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Family and Household Religion: Toward a Synthesis of Old Testament Studies, Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Cultural Studies

Family and Household Religion: Toward a Synthesis of Old Testament Studies, Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Cultural Studies

Edited by Rainer Albertz, Beth Alpert Nakhai, Saul M. Olyan, and Rüdiger Schmitt. Pp. viii + 324, figs. 36, tables 13. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Ind. 2014. $54.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-288-4 (cloth).

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This volume is the result of three sessions at the European Association of Biblical Studies conferences held in Budapest and Vienna and a fourth meeting at the University of Münster between 2006 and 2009. It follows as a sequel to the publication of an initial conference held at Brown University in 2005 (J. Bodel and S. Olyan, eds., Household and Family Religion in Antiquity [Malden, Mass. 2008]). By narrowing down the previous focus of a cross-cultural approach to family and household religion in antiquity to the geographical area of the Levant, mostly concerning Old Testament studies, this volume features 14 papers presented at the Münster conference. The editors give a thought-provoking overview of different perspectives and new lines of inquiry in the current discussion of family and household religion in ancient Israel and the Levant. By aiming for a synthesis of archaeology, epigraphy, and cultural studies, they emphasize theoretical and methodological challenges such as the conceptualization of family/household religion, the identification of relevant artifacts, and the use of archaeological and written evidence with a concerted effort. With a considerable delay in printing (the manuscripts had been submitted in 2011, as indicated by a publisher’s note in the preamble to the volume), the book under review is now also joined by a comprehensive treatment of the topic in question published by two of the editors of the volume under review, Albertz and Schmitt (Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant [Winona Lake, Ind. 2012]).

The volume revolves around the debate of whether a family and household religion existed side-by-side with a state cult focused on Yahweh. With a particular emphasis on the pre-exilic period (11th–7th centuries B.C.E.), the textual evidence, primarily biblical, is rather sparse for an evaluation of this phenomenon. Recent excavations and the reevaluation of old material have, however, yielded new evidence and strongly contributed to the discussion. Different perspectives presented over the past 35 years following either a religious-historical, gender-oriented, or archaeological approach have now established a notion of pluralism for the religion of ancient Israel in the pre-exilic period. Different forms of the veneration of Yahweh, a number of other cult recipients such as Baal and Asherah, as well as the worship of ancestors characterize the religion of ancient Israel and the Levant in the Iron Age (I–II). This volume, as well as the previous publications, displays a clear separation in family and household religion. As explained in the introduction to the 2008 volume (Bodel and Olyan 2008), this distinction is based on the narrow confines of the domestic realm and the actual house. Religion could thus be practiced at the household level in the dwelling and immediate surroundings and might very likely have included nonconsanguineous household members. Cultic activities of the family could, however, also take place at distant tombs and regional sanctuaries and are here designated with the term “family religion.”

The papers presented in this volume focus on the topic in question in manifold ways. They deal with textual and archaeological evidence including architecture and material culture and often correlate both sources in a laudable way. Since the papers are presented in alphabetical order by author in the volume (and thus lack a broader organizational scheme), I offer here some comments based on prevalent themes.

With a concentration on the family sphere and single households, a number of papers are strongly concerned with the role of women and their part in household cults. Ackerman illustrates different life cycle events such as birth and death and their associated rites of passage based on textual evidence. She is able to document women’s inferior status in receiving a proper treatment according to the appropriate rituals in comparison with men. In contrast to this rather unfavorable female image in the Old Testament, Nakhai uncovers women’s role in leading and guiding the family, in the upkeep of the “shrine of the family elders,” and related activities such as feasts to secure the cohesion of the social group. Women were concerned with issues of reproduction and health, furthermore expressed by various cultic paraphernalia such as the so-called Judean Pillar-Base figurines (JPF) that are discussed by Dever. In an elaboration of his previous studies, he convincingly argues for their interpretation as symbols of Asherah. As a central part of women’s cult, they may have also represented other goddesses, such as the Queen of Heaven mentioned in Jeremiah (44:15–19) or Astarte. The so-called Horse and Rider figurines (HRF), which are often discussed with the JPFs, are the focus of a paper by Kletter and Saarelainen. In contrast to the JPFs as representations for a goddess, the HRFs are here viewed as symbols of power and status, in rejection of previous explanations as votives, self-images of specific personalities, or depictions of the divine.

