Land of Our Fathers, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (book review)

Land of Our Fathers – The Roles of Ancestor Veneration in Biblical Land Claims Many people would agree that “territorial land” is a fundamental and recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible; yet few are aware of the roles played by the cult of the dead in the formation of its theology[1].

The numerous references to this cult in the Bible have been studied for decades, but many scholars continue to view them as anecdotal and interpret them as a condemnation of the practice. In Land of Our Fathers, a monograph published by the peer-reviewed Library of Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament Studies, Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou shows how the concept of territoriality is subtly but nonetheless intricately and intimately tied to that of the cult of the dead.

The author surveyed a wide range of literature on the subject and meticulously identified, analyzed, and contextualized the relevant biblical verses to show that the practice of the cult of the dead was fundamental in shaping the Torah. The result is a fascinating excursion into a more obscure, secretive, and demeaned part of the history of Israel than what has been commonly known. In fact, she deplores a tradition of scholarly resistance to biblical studies of this cult. And while acknowledging the contributions of a number of scholars who previously wrote on the topic, she criticizes some of them for over-interpreting the text and promotes “socially-nuanced perspectives of contemporary biblical scholarship.”

Dr. Stavrakopoulou first establishes the historical context in which the cult of the dead was being practiced.  Throughout the Bronze Age, until the Persian period, and even after, graves have functioned as a medium of social, cultural, and ideological meaning that maintained the dynamic relationship between the living and the dead. For West Asian[2] families, territoriality was a particular ideological function associated with burial, where the ancestors acted as the guardians of the inheritable properties on which the living would eventually get buried.

She pays particular attention to the many references to bones and burial sites in the Hebrew Bible. The cave of Machpelah, the patriarchal burial ground, exemplifies the close association between ancestors and territorial ownership: When Abraham purchases the land, Ephron is willing to grant a burial plot, but not yield title to the land. However, Abraham is satisfied only after he gets full ownership.

Possession of the land through inheritance is significant because “land is primarily and importantly ancestral in nature, and that the descendants have a religious responsibility to maintain the boundaries of these holdings not only in recognition of their ancestor’s territoriality, but for the wellbeing of the living community” (p. 12).

Territorial boundaries are deliminated by erecting standing stones, which also personify the deified ancestors, guardians of the land:

“As the designation in certain texts suggests (1 Sam. 28:13; Isa. 8:19; cf. 2 Sam. 14:16; Num. 25:2; Ps. 106:28), the dead were likely considered deified or divine, in the sense that they were active members of the divine worlds with which ancient Israelites and Judahites engaged, though in the seemingly tiered hierarchies of these worlds, they were unlikely to have been aligned with ‘high gods’ such as El, Baal and Yhwh.” (p. 19)

But despite the Jewish tradition picturing Abraham as the ancestor figure for Israel, we find no traces of his deification. In fact, even his role as “father” of Israel appears to be occasionally challenged by Yhwh.

“And yet Duhm’s proposal that Isa. 63:16 alludes to a venerative cult of the ancestors has not been widely adopted – ostensibly because most commentators (perhaps resistant to the possibility that the dead were understood to play an active social role in the lives of the living) prefer to read the parental language here as a mere epithet, guided by the more figurative function of the divine designation ‘Father’ in later literature and the assumption that Yhwh’s role as a begetter of the Davidic king in Ps. 2:7 (cf. 89:27-28; 2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chr. 28:6) is simply symbolic. From this perspective, then, if Yhwh is not a divine begetter in Isa. 63:16, neither are Abraham and Israel/Jacob.” (p. 44)

Dr. Stavrakopoulou believes that the strongest objections to theologian-historian Bernhard Duhm’s conclusion should not rest on a symbolic reading of Yhwh’s epithet but that the absence of a cult to the patriarch are better understood because his “appearances are neither frequent nor polemical enough to suggest the existence of a long-lived cult in which Abraham was hailed as a deified ancestor” (p. 44).

The figure of Moses is understood as an evolution because he is promised a land he can never access. The fact that no information is recorded in the Hebrew Bible regarding the burial site of Moses is interpreted as a transformation from a “social-body to a non-living entity”. Moses’ physical body is replaced with his legacy, the Torah, which was itself engraved on a standing stone .

“In functioning as a standing stone, Torah not only mimics the territorial role of the dead, but assertively marks Moses’ land legacy by memorializing his teaching in a territorial manner.” (p. 77)

The concept of territoriality thus remains, but now applies to all of the promised land.

“Transferred into the realm of cultural memory and its reflected biblical ideology, Moses thus emerges as an ‘ancestor’ of Israel, whose death and burial facilitates the appropriation and perpetuation of land on a ‘national’ scale.” (p. 80)

The cult of the dead nevertheless continues to play a significant role in Jerusalem. Tombs are located in the valleys that surround the city, and the temple of Jerusalem is unique.

