Transformations, Passages, and Processes

Mark McVann and Bruce Malina, eds.

Copyright © 1994 [1995] by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Atlanta, GA.


Contributors to This Issue


Mark McVann

Ritual Studies and Biblical Studies: Assessment of the Past; Prospects for the Future

Frank H. Gorman, Jr.

Response to Frank H. Gorman Jr. “Ritual Studies and Biblical Studies”

John J. Pilch

An Anthropological Approach to Biblical Interpretation: The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:1–20 as a Case Study

Dianne Bergant

A Matter of Urgency: A Response to “The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:1–20”

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley

Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship

James G. Williams

Re-Mythologizing Scriptural Authority: On Reading “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship”

Björn Krondorfer

The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition

Paula M. McNutt

A Response to Mcnutt: “The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition,”

Don C. Benjamin

Transformed on the Mountain: Ritual Analysis and the Gospel of Matthew

K. C. Hanson

Mountaineering in Matthew: A Response to K. C. Hanson

Philip F. Esler

Reading Mark Ritually: Honor-Shame and the Ritual of Baptism

Mark McVann.

Exactly What’s Ritual About the Experience of Reading/Hearing Mark’s Gospel?

Carol Schersten LaHurd

An Afterword on Ritual in Biblical Studies

Bobby C. Alexander

General Introductory Bibliography for Ritual Studies

Mark McVann

Contributors to This Issue

Bobby C. Alexander

School of Social Sciences

University of Texas at Dallas

Richardson, TX 75080

Don C. Benjamin

Department of Religious Studies

Rice University

Houston, TX 77251

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A.

Catholic Theological Union

5401 S. Cornell

Chicago, IL 60615

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley

P.O. Box 1053

Eastham, MA 02642

Philip F. Esler

St. Mary’s College

University of St. Andrews

Fife KY16 9JU


Frank H. Gorman, Jr.

Department of Religious Studies

Bethany College

Bethany, WV 26032

K.C. Hanson

Department of Theology

Creighton University

Omaha, NE 68178

Carol Schersten LaHurd

Department of Theology

University of St. Thomas

2115 Summit Avenue

St. Paul, MN 55105

Björn Krondorfer

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

St. Mary’s College of Maryland

St. Mary’s City, MD 20686

Paula M. McNutt

Department of Religious Studies

Canisius College

2001 Main St.

Buffalo, NY 14208

Mark McVann, F.S.C.

Department of Religious Studies

Lewis University

Rt. 53

Romeoville, IL 60441

John J. Pilch

Department of Theology

Georgetown University

Washington, D.C. 20057

James G. Williams

Department of Religion

501 Hall of Languages

Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY 13244


Mark McVann

THE STUDY OF RITUAL HAS BEEN VIGOROUS in recent years. No longer the esoteric preserve of anthropologists and professors of liturgy, ritual studies has emerged as an interdisciplinary field in its own right. Contributions come from widely varying academic methodologies and intellectual perspectives, and amount to what has become by now a steady river, if not a veritable flood, of studies, interpretations, investigations, and analyses.

The interest in ritual has also spread far beyond the borders of academe. Both the women’s and men’s movements promise the renewal of old rituals or the invention of new ones during seminars, workshops, and weekend retreats; parents are advised that rituals in the home help keep families together; The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album, a book of magnificent photographs of ritualized life transitions from around the world, has appeared to great acclaim, to name just a few recent manifestations of the sustained and growing interest in ritual. I hazard the opinion that ritual has enjoyed a renaissance, at least in part, because of the appalling barrenness of our culture symbolically and a recognition (or better, perhaps, a yearning) that ritual may provide a means of helping to reestablish and sustain community. There can be little doubt that genuine communities have authentic rituals which help them cohere as a group and to appropriate, transform, and pass on their identities and traditions; desirable things which seem increasingly difficult for us as a society to do effectively and pacifically.

Investigation of ritual in biblical scholarship, however, seems not to have moved forward with the same impetus as in the study of culture generally, nor to be as welcome a topic of research. There seem to be two primary and closely related reasons for this state of affairs: on one hand, a deeply ingrained suspicion of ritual is a hallmark of classical Protestantism, where it is not accidental that the roots of modern historical biblical criticism are also found; on the other hand, ritual is often identified with the magical and savage, that is, with pre- or unscientific worldviews. Contemporary biblical criticism, heir to the anti-ritual stance inherent both in Protestant thought and in modern rationalist ideologies, has been reluctant to meet ritual on its own ground and recognize it for what it is: a legitimate, indeed indispensable, symbol-system in action for the generation and preservation of focus and meaning in human life. Protestant theology and piety had for many years seen ritual, with often sharply compelling evidence, as external, i.e., as false religion; while scientific empiricism, Freudian psychology, Marxist social theory, and utilitarianism, all viewed ritual as magical and fetishistic, i.e., as false science. The Protestant rejection of ritual on religious (and, often enough, political) grounds, combined with the persistent rationalist and utilitarian debunking of it, resulted in a powerful repression of ritual in much of the modern Western world:

… ritual was to be classed with superstition (shallow, unreasoning action) or with habit (a customary, repetitive, thoughtless action). “Let vs not come to Yr. Chirche by vse & custome as the Oxe to his Stalle” (1526). Although this language might be directed by Protestant authors against “Jewish” or “Pharisaic ritualism,” its polemic object was, in fact, always Roman Catholicism. It was Catholicism that could be described as having “Rytes superstycyouse” (1538), “superstiousness of Beades” (1548), “papistical superstitions” (1547); the host was an example of “supersticious worshippyng” (1561), of “paganick rites and foolish observances” (1573).… [Thus], the study of ritual was born as an exercise in the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” an explanatory endeavor designed to explain away. That which was “other” remained obdurately so and, hence, was perceived to be bereft of all value. The “other” displayed in ritual could not be appropriated as could myth and was therefore shown the reverse face of imperialism: subjection, or more likely, extirpation (Smith: 100, 102).

Despite the recent rehabilitation of ritual and its new-found respectability both popularly and in the academy, ritual still occupies a place in much modern intellectual discourse—and certainly in much critical biblical study—which closely resembles the position of kitsch in art: cute, if infantile, and always betraying bad taste. Art itself, however, no less than ritual, is notoriously difficult and resistant of definition (a point to which we will return below) but which for the present forms a useful analogy.

Kenneth Burke’s brilliant essay, “The Status of Art”, makes about art points that can be applied equally to ritual. He shows that Kant’s conceptualization of art and the aesthetic was received as a devaluation of art in the utilitarian and protocapitalist climate of his day and the succeeding epoch. If the following two paragraphs are read substituting “ritual” for “art” and “the aesthetic,” the analogy appears cogent:

Kant, in proposing “purposiveness without purpose” (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck) as a formula for the aesthetic, had no intention of providing a “refutation” of art. His formula did, however, mark the emergence of the “use” criterion which was subsequently to place all purely intellectual pursuits upon a defensive basis. His proposition could readily be perverted: if the aesthetic had no purpose outside itself, the corollary seemed to be that the aesthetic had no result outside itself. Logically there was no cogency in such an argument, but psychologically there was a great deal. And the damage was perhaps increased through attempts to justify art by the postulating of a special “art instinct” or “aesthetic sense.”

On the face of it, this was a good move. For at a time when instincts were gaining considerably in repute, and no complicated human mind could arouse us to admiration so promptly as the routine acts of an insect, what could be more salubrious for the reputation of art than the contention that art satisfies an “instinctive need”? The trouble arose from the fact that the “art instinct” was associated with the “play instinct,” thus becoming little more than an adult survival from childhood. The apologists, still in the Kantian scheme, associated art with play because both seemed, from the standpoint of utility, purposeless. But in an age when “work” was becoming one of society’s basic catchwords, art could not very well be associated with play without some loss of prestige (emphases in original; 63–4).

Despite their shameless “uselessness,” both the artistic and ritual impulses are too deeply enmeshed in how human beings are human—creating and living in and appropriating and making sense of nature, culture, themselves—to strip them completely away, even in an environment which denies them purpose, and, therefore, value. Rather, art and ritual become reduced to the merely decorative, and thus, to the trivial. In Protestant, utilitarian, and capitalist culture, in which the emotions are regarded with fear and distrust and the index to value is usefulness—whether conceived of as practical applicability, technological advance, political domination, or economic advantage—ritual and art are regarded with the self-contradictory and thus incoherent attitude that they are simultaneously trivial and lethal: trivial because decoration and decorum are always “nice”; lethal because when decoration becomes art and ritual religion they require the renunciation—or at least the serious questioning—of the identification of teleology with utility. Thus, art and ritual are thought to potentiate perdition or silliness (essentially the same horror) even when they are not held directly, causally responsible for them.

