What Christmas in “Christian America” tells us about how ancient Israelites worshiped God

Posted by PeteEnns on December 12, 2016 in Bible and culture/current events Old Testament 15 Comments

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.



  • Pete,

    While I think your article is insightful, the bit of using a secularized Christian holiday to drive the point misses the mark I think.

    Christmas is a mosaic holiday. Part of it is Christian, to be sure, but a lot of it derives from a myriad of winter festivals and traditions. Many of those pagan. Our caroling, gift giving, decorating with greenery, merry making, feasting, and coming together as a community all draw from these largely non-Christian traditions. And many of them are quite beautiful. And warm our hearts, our families, and our communities. As they were meant to do.

    So dismissing all these traditions not connected to Jesus or the Church as “secular” misses what is really going on at Christmas. It is a holiday with far more depth and breadth than that.

    • I think your comment actually makes Pete’s point, rather than pointing out that he missed the mark with the analogy. Either that or I missing what you are saying all together

      • Joe,

        No, I don’t think so. Pete’s point is not merely one of noting the intermixing of traditions, or intermixing of non-Judeo-Christian faiths with Judeo-Christian faith in observances, etc. But rather his presentation, at least of Christmas, is one of asserting a sort of bumbling ignorance that drives this. And of a corruption of the holiday by secular trends. That is what I take issue with.

        Many people are actually very aware of the heritage of Christmas. It is not and was not, over the sweep of history…dating back to its inception, a truly Christian holiday. It was a winter festival. With non-Christian roots, and non-Christian traditions. And that is not a bad thing. Many of those traditions were very beautiful. And heart warming. And we keep them alive today.

        Christianity communities co-opted a myriad of winter festival traditions and intertwined them with their own to form what we know today as Christmas. When we honor those other traditions, appreciate them, and experience and identify the holiday through them, we are not bumbling along in ignorance, or swept away in a current of shallow or corrupting secularism. We are appreciating the holiday for what it is. Or a good part, a really signinificant part of what it is. Alongside its Christian elements of course. That was my point. And critique.

        • I won’t get into a debate, Tim, but you are rather over reading my post for what you think should be there or what you think I am saying and as such largely missing the point of it. The “practice” of Christmas in American culture is most certainly out of touch with the festival’s deep religious roots and meaning (eclectic nature of it all notwithstanding). There is most certainly a bumbling ignorance. Just talk to your neighbors about why they do what they do. This is ANALOGOUS to (not equated with) Israelite religion, where the common people likely practiced something largely in ignorance of “official practice.” That is all I am saying.

          • Basically, I think what you are saying is that people don’t really think through all that much what they believe until there is a crisis of faith… They follow like “sheeple” you might say. However, when people do reach a moment when they think its all “vanity and vexation of spirit,” then it does mean something and that makes the difference in their lives…and then Christmas finally will have some meaning for them.

        • Well, Pete beat me to it, but that wasn’t his point. the analogy is that the Israelites were doing what the natives were doing because, well, it was their version of traditional and heart warming and beautiful, and they saw no harm in it, so they did it too, without much thought of its relevance or important or appropriateness. And that’s what “we” did and still do with Christmas.

  • After I shared your blog today on my FB, my daughter posted these Sufjan Stevens lyrics from the song “Christmas Unicorn”

    I’m a Christmas Unicorn, in a uniform made of gold
    With a billy-goat beard, and a sorcerer’s shield, and mistletoe on my nose

    Oh, I’m a Christian holiday, I’m a symbol of original sin
    I’ve a pagan tree, and a magical wreath, and bow-tie on my chin

    Oh, I’m a pagan heresy, I’m a tragic-al Catholic shrine
    I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime

    Oh, I’m a mystical apostasy, I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
    Though I play all night, with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist

    For I make no full apology for the category I reside
    I’m a mythical mess, with a treasury chest, I’m a construct of your mind

    Oh, I’m hysterically American, I’ve a credit card on my wrist
    And I have no home, or a field to roam, I will curse you with my kiss

    Oh, I’m a criminal pathology with a history of medical care
    I’m a frantic shopper, and a brave pill popper, and they say my kind are rare

    But I’ve seen others in the uniform of a unicorn just like me
    We are legions wide, and we choose no sides, we are masters of mystique

    For you’re a Christmas Unicorn, I have seen you on the beat
    You may dress in the human uniform, child
    But I know you’re just like me

    Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

    I’m the Christmas Unicorn
    You’re the Christmas Unicorn too

    I’m the Christmas Unicorn
    (Find the Christmas Unicorn)
    You’re the Christmas Unicorn too
    (It’s all right, I love you)

    Love, love will tear us apart, again
    Love, love will tear us apart, my friend

  • Brilliant. Just like the dumb laws you see on the books around the country. For instance, in Florida: “If you tie an elephant to a parking meter, you must pay the same parking fee as you would for a vehicle.” Guaranteed, at some point some guy tied an elephant to a parking meter and claimed he shouldn’t have to pay the full price.

    It’s kind of funny reading through the OT and imaging the reasons behind some of the more obscure laws.

    • I’ve got so many questions right now. For starters, now that a lot of metered parking in Tampa, Miami, and West Palm Beach allow for mobile app payments for parking, what would an elephant traveler use in place of a license plate number? Or should elephant be considered licensed vehicles as well? How do we run that through the DMV? Do we need to register the elephant? What kind of insurance should one have for an elephant?

      Also, what were we talking about again?

  • If the majority (all?) of scripture is written (or at least finalised) in the exilic/post-exilic period, does the idea that only Yahweh is to be worshipped even exist prior to the exile? Or was this conclusion reached as a response to that catastrophe, then written back into the history of Israel as a way of teaching the people ‘this is our true religion, this is how we are to live from now on’?

    • Thanks, Stephen. A very important question. I do think that MONOTHEISM is a development that needed the exile, but MONOLATRY (what you are referring to) is much older, and that is not a risky position. A later shaping of the Bible does not mean the concepts are all late.

  • I think this is uniquely relevant, given your reference to The Simpsons. If you ever get a chance, you’ve got to see a production of Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”. It got great reviews at Playwright’s Horizons Off-Broadway, and is now being picked up by regional theatres around the country.

    It’s a few weeks/months after some sort of apocalypse that has rid the world of electricity. People are gathered around a bin fire telling the only stories they know – episodes of the Simpsons! Years later groups of traveling players have formed, touring the country to perform Simpson episodes, complete with commercials. Nearly a century later (Act Three) these performances have morphed into a quasi-religious operatic hero tale featuring masked Simpson characters, a hero-Bart and an arch-villain-Mr. Burns.

    It’s exciting and thought-provoking at the same time! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cfd961cb7db19cb622c1730317229afa6d6534e4eb2f4f0a44769f9c33dabbd7.jpg

  • This is so far my favourite historical tidbit on where our ‘secular’ Christmas traditions and ideas came from:


    Who knew it stemmed from the shamanic use of magic mushrooms and eating yellow snow?

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