“[The Temple was seen as] a dwelling place of the ‘Living God,’ a designation that appears to distinguish and separate the God of Jerusalem from the deified ancestors of the so-called cult of the dead. [The] territorial potency of the dead and their cults are employed even in those traditions which seem to be most hostile to dead, precisely in order to furnish the biblical Yhwh and his temple in Jerusalem with a compelling proprietorial function akin to that of the dead.” (pp. 103, 104).

The three essential components that have been identified by religious studies Prof, James Cox for constructing an indigenous identity are listed: identification with a locality that marks belonging to a place, an emphasis on lineage and kinship ties expressed through localized or regional societies, and a socio-religious focus on ancestors.

The Torah exhibits all three of these components:

“For those (ac)claiming Abraham as their ancestor, the homeland is duly marked at Machpelah by place, kin and the ancestral dead. In the Hebrew Bible, this indigenizing, centralized tomb renders all ‘Israel’ connected not only to its ancestral land, but to one another; the biblical community (whether real or imagined) is to assume a distinctive social solidarity and common cultural memory on the basis of a shared – but nonetheless exclusive – descent from the ancestors entombed in the land.” (p. 137)

In the case of the Torah, one can also observe that the concept of covenant ultimately links Yhwh to the figure of the familial ancestor:

“Within its biblical, ‘covenantal’ context, the divine gifting of land from a figure designated אב (i.e. father) may well mimic the familial framing of West Asian suzerains’ land grants, but the language of an inherited plot (נחלה), so closely related to in the Hebrew Bible to the ancestors, is in the context of Jer. 3:19 more indicative of the ancestralization of Yhwh, as is evident in Deut. 14.1. Indeed, to render Yhwh the ancestor of Israel is to endorse the deity’s enduring territoriality in the most persuasive of terms – those of the territorial dead.” (p. 145)

By arguing that the ancient practice of the cult of the dead is not only pervasive throughout the Torah, but influenced its development and theology, Dr. Stavrakopoulou has explored with notable academic courage a field of research that is likely to ruffle some feathers.

Some questions remain. Why would the authors of the Bible have gone out of their way to include such explicit references to the cult of the ancestors in the story of the patriarchs, only to painstakingly downplay, condemn, and eliminate them later? And why would such cultic practices infiltrate the Torah at such a fundamental and obscure level if it wasn’t part of a slow and natural evolution? Given the early Israelites were practicing the cult of the dead, as is claimed here, and given the absence of traces of deification of Abraham, wouldn’t it make sense to explore the possibility that the very figure of Yhwh had evolved from a deified ancestor?

Indeed, what if Abraham had made a covenant with a powerful overlord, and what if this overlord had actually visited Sarah in the tent to begot Isaac? Such an interpretation is demonstrably compatible with the narrative and offers remarkable consistency with the underlining theme (i.e., Yhwh would then literally and symbolically embody the functions of ancestor of Israel as well as land giver).

This is precisely the hypothesis developed in The Covenant, where I argue that the Abrahamic narrative dates from the Bronze Age and was initially composed – and must, therefore, be understood – not as a religious text, but as a secular one in which the figure of the Lord was deified over time. This hypothesis enables us to explain the literary project that gave birth to the Torah and the evolution of its interpretation. And while such an iconoclastic proposition could be perceived as going upstream against the current academic research flow, I show how it enables an efficient synthesis of past and modern research on the topic, thereby restoring a much-needed balance between so-called maximalist and minimalist positions (i.e., religious claims vs. scientific evidence).

Some early critics of my work were prompt to reject the suggestion that the Abrahamic Covenant could have originated out of a secular alliance made with a mortal overlord by partially invoking the fact that it was not uncommon for Near Eastern deities to exhibit anthropomorphic traits, and even interact with mortals in a way analogous to what we find in the Bible. However, Dr. Stavrakopoulou provides grist to the mill by showing how the notions of covenant and promised land are intimately connected with that of the cult of the dead. I believe her work provides further legitimacy to mine.

Land of Our Fathers challenges decades of biblical scholarship, yet it still clings to the modern scholarly view that the story of Abraham is a myth offering unreliable historical data. I hope that Dr. Stavrakopoulou will consider writing a follow-up book or a second edition that explores the idea that a secular covenant made during the Bronze Age with an overlord gave rise to the Abrahamic account.

Stavrakopoulou, F. (2012). Land of Our Fathers : The roles of ancestor veneration in biblical land claims. New York, Bloomsbury.

[1] The author makes no distinction between “cult of the dead”, “cult of the ancestor”, “ancestor worship” and “ancestor veneration”.  These terms refer to an ancient practice that often involve invocations, libations, offerings, etc. It rests on the underlying belief that the dead benefit from the actions of the living and that, in turn, the living benefit from the protection and  guidance of the dead.
[2] Western Asia is a sub-region of the Middle East that does not include Egypt. Middle East includes the eastern Mediterranean region (aka Near East) as well as the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan and Iran.]]>