Another group of papers revolves around the difficulty of identifying cult in the archaeological record. By focusing on family and household religion, locations of ritual activities are often inconspicuous on the ground based on the fact that unequivocal layouts or objects of clear cultic ascription are usually lacking. Ben-Shlomo and Daviau both discuss the material evidence for family religion of different Levantine ethnicities such as the Philistines, Ammonites, and Moabites. Daviau approaches the topic by expanding her previous work on typical artifact assemblages that could indicate certain household activities by searching for the “anomalous” in the archaeological record. By comparing the domestic site Tall Jawa and the industrial site Khirbat al-Mudayna, both in Jordan, Daviau is able to extract a number of objects (e.g., miniature vessels and figurines that were used in a cultic context) but also to detect differences in their specific use in the domestic and industrial spheres. The important material from Tall Jawa furthermore proves that religious activities were also conducted on second floors and house roofs as is also indicated in the texts. Ben-Shlomo assembles the evidence for Philistine religion. He is able to extract elements of household cult that depict the different cultural influences of this immigrant population later fusing with the local religious traditions in the Levant. Meyers’ paper deals with foodways and feasting in the household realm, laudably starting off with a definition of the “household.” She stresses the fundamental role of feasting for the performance of identity and cohesion of the kin group.

The issue of the architectural context for cultic activities is further considered in three papers on the typical Israelite dwelling, the so-called four-room house, and the appearance and typology of cult places within the settlement structure and in the countryside. Faust and Bunimovitz give an update of their previous research on the four-room house. Ethnic and functional considerations that had been offered in the past as explanation for the consistent appearance of one and the same house type in a geographically and temporally limited area and period are being revisited and rejected in favor of a focus on the social aspects of the four-room house. The authors attempt a correlation of the number of rooms (three-room houses of the same structure are also common) and family size. Important as a review of the most common house type in the Iron Age Levant and for useful distinctions of urban and rural households—the Bible almost exclusively depicts an urban view—the paper, however, lacks any attempt at locating cultic activities within the architectural frame. Schmitt, on the other hand, follows up on this matter by designating particular spaces within the house for cultic activities such as domestic shrines. He complements his typology of Iron Age cult places by also discussing work-related cult spaces, neighborhood shrines, and regional as well as state sanctuaries. By presenting two case studies from Tell Tayinat and Zincirli, Harrison devotes his paper to the identification of communal religious structures, such as chapels or smaller temples, within the settlement and stresses their importance as settings for ceremonies that reiterated the community’s social cohesion and identity (unfortunately lacking figures of the sites and described structures).

Three authors approach the topic by looking at written evidence for family and household religion. Albertz examines a large number of Hebrew name seals and is able to reconstruct an individual relationship between the seal bearer and the divine through elements in the personal name that differs from official religious traditions. A devotion to protective deities in the family realm is also expressed in healing practices and shamanistic rituals examined by Gerstenberger. Olyan addresses the role of fictive kin in death rites, burial and reburial, mourning, and the cult of the ancestors.

In a concluding discussion on the Israelite family and the sociological framework within which cultic activities were conducted in the household sphere, mostly based on textual sources, Zevit stresses the importance of correlating and complicating textual interpretations with archaeological evidence. This is perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book, which will hopefully be considered a standard in future publications, not only in biblical studies but also for the wider realm of household analysis and family religion.

The volume would have benefited from thematic chapters, as followed in this review, instead of an alphabetical ordering by authors’ names. The missing introduction and lack of a theoretical and methodological underpinning makes knowledge of the previous publications essential. The book, however, nicely complements the latest series of interdisciplinary discussions on family and household religion in ancient Israel and the Iron Age Levant, and it should not be missed by scholars interested in the contrasting but complementary bottom-up perspective on ancient societies.

Miriam Müller
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University

Book Review of Family and Household Religion: Toward a Synthesis of Old Testament Studies, Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Cultural Studies, edited by Rainer Albertz, Beth Alpert Nakhai, Saul M. Olyan, and Rüdiger Schmitt

Reviewed by Miriam Müller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Muller

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