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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Importance of the Cult to Ancient Israel.

1.

It is easy for modern Christians to dismiss the Levitical and other passages dealing with the sacrificial cult as outdated or irrelevant. For that reason, the cult is often slighted or even ignored when Israel's religion is discussed. But it must not be forgotten that many Jews still observe the regulations concerning ritual purity, in some form or other, even though the sacrificial regulations can no longer be applied in the absence of a functioning temple. Any description of Israelite religion has to take stock of its complexities, but one cannot get away from the fact that the sacrificial cult, especially blood sacrifice, lay at the heart of worship in Israel. On the other hand, the Israelite cult, like all religious ritual—and all religions have their ritual—was extremely meaningful to the participants even if we do not always understand it from our time and culture millennia later. A number of recent studies have focused on the symbolism of the cult and attempted to decipher the priestly world-view that lay behind it. For example, Gorman (1990 ) argues that a complex creation theology is presupposed and represented by the cult, and Jenson (1992 ) has made similar points. The priestly view had a cosmological and sociological dimension, as well as a cultic. In order to express this, it made distinctions between holy and profane, clean and unclean, life and death, order and chaos.

2.

The idea of sacrifice seems to be ubiquitous among human societies the world over. Even those which have abandoned it in their contemporary form, especially in the developed countries, have sacrifice as a part of their past. Since the concept goes so far back in human history that its origins are no longer traceable, we are left only with hypothesis and speculation as to how sacrifice came to be a part of the religious culture of most peoples. (For further information, see the account of the debate in Grabbe 1993: 43–7.) But the inescapable conclusion seems to be that central to most sacrifices are the notions of expiation, cleansing, and re-establishment of cosmic—or at least microcosmic—harmony. If evil cannot be removed, sin wiped away, pollution purified, and harmony restored, there would be little point in sacrifice. Therefore, regardless of the precise terms in which sacrifices are conceived (substitution, ritual detergent, etc.), the desired outcome is clear. The scapegoat sort of ceremony is perhaps not strictly a sacrifice, in that the animal is not killed (though according to later Jewish tradition, the scapegoat was pushed over a cliff: m. Yoma 6:6 ; cf. Grabbe 1987 ), but the concept seems to be very much the same as that of sacrifice. In this case, the sins are heaped onto the head of the victim which is then separated from the community. In other cases, the victim is in some way identified with the offerer even if precise identification is not required. The laying of the hands on the victim by the offerer in Israelite sacrifice may have a function along these lines. But regardless of the rite, the desire is to cause the sins, pollutions, illness, or troubles to vanish.

3.

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts is that of ritual purity. It has little or nothing to do with hygiene or with the clean/dirty distinction in a physical sense. For example, in the Israelite system, excrement was not usually included in the category of unclean, even though ancient Israelites had much the same view towards it that we do today. One of the important discoveries of anthropology in the past half-century is that purity and pollution systems are not arcane, primitive superstition. The precise form of the rituals may well be arbitrary, at least to some extent, but recent study suggests that broader concerns are at the heart of the purity system. The insights offered by social and cultural anthropology have gone a long way towards explaining the deeper meaning and foundation of these laws which may seem primitive to many today. Purity and pollution form an important mirror of the society itself, especially its social relations and attitudes. They map the ideological cosmos of the people who hold these views. These regulations can be seen as a language, in the broad sense of the term, communicating to those within the society the ‘correct’ attitudes towards relations between the sexes, marriage, kinship, and intercourse with outsiders. Ritual cleanliness tells the people how to classify the entities—human and animal—which inhabit the world around them and communicates to the society how to fit in new forms which enter its world. The animal world and how it is treated is also a map of human society, and the human community is represented by the body of the individual.

4.

One of the major attempts to work out the meaning of the biblical system in detail was by Mary Douglas in her seminal book Purity and Danger ( 1966 ; for an account of this book and criticisms of it, see Grabbe 1993: 56–9). Despite some criticisms against Douglas, some of her points about the meaning of the system in Israelite society have not been affected and still seem valid, especially the notion that the system of permitted and forbidden animals was a microcosm of the world according to the Israelite view. The many forbidden animals represented the surrounding nations; the few clean animals, the Israelites; and the sacrificial animals, the priests. Just as Israelites were not to eat certain animals, they were not to mix with other nations. The dietary regulations had both a practical and a symbolic function; symbolically they stood for the fact that Israel was to keep itself free from intercourse with non-Israelites; practically, inability to eat certain animals meant that Jews could not socialize with those who ate these animals. The rules of pollution and purity also drew strict boundaries around the altar and sanctuary. No pollution and no polluted persons were allowed to penetrate into the sacred area. This clear and rigid boundary drawing suggests a concern with political boundaries as well as social ones. Just as the Israelites were concerned about mixing with the surrounding peoples, so their political boundaries may have been threatened by others who claimed the territory for themselves. If so, the message of the rules which, on the surface, might seem arcane ritual turn out to be a rich symbolic system with significant meaning for understanding the concerns of ancient Israel.

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