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57. How does comparative ritual theory help us to understand Israelite/Judahite religions?Edit

  • ·         ritual: numerous different definitions, but generally repetitive forms of behavior carried out on socially prescribed occasions that convey messages whose meaning may or may not be explicitly known by the participants
  • ·         ritual theory: interpretive frames proposed by scholars, such as anthropologists, which help us to understand rituals

o   cross-cultural comparisons make these sort of theories possible, or at least help them be much better formed.

§  comparative studies look at similar characteristics of a few societies

§  cross-cultural studies look at such a large sample of cultures to be able to use statistical analysis to show relationships between elements

o   One danger in making comparisons is being reductionist. We need to be aware of cultural relativism, or seeing each culture in its own terms. When we are sensitive to this issue, however, comparisons can be a fruitful interpretive tool.

  • ·         We have limited evidence for religious practices in Israel/Judah:

o   textual and material remains

o   ritual theory can help us fill in the gaps to create a more complete understanding of what is going on and how we can interpret it

§  We can do our own comparisons to other ancient Near East ritual practices, or consider the work of 20th-21st century anthropologists and ritual theorists.

o   The variety of theories indicates how rituals can be interpreted in multiple ways. Not all theories are valid for a particular ritual, but different theories can help illumine different elements and features of the ritual.

  • ·         Example: How do we interpret sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible?

o   Catherine Bell: ritual, including sacrifice, doesn’t symbolize, communicate, or reflect as much as it actually does something.

§  It creates relationships between the people involved in the ritual/sacrifice.

·         Specifically, sacrifice creates and sustains relationships between different classes of people (priests, lay people, offerer, guests, etc.)

o   Sacrificial animal as a substitute for the person offering it. Two options:

§  Guilt is transferred to the animal, who is then killed as punishment.

·         placing hand on head of animal before it is killed (Lev 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 24, 29, 33)

·         A similar action was performed by the Hittites to symbolize who was providing the offering.

§  The animal represents the person offering it, becoming symbolically equivalent with that person.

o   Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss—sacrifice connects the profane and sacred spheres.

§  means of communicating with a deity

§  allows the offerer to stand in the presence of God (see Ex 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16)

§  sacrifice brings people together and defines their relationship

§  However, killing the animal doesn’t create this link,

·         The Bible seems uninterested in the actual mode of killing.

·         Also, the offerer and the priest don’t necessarily have to be the ones doing the actual sacrifice. (see Ezek 40:38-43)

o   René Girard—sacrifice is a representation of original human v. human violence.

§  The animal is a substitute for the person at whom the offerer is angry. Thus, sacrifice controls society-damaging aggression.

§  Isaac’s near sacrifice in Gen 22 supports this theory by suggesting that sacrifice evolved from human sacrifice.

§  Some biblical passages view human sacrifice negatively (e.g., Lev 18:21; 2-:2-6; Deut 12:31; 18:10).

§  The death of people under the ḥerem is perhaps a middle ground, a stage in which the ritual killing of humans was still allowed in some contexts (see Deut 20:15-18; 1 Sam 15:7-9, 13-33).

§  However, it is more possible the child sacrifice instead evolved out of animal sacrifice.

·         It shows extreme devotion to kill what is most precious to you.

§  Also, killing humans in war isn’t performed the same way as a sacrifice.

o   Ithamar Gruenwald—sacrifice is a symbolic enactment of a crisis

§  relationship between the death of Aaron’s sons for bringing illicit incense in Lev 11 and the Day of Atonement sacrifices in Lev 16.

·         Though in Lev 16, the slaughtering of animals is only mentioned in passing.

o   Jonathan Z. Smith—sacrifice is the ritualized killing of a domesticated animal

§  the focus should be on the fact that it is domesticated

§  the blood of wild game animals is also treated with respect, but it cannot be used in a sacrifice

o   Focusing on presentation of the offerings instead of the killing allows for a discussion that includes a wider range of sacrifices.

§  Stanley Tambiah—metaphor (analogy), though not unique to ritual, is one of its basic components.

·         ex. Hittite rituals used analogies to clarify the specific goal of a rite.

·         ex. Ugaritic ritual also used abbreviated similes and metaphors in rituals.


·         Sacrifice as a meal for God (see Mal 1:6-12)