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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.

45 Comments

  • Jason says:

    I often wonder if much of the OT was written in response to Israels past; to answer questions. “How was the world made?” is answered in Genesis. “Why are things so hard for Israel?” is answered with all the stuff about what Israel did wrong and how they were punished because of it.

    • Pete E. says:

      The etiological nature of Israel’s core narrative (Genesis to Nehemiah) is self-evident (if you ask me).

  • Scot Miller says:

    Great analogy. Very helpful way to make sense of both the past and the present.

  • It sounds good, and yet seems more likely to me given the archaeological record and textual evidence that your statement of what constitutes true worship of YHWH was formulated in Babylon, after the fact. The popular religion on the ground was really the main thing and the texts were edited later to reflect something different.

    • Pete E. says:

      Though not formulated out of whole cloth then.

      • It seems plausible that there were those with monotheistic and temple-centric ideas prior to Babylon. In the crucible of exile they formulated their counter-narrative and edited the texts appropriately. Cool, subversive stuff.

        • Pete E. says:

          I do think that basic explanation is correct, but there is a lot of evidence for the pre-exilic cult.

          • I have a lot of catching up to do. I have a BMin but got it from a conservative Christian university years ago, where we were sheltered from how the Hebrew Scriptures came together. “How We Got Our Bible” classes always focused on the New Testament, and History of Israel classes took the Bible text at face value.

            Thanks for your patience and work.

  • SocraticGadfly says:

    That said, let’s also remember that the Deuteronomic History was written at the end of that 1000-600 BCE period, What it calls official Israelite religion probably was no such thing for much of the preceding 400 years. It wasn’t just the “Joe Six-Pack” folks who worshiped other gods besides Yahweh during that time, in other words.

  • David Dietz says:

    Nice article. I’ve been on a learning/unlearning journey for about 2 years now. I felt a lot of my conclusions were either insane (at worst), or heretical (at best). Recently, I posed a question to a group of UnFundies on Facebook. I asked them if they had ever considered whether or not the God Jesus presented might be different than the God of the Old Testament.

    At that time, a couple of readers pointed me to your book “The Bible Tells Me So.” I read the entire book in one sitting this last Sunday. I can’t begin to tell you how meaningful your book is to me! Thank you so much for taking the time to put into words on a page what you’ve compiled over 30 years! It’s already helped me answer many of my questions.

  • Marshall says:

    everyone was doing it

    And then there was a world-covering flood and only a remnant was saved. Or Assyrians. Horsemen of one sort or another.

  • Mark K says:

    Well, I’ve been trying to think of some witticism to add, but I’ve got nothing. Once again, you’ve simplified without being simplistic, and clarified a “feeling” I’ve had since reading The Bible Tells Me So. You’re truly the Richard Feynman of OT interpretation.

  • Ross says:

    For me the analogy fits around the idea that Christmas has never really been much of a real “Christian” holiday. In Scotland it didn’t become an official holiday till the 1970s. I don’t think it has ever held any real sense of being a major “religious” holy day. In reality I think us northerners have always needed to do something in the middle of winter to stave off the misery of short nights, little food, cold etc. Christmas was tagged onto very much older midwinter festivals.

    The view of the secular world overtaking or demeaning a deeply held religious tradition in some Satanic plot, is the usual conservative gut feeling repeated over many millennia and cultures whereby the new, is always part of a slippery slope to hell. Christmas has only become special to the religious as it became special to the secular. Like many things (E.g. Inerrancy) it is really a modern invention given a false patina of age.

    The true commonality between modern America and the ancient Israelites is that the “religious” are often clueless bigots who haven’t the faintest idea of who or what God may be.

  • Paul says:

    Pete, you say that the celebration of Christmas today gives us an idea of what religious life was like at the time of Israel’s kings. Would you also say that the Christian church in America today resembles Judaism during the Second Temple period? I’m not a Biblical scholar like you are, but based on what I’ve read in the New Testament and your books, the leaders of some political organizations and Christian churches remind me of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

  • Pete E. says:

    I wouldn’t want to be that hard on Pharisees and Sadducees.

  • Larry S says:

    Dr. Enns,

    I’ve read two of your books (something about Adam/Eve and the Bible). I’ve been reading your blog for about a year. I’ve even posted on your blog once or twice. But this has been caused a paradigmatic shift in my thinking and worldview: “toilets flush counterclockwise.” Who knew? I sure didn’t. I can hardly wait to go check.

    Frankly, after reading that and trying to remember how toilets flush I couldn’t concentrate on anything else in your post (something about how the ancient Isreaelites invented Christmas Trees or something right. Isn’t that in Jerimiah?)

    Thanks I’ve learned so much, I might even buy your latest book.

    Your fan Larry

  • Beau Quilter says:

    If I remember correctly, Finkelstein and Silberman, in The Bible Unearthed, suggest that the call to monotheistic worship centralized in the Jerusalem temple was a part of the opportunistic expansion of Josiah’s territory after the collapse of the Assyrian empire and abandonment of the former kingdom of Israel.

    The residents of Judah/Israel were just doin’ what came naturally, celebrating gods they had known for generations. The deuteronomistic condemnation of their polytheism was a tactic to centralize political power.

