cases correct. As for the latter role, I take Chalmers to mean correct our interpretation of some biblical text, not prove the text wrong.
With this in mind, we proceed in chapter 2 into the first religious role: priests. The material is oriented around three questions:
- How did someone become a priest?
- What did a priest do?
- Where were priests to be found?
Replete with pictures of artifacts and numerous side panels, this chapter is packed. Since “priests lay at the heart of the practice of Israel’s religion” (36), it is only fitting.
Chapter 3 shifts the focus to prophets, who while less central than priests, were no less influential. Though handled in a different order, Chalmers answers essentially the same questions from chapter 2, but in regard to prophets. As he concludes, they “were a remarkably diverse lot” that held one thing in common: “whether cult, royal, or ‘non-aligned’ prophet, each believed they were responsible for bringing a message from God to Israelite people, bridging the gap between the divine and human realms” (64).
Chapter 4 brings us to the wise in ancient Israel, or as the subtitle refers to them, “sages.” Again, we follow Chalmers as he answers the threefold question of who, what, where. Perhaps this group is last because, as Chalmers notes, they “are a difficult group to pin down.” While they may have been hard for the average Israelite to track down, “such individuals played a key role in maintaining the unity and stability of the communities of which they were a part, and, on the basis of their wisdom and experience, could be called on to safeguard and foster the wellbeing (including religious wellbeing) or its member” (87).
Before the concluding chapter, Chalmers offers an excursus on the role of kings in ancient Israel’s religion. Here, he concludes that “although the king’s involvement in the religious life of the nation does not receive significant, explicit treatment in the OT, it is clear that the monarch could play a very important role if he chose to do so.” Further, because of the “unique position” kings had between God and the people, “the Israelite king was not a peripheral figure to the religious life of the nation; he instead stood at its heart” (96).
With that, we move to the final chapter where Chalmers applies his threefold questioning to the common people’s religious practices. Modified slightly, the questions become:
- Whom did the common people worship?
- Where did the common people worship?
- When did the common people worship?
Chalmers admits that “the religion of the common people of ancient Israel was an incredibly complex phenomena.” Students not familiar with scholarly discussions on this topic might find it disconcerting to find out that most do not believe Israel was monotheistic at the common level. The constant warnings against idolatry and numerous forays into it give strong support for this assertion. But, as Chalmers wisely points out, “we shouldn’t expect the faith of the common people to match exactly what we find advocated in the Bible” (132). The prophetic warnings make sense of this background reconstruction. Since Chalmers’ study was based on what was actually practiced religiously, rather than what was prescribed ideally, he presents as best he can the religious practices of ancient Israel warts and all. And in the end, this helps us “appreciate the distinctive claims of the authors of the OT” (133).
As an introduction, it is an excellent one. For anyone wanting to dig into the background culture of the Old Testament, this is a fascinating study. Chalmers covers the ground well in the main body of the text, and also boasts a user-friendly layout and design for the material. In addition to the well mapped out main text in each chapter, Chalmers offer several different types of “panels” or sidebars if you will:
- Going Deeper (panels that dig farther into background material)
- Have You Considered? (panels that raise important questions that attentive readers may already have in mind)
- Scholar Focus (panels that give brief bios of important figures)
- ANE Parallels (panels that point out continuities with ancient Near East religion)
- Archeological Insight (panels that draw on significant archaeological finds)
All of these features combine to make this an ideal introductory text for its subject. While there are certainly more thorough studies out there, I’m not aware of a more suitable, and accessible, text for the average Bible student.