Family vs Household and Their Gods

It really is a privilege to receive review copies of books in one’s area of interest. It’s like seeing a movie preview so that you’re not adversely affected by professional reviewers and nitpicking colleagues. This is driven home particularly when I don’t have a pile awaiting or when I’m drawing close, as I am now, and see the possibility that I just might feel obliged to read one of those weird books: the sensational ones, with glossy covers and premises that wouldn’t get a second look at an established publishing house.

Recently, I have been reading a 2008 book based on a 2005 conference. I really like the idea that those of us who never have the opportunity to go to a conference might still be able to profit from the exchange of information. As would go on at a conference, one writer questions another, gently and friendlier than I’ve seen at academic presentations. In general, the second writer is elaborating and going further, rather than tearing down the first. I recognize some bylines from other books I’ve read on what I thought were unrelated topics. Among others, Faraone, whose book on love magic I lapped up. The book is household and family religion in antiquity (sic), edited by John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan, published by Blackwell, one of my favorite publishers. The title is not written in title case.

Brown University held the 2205 conference on the topic of household and family religion. The essays begin with an introductory explanation by the editors, followed by a chapter that looks at the difference between family and household.

Most of us think of households in terms of a nuclear family. Some can remember the days when grandparents lived in and served as ersatz babysitters, but that was about it. The household was coterminous with the nuclear family. In the ancient world, when children could be raised by slave nurses and play with their slave “father”-less half-brothers, the concept of a household was different from that of a family.

Households in which members of the nuclear family regularly have children with slaves and do not allow slaves to form families are different.

Even more removed from our concept of family is the ancient one where the dead were still active in daily life.

This chapter is followed by the first of the chapters on Mesopotamia. Here, Karel van de Toorn makes a distinction between the god the family worships and devotion to one’s ancestors. The family’s god tended not to be one of the great Mesopotamian deities, like Anu, Enlil, and Ishtar, because those were too grand. The family gods might intercede on the family’s behalf with the great gods, but the great gods were beyond the family’s immediate reach. These chapters were eye-openers.

In the next chapter, Daniel E. Fleming looks at how households integrate private and public social lives, the role of the god Dagan, and asks questions about the family’s ancestor worship. I found myself lost in the Dagan area and the next chapter, on Ugarit, filled with transliterated cuneiform (?) will require greater concentration at a later date. So I skipped to the sections on Greece and Rome, which continued the theme of ancestor worship coupled with worship of another set of gods, and then went back to those on Egypt, which seems to have included the dead among the gods, and then Israel/Judaea. It was the last that startled me.

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, although the Commandment to hold no gods above Yahweh suggests that there really were other gods. Still, I thought, the ancient Hebrews would all have worshiped Yahweh, even if they sometimes put him a level with some of the Babylonian deities. Apparently, I was wrong.

As is suitable to a book about the distinction between public and private forms of worship, Yahweh was above the household gods on a national or extra-familial level, but pre-exile Hebrew families did not necessarily perform any rituals to honor Yahweh. Instead, in times of trouble other gods, like the mother-goddess Asherah were invoked to mediate with Yahweh. Requests from the family could also be made to Baal or spirits of the dead, instead of Yahweh, since families chose their own family gods. The chapter “Family Religion in Ancient Israel” is by Rainer Albertz.


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