Insofar as ritual attempts to display the “other” which cannot be rationally appropriated and intellectually encompassed as can contentladen myth be (Smith: 100–104), it faced extirpation because of its insistence “… that primordial realities, open in their immediacy only to pathic apprehension, subvert epistemologically formative conventions (linguistic rationality, for instance, and scientific empiricism) that we inhabit cognitively as a way of managing what Hans Blumenberg in Work on Myth tags the ‘absolutism of reality’ ” (Stambovsky: 1995). Ritual reminds us, perhaps, that we are profoundly fragile and that our formative conventions are all too fallible management strategies, not necessarily reality itself.

Even though the analogy between art and ritual is annoyingly imprecise (analogia licat; analogy limps, as the Scholastics put it), let us consider it further:

The word ‘ritual,’ like the word ‘art,’ does not have one commonly agreed definition; nor, if we resolve to avoid the uncertainty entailed by using it, is it easy to find a better or satisfactory substitute … Ritual and art pose some similar problems …

As with art, so with ritual: they have both been likened to language and held to express or to communicate.… Is it just this expressive, communicative aspect that we point to when we say we recognise a ritual aspect in some action or an artistic aspect to some object?

Despite these parallels, we feel no temptation to substitute ‘art’ or ‘artistic’ for ‘ritual’ in most of the contexts where either one or another of the words occurs. What then do we mean by the word ‘ritual’? If ‘ritual’ refers either to a particular kind of behavior or … aspect of it … [we must] learn to recognise it … lest otherwise our efforts be misplaced and futile (G. Lewis: 9–10).

What, then, do we indeed mean by “ritual”? It is onto this turbulent, murky, and still relatively uncharted sea that the fragile vessel Semeia ventures on a journey in this issue.

Readers of this issue of the journal, “Passages, Transformations, and Processes: Ritual Approaches to Biblical Texts”, will, I hope, find much here to their liking. The articles are solid examples of a serious biblical scholarship which seeks amplification of traditional historical methodologies—and thus our understanding and appreciation of the biblical text—by exploration and application of social scientific (principally cultural-anthropological) theories, perspectives, and methods. Articles address selected passages and whole books of both Testaments, and employ a variety of approaches as they read the Bible ritually. The responses to the articles are also serious and thoughtful, and range from friendly constructiveness to seething hostility.

There is, then, no unity of point of view, except the recognition that ritual is something important and that biblical scholarship will be wellserved by an exploration of its meaning for biblical interpretation. But the battle that rages among anthropologists (and philosophers and nearly everyone else) regarding the question of relativism versus rationalism is reflected within these pages as well, even though none of the contributors explicitly frames his or her contribution in these terms. Nevertheless, there is often an unspoken assumption concerning whether in fact it is possible in the modern world to claim or appropriate the biblical text in any authentically meaningful, much less normative, way. The virtually universal phenomenon of ritual is, of course, susceptible of interpretation from both the relativist and rationalist points of view. Victor Turner, the symbolic anthropologist whose influence is obvious throughout this issue of Semeia, located himself squarely on the rationalist side of the debate: “… I regard mankind as one in essence though manifold in expression, creative and not merely adaptive in his manifoldness” (1974: 17). While Turner here expresses his disagreement with determinism, the simple mention of essence is enough to drive some theorists to distraction for obvious reasons: it is the manifoldness which seems to overwhelm and the essence so elusive as to appear to be an illusion.

Not surprisingly, the argument is not settled here. Indeed, very little is. Rather, what the authors hope to do, If I may speak for them, is, with some art, to ask the right questions about what ritual is and how the inescapable and pervasive fact of ritual may be discerned as having had impact on, or as being manifested in, biblical texts.

To this end, the issue has an unabashedly interdisciplinary orientation. Some of the respondents are biblical scholars with a special interest in ritual and related topics, but several are specialists in other fields of religious studies whose area of research and expertise is ritual. Their contributions help to stimulate cross-disciplinary dialogue in sometimes very useful and insightful ways.

The rehabilitation of ritual and the emergence of ritual studies offer to biblical scholars another rich interpretive resource for approaching the Bible. While ritual studies will likely always remain an area which cannot be exactly defined as a self-contained, independent academic method, it most probably (and most probably rightly) does not aspire to such an exalted status. Indeed, the proliferation of theoretical tools and methods applied to the Bible which have been widely accepted within the academy as legitimate—including criticisms such as literary, canonical, sociological, cultural-anthropological, feminist, and liberationist—were all unthinkable as recently as twenty years ago. The virtually exclusively Germanic historicist-existentialist hegemony of many decades has faded, and it seems unlikely that a new academic or intellectual paradigm with unquestioned claim to authority will emerge anytime soon.

Synthesis, however—no matter how slender its claim to authority, no matter how tentative, partial, and hesitant—is a constant and indispensable feature of scholarly work and the attempt to understand, as well as being, of course, an object of ritual. In ritual studies, a thoroughly serviceable approach towards achieving synthesis may be found by biblical scholars who wish to increase the repertoire of interpretive possibilities and potentialities available to biblical interpretation. This issue of Semeia is offered in the hope that ritual and biblical studies can assume a full and fruitful partnership.

Works Consulted

Burke, Kenneth

1931    Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lewis, Gilbert

1980    Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1987    To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stambovsky, Phillip

forthcoming    Oliver Sack’s Epistemology of Identity.

Turner, Victor

1974    Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ritual Studies and Biblical Studies: Assessment of the Past; Prospects for the Future*

Frank H. Gorman, Jr.

Bethany College


This article reviews three significant moments or interpretive moves in the history of biblical studies that functioned to evaluate ritual negatively as a genuine expression of religion: the Protestant Reformation; the search for a reasonable and rational religion; and the construction and practice of the historical-critical method. This is followed by a discussion of five interpretive issues that have arisen in recent ritual studies: the hermeneutical relationship between the interpreter and the “object” of interpretation, the relationship of ritual to narrative structures, ritual and communication, ritual enactment and activity, and embodiment. Suggestions are offered on how ritual studies can contribute to the study of ritual and ritual texts in biblical studies.


Modern critical study of the Bible as undertaken especially by Protestant scholars has consistently devalued the place of ritual in biblical texts, biblical religion, and biblical theology either by actively attacking it or simply ignoring it. In either case, results are similar—ritual is discounted as a significant feature of biblical study. It has been evaluated as a lamentable remnant of a more primitive and superstitious form of religion. Ritual is an embarrassing, even if necessary, step in growth towards true religious experience and practice, or it represents the false and insincere contrivance of inferior and benighted religious sensibilities.

Recent years, however, have seen the development of two types of analysis that are important for assessing the place of ritual in biblical studies. The first has been a renewed interest in ritual and ritual studies in the sociological, anthropological, religious, and psychological study of human existence (Bell; Geertz; Grimes 1985; 1987; 1990; 1992; Turner 1982). Ritual studies has emerged as a recognized discipline, although one that covers a broad range of interests and which has a great deal of “departmental” and “disciplinary” overlap (Bell; Grimes 1987; 1990). Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear from a number of perspectives that ritual needs be viewed as an essential aspect of human existence as it is lived in the concrete realities of space and time (Bell; Delattre; Grimes 1992; Hoffmann; Lawson and McCauley).

A second development is the intellectual recognition that all disciplines and methods must be assessed and critiqued in terms of the ideologies at work in them, the way or ways in which they construct their objects of study, the factors that function to create disciplinary languages, and the institutional structures that serve to support and sustain them. One must ask, therefore, both how and why biblical scholars chose to dismiss ritual as a constructive and positive feature of biblical study. It must be determined what ideologies, discourses, institutions, and biases contributed to the dismissal of ritual from “true” biblical religion.

This article has two parts. The first part will briefly survey three specific aspects of the rise and development of critical biblical studies, especially as practiced by Protestants, in an effort to discern how ritual was marginalized and not deemed worthy of consideration as an object of analysis. The discussion will cover aspects of Reformation theology, the Enlightenment search for a rational and reasonable religion, and the development and shape of the historical-critical method. Like any survey, this one is necessarily representative rather than exhaustive. It will demonstrate some of the ways in which the ideologies of theology, religion, and academic method functioned to devalue ritual and eliminate it as a significant and authentic feature of the Bible and religion. The second part of the article will examine some recent theoretical developments in the study of ritual and suggest how they might be incorporated into biblical studies. The discussion is meant to be suggestive rather than programmatic.

Part I

The Reformation Discourse on Theology

The Protestant Reformation produced an ideological stance that was openly hostile toward ritual. Three specific aspects of the Protestant Reformation that functioned to eliminate ritual as a meaningful aspect of authentic Christian and biblical religion will be discussed: (1) the emphasis on inner experience as central to the authentic Christian existence, (2) a Christocentric and Christological interpretation of the Bible and history, and (3) anti-Judaistic and anti-Catholic biases and polemics.

