Religious Practices in the Ancestral Period – an Excerpt from The Cultural World of the Bible, 4th Edition

The following is an excerpt from The Cultural World of the Bible, by Victor Matthews.


Upon his arrival in Canaan, Abram’s first official act whenever he established a new encampment was to build an altar of unhewn stones on which offerings could be made to God (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:18). Each of these altar sites – Shechem, Bethel, and Hebron – plays an important role in the later history of Israel, and each of these subsequent events will draw a measure of importance from Abram’s foundation story.

Cover ArtWhenever these sites form the stage for later events, the memory of what happened there before becomes a link to the past and its authority through the principle of geographic reiteration. In addition, Shechem has yielded evidence to archaeologists of significant religious activity prior to the time of the ancestors. Such evidence adds strength to the assertion that Abram’s altars were built in the vicinity of established cultic sites and indicates the desire to introduce the worship of Yahweh in this land.

Abram’s altars are not only sites of worship; they also serve as a means of marking the territory that his descendants will inherit. The use of a boundary stone as an altar also seems to be described in Genesis 31:43–54, where we read that Jacob and Laban the Aramean commemorated a treaty between them by building a pillar of heaped stones, eating a meal together, and making a sacrifice. The pillar served as a boundary marker between their two spheres of influence and closes the chapter on going back to Mesopotamia to obtain a bride. The meal was an example of the use of hospitality traditions to mark their peaceful intentions, and the sacrifice invoked God as a witness to and enforcer of their transaction.

In none of these cases, however, are the details of sacrifice spelled out. The text seems to assume that readers are already familiar with the procedure, which they probably were. The only instance in the ancestral narratives where sacrifice is described in greater detail is found in the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22). Here Abraham is told by God to offer his son as a burnt offering. The patriarch complies without question, as he did when told to leave his home in Haran. He gathers wood, travels to a sacred site (Moriah), builds an altar on a mountain (possibly a high place shrine used by the nearby village; see 1 Kings 3:4), and brings along a knife with which to slay the boy.

This story is described as a test of Abraham’s faith, but it also provides an etiology explaining why the Israelites did not practice human sacrifice like the peoples of Canaan (compare 2 Kings 3:27).

©2015 by Victor H. Matthews. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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