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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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are those from whom a person is descended and in biblical history were honored.

Old Testament While the word, ancestor , is only found in one Old Testament verse (Leviticus 26:45 ), the number of genealogies tracing family lines in the Old and New Testament indicates that ancestors were significant to the Israelites. Israel honored her ancestors. Leaders and prophets implored the Israelites to remember their heritage and the God of their forefathers.

The Old Testament includes thirteen principal genealogical lists. (See Genesis 11:29; Genesis 22:23; Numbers 26:33; Numbers 27:1-11 ).

Kings traced their lineage to David, and the priests traced their line to Aaron. God's choice of individuals for parts in His plan for Israel gave that individual's descendants a part in the plan as well.

A remarkable feature of the biblical account of Israel's ancestors is the fact that they are not idealized but portrayed as fallible mortals. What made them great was not their moral excellence nor heroic deeds but that God had chosen them for a purpose.

New Testament As in the Old Testament, ancestors are honored in the New Testament. Paul was encouraged by remembering the faith of Timothy's grandmother and mother (2 Timothy 1:5 ). In Hebrews, the preacher encouraged the Jewish converts to remember the faithful believers who have gone before them (Hebrews 11:1 ).

The New Testament includes two genealogies both of which trace the lineage of Jesus Christ. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage to Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17 ) while Luke traces the lineage to Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:23-38 ).

Ancestor Worship Ancestor worship is the adoration or payment of homage to a deceased parent or ancestor. Such worship was usually reserved for deities. Among ancient Israel's neighbors, there are several instances of deification of ancestors (Mesopotamian mythology and Egyptian kings). There may be one instance of ancestor worship recorded in the Bible. Ezekiel 43:7-9 may suggest that the bodies of Israel's dead kings were being worshiped. This practice of ancestor worship was condemned and forbidden.

Cult of The Dead Much like ancestor worship, the cult of the dead involves adoration of the deceased. The cult of the dead goes a step beyond adoration, however, seeking to maintain or manage a relationship with the dead. The cult of the dead involves the beliefs that certain departed spirits must be fed or honored and that they can be channels of information with the spiritual world.

While ancestor worship was not common among Israel or her neighbors, the cult of the dead was widely practiced. The belief in an afterlife was apparently universal in the Ancient Near East. The provision of food, drink, and artifacts within tombs is an indication of the belief that the departed spirit would have need of such things.

While some placement of artifacts at grave sites might be comparable to our contemporary practice of placing flowers and a headstone on graves, the practice of continually offering libations or food at a grave site is another indication of the cult of the dead. Excavations at Ras Shamra on the upper Syrian coast gives indications of such a practice. Apparently people who practiced the cult of the dead believed departed spirits hovered in the vicinity of the grave and benefited from such offerings.

Documents from ancient Assyria attest to the belief that the ghosts or troubled spirits of the dead could not find peace if, among other things, they died violently or were not properly buried. They could become a liability for the living.

These Assyrian documents, which may also reflect beliefs common in Syria and Palestine, indicate that some departed spirits were considered helpful or harmless while others were considered sinister. Acts of homage, deference, or offerings of food and drink were sometimes required to honor friendly spirits or to placate evil ones. Many people believed they knew how to communicate with these spirits for purposes of determining the future.

Though Israel was forbidden to practice the cult of the dead, she often departed from God's injunctions and engaged in the worship of pagan deities. Wayward Israelites were also guilty of practicing the cult of the dead (1 Samuel 28:1 ). Israel was specifically warned not to offer to the dead (Deuteronomy 26:14 ). God warned them through the prophets not to consult the dead in an effort to learn the future (Isaiah 8:19; Isaiah 65:4 ). Such acts were considered by the prophets to be dangerously at odds with God's will (1 Samuel 28:7 ). See Burial; Divination and Magic; Genealogies; Necromancy .

Contemporary Concerns In the late part of the last and the early part of this century, anthropologists and students of comparative cultures and religions frequently speculated on the origins of religion. At that time a theory was proposed that Israel's religion evolved from ancestor worship.

This is not considered a viable theory today. A thorough study of Israel's religion within the milieu of the Ancient Near East leads most scholars to the conclusion that the true religion of Israel involved neither the worship of ancestors nor the practice of the cult of the dead nor did the true religion evolve from such practices.

Larry Bruce

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ancestors'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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