(1) Reformation theology placed emphasis on the inner religious experience of the Christian as the constitutive moment in individual Christian experience. Luther and Calvin agreed that “being” a Christian was definitively related to the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Such inner experience was central not only in the constitution of the Christian, it was essential for knowing the “truth.” The “truth” was encountered in the Word of God in Christ, in the Gospel, and in Scripture. It was hearing “the Word” that engendered genuine Christian experience.

The Reformers, of course, were not the first to relate inner experience and truth (Taylor). They did, however, categorically sever the “inner experience” of faith from “outer acts.” Thus, they developed to an extreme the Pauline dualism of faith and works. “Faith” was privileged and associated with grace, the gospel, and the Spirit, while “works” were devalued and associated with the law, legalism, and the flesh, and hence, with ritual. The dualism of the mind and the body, or the spirit and the body, was hardly created in and by Reformation theology: it has a long history in Western culture (Grosz; Ruether 1992:15–31; Taylor: 111–207). The Reformers, however, turn the distinction into a foundational aspect of what they identified as true Christian existence. Thus, to hear the Word of the Gospel is an inner experience of faith and a grace-filled work of the Spirit which liberates the Christian from the law and the flesh and all that attends them, including, naturally, ritual.

(2) A second feature of reformation theology that functioned to devalue and exclude ritual was a Christocentric interpretation of biblical texts and history. Christ was seen as the fulfillment of the biblical message and of God’s history in the world. Even when the historical-critical method attempted to interpret the Bible in an “objective” and “neutral” fashion, it continued to be influenced by Christocentric and Christological perspectives and categories. Two basic options developed from this. First, one could speak of a history of salvation that moved toward Christ as the ultimate goal of history. All that preceded, especially Israel’s national law and the ritualistic aspects of the law, were merely preparatory and anticipatory. Christ brought an end to the law as an expression of authentic religion. Second, one could move directly from Israelite religion to Christianity and argue that Judaism was merely a “gap” or an example of stunted religious growth which was contrary or even openly hostile to the Gospel.

(3) A final feature of the Reformation’s bias against ritual is seen in its anti-Judaistic and anti-Catholic stance. The latter grew out of the Reformers’ polemical and conflicted relations with the existing church. The Catholic church was criticized specifically on the basis of its legalism, priesthood, hierarchy, and sacramental system. These were all elements denounced in the growing anti-ritual ideology which formed a part of early Prostestantism. Judaism, of course, had been an object of hostility since very early in Christianity. One may recognize in Paul’s rhetoric a polemical stance born of historical conflict, but Judaism, viewed as a religion of the law, comes under harsh attack both in Pauline Christianity and in the heavily Pauline-influenced theology of the Reformation.

The view of ritual as inhibitory of authentic spiritual religion and as an encumbrance on the mind was a prominent feature of Protestant theology and was well established in some European intellectual traditions. These views helped to set the stage for the exaltation of reason known in Western history as the Enlightenment, to which we now turn our attention.

The Rational Discourse on Religion

The development of the modern and mechanistic view of the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries grew out of and celebrated human reason and the rational processes of the mind. A significant aspect of the Enlightenment project was the search for and development of a reasonable and rational religion. Three aspects of this development will be discussed: (1) the role and status of reason, (2) the definition of religion in terms of ethics, and (3) an emphasis on the nature of religion as cognitive.

(1) With the development of the modern mind, the search was on for a reasonable and rational religion. A “natural” religion, or a “right reasonable religion,” was constructed which conformed to the “objective” categories of reason and which reflected universal “truths” (Barbour 1966:34–64). Deism provides an extreme example (Baird: 31–57; Gay 1968). A reasonable religion must reflect universal truth that is not bound by space and time. For many, such a “natural” religion was evinced by a moral life, the spiritual worship of God, the certainty of judgment, and the immortality of the soul (Barbour 1966:37–40; Hayes and Prussner: 45–47). Ritual clearly plays no part in this view of religion and was believed by many to be contrary to reason. Sacrifice came to be seen as a bloody attempt by unreasonable and irrational “primitives” to appease an immoral God. Jesus the crucified Messiah gave way to Jesus the ethical teacher and exemplar of reasonable religion (for a discussion, see Schweitzer: 27–57).

While later biblical critics in Germany reacted against the extremes of Deism, they remained firmly committed to the view that both understanding and religion were matters of the mind and were subject to reasonable and rational scrutiny. Romanticism emphasized the “experience” of the sublime, a “feeling” of dependence and connectedness to the whole (e.g., Schleiermacher). Even with its emphasis on feeling and emotion, however, romanticism failed to find any place for ritual in the practice of true religion, because ritual is external and controlled, not internal and spontaneous.

(2) Closely associated with the search for “a right reasonable religion” was the reduction of religion to a matter of ethics (Barbour 1971:69–79; Gay 1966:178–97; Preus; Taylor: 234–65). True religion is expressed through ethical actions and not through ritual actions. This ethical emphasis has two important aspects. First, ethics could be reduced quickly and easily to discursive analysis. The “oughts” could be determined through reasonable, rational, and logical structures of thought. Ritual actions, understood as prescribed and therefore “thoughtless” actions, had no value according to reasonable, ethical discourse. At the same time, it was held, a universal system of ethics could be reasonably constructed. Second, the focus on ethics emphasized and protected human freedom and autonomy. Ritual, consisting of prescribed and “mindless” rules, did not allow for the free choice of the individual. A religion of ethics mirrored the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human dignity, freedom, and autonomy (see Gay 1968; Barth: 33–79), while ritual, by contrast, was believed to circumscribe and restrict these values.

(3) A reasonable and rational approach to religion ultimately reduced religion to a cognitive structure. The practice of religion is the expression of ideas, beliefs, and thoughts (Barbour 1966:34–79; Mandlebaum; Popkin 151–248; Taylor: 111–207). In ways very different from but certainly not unrelated to the Reformation’s emphasis on inner states, rational religion sought the truth in the rational structures of thought. Both located truth and faith in the “inner” recesses of the spirit or mind.

Thus, the dualism of mind and body, thought and action, experience and practice, is once again given normative status. Indeed, the philosophical and religious dualism that distinguished inner experiences from outer actions functioned to question the validity, and even the morality, of the experiences of the body. Suspicion of the body, like the duality of which it is an expression, has a long history in Western culture (Brown; Rousselle; Ruether 1983:72–92), and this suspicion is inscribed into the discourse on religion through an emphasis on the mind as the “place” of truth and the spirit as the “place” of true religious experience. Ritual represented entanglement with the body, and so merited suspicion and mistrust (Bell: 94–117; Grimes 1992:28–38).

The Historical-Critical Discourse on Method

Biblical scholars constructed the “normative” practice of biblical studies in the development and refinement of the historical-critical method. The method, itself an expression of the larger Enlightenment project, sought to place the study of the Bible within the context of reasonable and objective analysis. A method emerged that was text-centered, philologically focused, and historically guided, and that sought to place texts in their original historical contexts (Hayes: 106–120; Kümmel: 62–119). Three aspects of the method will be discussed: (1) its efforts to be objective and reasonable, (2) its focus on texts, and (3) its basic understanding of the nature of historical analysis and historical thinking.

(1) The development of the critical study of the Bible was part of a larger intellectual project that sought to apply reason to an object of analysis in an objective, neutral, and value-free context. In developing this method, biblical scholars had to construct and define not only a method but also an object of analysis. A key aspect of this new way of thinking, and an expression of the typographic mind (Postman: 44–63), was the practice and production of written arguments (Ong). Biblical texts were subjected to analysis in scholarly treatises based on reason, objectivity, and neutrality. This way of thinking brought with it certain patterns of mind, intellectual practice, and academic writing. The Bible, no longer simply and immutably the Word of God, was reconstituted as an object of historical investigation by the historical method itself (Oden: 1–39; Rogerson 1984).

(2) Biblical scholarship developed primarily by asking and answering the question: how are these texts to be read and understood? Sharp emphasis was placed on how the words of the texts were to be understood. The various methods of modern biblical scholarship have been, for the most part, attempts to locate language and texts in specific historical contexts. Two factors must be kept in mind. First, the historical-critical method arose within the context of the theological and dogmatic concern for the “authority” of the biblical texts (Barr; Drury; O’Neill; Reventlow). Second, the early biblical scholars worked in institutional contexts that were concerned with theology and ministry (Baird; Oden: 1–39).

The issue of the authority of the Bible was very important to early modern Protestant scholars. “The Book” was read like any other book and understood in its historical specificity. However, it became possible to draw a distinction between the religious meaning of a text and the historical information that it might communicate (see Frei). The biblical texts became objects of an academic historicism that located their importance and value in their capacity to yield historical information. The Bible, in effect, was forced to “speak” in the language and patterns of thought of biblical scholarship and to “address” the historical-empirical concerns of biblical scholars.

