History of the Israelite Religion

Written by Georg Fohrer Reviewed By Joyce Baldwin

What first strikes the reader of this most recent ‘Religion of Israel’ to appear in English is the great erudition of the author. At the head of each chapter and even of the main paragraphs detailed biographies list relevant literature in at least five languages, and so provide an invaluable source of reference for further study. Not unnaturally German works tend to predominate, but French, Dutch, Italian and English are also included.

The general presuppositions of the author will be known to students from his Introduction to the Old Testament. His four main divisions of Israelite religion are the early period (80pp), the monarchy (167pp), the exilic period (22pp) and the post-exilic period (60pp), with the usual imbalance in favour of the developments before the exile. It is understandable that, in view of the vast amount of archaeological evidence relating to Canaan and early Israel, the pre-exilic period should occupy more than half the book, but it is disappointing to find only a few pages on such great themes as wisdom and apocalyptic, though eschatology has some sixteen pages. Ezekiel is regarded as the last of the great individual prophets: ‘the prophets who came after him must be termed epigones’ (p. 316), and it is clear that Professor Fohrer belongs to the old school which, under the influence of Wellhausen and Duhm, assigned all post-exilic literature to an inferior status. On the earlier periods, however, his book is very informative, and throughout the style is lucid and its arguments easy to follow.

There is good coverage of Canaanite religion, and a cautious assessment of its influence. Moses is the historical leader of the escape from Egypt and the founder of ‘Mosaic Yahwism’ at Sinai, where a blood relationship was established between Yahweh and his clan. The amphictyony theory is outlined but rejected: ‘The schema of the twelve tribes of Israel … means precisely what the OT says it means: it is a genealogical list recording descent and relationship’ (p. 93). Similarly the origin and nature of kingship in Israel is reassessed. Students may well find particularly helpful the sections on the prophets, in which the message of each of the great individual prophets is summarised.

Mention must be made, however, of some of Professor Fohrer’s categorical statements and controversial judgments. He interprets very differently from Professor Yadin the evidence from Hazor (p. 61). He thinks that such a sanctuary as Shiloh never existed as a potential central sanctuary (p. 92). Without citing his evidence he says of the post-exilic temple ‘the Temple had been dedicated without Zerubbabel, whom the Persian regime had recalled …’. Another statement which appears to go beyond the evidence occurs in connection with the influence of Persian religion (p. 355). Did Persians really believe in a final apotheosis of the world into the kingdom of God? These are only a few of the statements which will send the reader to his reference books.

Without doubt this book will be much used by theological students, and it deserves to be, for it presents a valuable summary of much recent Continental thought in a concise and readable style. It will not, however, provide the last word on the subject of Israelite religion, least of all for readers of Themelios.

Joyce Baldwin