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Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture

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Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus uses rhetorical analysis to expose the motives behind the writing of the central book of the Torah/Pentateuch and its persuasive function in ancient Judaism. Rhetorical analysis of Leviticus has implications not only for the form and contents of that book, but also for understanding the later history of the rhetoric of priesthood, of sacrifice, and especially of scripture.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published March 26, 2007

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James W. Watts

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Profile Image for Joel Camaya.
4 reviews1 follower
April 9, 2014
“Who was trying to persuade whom of what by writing these texts?” writes the author, James Watts, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at the Syracuse University, whose field of research involves the overlaps between rhetoric, ritual and scriptures. Two earlier works are relevant to the study of law and narrative in the Pentateuch: Psalm and Story: Inset Hymns in Hebrew Narratives (1992) and Reading Law: The Rhetorical Shaping of the Pentateuch (1999). In the preface (xv-xviii), he names three strands of research that led him to write this work: rhetorical analysis of biblical texts, the use and interpretation of ritual texts, and the function of iconic books that serve in the cult as material symbols. He notes that the chapters of the book had been written as independent essays and therefore may be taken as separate units, with some of them previously published in journals.

Watts presents some notes on the ritual text and ritual interpretation (1-36). Acknowledging a perennial preoccupation with the “meaning” of sacrifice, he surveys the search for the meaning of the rituals in Leviticus in light of the current theological debates among scholars, especially J. Milgrom (who firmly asserted the realistic character of Israel’s cultic rules and argued their rationality) and Mary Douglas (who dealt with beliefs about purity and pollution in various cultures including ancient Israel). In discussing texts versus rituals, he asks interpretative questions that distinguish textual interpretation from ritual interpretation, concluding that texts are not rituals and rituals are not texts. Watts then deals with the rhetoric of ritual instruction in Lev 1-7 (37-62). He argues that earlier efforts in describing the form and function of these chapters have not accounted for how the text appears in the Hebrew Scripture. He later compares the rhetorical features of these chapters to other ancient Near Eastern ritual texts and proceeds to analyze their framework and their content and style, concluding that these chapters intended to persuade the Israelites and their priests to perform their religious offerings correctly as specified in the ritual texts, thereby making them normative, along with the rest of the Pentateuchal law.

Watts then becomes more specific, taking an element, the ʿōlāh or “burnt offering” found in Lev 1 (63-78). He acknowledges its prominence among the offerings albeit its scarcity when compared with the other offerings. This prompts him to propose the problem on what this prominence tells us about biblical rhetoric and its influence on later traditions. He suggests as the explanation for the ʿōlāh’s priority the following reasons: convention (that the ʿōlāh always traditionally comes first in the list), logical priority (that the ʿōlāh comes first in the ritual sequence as the “most holy” of the offerings), ritual priority (that since the ʿōlāh has the function of attracting the deity, of drawing his attention to the worshipper and the other offerings, it must come first), and theological or symbolic importance (that the ʿōlāh is singled out for special treatment because is is a whole offering donated entirely to God). This accepted fact, however, did not reflect the relative economic importance of these kinds of offerings; it is the other way around, that the prominence given to the burnt offering disguised the priests’ interest in the other offerings that provided them economic stability. The ʿōlāh also has priority in the history of religion. It is not unique among the Jews and it is a practice shared by other nations and one that antedates Israel.

The discussion moves to the rhetoric of the other sacrifices: sin, guilt and ritual offerings in Lev 4-5 (79-96). The author argues the importance of the names given to these offerings: ḥaṭṭāʾt (“sin”) and ʾāšām (“guilt”). He deduces that these two offerings are more innovative than those mentioned in the first three chapters of Leviticus which have been long-established practices. Compared to earlier chapters, the situations for ḥaṭṭāʾt and ʾāšām are specific in naming the occasion for particular offerings and the repeated indication that God commands these. The use of the vocabulary “sin” and “guilt” likewise adds to their rhetorical effect. Watts said that the reason for this is important, one that conveys a sense of urgency: the strategy of the priests to derive revenue and to ensure the temple’s economic stability!

