Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel: an Enquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestley School

Written by Menahem Haran Reviewed By Gordon McConville

Haran’s important book is, he tells us, the fruit of twenty-five years’ work on the biblical cult and related fields (p.v.). Much of the material has appeared before in articles. A number of these were in Hebrew, however, and the ambitious attempt of an outstanding scholar to produce a comprehensive account of his views on a subject to which he has devoted so much time, is in any case welcome.

The genesis of the book creates a difficulty, of course, viz. that it lacks a central unifying thrust. It ranges over cultic things in an almost encyclopedic way, but its subtitle, which is more accurate than its title, betrays a certain diversity, with which the reader simply has to live.

Haran himself suggests three unifying elements: i the examination of temple-related phenomena, ii an attempt to demonstrate the antiquity of the material of the legal stratum known as ‘P’, and iii a related attempt to show that even the literary crystallization of the P document must have been pre-exilic (p.v).

This programme, or rather these programmes, do in fact make the book vitally interesting for those concerned to understand not only the history of Israel’s worship, but the history of Israel in a wider sense. That these two subjects are inextricably linked is well-known to all who are familiar with Wellhausen’s ‘Prolegomena to the History of Israel’, in which a now widely-accepted reconstruction of Israel’s history was arrived at by means of an examination of cultic institutions. Haran’s task is similar to Wellhausen’s, but undertaken in conscious opposition to the school he initiated, as the polemical tone of his programme will have indicated. If there is a single unifying factor in the book, this is probably it. It is interesting to hear a Jewish scholar echo a number of evangelical scholars (especially R. K. Harrison) when he says: ‘In assigning P to the post-exilic period, orthodox research bases itself on the Hegelian principle of dialectic and historic evolution’ (p. 6). Applied with this attitude is a tendency to believe that the cultic institutions found in the OT really are ancient, and that the texts which give information about them are less disharmonious than is usually thought.

In its seventeen chapters the book covers temples and other places of worship (chs. 2, 3), the tabernacle (chs. 8–10), the problems surrounding the priesthood and the tribe of Levi (chs. 4–6), cult centralization (ch. 7), some of the rituals and symbols of the tabernacle/temple (chs. 11–13), the Tent of Meeting (ch. 14), the feasts and Passover (chs. 16, 17) and some specific questions connected with the history of Solomon’s temple (ch. 15). There is no treatment of the major sacrifices, which might be thought a deficiency, but this would, in reality, require an entirely separate work (or works).

On every subject he does address he has something interesting and individual to say. Space requires us to confine ourselves to a few examples. The question of the relation of priests to Levites is an old bone of contention. Haran defies the general view by insisting that there is basic unanimity between the sources (JE, P and D) in asserting that Levi was originally a tribe (not an order or some other secular organization as some scholars have thought), and that the fully fledged priests constituted a minority of the tribe (again, contrary to the common view that the differentiation in rank merely arose late in Israel’s history). On temples, he opposes the belief (Wellhausenian again) that these existed in large numbers in early times, and is cautious about identifying them at all. (He thinks there might have been about twelve in the early monarchy period.) He finds a consistency in the presentations of the Passover. And, in general, his willingness to suppose that ‘P’ is prior to ‘D’ facilitates a Pentateuchal logic that is probably more congenial to the evangelical student than the more customary view.

All this does not mean that Haran believes the Old Testament to be uniformly authoritative in the sense that evangelicals do. Quite a number of his arguments depend on the dismissal of a text as unreliable. And in some of the positions he takes he departs considerably from the picture given by the OT itself. (This is true of his treatment of the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting, for example.) On ‘P’, he is critically orthodox in seeing it as an emanation from priestly circles, and distinct from Deuteronomy in its priestliness (representing, incidentally, a failure to see the real priestly interests lurking in the latter book).

One general criticism is that, while Haran performs very well in laying siege to old theories, his own substitutes are not always convincing. Often forceful logic lapses at the point of transition and is replaced by a dogmatic adherence to views which are not well-founded. This is true, for example, of his belief that P underlies Hezekiah’s attempt at centralization of the cult (pp. 140ff). The reader is not encouraged by the opening gambit: ‘I am prepared to suppose that …’ (p. 141) (a formula which recurs, with variations, cf. p. 327), and one feels that one is in the presence of a pet-theory, rather than real logical thinking.

In conclusion, this is a book that students ought to know about. It will prove useful to refer to it on many aspects of Israel’s cultic life and history. But the reader will have to distinguish between claims and views that are well-founded, and pronouncements which are merely dogmatic and speculative.

It should be added that the book has good indices, a useful Glossary of Biblical (i.e. Hebrew) Terms and Phrases, and is everywhere profusely and informatively footnoted.

Gordon McConville

Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education