he man she ra xmasChristmas in America is a national holiday woven into a secular liturgical year, with little authentic religious significance for many/most of those who celebrate it.

It’s commercialized nonsense, a vehicle for reaching quarterly profit margins. Christmas means malls, car commercials, and some very dumb Christmas specials.

OK, rant over. We all know this, and pointing it out is as insightful as saying that network television has too many commercials and toilets flush counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere (well, sort of—click here).

My point here isn’t to rant about the secularization of Christmas, but to draw an analogy between Christmas and what we read about Israelites in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is, to state the obvious, religious literature. But we tend to assume that the ancient Israelites were as aware as we are of what we read. They weren’t.

There was no “Bible” through most of Israel’s ancient history, and if there had been, common people would almost certainly not have been able to read it—at least not on an adult literate level. Reading and writing were for trained scribes. 

What if the ancient Israelites celebrated their rituals—festivals, sacrifices, regular times of worship—with the same lack of awareness for their deep religious significance as most American’s celebrate Christmas? What if ancient Israelites sort of just went along with the momentum of their vaguely sacred holidays adapted to cultural norms of the day?

If we could walk through ancient Israelite towns sometime between, say, 1000 and 600 BCE (the time when Israel was a nation with kings, a Temple, and religious rituals), would we see an idyllic scene of common every-day Israelites owning the full religious significance of their holidays and rituals?

Or would we see more or less what we see today as we walk through Walmart or Times Square, masses of Americans for ENNS_BibleTellsMewhom vaguely ancient religious symbols have been reframed by the dominant culture and reinvested with meaning?

This is why biblical scholars and historians make a distinction between the Old Testament and “Israelite religion.”

The Old Testament is the official record of the literate religious leaders, written not as a straight record of historical events (as if there is such a thing), but as stories, interpretations of the past to prescribe what the people should believe and do in the present—namely the exilic and post-exilic periods. (I just said a mouthful, but this isn’t in the slightest bit controversial for most. I give this a lot of space in The Bible Tells Me So.)

The study of “Israelite religion” engages the Bible, to be sure, but also archaeological evidence that shows us what people on the ground actually did do.

One example is the constant Old Testament refrain in 1 and 2 Kings about the proper worship of God:

  1. Yahweh and Yahweh alone is to be worshiped,
  2. and that happens only in the Temple in Jerusalem,
  3. with no images of any kind.

Readers today might assume that these injunctions were more or less universally known to your average Joe Meatball and Sally Housecoat of the day (Mr. Burns, The Simpsons, season 2, episode 4). So we read the biblical stories about the failure to worship God properly as stories of out and out rebellion—“Geez Louise, Israelites, when in the world are you going to learn to obey God?! How many times do you have to be told?!”

But it may be that your average Israelite had no real conception of how God is “supposed” to be worshiped. Or they had an idea, but, like a lot of American’s singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” they effortlessly and unknowingly mix together some vague awareness of what it all “really” means and just going with the cultural flow.

Again, think of what is generally considered to be a fairly “normal” celebration of Christmas in American culture. You buy toys, slippers, and toasters at Amazon, wrap them and put them under a tree, and pop into the Blu-ray player He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special or A Year without a Santa ClausMaybe go to church and sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

There. We did Christmas.

I don’t see my neighbors or the local butcher as rebelling against anything. They’re just doing what they know, flowing along on the cultural currents. They might not know very much if anything about what Christmas “really” means.

They’re just being Americans, born into a culture where, if you’re not Jewish or Muslim, you just “celebrate Christmas like everyone else,” along with your own private family traditions if applicable. And that’s that.

The Biblical tradition, however, normalizes and centralizes worship practices, which the masses are supposed to follow. Imagine if the federal government tried to impose strict rules on how to celebrate Christmas (beyond making it a bank holiday). It would be chaotic.

Ancient Israel’s actual worship of God may have been more like that of “Christian America” at Christmas than a hyper-alert and knowledgable practicing Christian community today.

This may help illustrate the point. Archaeologists have uncovered ample evidence that ancient Israelites during the monarchic period (1000 to 600 BCE) engaged in the worship of a fertility goddess like that of their Canaanite neighbors and pretty much every other ancient Middle Eastern people. Scads of clay figurines, like the ones you see here, have been found that were the personal property of your average Israelite.

Three Astarte figurines, supporting their breasts with hands. From Judah. Terracotta, pillar-type (1000-700 BCE) Iron Age

Fertility figurines supporting their breasts with hands. From Judah (1000-700 BCE).

This was not a rejection of Yahweh in favor of another, but the merging of the worship of Yahweh with what “everybody else did.” Israelites worshipped other deities, in the form of images, in the home. The very opposite of the biblical injunctions.

As I said, the Bible routinely condemns this sort of thing, like commanding that the “Asherah” poles (symbols of fertility) be cut down. That seems straightforward enough: the Bible says that worshiping the fertility goddess is wrong, everyone knows it, so stop it!

But think about it from a different angle. Why do we read on page after page in the stories of Israel’s monarchy of the condemnation of syncretistic worship on the part of the Israelites? Why the felt need on the part of the biblical writers to make such a huge point of ridding the land of idols and false places of worship (“high places”)?

Probably because everyone was doing it.

The fact that the biblical writers protested so much against false worship probably tells us not so much how “rebellious” the Israelites were against clearly understood commands, but that the ancient Israelites were as detached from their official religion as are many/most Americans from official Christianity.

The celebration of Christmas in America today may give us a pretty good idea of what Israelite life was like, religiously speaking, during the time of Israel’s kings. The biblical stories of the past, in that respect, are more like sermons to catechize and motivate the Israelites rather than objective accounts of the past.