The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source

The priestly pentateuchal writings have long been at the heart of reconstructions of ancient Israelite religious practices and the development of theological thought. These texts, identifiable in large part by their focused attention on all things cultic, comprise the largest collection of writing about ritual and sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. Unlike ritual texts found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, however, the priestly pentateuchal writings are part of a larger narrative history. Starting with the creation of the world and ending with the death of Moses at the edge of the promised land, this story of the birth of the Israelite people has one especially unique component: nearly one half of the story consists of divine instructions about ritual practice and purity regulations. In a story that often zips through hundreds of years in a handful of verses, the priestly narrator lingers at Mount Sinai. Nearly one-half of the entire priestly source covers only eight days’ time in the story world, and almost all of the story’s ritual materials are concentrated in this single episode.

These eight days describe the assembly and inauguration of a mobile tent shrine, aptly described as “Yahweh’s majestic mobile home.” Over the course of these eight days, there is a curious movement in the story between first-person divine speeches filled with detailed ritual instructions, third-person narration of ritual activity, and a few moments of intense conflict between characters. Chapter after chapter is filled with a lengthy speech that systematically details the circumstances necessitating sacrifice and the procedures for offering more than five different types of sacrifices. After a brief shift to third-person narration of ritual activity, the divine speech continues, this time to introduce the concept of impurity, explain the criteria for its diagnosis, and prescribe remedies (in the form of sacrifices) for its negative effects on the tent shrine.

In a composition notable for its brevity, the sheer verbosity of this single eight-day episode raises many questions. Why does the pace of the storytelling grind to such a halt at Sinai? What is the function of the extended divine speeches containing ritual instructions? How do these instructions relate to the rest of the story, if at all? And, perhaps the most fraught question of all, is there any relationship between these narrativized ritual instructions and historical religious practice in ancient Israel? In this book, I focus on the eight-day inauguration episode as a case study for a broader question about the relationship between ritual and narrative in ancient Jewish literature. Questions about ritual and narrative, particularly in the priestly source, inevitably lead to debates about the compositional history of pentateuchal texts.

Perhaps unsurpsingly, this inauguration episode is the epicenter of a number of the major debates among scholars about the nature and scope of priestly literature. One of the primary objectives of the last two centuries of scholarship has been to recover an “original” stratum of the priestly source. Such reconstructions have served a number of purposes, but the most enduring purpose has been the identification of distinct stages of development in religious practice and thought. The single most influential conclusion of these studies has been that the narrative and ritual components have entirely separate origins. In other words, the ritual materials likely had a life of their own in another context before being combined with a sparse, minimalistic narrative frame. Most often, that other context is understood as one linked to a temple or shrine and its ritual practices. The bifurcation of the priestly source into its ritual and narrative components has endured, influencing generations of scholarly inquiry. The study of the priestly pentateuchal writings in the twentieth century can be characterized by the existence of two schools: studies of the narrative, and studies of the ritual materials. Broadly speaking, scholars focused on the priestly narrative typically excised most, if not all, of the ritual materials. Scholars focused on the ritual materials jettisoned their literary context entirely, and sought to glean information about ritual practices in ancient Israel from these texts. It has only been in the last decade or so that scholars have begun to seriously consider the possibility of ritual and narrative coexisting in a single composition. Still, many of these analyses have continued to assume a level of historical veracity for the ritual materials, even as they recognize the roles of rhetoric and metaphor.

In this book, I develop a new approach to the study of these texts that takes seriously the embeddedness of ritual writing in narrative, seeks to answer broader questions about the literary functions of textualized ritual, and reevaluates whether the priestly ritual materials can and should be used to shed light on historical practice. I argue that this bifurcation of multi-genre compositions into their ritual and narrative components results in a skewed and inaccurate understanding of the priestly source. Instead, I show that the priestly ritual writings are thoroughly conditioned by their broader narrative context, serving, in part, as an essential component of the construction of the author’s story world.