The focus subsequently goes to Lev 8-10, which Watts puts as a “ritual narrative” (97-129) which is a shift in itself from the previous passages which are more of “ritual texts.” The narrative is introduced in Lev 8:4 as “Moses did as YHWH commanded.” These narratives give legitimacy to the ritual authority of the Aaronide priests through their initiation by Moses himself based on the divine commands. Watts then brings the reader to understand that the rhetorical effects in premodern literature are produced more by sound rather than sight. Thus, refrains and wordplays are important. In this case, the refrain “as YHWH commanded” reinforces ritual implementation of divine instruction. It prompts us to ask the question: who was trying to persuade whom in this refrain of compliance? It all points to the legitimizing of the Aaronide priesthood who has authority over Israel’s worship practices. Watts further gives parallels and intertexts (see 118-129) to this narrative but they all affirm this legitimizing of the power of the Aaronide priests.
Watts speaks of the “rhetoric of atonement” when he deals with the presence of kipper or “atonement” in the text (130-141). He discusses its meaning and its persuasive power. The effect of the use of “atonement” is, once again, to reinforce the priests’ monopoly over Israel’s cult. In the chapter “The Rhetoric of Priesthood” (143-172), Watts presents a survey of the “hierocracy” (rule by priests), citing works of Josephus (see 143-151). In this lengthy discussion that likewise covers the many rhetorical situations of Leviticus (151-154), priesthood in later religious rhetoric (154-161), reevaluating hierocracy in Second Temple Judaism (161-172), Watts continually affirms the Aaronide rhetoric.

In “The Rhetoric of Sacrifice” (173-192), the author asserts his stand that even if the book of Leviticus appears to be more concerned with sacrifice more than other parts of the Bible, it turns out that it has less to do with this book. He discusses this by way of a survey of sacrifice theories (176-180), ritual practice and ritual interpretation (180-183), and stories of sacrifice (184-192) including the Aqedah of Gen 22). Here we read the irony that Watts detects: Leviticus has very little to do with regard to shaping the rhetoric of sacrifice; it is the biblical and nonbiblical narratives that are very much connected to this rhetoric—and those regarding human sacrifice at that!

The author caps his work with the chapter “The Rhetoric of Scripture” (193-217). He starts off by enunciating the main problem: in the dichotomy between rituals and texts, which has priority? His solution downplays neither texts nor rituals for he says that these two have interdependence (see 194). Old texts were used in antiquity to validate the forms of important rituals. An important question that has to be asked also is how some texts acquired a high degree of religious authority. Texts were used in various cultures to establish the correct performance of rituals and to legitimize the ritual practices of priests, kings and temples. Therefore they ensure the accuracy and efficacy of rituals thereby elevating the authority of certain texts to iconic status, to what is called “scripture.”

Watts’ work proves invaluable in the study of the ritual texts in Leviticus. The subtitle of his work “From Sacrifice to Scripture” puts into a nutshell what he achieves in this work: the process of moving from what was practiced to what is written, the virtual link between narrative and ritual, and more importantly, the reason behind the writing of the texts. His style is pedagogical: he moves through the text in their chronological order and in dealing with each topic, consistently asks the same question. He may sound repetitive at times, but this is for two reasons—because of the importance of the concepts that he would like to stress and because of the independence of each chapter. It is praiseworthy that despite such independence, the work preserves its logical flow so that it looks like seamless work. There seems to be an obsession as regards Leviticus being a power trip by the Aaronide priesthood, but Watt justifies his assertion with clues from the biblical text. In fact it is amazing that the rhetoric of the different units of the ritual texts have this same conclusion. Watts approaches all his topics from the rhetorical point of view and he does justice to this by a thorough analysis of the text, and supplemented by historical surveys and intertextual references, both biblical and nonbiblical.
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