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Here comes a rant.

Christmas in America is a national holiday, woven securely in 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 in America means malls, Lexus “December to Remember” 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 (or do they?).

My point here isn’t to take aim at the easy target of the secularization of Christmas, but to draw an analogy between Christmas in America 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—what we call the Old Testament did not begin to take form until after the return from Babylonian exile (that is, beginning in the 5th c. BCE) and was still somewhat in flux in the days of Jesus and Paul. And whatever writings were floating around in the days of Israel’s kings (roughly 1000-600 BCE) were the stuff of trained scribes, not Shlomo and Miriam Israelite farmers and sheepherders.

People weren’t running around “reading their Bibles” as we think of it today. I imagine that 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. Perhaps, like popular American culture, they sort of just went along with the momentum of their vaguely sacred holidays adapted to cultural norms of the day—if they observed them at all.

If we could walk through ancient Israelite towns sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE (when Israel was a nation with kings and a Temple with 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 whom 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 in 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.)

Scholars of “Israelite religion” engage 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 commonly known at the time, and 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 online, wrap them and put them under a tree, and settle in to watch He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special or A Year Without a Santa Claus. Maybe 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 Old Testament 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). We would find a new definition of “chaos.” Ancient Israel’s actual worship of God may have been more like that of “Christian America” at Christmas than a hyper-alert and knowledgeable 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 people of the region. Scads of clay figurines, like the ones you see here, have been found that were the personal property of your average Israelite.

This would not have been seen by them as a rejection of Yahweh in favor of another, but the merging of the worship of their God 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 Old Testament the condemnation of such worship practices 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”)?

Because it was so popular, so common. 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 the 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.

This blog was originally posted in December 2017.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.