The emphasis on texts as linguistic entities was made possible by, and was closely related to, the Protestant emphasis on the Word. Three developments in relation to the texts of Israel’s faith and religion may be noted. First, there developed a particular interest in narrative texts. These texts read like history and were of particular interest for a historical reading (Frei). Second, the Psalms received attention as liturgical and confessional expressions of Israel’s faith. Finally, the prophetic texts received particular attention because they were now viewed as having been composed earlier than the Priestly, ritualistic texts; they were regarded as authentic expressions of the Word of Yahweh; and they were believed to express high moral standards which criticized, and even repudiated, the cult of sacrifices and rituals (see Hayes and Prussner: 139–40; Rogerson 1984:268).

(3) The historical-critical method as developed and practiced by biblical scholars was an expression of the Enlightenment, or to put it a bit differently, an expression of the mind of modernity. Toulmin has argued that the Enlightenment’s concern with reason and history focused on the written, the universal, the general, and the timeless (30–35). A view of the historical as fashioned by the Enlightenment mentality constituted a central element in the critical study of the Bible. The details of history became part of the search for universal and timeless truths. Truth and absolutes were thought to exist behind the temporality of history, and biblical history then assumes a great importance because it provides evidence of, and access to, nothing less than Absolute Truth.

R.A. Oden discusses the relationship of biblical studies and “the German tradition of historiography” (1–39; see also, Iggers: 29–43; Reill), and notes five consistent themes in this tradition: (a) nations were viewed as individuals and a high value was placed on individualism and the freedom of the individual; (b) the writing of history was related to human development; (c) there was a negative evaluation of all abstracting, theorizing, or law-making; (d) historical investigation is viewed as an autonomous discipline and is seen as a means of revelation; (e) developed in the context, and as an expression, of German idealism, historiography looked within history for clues to the ultimate nature of reality. Biblical studies in this milieu became primarily a historical discipline, guided by very specific values associated with the presumed nature of history and the nature of the individual.

Recognition of the distance between biblical texts and contemporary readers began to grow, and the “alien” nature of the texts, their “otherness,” was emphasized (Gunneweg: 142–59). It became common to separate the historical settings and cultural trappings of texts from their “true” meaning. The “meaning” of texts came to be located either “behind” or “above” them. Indeed, what texts might be allowed to mean came to be limited in large part by the method itself (Brueggemann 1993:1–25; Fiorenza 1992:20–50; Tracy: 66–81). Ritual texts were easily dismissed because they were clearly local, culturally specific, time-bound, associated with law; they smacked of “works” and reflected the collective rather than the individual. Because rituals and their texts were not universally valid expressions of religion, they could not provide access to Truth, at least as it was recognized by German idealism.

Part II

Contemporary Discussions of Ritual

In recent years, the study of ritual has generated significant analytical and theoretical insights concerning the nature and character of ritual. Drawing on work in anthropology, literary criticism, theater, psychology, sociology, and religion, ritual studies is intentionally interdisciplinary in stance (Grimes 1982; 1985; 1987; 1990). Five issues will be discussed that grow out of recent ritual study: (1) the hermeneutical relationship that exists between the “reader” and “ritual texts”; (2) the relationship of ritual and narrative models of interpretation; (3) ritual and communication; (4) the concrete nature of ritual enactment and human activity; (5) the importance of embodiment in ritual’s enactment of the self.

(1) Many theoretical and methodological advances in the study of ritual are indebted to anthropology and its emphasis on fieldwork (Grimes 1990:7–27; Stocking), observation, and the “native’s” point of view (Geertz: 55–70). Inasmuch as biblical scholars work with texts and not enacted rituals, it is clear that methods and models developed by anthropologists in the field must be used with extreme caution for the analysis of biblical texts (Feeley-Harnik; Rogerson 1980:45–47; on the “literary” turn in anthropology, see Geertz: 19–35; Scholte).

Recently, a number of questions with implications for biblical studies have been raised concerning the objectivity and neutrality of observation and fieldwork (Auge; Bell: 19–66; Fabian; Marcus and Fischer; Strathern; Wagner: 133–59). First, the absolute distinction between the observer and the observed is problematic (Auge: 79–100; Lewis; Grimes 1982: 1–17). Such a view functions to privilege the observer as a detached, thinking subject and to place the observed in the position of biased, performing object (Bell: 13–66; Bourdieu 1977:1–22; 1990:25–51). This creates an imbalance of power and value that militates against accurate analysis. Ritual studies question whether “detached” observation is really possible and suggest that in the study of ritual, insight and understanding arise through participation (Grimes 1990:109–44, 210–33). Second, both ritual studies and anthropology recognize that the dichotomy between the scholar and the native is itself a theoretical construction that biases interpretation in its many aspects. The Enlightenment’s ideal of neutral and value-free investigation of “the other” is, at best, seriously problematic. The dichotomy—the subject/object split—functions to privilege the “scholar” and to devalue the “native” and what the native does, including of course, ritualizing and ritual. Finally, ritual studies recognizes that the distinction between theory and practice is itself problematic (Auge: 78–100; Bell: 69–93; Bourdieu 1990:30–51; Fabian; Marcus and Fischer; Wagner: 103–32). It functions to value thought and to devalue action, to privilege interpretation and to devalue participation. Ritual studies call for observation that is also participation.

How, then, can ritual studies contribute to the study of ritual in biblical materials when both observation and participation are impossible? First, the relationship between the interpreter and the text must be under continuous review. The reader/text relationship has been under revision in biblical studies for some time (e.g., feminist, liberation, and African-American readings). There are two interrelated questions: (a) What does the text bring to and call for in the interpretive process? and (b) What does the interpreter bring to and call for in the interpretive process? Second, the relationship of “text” and “ritual” must be reconsidered (Hoffman). Is there a middle ground between “text” and “ritual” that could bring productive results in the attempt to understand ritual texts? Can something of the enacted ritual be construed on the basis of ritual texts (Gorman 1990)? Third, ritual texts seem to demand an imaginative construal of both the rituals depicted and the world within which the rituals take shape (on imagination and biblical studies, see Brueggemann 1993). An interpretive stance that envisions enactment and imaginatively construes a ritual world is needed. Such a method will require a reconsideration of the nature and value of objectivity, subjectivity, and understanding with regard to ritual.

(2) Ritual has generally been interpreted in terms of one of two narrative models. One model views ritual as the dramatic presentation of a preexisting narrative. Ritual “tells” the story in dramatic fashion (e.g., the myth and ritual school; Ackerman; Rogerson 1974:66–84). The second model uses narrative structures to interpret rituals. Turner, for example, suggests that ritual is to be understood in terms of a social process that moves from disruption to resolution so that resolution of disorder becomes the goal of ritual. In both models, the narrative or story receives the primary emphasis and ritual is simply a way of expressing the story. This emphasis on the narrative structure of ritual is related to views of the self that emphasize the self as narratively constructed (see the essays in Hauerwas and Jones). The “story” that is “told” about the self is believed to tell the whole story.

This narrative approach to the self and ritual has been criticized. Kleiver argues that such a view is too heavily biased by biblical and theological categories. Bynum, addressing Turner’s views specifically, argues persuasively that women and marginalized persons view process differently and do not experience “reality” as a process that moves from disruption to restoration. Grimes argues that ritualizing activity is essential to a realistic view of human existence (1990:158–73). Ritual, therefore, demands to be understood in terms of ritual categories. Ritual texts must be read in order to understand the ritual categories of the texts and not in an effort to discover the “message” behind or above the texts, as if ritual texts are distorted narratives that somehow need restoration.

The world of ritual is a world of gestural construal, a world enacted, a world bodied forth, a world that exists in anticipation of ritual and a world that is actualized and brought forth in, by, and through the ritual itself (Bell: 69–117; Bourdieu 1990:66–79; Grimes 1982:53–68; 1990:7–27; Langer: 144–70; Lewis: 2–38; Staal; Zeusse). It is “understood” in, by, and through the smells, the feelings, the sights, and the sounds of the ritual (Grimes 1982:19–33). Its “meaning” is discovered in, by, and through enactment, embodiment, and a positioning of the self in the world. The world of ritual exists in, by, and through the bodily performances and gestures of the participants (Delattre: 282–84; Dixon). This is not to say that the world as ritually construed necessarily excludes a “cognitive” aspect. It does suggest, however, that ritual “knowledge” cannot be encompassed by or understood solely on the basis of linguistic, symbolic, and narrative models (Bourdieu 1990:66–79; Jennings; MacRae; Polhemus 1975; 1978).

