studying ancient israelite ritual: methodological considerations

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  • 2007 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.x

    Blackwell Publishing LtdOxford, UKRECOReligion Compass1749-8171 2007 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd03310.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJuly 200700579???586???Original ArticlesStudying Ancient Israelite Ritual Wesley Bergen

    Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual: Methodological Considerations

    Wesley Bergen*Wichita State University

    AbstractAny adequate account of ancient Israel and its texts must include a study of itsritual practices. Most of what we would term religion in that society was madeup of regular events and the rituals that accompanied them. Harvest wascelebrated with festivals, the slaughter of animals for food became sacrifice rituals,death was accompanied by mourning rituals, etc. Studying these rituals isnecessary yet difficult. Using recent theory from anthropology and textual study,numerous new studies have taken up these challenges. Using the study of animalsacrifice as its primary example, this essay explores the problems and prospectsof the study of Israels rituals.

    When we study the religious aspects of life in ancient Israel, we oftenneglect to account for their ritual practices. Yet these practices form asignificant part of the text of the Hebrew Bible, as well as a significantpart of any reconstruction of the lives of the people. Fortunately,numerous new studies have added much to our understanding of theritual world of Israel. These studies show a remarkable confluence intheir emphases and direction, while each contributes significantly in itsown way. They also each attempt to account for recent anthropologicalwork on ritual, especially in the writings of people like Catherine Belland Ronald Grimes.

    The study of ritual faces significant obstacles. Even if we could agreeon definitions for basic terms such as religion or ritual, any attempt tounderstand these rituals encounters difficulties as it attempts to proceed.Fortunately, recent scholarship has taken up this challenge, providingfresh insight despite the major roadblocks to understanding.


    Some of the difficulties involved in the study of ritual are common to anystudy. Archaeological data is limited both in scope as well as in how muchit can tell us. Textual evidence has its own limitations. The confluence ofthese two areas of study further complicates the task.

  • 580 Wesley Bergen

    2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    The study of ritual faces additional difficulties. The list below doesnot claim to be exhaustive. It merely illustrates some of the majorobstacles. The notes provided can also lead the reader to variousattempts to deal with these obstacles in the recent literature. Most ofthe studies mentioned deal specifically with the sacrifice rituals, yetmuch of the discussion applies directly to any attempt to understandIsraelite ritual.

    1. TEXTUAL

    (a) The chief difficulty in studying ancient Israelite rituals is that we haveno rituals to study. As biblical scholars, all we have is texts. Some of thesetexts describe ritual, but a text about a ritual is not the same as a ritual.This has been noted in a string of recent books on ancient Israelite ritual(see Gilders 2004; Bergen 2005; Gane 2005; Klawans 2006). The mostthorough discussion of this problem is in the forthcoming book by Watts(2007, esp. pp. 2736).1 He carefully delineates the various questions thatcan usefully be asked of texts and of rituals, as well as those specific totexts about rituals.

    In addition to texts that describe or prescribe rituals (e.g. Leviticus17), there are also texts used within rituals (e.g. Psalms), but again theritual is not available for study. Furthermore, biblical texts continue to beused in modern rituals public reading rituals, personal Bible studyrituals, academic paper presentation rituals yet while modern ritual useof texts does allow for some points of comparison and contrast (seeBergen 2005, p. 24), this hardly provides us with significant insight intoancient Israelite ritual.

    The lack of rituals available for direct study means that we need to bemore humble about what we claim to know about the ritual activity thatwent on in the Temple in Jerusalem. If Leviticus describes an idealizedritual or an attempt to correct current practice, then it actually tells uslittle about what people encountered when they went to sacrifice in thetemple. This also means that anthropological methods for studying ritualmust be employed carefully when the real object of our study is a text.

    (b) Once we realize that the object of our study is a text rather than aritual, there is a further question of the purpose of the text. Our under-standing of the purpose of the text informs our reconstruction of therelationship between the text and the ritual behind it.

    Using the studies of Leviticus 17 as an example, we see that there arenumerous theories but not a lot of evidence. Gane, following Knierim,says that the text of Leviticus is meant to standardize performance (2005,p. 22). This suggests that Leviticus does not accurately describe the actualpractices in the temple. Douglas says that the editors of Leviticus wereattempting to reinstate the pure Mosaic legacy (1999, p. 8), whichfurther widens the gap between text and practice. Gorman suggests that

  • 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual 581

    the rituals described in Leviticus were a way of naturalizing a particularvision of reality (1999, p. 5). Presumably, the same would apply to thetext itself, but can we be sure that the description matches the perform-ance? In each of these cases, the assumptions about the purpose of thetext lead the writers to connect the text to an actual ritual performance,but also leave some doubt as to how closely these prescriptions are beingfollowed.

    James Watts, in his earlier study, said that Leviticus was shaped topersuade the readers to follow the text and to accept these texts as author-itative in its requirements for ritual performance (2003, p. 80). His laterbook adds to this argument, claiming that the text was also written toconvince readers and hearers to accept the authority of the Aaronidpriesthood (2007, p. 28). He, too, wants to connect the text to sacrificerituals in Jerusalem.

    My book places the reception of the book of Leviticus within thediaspora community. This results in distancing the text from actual ritualperformance. In the diaspora, the text becomes a substitute for the ritual,guiding the hearer in an imaginative performance of the ritual (2005,p. 8). This theory has the advantage of incorporating statements from theTorah itself, which calls for the public reading of the text (Exodus 24:7,Deuteteronomy 31:11), and taking seriously the narrative framework ofLeviticus itself, which claims to be a speech that Moses is to deliver tothe people (Leviticus 1:1). Thus, the text remains tied to ritual, but theritual in question is the ritual of the reading of the text.

    (c) The question of the purpose of the text does not end with thestudy of the purpose of a ritual text. Even if we were to conclude thatLeviticus 17 was written to prescribe temple ritual, we still need todate the text in order to place the ritual within a larger sociohistoricalcontext. Is this a first-temple ritual or a second-temple ritual, or anattempt to remember the practice of ritual while in exile? Even if wewere to agree that it is a second-temple ritual, is it early Persian or later?Each of these contexts implies a different social and political reality. Asritual is usually understood as a particular response to real situations, ourunderstanding of the situations being addressed will affect our readingof the text.

    Furthermore, ritual texts are always placed within larger collections,and this incorporation changes the way the text is read. Most scholarsagree that Leviticus 116 comes from a different source than Leviticus 17(for a summary, see Gane 2005, pp. 2537), yet now they sit side-by-sidewithin the Torah of the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament of theChristian Bible. The history of this process is mostly lost in obscurity, yetit influences our understanding of the texts and the rituals behind them.

    Klawans is helpful here in noting that reconstruction of the relationshipbetween the materials can fall prey to certain assumptions about theevolution of human societies (2006, pp. 4952). This problem, and the

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    2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    lack of hard evidence for an accurate reconstruction, has led many scholars(Klawans included) to bypass the question. Yet even here, certain assumptionsabout what a text is frame our discussion of how the text relates to ritualpractice (see Douglas 1999, pp. 67).


    (a) How do we talk about experience? Do words ever really convey eitherthe emotions or the physical responses to ritual? Can words substitute forthe feeling of warm blood flowing down our arms, the smell of burninganimal, the sounds of music, shouting, or praying? A text can bring theseexperiences to mind, but only if we have actually had the experience.Even reading a simple prayer is different than actually praying it; howmuch more so a dance or a blood ritual?

    This problem haunts any study of ritual and becomes more acute whenall we have is ancient texts that prescribe actions we can only imagine.Experiences themselves are bound in culture. For ex