Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, April 14th, 2024
the Third Sunday after Easter
Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day and support a great cause!
Click here to learn more!

Bible Encyclopedias
Ancestor Worship

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Search for…
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

The same homage and adoration paid to deceased parents and more remote ancestors as usually given to deities. Many anthropologists are of opinion that this was the original form of religion (H. Spencer, Lippert); the school represented by Stade and F. Schwally argues that it was the original religion of Israel before Jahvism was introduced by Moses and the Prophets. According to them, much of the priestly legislation was directed against the rites connected with Ancestor Worship. At present the view that the original religion of the Israelites was some form of Ancestor Worship is the only one that has been put forward scientifically or systematically, together with an explanation of the changes made by the later and true religion of Israel. Nevertheless arguments of some weight have been brought forward to show that this view of the original Israelitish religion is only slenderly based upon facts, and it seems desirable therefore to give a summary of the arguments for and against regarding Ancestor Worship as the original religion of Israel.

The school of Stade bases its belief as to the former existence of this worship in Israel on the following arguments:

  1. Hebrew Views of the Nature of the Soul: According to Stade and his followers, these were identical with the animistic theory of savages, which regards the soul as a sort of immaterial breath or shadow in which the life of the body exists, but which can leave it for a time and inhabit other bodies of men or animals. The nefesh (generally rendered "soul") and ruaḥ (literally "wind," generally rendered "spirit") of the Hebrews are of this kind, either of which leaves a man when he dies (Genesis 35:18; Psalms 146:4). The ruaḥ can go back to the body (Judges, 15:19; 1 Samuel 30:12), just as in the animistic belief of savages. But the ruaḥ represents a more exalted state of the soul or spirit than the nefesh, and according to Stade was originally the spirit of the dead, which might be either good or bad, and could arouse men to exalted or to base passions. Jahvism transformed this view by restricting the ruaḥ to that of YHWH (e.g., 1 Samuel 10:6; Judges, 9:23).
  2. Hebrew Views of the Life After Death: Several of the Psalms (30:3, 49:16, 86:13, 116:3) speak of the nefesh being saved from Sheol; while other passages (Numbers 6:6, Leviticus 21:11) speak of the nefesh of the dead. Sheol appears to be a place of assembly for all departed spirits (Job, 30:23), which are possibly to be identified with the refaim (often rendered "the shades"). The use of the expression, "to be gathered to one's fathers" (compare Genesis 15:15, 25:8) would imply that these departed spirits were regarded chiefly as those of ancestors.
  3. Mourning Customs: Several of these seem to be the same as those used in divine worship. Thus, to tear the clothes and to put ashes upon the head (2 Samuel 1:11) are customs also employed in worship (Joshua 7:6; compare Joel, 2:12). The wearing of the saḳ or sackcloth (2 Samuel 3:31, 14:2) is likewise a usual accompaniment of fasting (Isaiah 58:5). Cutting or shaving the hair is both a mark of mourning (Jeremiah 16:6) and a solemn sign of the end of the Nazarite's vow (Numbers 6:18). To go barefoot (Micah, 1:8) is a sign both of mourning and of recognition of the divine presence (Exodus 3:5); fasting both a manifestation of mourning (2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35) and an act of divine worship. The assumption of the school of Stade is that these customs, originally signs of worship of ancestors, were afterward, by the Jahvistic reformation, transferred to the worship of the Deity. Further, contact with the dead makes things tabu or "holy," just as consecration to the Deity does.
  4. Burial Customs: Israelites in historic times appear to have usually buried their dead. But traces are found of burning them (thus 1 Samuel 31:12; Amos, 6:10; Joshua 7:25); and it is suggested that this was because in the primitive religion of Israel the bodies of the dead were regarded as especially holy, and were therefore burned like the remnants of the offerings (Leviticus 4:12,21). The later custom of burying the corpse was connected with the animistic belief that only thus could the spirit of the departed find rest. In early days the dead were buried in their own houses (1 Samuel 25:1; compare 1 Samuel 28:4; 1 Kings, 2:34; 2 Chronicles 33:20). This is held to have been for the purpose of worshiping their spirits, and was repudiated by the later Jahvistic legislation (Numbers 19:16). From Genesis 35:20 and 2 Kings, 23:17 it is concluded that it was customary to place monuments on the graves of the dead for purposes of worship.