It is clear that a reassessment of the relation of narrative and ritual is needed in order to develop appropriate categories for understanding. Three brief suggestions will be offered. (A) More attention must be given to the ritualizing qualities of storytelling if work on “oral” traditions is to continue in biblical studies (Bell: 118–42; Grimes 1992:23–26; Ong). The patterned telling and retelling of stories is itself a ritualized activity, a bodying forth, and the ritual base of story must be recognized in this regard. (B) More attention must be given to the possibility that rituals have given rise to narratives. There are two interrelated issues in this regard. First, ritual structures and ritual processes may serve as the basis for story and narrative. Ritual may serve as the background for narrative construction and development. Indeed, ritual may generate narrative and story in such a way that ritual dynamics will be reflected within narrative. Second, just as ritual is a means of locating the self in the world, narratives that arise in the context of ritual may serve to locate a person or group in the world. Thus, ritual and narrative may be parallel and complementary ways of positioning the self or the community in the world. This suggests that additional work on ritual texts as a genre and the ritual context for the construction of narrative might be fruitful. (C) More attention must be given to the relationship between narrative texts and ritual texts when they are combined within a larger textual framework. Have ritual texts been placed in narrative contexts or have narrative texts have been positioned around ritual texts?

(3) A significant number of anthropologists and theorists have attempted to understand ritual as a form of communication. Ritual is viewed as a symbol system and rituals are viewed as symbolic statements or encoded performances that act out or dramatize an already existing social message. Ritual symbols have a referential quality that points to a meaning that exists outside the rituals themselves. In order to understand rituals, one must break their symbolic code and determine their linguistic message. Generally this means translating the non-verbal into the verbal, the irrational into the rational, activity into language.

Such a referential, symbolic, and linguistic approach fails to take seriously that ritual is activity and embodied enactment (Bourdieu 1977; 1990). Staal argues that ritual is pure enactment and, as such, is “meaningless.” Sperber suggests that ritual is evocative rather than communicative (118), while Lewis speaks of ritual as stimulative (34). Grimes points to ritual knowledge as preconscious, implicit, and embodied (1992:37). These theorists agree that ritual enactment refers to itself and not to a message that exists apart from, outside of, or above the ritual enactment proper. Ritual consists of activity and is not necessarily, and certainly not by definition, a means of symbolic communication of ideas, thoughts, or mental states. Rituals have to do primarily with one’s status in the world and not one’s state of mind.

Reflexivity—reflection on the self, on society, on the world, and on the cosmos—is often viewed as a central element of ritual (Ruby; Turner 1982:89–101). While ritual activity may lead to reflection, ritual itself is not reflection. The focus on reflexivity may reflect an attempt to view ritual in the context of language. Several theorists have related reflexivity and performance in the analysis of ritual (Fernandez; Kapferer; Schechner 1977; 1985; Tambiah 1979; Turner 1982:89–101). Bell argues that performance models create a dichotomy between the ritual participant as performer and the scholarly observer as interpreter. This dichotomy functions to privilege the observing interpreter over the ritual participant and fails to take seriously ritual as activity and enactment. It favors interpretation and cognition over enactment and participation (37–46). Grimes views both reflexivity and performance as elements of the shift to postmodernism, and as such, key factors in the critical and postmodern construction of the self (1992:23). Reflexivity and performance are important models for theoretical discussions of ritual, but they must be used carefully and critically in order to avoid imposing non-ritual categories on ritual.

(4) The study of ritual must recognize that human existence is marked as much by enactment as by thought and reflection. Rituals and ritualizing activity take place in very specific and concrete contexts of time, place, and situation (Bell: 69–117; Grimes 1982:1–69). Ritual activity has a specificity about it that refuses to be swallowed up in universal, generalized, and timeless categories. Embodied individuals do not fly about in the abstractions of a spiritual or cognitive realm; they mark out their existence in the concrete world of flesh and blood.

The specificity of ritual enactment is all too often ignored. This is a result of an intellectual agenda that (1) reduces human existence to the mental and reflective, (2) seeks to discover basic and universal laws of human nature, and (3) seeks a universal definition of ritual and human activity. Ritual studies call into question the validity and usefulness of the search for universal and generalized categories for understanding human activity. Ritual activity is the embodied self taking its stand in the world of dirt and flesh and blood through gesture, action, movement, positioning, enactment. Context, in all its specificity and concreteness, is essential for ritual.

In addition, recent discussions of ritual question the usefulness and value of the traditional definitions of ritual (for definitions, see Goody; Grimes 1990:7–27; Lawson and McCauley: 32–44; Zeusse). Grimes states the issue clearly: “Ritual is not a ‘what,’ not a ‘thing.’ It is a ‘how,’ a quality, and there are ‘degrees’ of it. Any action can be ritualized, though not every action is a rite” (1992:13). Bell also criticizes general definitions of “ritual” and discusses the nature of “ritualizing” and “ritualization” (69–93; see also Driver: 12–31). In both cases, the emphasis is on moving away from reductionistic definitons to a focus on the quality of actions, the nuances of gesture, the positioning of the body, the strategies for enacting the self in specific situations.

(5) As discussed above, biblical scholars have devalued ritual, in part, because of a dualistic understanding of the self that views the body with suspicion and emphasizes the spirit as the reservoir of truth, understanding, and reason. The “heart” of religion is located in the soul, the spirit, or the mind, and religion is understood as an inner process or state that can be reflected on, thought about, and systematized. Ritual is associated with the outer forms of religious expression, a false expression of piety, the works of the flesh, and irrational behavior without thought and reflection.

Two interrelated questions must be raised with regard to the mind/body dualism and the associated suspicion of the body. First, such a dualistic view of human beings is at best extremely problematic. “Mind” is certainly somehow embodied, so that thinking is, in a very real sense, an expression of embodiment and the work of the body. Indeed, thought itself may be little more than one of the ritualizing activities of the body. For the present, however, thought and action must be viewed as two independent but equally significant expressions of human existence that may at times, although not necessarily, enter into a meaningful conversation.

Second, the nature and status of “knowledge” itself is being reevaluated in relation to the body. The body is understood both as an expressive medium of (embodied) knowledge and a means of gaining and having (embodied) knowledge. For example, it has been argued that metaphor arises from embodiment—the movement of the body, the experiences of the body, the positioning of the body in the world (e.g., Lakoff and Johnson; Johnson). There is a knowing that comes through the senses—smells, textures, sights, sounds, tastes—that is not ultimately translatable into a linguistic idiom. Ritual studies, then, eschews globalizing theories, abstractions and abstracting, and seeks rather to be widely grounded in the concrete and bodied.

Part III

Recent Studies of the Bible and Ritual

There have been an increasing number of studies of biblical texts and rituals in recent years and these reflect a variety of concerns, goals, and methods. Cohn (7–23) has argued that Turner’s work on liminality and rites of transition provides a useful interpretive framework for understanding the structure and meaning of the wilderness narratives in the Pentateuch. By interpreting the wilderness period as a liminal period of transition, the “priestly” editors provided a paradigm by which they could understand and interpret their own experience. Thus, liminality, a feature of rites of passage, becomes a means for ordering and telling “the history” of the wilderness wanderings. Ritual gives rise to narrative structure and meaning.

In a processual structure parallel to rites of initiation, Israel passes through three distinct phases: (1) separation (= the exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea); (2) limen (= the transitional forty years of wandering); and (3) reincorporation (= the crossing of the Jordan River, conquest, and settlement). While on this journey, Israel makes a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, experiences a theophany, receives instruction for the new life toward which they are moving, and emerges from the wilderness bonded together and constituted as a new community. These are all features of traditional rites of passage that involve initiation into a new status. The presence of such ritualizing features in the narrative indicates that ritual has helped to generate the narrative as it now exists. Thus, a full appreciation and understanding of the narrative requires that the ritualizing features be identified and analyzed. The study indicates the importance of ritual categories in the generation and production of texts.

Levenson (1988:55–127) examines the relationship of Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Babylonian mythology and places Genesis 1:1–2:4a into a “cultic” context. While he does not directly discuss ritual (that is, as distinct from the cultic), his work suggests that ritualistic categories are operative in the Priestly account of creation and in the observance of Sabbath. He concludes his discussion as follows: “Among the many messages of Genesis 1:1–2:4a is this: it is through the cult that we are enabled to cope with evil, for it is the cult that builds and maintains order, transforms chaos into creation, ennobles humanity, and realizes the kingship of the God who has ordained the cult and commanded that it be guarded and practiced” (127). The practice of cult can be identified with the practice of ritual, as both are means of constructing, maintaining, and transforming the cosmos. It is a means of discovering and enriching one’s humanity. Levenson’s work has two important contributions for this study. First, “cultic” categories are operative in texts and have helped to produce the texts. Second, the practice of cult is a means of being human and interacting with the cosmos within which one is located. Thus, ritual is viewed as a practice that involves the construction of meaning and thus the actualization of humanity.

