How big was the ancient Near Eastern clan?

I have just finished a discussion of the institutional form of kinship-household for my study of the sacred economy, although it has been a bit of a trial. Too often did I come across assertions that seem to echo the religious and political right: the ‘family’ or household was the basis of ancient society. All of which led me to ask how how big ancient clans really were. For obvious reasons, most seem to assume that it was restricted to human beings, largely made up of blood relations.

But they miss two obvious elements: the dead and animals. How so?

Given the ubiquity of veneration for the ancestors, the dead were obviously part of the clan. While Nancy Jay’s point is well taken – “Ultimately the dead are only important as they integrate and differentiate relations among their living descendants” – I would like to stress that the dead are not merely tools of the living, but are very much part of the clan, one that is constructed beyond the boundaries of the living. Of course, the dead do not engage materially in agricultural production, but even here they are recipients of reallocated produce, typically left at their graves. Their prime function was ideological, an extra-economic dimension that was very much part of the kinship-household.

However, I suggest the kinship group extended even further. An insight may be gained from an unexpected quarter, namely, the incest laws in the Hebrew Bible. The prohibitions against incest read as follows:

Whoever has sex with [šōkeb] a beast shall be put to death (Ex 22:18 [19 in ET]).

And you shall not ejaculate [tittēn šĕkobtekā] into any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman bend over before [ta‘ămōd lipnê] a beast to copulate [rv’] with it: it is a perversion (Lev 18:23).

If a man ejaculates [yittēn šĕkobtô] into a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast to copulate [rv‘] with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them (Lev 20:15-16).

“Cursed be he who has sex [šōkeb] with any beast.” And all the people shall say, “Amen” (Deut 27:21).

Apart from the consistent pattern of translations attempting to soften the earthy directness of the Hebrew, it is worth noting, first, that these texts ban sex with any animal and, second, that the command explicitly (and graphically in the case of Lev 18:23) addresses women as well as men on two occasions. Yet, all attempts to interpret these texts isolate them from their literary contexts. Three of the four occurrences of the ban on bestiality occur in the context of the incest taboo. In Lev 18:23, bestiality comes at the conclusion of a long passage on the incest taboo (Lev 18:6-18), where we find bans on: sex with one’s (assuming a man’s) mother, father’s wife (who is obviously different from one’s mother), sister or even stepsisters (daughters of one’s mother or father), granddaughters, half-sisters, paternal and maternal aunts, a paternal uncle’s wife, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, a woman, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and sisters. At the close of this collection of incest taboos we also find laws against sex with a woman during her period, sex with a man’s neighbor’s wife, devoting one’s children in the fire to Molech, a ban on male-on-male sex, and finally on bestiality. Rather similar lists of incest taboos, albeit with a few less examples, appear in Lev 20:10-21 (in which vv. 15-16 are found) and in Deut 27:20-3 (the context for v. 21). In other words, the ban on bestiality is one instance of a much more flexible and extended incest taboo, a taboo that includes not merely relations by blood, but also wider clan relations, menstrual sex, male-on-male sex, and bestiality.

The following conclusions may be drawn from these biblical texts. First, they operate with a massively different sexual economy in which there is no sliding scale of sexually forbidden acts: bestiality is on the same level as having sex with one’s aunt by marriage or a menstruating woman. That is, sex with animals, the same sex, and extended relatives are all on par. Second, the biblical laws assume that animals are on the same level, sexually, as a man’s extended clan and his fellow men. The clan does not stop with human beings. Hence the laws on bestiality are located within a much expanded range of incest taboos. In this respect, these laws have a deep continuity with the Hittite laws on bestiality, which I have studied elsewhere. Despite apparent differences – the Hittites permitted sex with horses, the dead, and being penetrated by an ox, for instance – they indicate a common and shared sexual economy, one that suggests a common understanding of kinship structures that include human beings, the dead, and animals.

The economic implications should be obvious: patterns of allocation and reallocation, largely concerning foodstuffs, involve these clan members as well. The animal’s own contribution was in terms of milk, wool, or hair, and on death its body parts. They were also recipients, of water, food, and care, and the household space – in both village-communes and towns – is inconceivable without the omnipresent domesticates. Even more, they were understood as agents in their own right, acting in ways that manifested the capriciousness of the gods, to be watched and studied closely, to be divined through myriad means. In other words, through the creative expansion of one’s sexual and kinship horizons, animals were included within the workings of the sacred economy.


12 thoughts on “How big was the ancient Near Eastern clan?

  1. “Bestiality is on the same level as having sex with one’s aunt by marriage or a menstruating woman…. The biblical laws assume that animals are on the same level, sexually, as a man’s extended clan and his fellow men. The clan does not stop with human beings”

    But the question that comes to my mind is this: do you get embarrassed when one of your domestic animals sees you naked?

    I love the way your conclusions refuse any commerce with syllogistic logic. Bold, Sir, very bold. And may I add: most provocative.

    But the weakness I see is this, in your human-animal-dead ménage à trois: which dead are given offerings, communicated with, etc? I’m afraid it’s dead humans. It just goes to show: you can tell your animal that he’s one of the family, but your kispums speak louder than words.

    … and here the plot thickens. It’s the untameable, free-flying, undomesticated creatures who are identified with your dead ancesters. Not the easily controlled domestic beasts. It’s the birds that fly past your window, just out of reach, and beyond easy control, who are your dead clan members.

    1. Actually, animals who had passed to the other life were also part of the wider clan, since they too were worshipped. For instance, in Egypt more mummified animals have turned up than humans.

      1. Objectively and biblically speaking, the East is the leader. New Zealand is the tribe of Judah to Australia’s Ephraim. New Zealand is at the entrance of the Temple of God while Australia is its sewerage outlet.

      2. Historical materialist, I do believe. If historical criticism feels like it is part of that endeavour, then that is its problem.

        But seriously, Deane, as a kiwi you really should get over that slight inferiority complex.

      3. I am not a kiwi. Gosh, you and your strange obsession with animals.

        Look call it “historical criticism” or “historical materialism” or whatever: it’s still just some nineteenth-century pseudo-science.

  2. A bit of an aside here. What is your take on the Apiru/Hebrew debate? I ran across that again recently it seems like it is largely discredited but that appears to be socially and theologically convenient. Do address such nomadic groups in your upcoming work?

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