Are the ritual texts of Leviticus “practical” texts designed to guide priests and people in sacrificial and other rituals?

If so, argues Leigh Trevaskis in Holiness, Ethics, and Ritual in Leviticus, they don’t do a very good job of it. Too much is left out, and things that are included are too obvious to need repetition. Does a worshiper really have to be told that he must lay his hand on the head of the animal at the beginning of a sacrifice? Wouldn’t most everyone already know that?

The lacunae in the texts should be a clue: “absence of an extensive treatment of practical information favours the possibility that these texts are constructed for theological, rather than practical, purposes.” He cites Jonathan Z. Smith’s comment that “You cannot perform a single biblical ritual on the basis of what is given to you in the text. If you can’t perform it, then by definition it is not a ritual. The biblical texts are scattered, theoretical reconstructions of what may have happened.”

Just as you can’t build a tabernacle from the “blueprints” provided by Leviticus, you can’t perform a sacrificial rite with only the ritual texts of Leviticus 1-7. What we have is a textual tabernacle, and texts about rituals.

This changes the focus of attention in the study of the book. Instead of interpreting the ritual that can be (speculatively) reconstructed from the ritual to discern the meaning of the rite, we have to pay attention to the text, to the literary presentation of the ritual. The meaning will emerge from reading the text in its immediate and larger biblical context.

Trevaskis anticipates that this will seem speculative, and gets some help from Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative, where Alter comments that “the literary approach is actually a good deal less conjectural than the historical scholarship that asks of a verse whether it contains possible Akkadian loanwords, whether it reflects Sumerian kinship practices, whether it may have been corrupted by scribal error.” It’s less speculative because it has a text to work with, rather than a hypothesis cobbled together from texts, fragments of pottery, scraps of papyrus.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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