In a 2009 article on “sacrifice before the secular” in Representations , Jonathan Sheehan summarizes Wellhausen’s account of the history of sacrifice. In its original forms, sacrifice was both spiritual and secular, a seamless union of “spiritual solemnity and secular joyfulness.” It remained so as long as sacrifice was free of law and as long as remained un-instrumentalized.

With the triumph of priests in the post-exilic period, thought, sacrifice became legalized and instrumentalized, with devastating consequences for both the joy and the solemnity: “Instead of an earthy meal, it became a law administered by priests. ‘From exile there returned not the nation, but a religious sect’ founded in the ‘legal unity of the cult,’ he argued. With this shift, sacrifice changed. In place of living gift, it became a ‘slaughter.’ In place of thanks offering, it became an offering for ‘sin and trespass.’ It became a ‘statute,’ a legal instrument, and at this moment, ‘life and worship fell asunder.’”

As so often with Wellhausen, this is a mash of insight and catastrophe.

It’s not hard to hear the anti-Jewish overtones of this polemic against the dehumanizing effects of law, and Wellhausen stays safely within the confines of modern denigration of priests. And of course, this animus toward priesthood is part of his overhaul of Old Testament history, the placement of Leviticus in the degenerate post-exilic period.

But it has to be said that there’s something to his story. Sacrifice did change with the law, and it did mean something like a “sundering” of worship and life. Before the law, there were no restrictions on sacred space; sacrifice was not so explicitly linked with sin and trespass; anyone, or at least any household head, could offer sacrifice; life and normal meals would take place outside the sanctuary, but sacred meals could be conducted only within.

Of course, for Christians, this was a temporary sundering, a dividing of worship and life aimed at a glorified reuniting. But Wellhausen does bring to the surface a critical question about the logic of biblical history: A different form of the Pauline question, “Why the law then?”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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