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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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ANCESTOR-WORSHIP . Every people whose religious beliefs have been investigated appears to have passed through the stage of Animism, the stage in which it was believed that the spirits of those recently dead were potent to hurt those they had left behind on earth. The rites observed to-day at an Irish wake have their origin in this fear that the spirit of the dead may injure the living. There are several traces of a similar belief in the OT. When a death took place in a tent or house, every vessel which happened to be open at the time was counted unclean ( Numbers 19:15 ). It remained clean only if it had a covering tied over it. The idea was that the spirit of the dead person, escaping from the body, might take up its abode in some open vessel instead of entering the gloomy realms of Sheol. Many mourning customs find their explanation in this same dread of the spirit but lately set free from its human home. The shaving of the head and beard, the cutting of the face and breast, the tearing of the garments apparently a survival of the time when the mourner stripped off all his clothes are due to the effort of the survivor to make himself unrecognizable by the spirit.

But to admit that the OT contains traces of Animism is not the same as to declare that at one stage the Israelites practised Ancestor-worship. Scholars are divided into two groups on the subject. Some (Stade, GVI [Note: VI Geschichte des Volkes Israel.] i. 451; Smend, Alttest. Relig. 112 f.) affirm that Ancestor-worship was of the very substance of the primitive religion of Israel. Others do not at all admit this position (Kautzsch, in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , Extra Vol. 614 a; W. P. Paterson, ib . ii. 445 b ). The evidence adduced for Ancestor-worship as a stage in the religious development of Israel proceeds on these lines:

( a ) Sacrifices were offered at Hebron to Abraham, and at Shechem to Joseph, long before these places were associated with the worship of Jehovah. When a purer faith took possession of men’s hearts, the old sacred spots retained their sanctity, but new associations were attached to them. A theophany was now declared to be the fact underlying the sacredness; and the connexion with the famous dead was thus broken. In the same way sacred trees and stones, associated with the old Canaanitish worship, had their evil associations removed by being linked with some great event in the history of Israel. But this existence of sacred places connected with the burial of a great tribal or national hero does not at all prove Ancestor-worship. It is possible to keep fresh a great man’s memory without believing that he can either help or hinder the life of those on earth.

( b ) Evidence from mourning customs. It is held that the cutting and wounding ( Jeremiah 16:6; Jeremiah 41:5 ), the covering of the head ( Ezekiel 24:17 , Jeremiah 14:3 ), the rending of the garments ( 2 Samuel 1:11; 2 Samuel 3:31 ), the wearing of sackcloth ( 2 Samuel 21:10 , Isaiah 15:3 ), are to be explained as a personal dedication to the spirit of the dead. But all this, as we have seen, can be explained as the effort so to alter the familiar appearance that the spirit, on returning to work harm, will not recognize the objects of its spite. Then the customs that had to do with food, the fasting for the dead ( 1 Samuel 31:13 , 2 Samuel 3:35 ) the breaking of the fast by a funeral feast after sundown ( Hosea 9:4 , 2 Samuel 3:35 , Jeremiah 16:7 ), the placing of food upon the grave ( Deuteronomy 26:14 ) do not prove that Ancestor-worship was a custom of the Hebrews. They only show that the attempt was made to appease the spirit of the dead, and that this was done by a sacrifice, which, like all primitive sacrifices, was afterwards eaten by the worshippers themselves. When these funeral rites were forbidden, it was because they were heathenish and unfitting for a people that worshipped the true God.

( c ) The teraphim , it is said, were some form of household god, shaped in human form ( 1 Samuel 19:13; 1 Samuel 19:16 ), carried about as one of the most precious possessions of the home ( Genesis 31:1-55 ), consulted in divination ( Ezekiel 21:21 ), presumably as representing the forefathers of the family. But nothing is known with certainty regarding the teraphim . That they were of human form is a very bold inference from the evidence afforded by 1Sa 19:13; 1 Samuel 19:16 . The variety of derivations given by the Jews of the word teraphim shows that there was complete ignorance as to their origin and appearance.

( d ) In 1 Samuel 28:13 the spirit of Samuel, called up by the witch of Endor, is called elohim . But it is very precarious to build on an obscure passage of this kind, especially as the use of the word elohim is so wide (applied to God, angels, and possibly even judges or kings) that no inference can be drawn from this passage.

( e ) It is argued that the object of the levirate marriage ( Deuteronomy 25:5 ff.) was to prevent any deceased person being left in Sheol without some one on earth to offer him worship. But the motive stated in Deuteronomy 25:6 , ‘that his name be not put out in Israel,’ is so sufficient that the connexion of the levirate marriage with Ancestor-worship seems forced.

The case for the existence of Ancestor-worship among the Hebrews has not been made out. As a branch of the Semitic stock, the Hebrews were, of course, heirs of the common Semitic tradition. And while that tradition did contain much that was superstitious with regard to the power of the dead to work evil on the living, it does not appear that the worship of ancestors, which in other races was so often associated with the stage of Animism, had a place in Hebrew religion.

R. Bruce Taylor.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ancestor-Worship'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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