Gorman (1990) seeks to locate Priestly rituals within the larger context of Priestly creation theology. Drawing on the theoretical work of symbolic and cultural anthropologists, ritual is viewed as a means of enacting theology. Ritual processes are examined in order to determine how the actual enactment of the ritual might have looked and how such enactment functioned to accomplish the ritual goals of founding, maintenance, and restoration in relation to the categories of space, time, and status (see also Gorman 1993). The study raises the issue of the relation of text to enactment and suggests that an imaginative construal is required. At the same time, it argues that the traditional exegetical categories of the historical-critical method are not entirely adequate for ritual texts. Ritual texts require not only textual analysis but also ritual analysis.

For example, the ordination of the priesthood as described in Leviticus 8 must be viewed as a rite of passage that functions to found the status of priesthood in relation to the sacred space of the tabernacle. The ritual enactment calls for movement within sacred space, the presence of the community, the ritual clothing of Aaron and his sons, the anointing of the Aaronides and the sacred space, the manipulation of blood and oil, and the presentation of various sacrifices. Analysis of the ritual activity gives rise to a discussion of the meaning of the ritual as an ordination rite.

Anderson has argued that prayer in the Hebrew Bible is a carefully prescribed cultic act and that praise is an activity and not simply an attitude. He sees praise as an activity parallel to sacrifice. Lamentation and praise reflect not only an emotional or attitudinal expression of the worshipper, but also the spatial movement of the worshipper from outside to inside the temple. Thus, prayer as cultic act parallels movement as ritual act. Anderson argues that Israelite prayer must be understood in the context of cultic or ritual activity or practice, and that prayerful attitude is cultically constructed through ritual activity.

Milgrom (1970, 1976, 1983, 1991) has produced the most sustained and significant work on the Priestly rituals in recent years. His work is based on extensive comparative work with ritual materials found among Israel’s neighbors, detailed analysis of biblical texts, and careful attention to the work of later Judaism. He has illuminated the Priestly ritual system in both its details and its larger conceptual structures and categories. In doing this, he has demonstrated the vitality and theological importance of the Priestly ritual materials. While he is sensitive to theoretical issues involving ritual, he focuses primarily on textual, historical, and comparative matters. In terms of the Priestly materials, Milgrom’s work will serve as the basis for further analysis of the nature and function of ritual and ritual enactment in these texts.

There are clear indications within scholarly biblical studies that ritual is being looked at in new and fresh ways and is steadily finding a more significant place in biblical discussions. Important steps have been taken already in terms of understanding ritual texts and the role of ritual in Israelite and early Christian religious practice. The future should see this area expand and develop as biblical studies of ritual enter into dialogue with the broad array of disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts which also contain approaches to ritual.


Ritual studies raise a number of significant questions for biblical studies. First, further exploration into the reasons for devaluation of ritual within the discipline of biblical studies is needed. The ways in which both the Bible and ritual were constructed as objects of scholarly analysis and discourse must be understood more clearly in order to perceive how the origins and structure of the discipline continue to influence discussions of ritual and the Bible. Second, a concerted effort must be made to draw on and incorporate the insights of ritual study into the study of ritual texts in the Bible. An interpretive stance must be developed that mediates the text—versus—fieldwork dichotomy in an effort to understand texts that describe, prescribe, or depict rituals. This will require an imaginative construal of the world of ritual and the enactment of rituals within that world. Third, efforts to analyze and understand rituals must not be limited to linguistic, symbolic, or narrative models. This is not a call for the abandonment of the historical-critical method or any of its related disciplines. It is to suggest, however, that in relation to ritual texts, new models of interpretation need to be constructed and imagined that recognize and incorporate recent developments related to the nature of the self, the nature of knowledge and learning, and the nature of human activity. More emphasis will need to be placed on gesture, enactment, embodiment, play, performance, and movement. Fourth, further work must be undertaken on ritual texts as a recognized genre that requires its own methods of analysis and interpretation. It is clear that ritualizing activity has indeed been thought about and inscribed into the Bible. Such thinking and writing may well reflect ritualizing dynamics and structures. Fifth, the relationship of narrative texts and ritual texts needs further exploration because of their literary connections in the Bible. More attention must be given to the relationships that exist in this merging of genres. Finally, ritual must play a significant role in future discussions of biblical religion, biblical literature, and biblical theology. It is time for biblical studies to take ritual seriously as a central element of the communities that composed and passed on the biblical texts.

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1991    Leviticus 1–16. AB 3. New York: Doubleday.

Miller, Jr., Patrick D.

1973    “God and the Gods: History of Religion as an Approach and Context for Bible and Theology.” Affirmation: 37–62.

Morey, Ann-Janine

1992a    “Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison: Reflections on Postmodernism and the Study of Religion and Literature.” JAAR 60:493–513.

Morey, Ann-Janine

1992b    Religion and Sexuality in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morrison, Toni

1991    Beloved. Rpt. 1987. New York: Signet.

Oden, Jr., Robert A.

1987    The Bible Without Theology: The Theological Tradition and Alternatives to It. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

O’Neil, J. C.

1991    The Bible’s Authority: A Portrait Gallery of Thinkers from Lessing to Bultmann. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark.

Ong, Walter J.

1982    Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen.

Penner, Hans H.

1985    “Language, Ritual, and Meaning.” Numen 32:1–16.

Penner, Hans H.

1986    “Structure and Religion.” History of Religions 25:236–54.

Polhemus, Ted

1975    “Social Bodies.” Pp. 13–35 in The Body as a Medium of Expression. Ed. Jonathan Benthall and Ted Polhemus. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Polhemus, Ted

1978    Social Aspects of the Human Body. Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Popkin, Richard H.

1979    The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Postman, Neill

1985    Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Viking.

Preus, J. Samuel

1987    Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reill, Peter Hann

1975    The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reventlow, H. G.

1984    The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World. Trans. J. Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Rogerson, John

1974    Myth in Old Testament Interpretation. BZAW 134. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Rogerson, John

1978    Anthropology and the Old Testament. Atlanta: John Knox.

Rogerson, John

1980    “Sacrifice in the Old Testament: Problems of Method and Approach.” Pp. 45–59 in Sacrifice. Ed. M. F. C. Bourdillon and M. Fortes. New York: Academic.

Rogerson, John

1984    Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century. London: Fortress.

Rogerson, John, Christopher Rowland, and Barnabas Lindars

1988    The Study and Use of the Bible. The History of Christian Theology, vol. 2. Ed. Paul Avis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Rousselle, Aline

1988    Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Trans. Felicia Pheasant. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Ruby, Jay, ed.

1982    A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford

1974    Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford

1992    Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: Harper.

Rupp, George

1977    Culture Protestantism. Missoula: Scholars.

Sanders, E. P.

1977    Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Schechner, Richard

1977    Essays on Performance Theory, 1970–1976. New York: Drama Book Specialists.

Schechner, Richard

1985    Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Scholte, Bob

1987    “The Literary Turn in Contemporary Anthropology.” Critical Anthropology 7:33–47.

Schweitzer, Albert

1968    The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan.

Sperber, Dan

1975    Rethinking Symbolism. Trans. Alice L. Morton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Staal, Frits

1979    “The Meaninglessness of Ritual.” Numen 26:2–22.

Strathern, Marilyn

1988    “Out of Context: Persuasive Fictions of Current Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28:251–70.

Tambiah, Stanley J.

1979    “A Performative Approach to Ritual.” Proceedings of the British Academy 65:113–69.

Taylor, Charles

1989    Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Toulimin, Stephen

1990    Cosmopolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tracy, David

1987    Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Turner, Victor

1969    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor

1982    From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Wagner, Roy

1981    The Invention of Culture. Revised and expanded edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, Alice

1985    The Color Purple. Rpt. 1982. New York: Pocket Books.

Zeusse, Evan M.

1987    “Ritual.” Pp. 405–422 in The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol 12. Ed. M. Eliade. New York: Macmillan.

Response to Frank H. Gorman Jr. “Ritual Studies and Biblical Studies”

John J. Pilch

Georgetown University

To the extent that ritual as a genuine expression of religion truly has been negatively valued in biblical studies as Gorman avers, it is plausible and credible to trace some roots of this evaluation to the Protestant Reformation, the search for a reasonable and rational religion by the Enlightenment, and the construction and practice of the historical method. Gorman presents his hypothesis clearly and substantiates it well. His essay raises interesting questions and suggests potentially rewarding avenues for new research.

In his review of the past four hundred years, Gorman (6) correctly notes that:

the Catholic church was criticized specifically on the basis of its legalism, priesthood, hierarchy, and sacramental system. These were all the elements denounced in the growing anti-ritual ideology which formed a part of early Protestantism.

The early Protestant Reformers did not hesitate to point out how slim was the biblical evidence to support some of the sacraments Catholics identified. For their part, Catholic theologians sought to highlight the Old Testament roots or foreshadowings of the sacraments. As part of its response to criticisms, the Council of Trent initiated many reforms, particularly in the sacramental system (Martos), and sacramental ritual remained a central and vital part of Catholicism.

