Stephen Cook–villages and desert

I want to give you a sense of what Stephen L. Cook thinks the origin of biblical religion looks like.  He thinks the tradition he sees as biblical Yahwism or Sinai theology has its social place in rural and village life.

Early in The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism he brings up two findings of archeology.  First, archaeologists have found that there was a sudden outbreak of village settlement in the high country of what became Israel around the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the Iron Age. Many have concluded that these villages represent proto-Israel.  So Israel–whether the people came from Egypt, or the eastern desert, or were Canaanite refugees–began as dwellers in a bunch of villages.  The Bible talks a lot about events in Jerusalem, but most Israelite life centered around the villages.

More interesting and more speculative is his interpretation of the standing stones or masseboths. Archeologists have been cataloging a quantity of these which have been found in the Sinai and Negev deserts.  Cook concludes

“Archaeological evidence suggests that this view of God may not be a late development out of Canaanite religion, as many scholars argue today. . .Within Sinai theology, the E strand recalls that Israel’s ancestors, such as Jacob, used standing stones as part of life and worship” (p. 36).

The stones found in the desert are not graven images.  They are untouched by stone carvers.  This contrasts with stone images found in the Canaanite city states of the time, which were graven images.  So Cook thinks the standing stones are worship objects of a society that refused to sculpt God in human or animal form.

“The standing stones throughout the Negev trace to a different heritage than Canaanite worship, perhaps to the Midianite and Kenite cultures.  Thus, the stones in the E strand represent a rejection of icons (i.e., ‘aniconism’) in Sinai theology with origins outside of Canaan, dating from thousands of years before Israel’s settlement” (p. 37, emphasis his).

So he thinks that the social roots of the main theology of the Hebrew Bible developed in village life and originated outside of Canaan in the desert cultures.  I emphasize the significance of this as a challenge to the widespread view today that sees urban Canaanite worship as the foundation from which Israelite religion developed.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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