Letter from the Editor

Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief

Michael D. Coogan

From the desk of Michael Coogan

I have been thinking again about levels of meaning. As with other works of literature and art, it is wrong to insist that the Bible or any part of it has only one correct meaning or interpretation. Medieval rabbis declared that the Torah has seventy faces, and over the ages scholars have found many more. I offer one here that may surprise some readers, having to do with the familiar commandment, "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long on the land that Yahweh your god is giving to you" (Exodus 20.12; Deuteronomy 5.16).

One interpretation from ancient times to the present is that this commandment (the fourth or fifth, depending upon how you count) instructs young children to be obedient to their parents. This seems to be what Paul (or someone writing in his name) thought, when he quoted the commandment in the context of a "household code":

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother . . . And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6.1–3; see also Colossians 3.20–21).

The advice to fathers about childrearing suggests that the preceding instruction is addressed to youngsters.

But that was not its original sense. The Decalogue is addressed to adult males, who preside over households that include wives, sons and daughters, and slaves. The primary sense of the commandment then is proper treatment of one's elderly parents. That involved first of all, showing them due respect. Other biblical laws make striking or cursing a parent a capital offense (Exodus 21.15,17; see also Deuteronomy 21.18–21). Honoring one's parents also involved caring for them in extreme old age, as the sages prescribed: "Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be patient with him" (Sirach 3.12–13; see also Proverbs 23.22).

In one ancient Canaanite text, a childless patriarch prays for a son, who will

shut the jaws of my abusers,
drive off my oppressors;
hold my hand when I am drunk,
support me when I am full of wine . . .
patch my roof when it gets muddy,
wash my clothes when they get dirty.

But this hoped-for son—eventually provided, although later tragically killed—would have other, less mundane duties, including worship:

Set up a stele for my divine ancestor. . .
send up my incense from the earth,
the song of my burial place from the dust. 1

Like many of their neighbors, both the Canaanites and the Israelites practiced ancestor worship. Evidence from Israelite tombs shows that with the dead were buried objects and even foodstuffs that they might need on their journey to Sheol, the dark, dank underworld where all the dead ended up. Although not nearly as elaborate as those in royal Egyptian tombs, such tomb deposits were commonplace in ancient Israel. So, the dead needed to be buried, and part of the burial ceremonies included some sort of sacrifice.

We find sporadic references to such sacrifices throughout the Bible; they were aspects of family ritual, perhaps without priestly officiants—this would explain their infrequent mention. In the liturgy for the festival of weeks, the worshipper is to declare of his offering of the required tithe, some of which went to support the Levites, "I have not offered any of it to the dead" (Deuteronomy 26.14). Because contact with a corpse rendered persons and things impure, what had been offered to the dead could not be used for paying the required tithe. Sacrifices to the dead are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and the Apocrypha (see Tobit 4.17; Sirach 30.18), and are occasionally condemned (Isaiah 65.4; Psalm 106.28). They seem to have been offered not only as part of the burial service, but more regularly, perhaps annually, on the day of death. This is comparable to the more public—but also often only local—annual commemoration of saints in many religious traditions.

Why were sacrifices offered to the dead? Because they were deified. When King Saul was about to engage the Philistines in what would be his last battle, he sought divine counsel. But, we are told, "Yahweh did not answer him, not by dreams, not by Urim, not by prophets" (1 Samuel 28.6). (Urim were a form of divination practiced by priests, which Saul had used successfully before; see 1 Samuel 14.36–42.) So, in desperation, Saul consulted a woman who was a medium, one who could communicate with the dead. Consulting the dead in ancient Israel was apparently widespread, as laws prohibiting it and prophetic attacks on it show; even Saul himself had prohibited it, according to the medium herself. Assuring her that she would come to no harm, Saul asked her to raise up the dead prophet Samuel. This she did, saying: "I see a god coming up from the underworld" (1 Samuel 28.13). So Samuel, though dead, still lived in some sense, divine and powerful.

Just as one offered sacrifices to the gods to seek their favor or avert their wrath, so too one offered them to the dead, for the same reasons. And just as the gods could inform someone what to do—"through dreams, through Urim, through prophets," so too the dead—their spirits, their ghosts—could also be consulted, because they spoke from the underworld (Isaiah 29.4). Isaiah reports a popular saying: "Consult the ghosts and the spirits who chirp and mutter. Should not a people consult their gods, the dead, on behalf of the living?" (8.19). To be sure, not all biblical writers in all periods shared these beliefs, but they seem to have been a pervasive aspect of what is often called popular religion, at odds with more orthodox Yahwism.

So, honoring one's father and mother means not just obeying them when one is a child, but caring for them in their old age, giving them a proper burial, and offering sacrifices to them when they are dead. In a culture that highly valued loyalty to family, one's duty to—and even one's relationship with—the tribal elders transcended the mortal realm.

Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online
April 2016


1Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith, ed. and trans., Stories from Ancient Canaan (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2d ed., 2012), p. 37.

Oxford University Press

© 2016. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice