Bible Society of South Africa

Religion of Israel


An altar was a pile of stones or a wooden table on which offerings were brought to the God of Israel or to other gods. Different types of altars are mentioned and described in the Bible. Archaeologists have also found various altars in Israel.


In our current use of the word, an “angel” is a heavenly being who serves God and carries out his will. In the Bible, a development can be seen in the image people had of angels, imbuing them with an increasing number of personality traits.

Animal Sacrifice

There were various sorts of sacrifice: grain offerings, wine offerings and animal sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are most extensively described in the laws of the Old Testament.
An animal sacrifice was an expensive gift, partly because animals (that served as food) had to be killed.

Anointed One in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the word “anointed one” or “messiah” (in Hebrew: mashiah) is used as a title. The king of Israel, in particular, is regarded as the “anointed one”.

Apodictic Laws

In apodictically formulated legal provisions, certain things are simply forbidden. A direct prohibition can be worded in three ways in the Old Testament.

Ark of the Covenant (Covenant Box)

The Ark of the Covenant, also known as the Covenant Box, is an especially holy object in the Bible. The Ark is a holy chest that has a dedicated place in the tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ark: Appearance

In the Bible, the Ark of the Covenant is described in two ways: as a very special and beautiful chest, or rather as a simple chest.

Ark: Function

In the Bible the Ark of the Covenant has an important religious function.

Attitude of Prayer

In the Old Testament we do not find a fixed attitude of prayer, nor in the New Testament. People pray, for instance:

Blessings and Curses

In the Bible, blessing is pronouncing something good over someone, which — if done in the correct way — ensures that this good thing genuinely happens to that person. The word “blessing” describes the words that are spoken in the act of blessing someone. However, it can also be used to indicate the result of the act of blessing, in the sense of “happiness”. Cursing is the opposite of blessing, that is, to speak doom over someone, causing that doom to actually occur.


Blood is linked to the life force of humans and animals in the Old Testament. This is why it is forbidden for Israelites to consume blood, or meat that still has blood in it. At the same time, blood, as an embodiment of life, plays an important part in (purification) rituals.

Burnt Offering

The burnt offering was the most common offering. The name “burnt offering” indicates that the entire animal was burnt and went up in smoke. It was a gift to God with a pleasing smell. The rules for this type of offering can be found in Leviticus 1.

Burnt Offering Altar

Burnt offerings were presented on a burnt offering altar. According to Exodus 27, Moses was given the task of constructing a burnt offering altar near the tabernacle. Later, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, a burnt offering altar was placed in front of the Temple.


Cherubim are described in the Old Testament as heavenly beings with wings. They have the body of a lion and the head of a person. In Ezekiel, they are creatures with four wings and four different faces.
The most important function that the cherubim fulfil, is carrying the throne of God.

Clean and Unclean

In the Bible, “clean” and “unclean” are in the first instance cultic concepts, indicating whether something is suitable or unsuitable for use in and around the sanctuary, in particular. In later Bible books the terms also acquired a social or moral significance.

Clean and Unclean: Impurity of Objects

According to the Bible it is not just people or animals that can be impure but also objects. Objects are never unclean of themselves. They become unclean when they come into contact with unclean persons or animals.

Clean and Unclean: Impurity of Places

In the Old Testament we find the idea that certain places are holy because of the presence of the Lord. No impurity could enter such places. Sacred places could become impure in any of the following ways:

Clean and Unclean: Moral Significance

The purity laws in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) are not moral rules. They are primarily rules for religious life, rules for relations with God. In later times, however, purity became a symbol of the moral order, largely under the influence of the prophetic books and the wisdom literature.

Clean and Unclean: The Origin of the Biblical Purity Laws

There are various theories about the origins of the biblical purification regulations. The purification laws are set out as, among other things:

Covenant in the Old Testament

A covenant (berit in Hebrew) in the Old Testament is a solemn promise that is made binding by an oath. A covenant creates a relationship between two groups. This relationship is put on the right track through the conditions of the covenant: the obligations imposed upon one or both of the parties.

The covenant was, after family, the most important basis for relationships between people. It therefore plays a fundamental role in the history and religion of Israel.

Covenant in the Old Testament: Abrahamic Covenant

In his covenant with Abraham, God makes a promise to Abraham: he will be the father of many nations, and his descendants will be given the land of Canaan. There are two stories in the Bible about the covenant with Abraham, in Genesis 15 and Genesis 17:1-14.

Covenant in the Old Testament: Davidic Covenant

In his covenant with David, God promises David that his descendants will be king for ever.

Covenant in the Old Testament: Mosaic Covenant

The “Mosaic Covenant” is the covenant that God made with the people of Israel, represented by Moses. It is also referred to as the Sinaitic Covenant because it was made on Mount Sinai. The covenant consists of a number of rules and commandments that God gave to the people, including the Ten Commandments. The covenant creates a special relationship between God and the Israelites: God is now the God of Israel and the Israelites are now God’s people.

Cult Images

In the ancient Near East, cult images were used in the worship of gods.


The curse is the opposite of the blessing. A blessing guarantees a good future and a lasting relationship with God. A curse, on the other hand, causes isolation and separation from God. A curse hands a person over to the power of death.


The concept of demons in religions in general, and in the Bible in particular, is very complex. Nowadays “demon” refers to an evil spirit, but the term has undergone a long process of development.

Demons in the Ancient Near East

In the ancient Near East, the belief in demons was an important aspect of the world view. Spirits and demons influenced people’s daily lives.

Demons in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament there is frequent mention of demonic beings, but their true identity and where they have come from remains unclear. Mostly they are the dangerous, supernatural beings that wander around remote areas.

Dietary Laws in the Old Testament

Because food goes into a person’s body, it is an important cause of impurity according to the Bible. The food laws indicate which food is unclean and therefore must not be eaten by the Israelites.


The Old Testament contains different texts about a battle during creation between God and a dragon. There are also dragon-like creatures in the New Testament.


In ancient Israel people believed that dreams came from God. God used them to make his will known to people.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting in the Old Testament was a religious ritual that could be practised both individually and collectively.

Festival of Weeks

The Festival of Weeks (Harvest Festival), also known as Shavuot, is one of the three big Jewish festivals, besides Passover and the Festival of Shelters. For Jews, it is the conclusion of Passover: the exodus from slavery in Egypt is sealed by receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Christianity has given the Festival of Weeks a different interpretation by replacing it with Pentecost

Festival Scrolls

From the sixth century AD onwards, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther are counted as the so-called festival scrolls, the megillot.

Garments of the High Priest

The general word for “god” in Hebrew is El. The same word is also the name for a Canaanite god. In the Old Testament, El is another name for YHWH. The plural of this word (Elohim in Hebrew) is the most commonly used name for the God of Israel in the Old Testament.

Gods and Spirits

In the ancient Near East, every country, town and clan had its own gods. A distinction was made between higher gods, lesser gods and spirits.

Golden Bulls

“Golden bulls” in the Bible are golden statues in the shape of a bull. They were used as religious objects. The bull was an important symbol of power and fertility in the ancient Near East.


“Hallelujah” is an expression of praise primarily known from the Psalms. It is a call from the cantor to all those present in the Temple to praise the name of God.

The word “hallelujah” is always used at the beginning or the end of a psalm.


Hanukkah, which is the Hebrew word for “dedication”, is the annual celebration of the dedication of the Temple. At this festival the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC is celebrated. It is also known as the “Festival of Lights”.

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