It would be interesting to explore whether that Sixteenth Century Catholic reform of ritual reflected or stirred research on ritual in the Bible among Catholic biblical scholars or theologians. If so, were their evaluations of biblical ritual exclusively or overwhelmingly negative? In the middle of the twentieth century, Catholic scholars such as McKenzie (148–149) and de Vaux (vol. 2), among others, evaluated biblical ritual in a positive light. It is conceivable that at least traces of such a perspective might be found among Catholic scholars over the past four hundred years. This would be one aspect of the past worth investigating further.

With regard to the future, I welcome and support Gorman’s enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of ritual. Given the huge amount of information now available to a researcher, the era of the omnicompetent scholar is ended. Interdisciplinary collaboration is not only desirable but necessary (Klein). Even so, it is well to remember that “the best interdisciplinary co-operation is often that carried out in the mind of a single researcher” (Jahoda: 29; repeating an observation by Meyer Fortes). Chief among those who doubt that this is possible are highly trained professionals. The training of professionals, whether biblical scholars or physician specialists, inculcates the myth that only earning another graduate degree qualifies a person to speak or deal intelligently with more than one specialized area of knowledge. This myth has been exploded more than once (Klein; Freidson).

Gorman’s hesitation to use methods and models developed by anthropologists “in the field” except “with extreme caution for the analysis of biblical texts” (14) is unnecessary. All models can and should be adapted by researchers to their own purposes and special areas of interest (see Pilch; Pilch and Malina).

The distinction Gorman points out between observers and observed, or scholars and native perspectives, is not as problematic as might seem. Anthropologists typically distinguish between etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspectives and interpretations of human behaviors. Segall et al (52–56) offer a refined model of how these approaches can be merged and utilized to good effect in cross-cultural research. According to them, the researcher begins with an emic viewpoint of the researcher’s culture, imposes it as an etic perspective on the other culture, then refines it through participation and other ethnographic methods, and ultimately can construct an etic perspective that is truly derived from the other culture.

This leads us to one of Gorman’s key concerns: “How, then, can ritual studies contribute to the study of ritual in biblical materials when both observation and participation are impossible?” (16). He proposes “an imaginative construal” of the ritual world.

At this point one must note that Gorman appears to limit his focus to sacred ritual, especially those rituals associated with the Temple. It is difficult imaginatively to reconstruct these rituals; however, a researcher might find helpful hints among the Samaritans who still retain some semblance of these rituals, and among modern Israelis who are preparing to resume Temple ritual when (and if) they regain access to the Temple mount. Aside from this, however, an extensive search through the data of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) might help in the construction of imagined scenarios suitable to that cultural time and place. Without such input, a researcher would indeed have to be extremely cautious in using imagination in biblical studies (pace Gorman and Brueggeman whom he cites).

On the other hand, all of human life and experience (Erikson) even in the ancient world encompasses more ritual than that peculiar to the realm of the sacred. Challenge and riposte, a common strategy in the daily, ongoing skirmishes over honor and shame in the Mediterranean world, are ritual aspects of human encounter. A Western researcher needs only to grind new lenses to perceive and interpret Mediterranean ritual and can learn the skill from anthropologists.

Moreover, it is quite possible for a researcher to participate in these ritual aspects of Mediterranean life and experience the rituals first hand (see Walsh on altered states of consciousness). Visiting ethnic enclaves in US cities is as helpful as travelling to the countries in question. Katz’s reflections on the modern operating room (see also Chrisman), or Kottak’s analysis of ritual at McDonald’s offer two easily intelligible examples of how to observe and analyze contemporary or familiar ritual behavior. And Martin underscores the caution all researchers need in order to avoid skewing one’s research through gender-bias. This is especially required when investigating the deeply gender-divided Mediterranean culture.

A second consideration that Gorman highlights for future research is the fact that human existence is marked as much by enactment as by thought and reflection, as Gorman says: “The movement is away from reductionistic definitions to a focus on the quality of actions, the nuances of gesture, the positioning of the body, the strategies for enacting the self in specific situations.” Malina (1986) has developed a promising matrix for precisely this kind of analysis with specific application to the New Testament. Whelan’s analysis of bodily knowing contributes another dimension to the kind of research Gorman proposes. Recent studies of gesture suggest innovative approaches to discovering and describing what may be assumed even if not explicitly mentioned in biblical texts (Bremmer and Roodenburg; Calbris).

The review of recent studies of the Bible and ritual in the final section of Gorman’s paper centers mainly on the Old Testament. McVann’s very pertinent New Testament research is mentioned in a footnote (14), but other relevant materials go unmentioned. I point this out not in the sense of “here is the paper you should have written” or “you missed these articles which I know and you don’t,” but rather as a suggestion that Gorman faces another challenge common to biblicists. While boldly embarking on the sea of interdisciplinarity, it would be well for both Old and New Testament specialists to paddle through each other’s waters on the way.

For instance, it would be interesting to relate the work of Anderson on prayer in the Hebrew bible cited by Gorman with the paired articles on prayer by Malina and Pilch (1980). Malina developed an anthropological definition and typology of prayer which Pilch applied to Luke. No New Testament commentary on Luke has identified the extensiveness of prayer in that gospel which the anthropological definitions and typologies helps a researcher to discover and appreciate. The ritual dimensions of prayer should not be difficult to highlight with the aid of additional anthropological analysis (see Malina 1986:92–93; 139–143).

All in all, Gorman’s stimulating insights are welcome. If they succeed in inspiring the kind of research he proposes, the negative evaluation of ritual in the Bible that he has identified will be replaced with enlightening reflections on a very basic element of human life in all its dimensions.

Works Consulted

Bremmer, Jan and Herman Roodenburg, eds.

1992    A Cultural History of Gesture with an introduction by Sir Keith Thomas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Calbris, Geneviève

1990    The Semiotics of French Gestures. Trans. Owen Doyle. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Chrisman, Noel

1990    “Culture Shock in the Operating Room.” Journal of Transcultural Nursing 1:33–39.

de Vaux, Roland

1965    Ancient Israel. Volume 1: Social Institutions. Volume 2: Religious Institutions. New York/Toronto: McGraw Hill. Paperback edition of 1961 translated from the 1958 and 1960 French originals.

Erikson, Erik H.

1977    Toys and Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience. New York: W.W. Norton.

Freidson, Eliot

1970    Profession of Medicine: A Study of the Sociology of Applied Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row.

Gruber, Mayer I.

1980    Aspects of Nonverbal Communication in the Ancient Near East. Studia Pohl 12/1 and 2. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.

Katz, Pearl

1990    “Ritual in the Operating Room.” Pp. 279–301 in American Culture: Essays on the Familiar and Unfamiliar. Ed. Leonard Plotnicov. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh in cooperation with Ethnology

Jahoda, Gustav and I.M. Lewis, eds,

1988    Acquiring Culture: Cross-Cultural Studies in Child Development. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Klein, Julie Thompson

1990    Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Kottak, Conrad P.

1978    “Rituals at McDonald’s.” Natural History 87:74–83

Kottak, Conrad P.

1982    Researching American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Malina, Bruce J.

1980    “What is Prayer?” The Bible Today 18:214–220.

Malina, Bruce J.

1986    Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology: Practical Models for Biblical Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox.

Martin, Emily

1991    “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society 16:485–501.

Martos, Joseph

1982    Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Image Book. Garden City: Doubleday.

McKenzie, John L.

1966    The Two Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament. Garden City: Doubleday. Paperback edition of 1956 original published by Bruce Publishing Co.

Pilch, John J.

1980    “Praying with Luke.” The Bible Today 18:221–225.

Pilch, John J.

1993a    “Insight and Models for Understanding the Healing Activity of Jesus.” Pp. 154–177 in SBL Seminar Papers. Ed. Eugene H. Lovering, Jr. Atlanta: Scholars.

Pilch, John J.

1993b    “Visions in Revelation and Alternate Consciousness: A Perspective from Cultural Anthropology.” Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture 28:231–244.

Pilch, John J. and Bruce J. Malina, eds.

1993    Biblical Social Values and their Meaning: A Handbook. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Segall, Marshall H., Pierre R. Dasen, John W. Berry, Ype H. Poortinga

1990    Human Behavior in Global Perspective: An Introduction to Cross-Cultural Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Walsh, Roger

1993    “Phenomenological Mapping and Comparisons of Shamanic, Buddhist, Yogic, and Schizophrenic Experiences.” JAAR 61:739–769.

Whelan, Winifred

1994    “Bodily Knowing: ‘More Ancient Than Thought.” Religious Education 89:184–193.

