Religion originates from within a structure of individual societies and depends on society for its value, existence, and significance. In “The Psychology of Religion”, Emmons defines religion as “a covenant faith community with teachings and narratives that enhance the search for the sacred and encourage morality… ” Additionally, faith can be classified according to whom or what its believers’ worship and they include monotheism, atheism, polytheism, totemism, and animism. Ancient Israelite’s religion was a symbolic expressions of and appropriate response to the deities and powers that groups or communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their world view. Yawhism was the predominant religion among Hebrews. People who practice Yahwism are referred to as Yahwists and their God is called Yahwe, who is credited for leading the Israelites out of Egypt through his servant Moses. The evolution of Yahwism was a result of the different experiences that the Hebrews had, and the religion and the faith was intended more for psychology rather than ancient history.
Yahwism underwent different changes in its traditions that were influenced by varied occurrences or experiences. Mbuvi suggests that “unlike the Bible, which recounts ancient Israel’s history largely as a narrative of critical moments, the historical evolution of the Israelites was probably much more gradual; therefore, assigning moments or dates to its true inception is impossible.” However, different events in the history of the Israelites mark major changes in their religion. Originally, the Yawhist religion was monolatrous and some of the religious practices of the ancient Israelis and their civilization were borrowed from the Near East regions such as Egypt, the West Semitic region, Canaan, Babylonia, and Mesopotamia. Although the Hebrews put Yahweh, who was their national god, first, they recognized other Gods. It was not until religious reformers known as prophets emerged that significant changes were made to Yahwism. The most significant of them was a shift from polytheism to monotheism, which is the belief in the existence of one god. Additionally, ritual, which had been a significant facet of Yahwism ceased to matter as much as obeying the commandments of Yahwe.
More changes in the religion followed during the exile days of the Hebrews. As Albert Rainer suggests, “unlike most cultures of the Near East, ancient Israel developed an essential part of its religion in the exceptional situation of a revolutionary process of liberation under the extreme conditions.” During their exile in Babylon, the Hebrews suffered so much that they questioned their religion. They believed that what had befallen them was the result of them moving away from the tradition of Yahwism, so they resorted to revert to the old cultic practices, such as circumcision and observing the Sabbath day, that they thought purified them. Nonetheless, they adopted other religions, such as the Persian one, which they thought explained and mollified their misfortunes. They also adopted Dualism, which credits the good happenings to Yahweh and the bad ones to evil. Indeed, the Yawhist faith is an evolution out of the traditions that did not seem to work into the adoption of those that seemed more logical.
How the Yahwist Religion was intended for Human Psychology Rather than Ancient History and some Philosophies
Some pieces of evidence suggest the Yahwist religion was intended for human psychology rather than ancient history. Psychology can be defined as the science of behavior, which includes inner processes such as emotions and thoughts. Moreover, it can affect belief in an individual, and belief can affect psychology. Religion is a psychological need for most human beings since it is based on a set of shared beliefs and values required for communal living. It helps one to be an ideal human being, by helping him or her to have control over emotions. Religion originates from within a structure of individual societies. Moreover, faith is a formalized political structure that is established by a community that follows a particular set of spiritual, mystical, or philosophical teachings. The main difference between religion and known political systems is that the spiritual teachings generally involve a theory of salvation unlike the political concepts. Religion relates to faith and worship and it molds the conscience of the believers through shaping the ethos and value system in the society. Lastly, the goal of religion is to help human beings to cope with the trials and tribulations that come with life.
As mentioned, eventually, the Yahwists started believing in the existence of a monotheistic deity who is almighty and powerful. By entering into a covenant with Yahweh, ancient Israelites practiced activities and rituals which were pleasant in his “eyes” and shunned those which evoked his wrath. Religious practices brought about order, social control, and understanding through shared patterns of behavior, which shows the psychological influence Yahwism had on the Hebrews.
