One God, No Ancestors, in a World Renewed

Mary Douglas

in Jacob's Tears

Published in print November 2004 | ISBN: 9780199265237
Published online January 2005 | e-ISBN: 9780191602054 | DOI:
One God, No Ancestors, in a World Renewed

Show Summary Details


Focuses on the absence of ancestor cults in the Bible, and notes that the ground already covered in the book indicates that the priestly editors of the Pentateuch in the sixth and fifth centuries bce, and their interpretation of monotheism, make it unlikely that there would have been room for such an idea. Considers the limited role of the dead in biblical Israel in the context of the major advance that was monotheism, and asks whether Leviticus represents a Utopian religion or a real one that was actually practiced in the past, emphasizing the intellectual consistency of the Pentateuch in its uncompromising monotheism. The question is asked as to whether Israel ever had an ancestral cult, and the biblical evidence against such a cult is reviewed. The possible benefits of an ancestor cult in taking the blame are discussed, along with some alternative views to this (notably, the horror of death), and the possibility of the forcible suppression of ancestor cults as part of a centralizing government programme (here certain parallels are drawn with other cultures, and the cult of purgatory is discussed). Other ways in which cults of the dead can fade are discussed in the last part of the chapter; these include the secularizing effect of modernization, intergenerational tension, the character of the resource base in relation to the fate of ancestor cults (as illustrated by religious dynamism in the Calabari Delta of Nigeria), religious change instigated by changing regimes in which either the old or the young may become ascendant, and the position of eighth‐century Israel as having everything that would favour a revolt by the young – thus setting a trail for the priestly editors that had been laid centuries before, and embodied the central doctrine of monotheism.

Keywords: ancestor cults; Bible; biblical evidence; horror of death; intellectual consistency; intergenerational tension; Israel; Leviticus; modernization; monotheism; Pentateuch; priestly editors; purgatory; religious change; secularizing effect of modernization; suppression; young versus vs. old

Chapter.  8105 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.