Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review

Albertz, Rainer and Rüdiger Schmitt, Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012). Pp. 500. Hardcover. US$79.50. ISBN 978-451-575-06232-7.

The co-authors of this massive volume have chosen to share the work by writing individual chapters on their own areas of research and expertise rather than creating a synthesis throughout. Thus, Albertz provides the introduction plus chapters on methodology, personal names, and family religion, while Schmitt contributes the chapters on the typology of Iron Age cult places (see p. 480 for a list of eight types), rites of family and household religion, and the care of the dead. They then rehearse their findings in a co-authored summary at the conclusion of the book. For those looking for a quick guide, this final chapter is very helpful in combination with the appendices and indices since they point the reader to those authors, texts, or archaeological discoveries that form the basis for major suppositions and conclusions and allow the full chapters to serve as a compendium of data and discourse from which to draw. And there is much here of value. In particular the wedding of textual analysis, social theory, and archaeological analysis (see, e.g., the interactive discussion of figurines and references to tĕrāphîm on pp. 60–65 and pp. 159–64 on the possible cultic site at Tell Qiri) that reflect on religious practices and material culture in various periods of time add to the importance of what they have accomplished.

While both authors have their own opinions and are not afraid to make that clear, they do attempt to provide as balanced a presentation as possible. This pattern can be found in Albertz's systematic effort to pull together the wide range of research that has been published on ancient Israelite family religion. I also find it very helpful that Albertz chooses to draw very heavily on his earlier publications to provide an intellectual pathway that demonstrates how his thinking on the issue has evolved. That can be seen in his argument for the use of the term “internal religious pluralism” as a more constructive social construct behind the development and evolution of Israelite religion than “syncretism” (pp. 3–6). Strict attention to terminology (family, household, kinship, and clan) as well as to the shared and private social and productive functions of each family grouping (shared agricultural installations, reproduction, socialization, festivals/feasts) allows him to draw conclusions on the likelihood of specific family religious practices that were particular to the conjugal family unit (pp. 475–6). His interplay with Karel van der Toorn's two-part view (family and state religion, pp. 5–7), in particular, provides a window into his advocacy for the tripartite view, which favors a distinct separation of nuclear family, region or clan, and official or state religious practices.[1] My own tendency is to accept the tripartite view even without overt textual support simply because nuclear families create social identities for themselves distinct from clan, tribe, or state. Among the ways that households distinguish themselves from other units within the clan would include the giving of distinctive personal names (see pp. 482–9 and the exhaustive appendices on pp. 534–609), the style of clothing decoration they employ, and individualized cultic rituals designed to give thanks to the deity or to solicit support or comfort focused on them alone rather than on the wider community.

Another way in which the individual family maintained their household's identity was through burial rites and their continued association with burial sites. Schmitt's chapter on the care of the dead provides an excellent discussion of such things as the types of grave goods, their possible purposes (including a suggestion that the inclusion of rattles may have served an apotropaic purpose in protecting the dead, p. 454), and the reuse of a tomb over long periods by a nuclear or extended nuclear family. His discussion of the use of a marzea house (see Jer 16:5–8) for ritual banquets in which the dead are commemorated and the family of the deceased comforted provides an interesting glimpse into mourning practices separate from the burial ritual itself (pp. 458–9).

Particularly helpful in making their point that some religious practices are distinct to particular social groupings, the authors employ a form of spatial theory to posit “three circles of family and household religion” that are dependent on the location of performance(see summary pp. 476–7). Thus birth, penitential, and apotropaic rituals, which are singularly associated with the well-being of the household, occur within the precincts of the house (a space too small for more than the conjugal family unit). Visits to neighboring shrines or high places were staged at local cultic sites and were associated with the village or possibly neighboring villages. However, national festivals like those associated with “first-fruits” sacrificial offerings were taken to the state sanctuaries. In this way, different religious spheres were created and recognized. It seems likely that despite the emergence of centralization of worship and urban-based cultic activities during the monarchy period, these three spatial zones remained intact. Perhaps the efforts of Hezekiah and Josiah would have had an impact on the local cultic sites, but it is very doubtful that they would have eliminated or even infringed upon family-based religious practices.

One social concept that the authors did not choose to discuss is the honor-shame character of ancient Israelite society. Since their focus is on various levels of religious activity, I believe that it would have been useful to include this basic social control mechanism, especially at the family level. For example, in their effort to use space and to identify rituals distinctive to the three spheres of religious practice, they could have benefitted from the impact that the honor and shame dynamics has on the actions of members of the household and on the social standing of the Head of Household. While he interacted with other “Heads” and/or elders in the conduct of business or shared agricultural or pastoral activities, the Head's primary focus and responsibility was to his own household and its various members. For instance, in the discussion of the “bridegroom of blood” episode in Exod 4:24–26, Schmitt places emphasis on the apotropaic character of the circumcision and the placing of blood on Moses's feet and dates the practice of circumcision to the exilic period and a responsibility of the “head of every family” to declare his family's “fidelity to the ancestral religion” (pp. 394–5). The point of the story in Exod 4:24–26, however, is that Moses had failed in his responsibility by not circumcising his son. His lack of action has caused his household to be shamed (= made vulnerable) until his wife takes matters into her own hands to bring them back into compliance. Only then are Moses and his family considered honorable and safe and he is able to carry out his mission.

Similarly, only the marriage rites and legal aspects of the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) are touched on in the section dealing with Levirate marriage ( However, Judah's reaction to the word that Tamar is pregnant and therefore unfaithful to the marriage vows she had taken when she became a part of his household hinges on the honor/shame fulcrum. He demonstrates his desire not only to eliminate a potential legal/inheritance problem but also his overriding need to expunge the shame she had brought on his household by her actions (Gen 38:24). Attention to this aspect of the social context would add to the argument for rites of family religion distinct from clan or state religion.

While it is not possible to comment on every topic raised by these authors, it is fair to say that they have pulled together much of the research that has been done over the past two decades on the subject and provided a coherent and useful framework for others to now draw upon. The mass of data presented here (including the comprehensive anthroponomastic appendices on personal names) and the scholarly model for examination of the textual and archaeological evidence will make this volume a major resource for anyone who wants to explore the various facets of Israelite religious practice at any social level.

Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University

[1] Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (Studies in the History and Ancient Culture of the Ancient Near East, 7; Leiden: Brill, 1996). reference