The Religious Practice of Everyday Life in Antiquity


As part of my study of subsistence survival – the resilient and basic element of the sacred economy of ancient Southwest Asia – I find that I also need to deal with the role of religion or the sacred in that economy. Immediately, I face a problem, for the terminology of the “sacred” or “religion” assumes an opposite, whether “profane” or “secular.” It goes without saying that this is a perpetual problem of the terminology we use, for it brings with it a host of assumptions that are foreign to the ancient world. Similar difficulties face the use of “official” and “popular” religion, for that distinction falls under the spell of the dominant perspective of the biblical texts. On behalf of the aspiring potentate and his ruling class henchmen, “official” means their religion, one which everyone is supposed to follow. It bears with it the sense of orthodox, while “popular” religion invokes the wayward superstitions of the ignorant rural population. If we need to keep using such terminology, of religion, the sacred, or even the popular, then I suggest it should be understood as the ever-present practice of everyday life, carried out by 85 to 90 percent of the population. But what does that mean?[1]

How is one to locate such a practice, especially when the evidence that remains pertains largely to ruling class ideas and practices? I take my cue from Ernst Bloch’s dialectical interpretation of myth and ideology, in which the practices and beliefs condemned in official, often reactionary literature may signal the presence of traditions of resistance, popular unrest, and expressions of alternative approaches characteristic of common people.[2] Those acts may be condemned, characterized as rebellion against God and the powers that be, but in that very condemnation those expressions are preserved. These include venerating a multitude of gods apart from Yahweh, the keeping of figurines (depicted as “idols”), partaking and even enacting rituals and sacrifices in places different from the Jerusalem temple, sheer disregard of “purity” laws, widespread fertility rites (for soil, animals, and women), the use of amulets and charms, constant efforts to ward off the effects of evil spirits, attention to omens, everyday divination, the inescapable role of mediums and “witchcraft.”[3]

Archaeological and textual references from other cultures in ancient Southwest Asia suggest that these practices were prevalent among the rural population of the southern Levant, or ancient Israel, as well. To give a couple of examples, among the Mesopotamians and Hittites omens and their divination formed a crucial component, traces of which may be found in the texts that have been preserved. All the phenomena of nature, including animals and insects (especially pests), would be read for omens: specific behavior, forms of (unusual) motion, sounds made, reactions to human beings – these and more were seen as omens to be interpreted. So we find the behavior of lizards, mongoose, mice, ants, moths, grasshoppers, caterpillars, crickets, and wood-eating insects. Larger wild animals, such as the lion, wolf, gazelle, and fox also appear, as do domesticated animals. The difference between the wild and the domestic was that the former may have formed an omen on sighting, but the latter were subject to all manner of observations concerning appearance and behavior.[4]

As a second example, all manner of approaches were used for protection from negative forces, such as demons and sorcery that would affect crops or animal health, thereby threatening the fine line between survival and hardship. The most common form was the amulet, deeply influenced by Egyptian styles and practices: scarabs, seals, anthropomorphic figures, objects like the Horus-eye, moon, or Djed-pillar, and animal figurines. The Hebrew terms were otam (seal), leašim (conjuring amulets, from Isa 3:20), saharonim (little moons), šebisim (little suns, see Isa 3:18). Those with special powers, notably women, made amulets and charms (Ezek 13:17-23) or formulated simple incantations against enemies or evil forces.[5] These women are of course denounced in no uncertain terms by the “official” literature, as mediums engaged in sorcery, but in that condemnation their vague presence may be ascertained (Deut 18:10-11; Lev 19:26, 31; 20:6-7, 27; see also 1 Sam 28:7-24).

We may read this religious practice of everyday in a functionalist manner, as the expected response to the insecurity of crops, helplessness against disease and natural disasters, the simplicity of dwellings and tools, and the absence of any sense of hygiene. At one level, this may indeed be the case, but it removes the creative agency of people involved in subsistence agricultural life, a creativity that is evident across peasant cultures.[6] As with agricultural methods, combining the tested approaches of centuries with creative responses to immediate challenges, so also the everyday concerns with the capricious gods, demons, and spirits indicates less an effort to make sense of a senseless world and more a creative engagement with it.

[1] I do not pretend to offer a full picture of this practice of everyday life, for at least two reasons. First, others have extensively and exhaustively offered studies of ancient Israelite religion. Second, my interest pertains specifically to the institutional form of subsistence survival. For recent and comprehensive studies, see Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, trans. John Bowden, 2 vols. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994); Patrick D. Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WestminsterJohn Knox, 2000).

[2] Ernst Bloch, Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995); Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, trans. J. T. Swann (London: Verso, 2009).

[3] Douglas A. Knight, Law, Power, and Justice in Ancient Israel, Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011); Lester Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period  (London: T. & T. Clark, 2006), 254-56.

[4] Benjamin R. Foster, “Animals in Mesopotamian Literature,” in A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, ed. Billie Jean Collins, 271-88 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 274; JoAnn Scurlock, “Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion,” ibid., 361-88, 264-67.

[5] Rainer Albertz, “Family Religion in Ancient Israel and its Surroundings,” in Household and Family Religion in Antiquity: Contextual and Comparative Perspectives, ed. John Bodel and Saul M. Olyan, 89-112 (Malden: Blackwell, 2008), 101.

[6] Eric R. Wolf, Peasants  (Englwood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 100-6.

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