  5. Offerings to the Dead: In Jeremiah 16:6,7 it seems to be implied that the mourning customs (lamenting, making incisions, shaving the hair, and tearing the garments) were observed for the sake of the dead, and that "the cup of consolation" offered to the mourner was offered "for his father or for his mother." Similarly in Deuteronomy 26:14, it seems to be implied that the Jahvistic legislation opposed doing certain things and giving certain things in honor of the dead. The same seems to be implied in Hosea, 9:4; while gifts are brought directly to the dead as late as Tobit, 4:17; Ecclus. (Sirach) 7:32 et seq. (compare Abot, 3:5). The mourning customs of shaving the hair and sprinkling blood are also regarded as offerings of hair and blood to the manes of the dead.
  6. Oracles and Incantations: In various passages of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:11, 1 Samuel 28:11, Isaiah 8:19) mention is made of inquiry of the dead as to the future, thus treating them as oracles and divine personages. On two occasions the dead are termed "elohim" (1 Samuel 28:13, Isaiah 8:19, Heb.): the latter passage, "Should not a people seek unto their elohim, for the living to the dead?" is especially significant. In the incantation scene with the witch of En-dor, as soon as "Saul perceived that it was Samuel [1 Samuel 28:14], he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself," a regular form of divine homage (see Adoration).
  7. Honor to Parents: It is contended that in ancient Israel mourning was only for parents; and 2 Samuel 12:15 et seq. is quoted in illustration. Men thus became remembered by the honor paid them by their descendants; hence Absalom deplored that he had no son to call upon his name (2 Samuel 18:18).
  8. Household Worship: There are signs that in early days there was a special worship of household gods which could not have been devoted to YHWH, the God of the nation, according to modern theories. They are supposed to be referred to as "elohim" in the passage (Exodus 21:4-6) when the servant who desired to remain in the household of his master forever must appear before the elohim (translated "judges" in A. V.), and have his ear bored through. It is contended that the Feast of Purim is a relic of household worship. The household gods thus worshiped are known as teraphim, which were Laban's elohim. (Genesis 31:30), and were heathen gods (Ezekiel 21:26, Genesis 35:2).
  9. Family Worship: Fustel de Coulanges has shown, in "La Cité Antique," that the social institutions of the Greeks and Romans were founded upon Ancestor Worship, the essence of which was to keep alive the holy fire on the household hearth on which to offer food for the departed spirits of ancestors. Membership of a family implied the right and duty of making such offering. Only males could offer; and, therefore, inheritance was solely through the agnates. Numbers 27 shows that this was the custom with regard to inheritance in ancient Israel. The importance of heirs consisted in the posthumous nourishment to be offered by them alone, and this importance is shown to have existed in Israel by the custom of the Levirate. The patria potestas of the father of the family was due to the fact that he was the household priest as well as the father. The Israelites, like the Greeks and Romans, had their family graves.
  10. Ancestor Worship and the Tribes: Graves of the ancestors of the tribes, like that of Abraham at Hebron, and that of Joseph at Shechem, are found associated with worship which probably was originally Ancestor Worship. Some of the tribes seem named after Semitic gods; thus "Asher," the masculine form of "Ashera," Dan and Gad (the latter of which occurs in local names as "Baal Gad" and "Migdal Gad"). There are some indications that the Patriarchs were the subject of local worship; for instance, Jacob at Beth-el, Israel at Peniel, and Isaac at Beer-sheba. Hence the importance attached in the Old Testament to the places where the Patriarchs and heroes were buried; known graves being those of Abraham, Sarah, Rachel, Joseph, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, and Samson. In this connection it is a significant fact that the grave of Moses, the founder of Jahvism, was not known: this indicates that the Jahvistic legislation was against Ancestor Worship. Many of the patriarchal names were originally combinations with "El"; thus Jacob and Joseph are found in Egyptian lists under the form "Jacobel," "Josephel" (compare Ishmael, Jerahmeel, and Jephtahel). All these points seem to imply that clans and tribes were originally unified by a worship of ancestors, which worship was broken down by the national worship of YHWH.

To these arguments of Stade and his school the following replies have been recently given by Carl Grüneisen:

  1. Nature of the Soul: The nefesh is regarded as being in the blood (Leviticus 17:11,14; Genesis 9:4), and disappears entirely with it; and while the man lives, the nefesh is with him (2 Samuel 1:9; Job, 27:3). It is only the ruaḥ which can remain after death.
  2. Life After Death: The passages which speak of the nefesh being saved from Sheol really mean that the person's life is safe, and, therefore, that he is still alive; while the expression "nefesh met" (Numbers 6:6, Leviticus 21:11) merely means "any corpse" (compare Numbers 19:11 with 19:13). The shadows that inhabit Sheol are altogether different from the nefesh in the living body. Such shadowless beings are inconsistent with the idea of any supernatural power. The expression "to be gathered to one's fathers" is never used of burial, and could not be primitive, since it is inapplicable to a nomad tribe.
  3. Mourning Customs: Some of these customs are not only used in mourning or divine worship, but in slavery, captivity in war, leprosy, etc. The customs are not so much holy as tabu. Both contact with divine things and transgression of the tabu make a person "unclean." The real explanation of mourning customs is that man thereby changes his ordinary appearance so as not to be recognized by the ghost of the departed (Frazer, "On Certain Burial Customs," in "Journal Anthropol. Inst." 15:98 et seq.). This is connected with the custom of burning a lamp after a death to keep the ghost away, a custom which probably goes back to the tents of nomads, in which the duty of keeping a lamp continually burning passed over from father to son (Jeremiah 25:10; Proverbs 13:9, 20:20, 24:20; Job, 18:6, 21:17).
  4. Burial Customs: The instances of cremation in the Bible are exceptional; and the burials in houses mainly refer to royal palaces, seemingly to special mausoleums. The notion conceived of the shadowy dead is not likely to have led to divine worship of such beings.
  5. Offerings to the Dead: The offerings referred to in Jeremiah 16:7 are for the sake of the mourners and not of the mourned. The "cup of consolation" obviously consoles the mourners, and was brought into the house of mourning because everything there was "unclean" and could not be used by the mourners. The "bread of mourners" mentioned in Hosea, 9:4, and Deuteronomy 26:14 is not used in any sacrificial meal to the dead.
  6. Oracles and Incantations: These do not imply the worship of the dead, but merely the belief in the existence of their shadows beyond the grave, and that they were consulted as oracles. The fact that Samuel's ghost was regarded by the witch of En-dor as elohim merely implies that she looked upon Samuel as something divine: the act of adoration is merely one of respect and honor—not necessarily of worship in the technical sense—and is given, not to the ghost as such, but to the personality of Samuel as soon as Saul recognizes who is speaking. Against the saying of Isaiah 8:19, it may be remarked that the ancestral ghost can not be the elohim of the people, but only of a family; besides "elohim" here should be translated "God" and thecontrast made with the dead: "A people should consult its God and not its dead."
  7. Honor to Parents: There are many instances of going into mourning for dead persons other than parents (Jacob for Joseph when he thought he had lost him, Genesis 37:34; compare 1 Kings, 14:13); widows mourning for their husbands (Genesis 38:14); the bride for her bridegroom (Joel, 1:8). Absalom did not wish a son to "call upon" his name, but to "keep it alive" in men's memory; and for that reason he raised a monument to himself. Obviously this monument could not "call upon" his name.
  8. Household Worship: The elohim mentioned in Exodus 21 could easily have been images of YHWH in Judges, "YHWH" became at an early period the God of the Israelitish family, as is shown by personal names like Jonathan, Joshua, and Abijah. Purim is far from being an early feast, being probably derived from Persia, and can not therefore be the survival of a family worship of the dead. The teraphim are only mentioned as strange gods in Genesis 31 and Ezekiel 21, and are elsewhere not divine or used in divine worship, but for the purpose of divination.
  9. Family Worship: The Israelite family does not show so much analogy with that of ancient Rome as to oblige us to transfer the arguments of Fustel de Coulanges to ancient Israel. So far from the patria potestas being all-important, there are late traces of matriarchate, as, for instance, where the mother gives the name to the children, as so frequently occurs in Genesis. Laban regards Jacob, his sister's son, as his "brother," and as being "of his own flesh and blood." Adoption was frequent among Greeks and Romans in order to keep up the family worship; but it is practically unknown among the Jews. The paterfamilias alone could worship in classical lands; whereas Gideon could bring an offering to the angel (Judges, 6:18 et seq.), though he was still in the house of his father. There are no signs of the reception of the wife into the family cult in ancient Israel, though inheritance is only through males as in Rome. Succession only through agnates does not always occur where Ancestor Worship exists, as, for example, in Egypt, where a daughter has the right to succeed. The need of descendants in Israel is not for the purpose of obtaining offerings to oneself, but to have as large a family as possible, probably for purposes of protection.
  10. Ancestor Worship and the Tribes: If the tribe grew out of Ancestor Worship it must have come first as a family; whereas in nomad tribes, like the ancient Israelites, the clan comes first. In the family sacrifice of the Romans, there is no indication that the eponymous heroes of the clan were worshiped; so that the analogies from the graves of heroes are not an exact parallel. If ancestors had been worshiped, many proper names would have been found expressing such worship; but they do not occur. The local worship at Shechem, Hebron, etc., if it existed, must have been Canaanitish in nature, and could not have been derived from the nomadic period of the Israelites.

These objections of Grüneisen differ greatly in force. While he has deprived some of Stade's arguments, notably those relating to mourning and burial customs, of some of their weight, he leaves much unexplained with regard to offerings to the dead, oracles and incantations, and family worship. The amount of evidence offered by the Old Testament itself is not sufficient to afford a solution of the question, thus leaving it to be solved on general anthropological principles. At present the general trend of anthropological opinion on this subject is rather against than for Ancestor Worship as the primitive form of religion.

  • For Stade's views see his Gesch. des Volkes Israel, 1:406 et seq.;
  • for Schwally's, his Das Leben nach dem Tode, 1892.
  • See also L. André, Le Culte des Morts chez les Hebreux, 1895:
  • J. Frey, Tod, Seelen-Glaube und Seelen-Kult im Alten Israel, 1895.
  • The above account is based upon C. Grüneisen, Der Ahnenkultus und die Urreligion Israels, Halle, 1900, which contains a full bibliography (pp. -).
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ancestor Worship'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/ancestor-worship.html. 1901.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile