Monday, August 16, 2010

Klawans on Bias Against Cultic Sacrifice

As I'm preparing for my graduate level Pentateuch class tomorrow evening--we are in Leviticus--I've been re-reading Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Klawans does a great job explaining how prejudices against cult and sacrifice continues to permeate much scholarship.

For example, Klawans explains that this bias is especially on display in commentaries which deal with cultic texts in Scripture. Rather than offering serious discussions about the meaning or theology of the rites, scholars instead substitute treatments of the primitive anthropological origins of the various rituals associated with Israel’s cult, thus implying such elements are mere vestiges of a forgotten, irrelevant past.

He writes:

“While biblical scholars frequently approach purity rites as a symbolic system, what we generally find in analyses of sacrifice in ancient Israel is, rather, a concern with origins. And this concern takes two forms. One is the standard discussion―found in numerous commentaries―of the basic theories . . . that sacrifice originated as offerings of food for the gods, as gifts to the gods, or as communion with the gods. The other is René Girard’s search for the original murder that accounts for all subsequent sacrificial rituals. Again, Milgrom’s commentary is a case in point. Although he endorses no single theory on the origins of sacrifice, his treatment of the ritual concedes that the interesting issue is not what sacrifice actually means for the ancient Israelites, but rather how sacrifice came about in the first place. . . . When dealing with the food laws or the purity systems, biblical scholars have long avoided getting sidetracked by explorations into the origins of dietary restrictions or the menstrual taboo. When dealing with circumcision in the Hebrew Bible, very few have felt the need to explore the early history of human body marking. But when it comes to sacrifice, the interest shifts to questions of origins. Biblical scholars seem to get along just fine without ‘theories’ concerning most of the rites of the Hebrew Bible, but when it comes to sacrifice, everyone wants a ‘theory’” (Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple, 6).

Indeed, Klawans appears correct: scholars typically shy away from finding anything meaningful in cultic sacrifice itself. This is a serious problem. Certainly, I would affirm what the New Testament has to say, namely, that there was typological significance to the sacrifices of the Old Testament. However, I think more work must be done at the literal-historical level.

"Practically anyone could understand the cult symbolically, with the exception of the priests and pilgrims who willingly and happily performed cultic rituals" (Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, 3). Such a view, I concur, is problematic.


Anonymous said...

I blame irresponsible scholars and Satan.

Bruce Killlian said...

Can one say, God is the author of sacrifice? One cannot go much further back than Adam and Eve being clothed with skins (from sacrifices) or Able's sacrifice being accepted, but Cain's not. If one is looking for meaning in sacrifice, one need only look at Jesus who "fulfilled" the sacrifices. To see how Jesus fulfilled the sacrifices see
Grace and peace