Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual: Methodological Considerations

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<ul><li><p> 2007 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.x</p><p>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</p><p>Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual: Methodological Considerations</p><p>Wesley Bergen*Wichita State University</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>Problems</p><p>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.</p></li><li><p>580 Wesley Bergen</p><p> 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>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.</p><p>1. TEXTUAL</p><p>(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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>(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.</p><p>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</p></li><li><p> 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual 581</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>(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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p></li><li><p>582 Wesley Bergen</p><p> 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>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).</p><p>2. LINGUISTIC</p><p>(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?</p><p>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 example, the Psalmsthink that one of the more pleasurable feelings in life is oil flowing downones head and beard (Psalms 23:5, 92:10, 133:2, etc.), yet most of mystudents react otherwise to this image. So even if we understand theaction, we may not correctly understand the reaction.</p><p>In addition, there is a parallel question of how we talk about themeaning of a ritual. This problem is dealt with in various ways bymodern scholars. Klawans, for example, recognizes the problems involved(2006, p. 67), yet still wants to describe and understand the meaning ofthe entire process of sacrifice (2006, p. 53). Dane says that ritual has noinherent meaning (2005, p. 4), but still seeks the goal of ritual activity(2005, p. 14). Gilders prefers to talk about the index of ritual (2004, pp.7084).</p><p>Much of this discussion follows a larger discussion within thesociological study of ritual. Fritz Stahl has argued that ritual has nomeaning (1996). Catherine Bell has written two large books mostlydealing with the question of the definition of ritual and how we speak ofit (1992, 1997). There is little hope that a solution will be found, yet thequestion will not simply disappear.</p><p>(b) A parallel issue arises with the simple act of translation. Translationis inevitable when studying an ancient text. No matter how long we studyancient Hebrew, we have no access to native speakers. Modern Hebrewis not the same language, and does not operate in the same sociohistoricalcontext as the Bible.</p><p>So we struggle to translate words such as tame. It is usually translated asimpure, but what does this mean when applied to a bodily discharge (seeDouglas 1999, p. 146)? Is it like ucky or more like evil? Thesetranslations are especially important when one is not only describing anaction, but attempting to suggest a particular emotional response to the</p></li><li><p> 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Studying Ancient Israelite Ritual 583</p><p>action. How can we describe the killing of a (cute, cuddly) lamb to evokea feeling of holiness?</p><p>3. CULTURAL</p><p>Words do not simply have definitions, they also have associations. Whenwe think about ritual, do we think mere ritual or powerful ritual? Howdo we understand ideas such as impurity? Klawans shows the impact ofthese associations when he takes an entire book to show that impurity isnot necessarily connected to the moral sphere of language. These socio-linguistic assumptions connect language to experience and emotion inways that may be quite different from those in the world of the text (seeEilberg-Schwartz 1990, pp. 87102).</p><p>Douglas notes similar problems with our attitudes toward animals(1999, pp. 946) or oracles (1999, pp. 10833). Numerous writers havedealt with the problem of our attitude towards the killing of animals (e.g.Milgrom 2004, p. 18). The question goes beyond that of translation. Inour society, the problem is compounded because we react in horror tothe killing of animals, yet happily consume meat in quantities unheard ofin the ancient world (see Bergen 2005, pp. 1326).</p><p>The problem of cross-cultural understanding is compounded by thefragmentation of postmodern culture. We can no longer assume that weknow what other people have experienced or how they see the world.Attempting to make cross-cultural comparisons only works when peoplehave shared experiences. For example, in one of the chapters of my book,I attempt to explain ancient Israelite ritual by comparing it to the ritualsof the Church of Monday Night Football (2005, pp. 2743). While thereis value to these types of comparisons, they are only useful for people whoare well acquainted with football rituals.</p><p>4. TRADITIONAL</p><p>Another major consideration in any study of rituals and ritual texts is theinfluence of later texts on our understanding of earlier ones. For Jews, theMishnah, Talmud, and other rabbinic writings inform their understandingof the biblical text. For Christians, the book of Hebrews and the writingsof Paul are often key. Both groups also look to the books of the prophetsto help understand Israels rituals.</p><p>Klawans has devoted much of his latest book to this issue (2006). I dealwith it more briefly in a chapter on Leviticus and the church (2005,pp. 82106). Most of the authors in the bibliography have given theissue some attention. The importance of this cannot be overstressed. If wepresume that the book of Hebrews is our final guide for understandingLeviticus, then our study may be guided by a strongly antiritual bias. Thisis hardly the best place to begin a study of ritual.</p></li><li><p>584 Wesley Bergen</p><p> 2007 The Author Religion Compass 1/5 (2007): 579586, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00033.xJournal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Prospectives</p><p>With all of these (and other) obstacles in the way of our understandingof ancient Israelite ritual, one might become a bit pessimistic about theentire process. Yet these problems are not insurmountable. Recognizingthe nature and extent of the problem goes a long way to overcome it.There are ways of learning to read ritual texts without allowing latertradition to dictate our responses. Outside readers are often useful inshowing us our biases. Since...</p></li></ul>


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