The concept of kingship in ancient Israel suggests that there was a need for political, social, and economic order. According to the Old Testament, Kings in Israel were chosen by Yahweh. The kings (Yahweh’s chosen ruler) wielded considerable power in ruling the nation, though they were also expected to abide by the covenant of Yahweh. In the Religion of Ancient Israel, Miller suggests that “the term king was a divine title that meant one god as the ruler over other gods.” The King had authority to lead his people to war, settle disputes, and to rule over his subjects fairly. The ability of the king to maintain control and power depended heavily upon the king abiding by Yahweh’s covenant. The desire to unify together under a king was probably believed to offer better stability and security in the long-run. Kings such as Saul and David were chosen by Yahweh to lead the Israelites. Even though both strayed away from Yahweh’s covenant after ascending to the throne (Saul plotted to kill David while David pursued Bethsheba, Uriah’s wife), David was psychologically strong and he admitted to his mistakes as opposed to Saul who did not repent. In 1 chronicle 18:14, it is written that “David reigned over all Israel; and he administered justice and equity to all his people.” This goes to show that psychology played a crucial role in the leadership and religion of ancient Israelites.
Religion can be said to be a social institution since it includes practices and beliefs that cater to the needs of society. In “The Religion of Ancient Israel”, Miller writes “the development of family religion alongside larger communal expressions of Yahwism and the melding of these was aided by the fact that from the beginning, the covenant between Yahweh and Israel was not only a political structure but also an expression of kinship relations.” The religion of ancient Israelites can be said to be ethical since it was a religion of choice and not nature. It was based on a voluntary decision that established an ethical relation between Yahweh and his people. However, control over religious practice was essential as royalty attempted to manage divergent clan and priestly groups, a psychological ploy to ensure that different clans and priestly groups did not conflict with one another.
Philosophy is also related to religion. The term can be defined as the fundamental study of the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. Fundamentally, philosophy gave rise to science and reason and reasonably challenged the ideas of religion. For example, philosophy causes people to ask questions like what is good and evil? What is the world that exists outside us?, and how does a man come to know reality? Materialism and idealism are the main trends in philosophical thought. In “The Beginning of the End: The Eschatology of Genesis,” Huddlestone writes, “Genesis’ matriarchs need Yahweh’s help in producing children (Gen 18:1-15) while the patriarchs need Yahweh’s help in producing food. The point is not that women are valueless if they do not have babies, nor that men are valueless if they do not engage in agriculture, but these two human tasks represent two primary ways of participating in the creation blessing of fruitful productivity.” What is more, Yahwism teaches that salvation comes by Yahweh’s mercy through His renewed covenant and by living righteously according to the principles established first in the Hebrew Bible. Yahwists believe that all religious writings represent human attempts to understand “God” and change Yahweh inspired words my opinions and conjectures of uninspired men.
For several people, religion is the foundation of their lives, the basis of the way they see reality and shaping perception on how they would want their societies be, which is more often according to their respective scriptures and dogmatic beliefs. Ancient Israelite society was based upon the covenant with Yahweh and they spent a portion of their time studying and practicing religious activites as specified in the covenant with Yahweh. Rainer implies that “Israel, unlike all the other cultures of the Near East, developed an essential part of its religion … in the exceptional situation of a revolutionary process of liberation and the extreme conditions of the wilderness.”During that period, religion was not separated from national and personal identity, but was part and parcel of it. Moreover, ancient Israelites practiced customs such as circumcising their males which signified entering into a covenant with Yahweh.
In conclusion, religion originates from within a structure of individual societies and depends on society for its value, existence, and significance. Ancient Israelites believed in and worshiped a deity known as Yahweh who was almighty and powerful and this represented a shift from polytheism to monotheism in the Near East region.
Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: From the beginnings to the end of the monarchy. Vol. 1. Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Emmons, Robert A., and Raymond F. Paloutzian. “The psychology of religion.” Annual review of psychology 54, no. 1 (2003): 377-402.
Huddleston, Jonathan Luke. “The Beginning of the End: The Eschatology of Genesis.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2011.
Mbuvi, Amanda. “Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Construction of Communal Identity.” Unpublished Dissertation. Duke University (2008).