    • Pete E. says:

      That may or may not be true. Finkelstein is seen as a bit of a gadfly among archaeologists and he is not always viewed as the most balanced voice.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        As I recall, he was bringing his archeological proposals alongside the much older source criticism that sees Deuteronomistic history as part of the larger documentary hypothesis. I know there are many variations on these themes, but what part of Finkelstein’s contribution do you consider unbalanced?

  • Meg Rusick says:

    “The view of the secular world overtaking or demeaning a deeply held religious tradition in some Satanic plot, is the usual conservative gut feeling repeated over many millennia and cultures whereby the new, is always part of a slippery slope to hell. Christmas has only become special to the religious as it became special to the secular.”
    Well said–so true!

  • Steve Schaffner says:

    I can buy everything you’re saying here — except the bit about toilets. Nuh-uh to that one.

    • Pete E. says:

      Communist.

      • Steve Schaffner says:

        I think we can all understand the theological point you were trying to make, even though it was couched in culturally appropriate but scientifically inaccurate mythological language.

  • Andrew Dowling says:

    This point often goes over the head of so many. Not only was Christmas not celebrated by the early Christians at all (early meaning first 3 centuries or so) but even when it did become a religious holy day, it was not a major one; it was akin to a Saint feast day . .Epiphany was a bigger deal, not to mention Easter and Good Friday.
    Then in the Middle Ages it combined with the pagan Yule/winter solstice traditions and became basically a month long Binger of excess . .Christmas even in 2015 is very PG rated compared to what it was at the height of Christendom’s power. Then fast forward to the early American colonies, and the Puritans basically forbid it. Not until the 19th century did anything akin to a modern conception of Christmas take hold. And that conception is one of it’s time and culture, much more secular than religious.

  • Bill Waterstradt says:

    Good stuff, Peter. Our real problem is not “taking Christ out of Christmas, ” but rather pretty much taking Christ out of Christianity. And I’m the chief sinner.

  • Marcus Johnson says:

    So, which way did the Israelites’ toilets flush? And how did their accommodation of the worship of the fertility goddess, mixed with their allegiance to the Yahweh cult, affect whether it went clockwise or counterclockwise? I guess I’m just confused.

  • Pete E. says:

    Well, there are several competing theories, though, if we remember that counterclockwise is to the LEFT, and that the biblical witness equates LEFT with evil, it is likely that the ancient Israelites took a very low view of toilet activities, perhaps equating them with something “evil” or at least dirty. On the other hand, there are no explicit references in the Bible to going poo that depict it as evil, so some have suggested that Israelite toilets must have flushed clockwise even though Israel is in the northern hemisphere. Their toilets were, in other words, miracles, much like the sun standing still or the shadow moving back 15 paces. More skeptical scholars, however, simply insist, blindly I might add, that the Israelites, just like every other ancient people, didn’t have toilets or plumbing of any kind, thus rejecting God’s sovereignty and his ability to work miracles.

  • Pete E. says:

    http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/reviews/divided-kingdom-united-critics/

    By the way, I’m not suggesting Finkelstein is anything less than a top notch archaeologist. He does have some otherwise very left leaning critics for whom Finkelstein is pushing beyond the evidence.

    • Beau Quilter says:

      Yes, I’d read those reviews before, and some of The Forgotten Kingdom. I remember that he and Dever (one of the reviewers) had a huge public spat after “Bible Unearthed” came out.

  • Marcus Johnson says:

    See, the thing is, I totally know that we’re kidding, but part of me is deathly worried that you actually did research on this. Is this what I have to look forward to if I pursue a doctorate degree?

  • 4 WIW says:

    Great presentation of what everyday religion looked like in ancient Israel. The wonderful underlying truth of this is that despite how much the people of Israel were confused and uninformed about the True God and how to worship Him, never-the-less He made a way to redeem such people from their lostness. Our Heavenly Father always has a remnant of true believers, messed up though they may be, to proclaim His work in this World. Best description of this condition is given in Isaiah, Everyone did what was right in their own eyes and all we like sheep have gone astray…. Thanks God for His mercy. May those reading this have a blessed Christmas.

    • Pfio says:

      This post was about as opposite the point of Pete’s post as possible.

      The Israelites weren’t confused. We misrepresent their views and the Bible and its meaning.

  • Lewis says:

    Indeedy Ross.
    HNY.

  • Jack says:

    Why is God portrayed as wrathful when He doesn’t effectively communicate / teach people? The Israelite’s are steeped in cultural and religious practice, are they entirely at fault?

    What does it say about the nature of God?

  • Eric Bjork says:

    Just last night, at cantata practice, I was pondering the difference it would make if my church emphasized Jesus’ teachings as much as they did his birth. We spend an entire month celebrating his birth with music, candles, live nativity, food, etc., but once the boy is born we forget about him… until Easter.

    Granted, a cantata based on the Sermon on the Mount may be a little tedious and boring but it seems more important to our everyday lives than a gaudy celebration of Jesus’ birth.

    PS–I am a Baptist…

  • $268776203 says:

    This is why we predominantly see Commercial Christianity practiced versus New Testament Christianity. God help us…

  • Beau Quilter says:

    I wonder if it’s actually the pronouncements that …

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

    … that are more in line with Christmas commercialism today. Such pronouncements are propaganda that control worship and centralize it in the capital city of Judah, strengthening Judah’s political power along with that of the priesthood. Sort of like the propaganda of modern commercials telling you that the proper way to celebrate Christmas is to spend more money.