A note on economic idols in the OT

It is a well worn observation to think of the way money functions alongside the biblical prohibition of idolatry.  What I have been curious about for some time is the manner in which the actual (clay?) gods of the Ancient Near East functioned in relation to wealth and economy.  I grew up assuming that these gods were viewed as having some inherent value, that they were at least viewed as objects that mediated a supernatural reality; that they were primarily objects of pious devotion.

I began to wonder, however, if these gods had an actual currency.  What was their value and were their value held in common, what effect could these objects produce?  I have been reading through James Pritchard’s anthology of Ancient Near Eastern texts.  In a relatively obscure section dealing with Akkadian practices of adoption (which allowed land to be sold that had to be kept in the family) there is a comment that if someone is adopted but later the father is able to conceive his own son then the [biological] son shall take the gods of the father.  I had sort of been skimming at this point but did notice a footnote at this which read,

Possession of household gods marked a person as the legitimate heir, which explains Laban’s anxiety to recover his household gods from Jacob (Gen 31).

While we have moved some way from an overly spiritualized view of the Gospel I think we are still prone to project this back into the biblical text, perhaps especially the OT.  These figures were not detached from the broader economic structure.  They were no less integrated then our money and legal documents.  This, of course, makes the demand to smash them all the more difficult.

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2 comments on “A note on economic idols in the OT

  1. Jeremy Penner says:

    Ancestral worship was popular in clan based societies. I think in this case the “gods” were actual ancestor figurines (or teraphim), which is why their possession was necessary for deciding the inheritance within families. Their possession meant possessing the land of one’s ancestors (which is also why it was customary to be buried with one’s ancestors, often within one’s house). This might be one of the reasons why Laban isn’t too happy when Rachel steals the family gods in Gen 31.

  2. Would you say that by and large idols were caught up in larger, and shared systems of material meaning and value as opposed to having purely devotional purposes?

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