An Anthropological Approach to Biblical Interpretation: The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:1–20 as a Case Study

Dianne Bergant


The incorporation of the findings of anthropology into biblical studies has opened a significant new avenue for critical biblical interpretation. While most of the work done in this area has been primarily ethnological withan interest in the social world of the ancient community, the present article ventures into the unpredictable waters of ethnographic investigation of the fictive world of the semantically autonomous text. The approach used here developed out of an interdisciplinary dialogue between a social anthropologist and a biblical theologian. Examining Exodus Exodus 12:1–20, a text that clearly deals with prescribed performance, the interpretive focus here is on the function of the performance recounted rather than on the extent to which the elements of the biblical report fit into any heuristic ritual design. The value of such an approach is seen in its ability to provide a kind of ‘thick description’ of the social reality, a description laden with theological possibilities.

Introduction: The Task and the Method

Biblical studies have witnessed a growing interest in the application of the human sciences to the investigation of Scripture. This is especially true of the field of anthropology, formerly called ‘comparative sociology,’ which is specifically interested in the way meaning both varies and converges across cultures. The primary object of cultural anthropology, the type normally pursued in North America, is culture, often material culture, as it illuminates and helps to interpret human behavior. The tradition of cultural anthropology goes back to Boas (1955) and Kroeber (1952) and can trace its development through the functionalist theories of culture developed by Malinowski. British anthropology, on the other hand, developed rather differently. From Malinowski through Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalism, it focused more clearly on social relations (cf. Durkheim 1961) rather than on cultural artifacts. Evans-Pritchard brilliantly rooted ethnographic analysis in a study of social organization, moving away from the rather deterministic and static functionalism of his predecessors to a more dynamic structuralism.

The present study is concerned primarily with the social relations that are projected in the narrative under investigation, not with conventional cultural patterns that have often been used to explain these relations. Thus, it seeks an understanding of meaning-in-context, the specific literary context of Exodus 12:1–20 (Worgul 1979:5; Geertz 1988; Jackson 1989; Okely and Callaway 1992). The method employed here has more in common with ethnography, descriptive accounting of human societies, than with ethnology, classification according to general cultural characteristics (Beattie 1964:16–22). Though in practice the approaches of ethnography and ethnology may often converge, theoretically at least, they are distinguishable (Freedman 1978:18–24). Ethnography seeks to gather empirical data; ethnology catalogs ethnographic findings.

The general theme of this collection, ritual and biblical studies, is one on which anthropology and biblical theology might fruitfully collaborate. However, such collaboration requires methodological adjustments, since the two disciplines do not have a common language and normally employ different approaches in their respective investigations. Confronted with social reality, anthropologists undertake a ‘thick description’ of behavior (Geertz 1973), that is, a highly detailed ethnographic analysis which explicitly includes, as far as this is possible, the insider’s perspective (the emic, cf. Harris 1976). This is achieved through a process of radical empiricism known as ‘participant observation’ (Jorgensen 1989; Jackson 1989). Concerned with the comparability of empirical data, it begins with a particular life situation, and moves toward a contextualized understanding of meaning with the hope that general principles might be formulated. The findings are then tested against data from other life situations. Conclusions are drawn by induction as well as by comparison.

Biblical research, on the other hand, usually begins with the choice of some detailed method that will be used to examine a fixed text. The information gleaned from the text then addresses the specific concerns of the method (e.g., historical, literary, structuralist, etc.). This dissimilarity in method can result in an initial lack of convergence of the disciplines of anthropology and biblical studies. The divergence might be described as the difference between the use of a preconceived understanding of a topic (sketchy though that understanding may be) as a lens for studying a text (an ethnological approach), compared with an examination of the dynamics described within the text, followed by some conclusion drawn about the topic (an ethnographic approach).

It is important to emphasize that this investigation regards the fictive world of the biblical text as an admittedly limited, yet authentic, setting within which the social dynamics of the agents can be observed. It is concerned with the social world depicted within the semantically autonomous text (Ricoeur 1976:29f) rather than the historical world that produced it (Ricoeur 1981). Using social scientific methods to investigate a fictive world can be a highly instructive enterprise. Edmund Leach, a prominent social anthropologist, points out that “the Bible has the characteristics of mytho-history of the sort which anthropologists regularly encounter when they engage in present-day field research” (1983:21). Thus, similarity in the focus of study suggests the possibility of similarity in interpretive approach. That is, anthropology and biblical research may fruitfully collaborate in the interpretation of biblical texts.

This particular study seeks to discover the possibility or usefulness of a modified ethnographic approach to biblical interpretation, specifically of the Passover ritual in Exod 12:1–20. I have consciously bracketed the passage’s very complicated source history (Childs 1974:184–7) in order to focus here on the passage as a unified tradition (Childs 1974:95), a tradition that set the pattern for ritual reenactment. Exodus 12:1–20 is a narrative expression of that same tradition which was fashioned by some implied author(s). Whether or not the social dynamics depicted reflect the world of the real author(s), they certainly do project a world in front of the text, a world of possibilities to be appropriated by the reader (Ricoeur 1976:91–94). A strict ethnographic approach is impossible, of course, since there is no informant living who can verify or challenge the validity of the observations. However, does this mean that even a modified approach is futile? Can the broader literary context of the First Testament provide some of the data normally supplied by the informant? The present study will seek to answer these questions.

The investigation begins with a cursory examination of Exodus 12:1–20. This text was chosen because its content lends itself to a form of ethnographic analysis. Initially, we focus on the kind of questions that both ethnographers and biblical readers pose: what happened? how? to whom? when? where? and why? This initial straightforward reading was followed by reflection on the answers to the questions, reflection that generated further questions about issues germane to anthropology. For example: what meaning might this particular people have ascribed to what happened? Or, why did it happen in this way and not in some other way? Also, who is included in the group to whom it happened? Who is excluded, and why?

Initially, two queries drove this investigation: What do these findings tell us about ritual? What does such an understanding of ritual tell us about the social world being examined? It was uncritically assumed that these questions were relevant to both anthropology and biblical studies. However, it soon became clear that these particular questions frustrated rather than illuminated the inquiry, since the first question presumed a preconceived model of ritual that functioned as standard, and the second expected some degree of conformity to that model. Accordingly, assumptions about the meaning of ritual-in-the abstract were set aside in favor of a more inductive approach, that is, direct engagement with the dynamics of social behavior as described in the text. At the end of the inquiry two rather different questions surfaced: what does this analysis tell us about the meaning of the behavior described in the text? What does this behavior tell us about the interpretive possibilities of the world projected by the text?5 This methodological adjustment, which may in fact be the real fruit of interdisciplinary study, was a shift from the kind of questioning that proceeds from a defined model to the questioning that proceeds from observation of behavior.

The Initial Questioning of Exodus 12:1–20

What? The passage is a description of the putatively divinely instituted feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread. The first feast is probably some form of nomadic rite of blood sacrifice; the second is a grain festival. Though quite distinct in themselves, here they are together. The seriousness of these feasts, in their specific context, can be seen in the severity of the sanction imposed should the people fail to observe the divine formulations.

Who? This particular section of the narrative describes the instructions believed to be authorized by God and communicated to Moses and Aaron. These two men are presented as the divinely appointed mediators charged with the promulgation of this ritual decree by which the entire congregation is bound.

Where? The divine communication itself occurs in Egypt, the land of oppression, but the rite that is described is to be commemorated anywhere.

When? A particular calendrical reckoning identifies the date of the original observance as well as the time for subsequent commemorations.

Why? The ritualization of behavior is established as a memorial of God’s saving action on behalf of this particular people.

The Complex of the Passover: Characteristics of the Audience

1. Self-Understanding

The Lord is portrayed as communicating directly with Moses and Aaron (v. 1). The content of the communication will show that this encounter was not merely a private revelation to these two men, but was mediate in nature. Although the message itself was intended for the “congregation of Israel” (v. 3), Moses and Aaron are the only ones to whom God spoke directly, a privilege which thereby conferred on them enormous social status and authority.

It is noteworthy that God’s influence on this people was believed to extend beyond the confines of what would be their own land. This is not merely a local god whose influence is restricted to specific tribal settings. Furthermore, these were not simply nomadic people moving from place to place, communing with their god wherever their travels took them: the narrative describes them as a disadvantaged people in a land not their own, a land over which the gods of Egypt claimed control (Exod 1:1–8:7). They appear, however, to have had an identity coextensive with their God’s influence. One might ask: did they take their God with them, or did they believe that God’s embrace encompassed the breadth of their travels? The broader biblical context points to the latter. Israel believed that the jurisdiction of its God transcended its own unique existential experience of that God. (This can be seen, for example, in the claim that God would give Israel land that was occupied by other people [Deut 6:10–12]). From an anthropological point of view, this is an interesting feature of Israel’s perception of itself as the special people of a God who was not confined by geographic boundaries.

The more settled and sedentary a ‘traditional’ or pre-technological people, the more relevant to them was their microcosm and, relatively speaking, the less relevant their macrocosm. In other words, the most meaningful part of the cosmos is the part nearest home, while the broader world is less significant. Consequently, they tend to know less about or even speculate less upon its workings. Small-scale sedentary peoples thus tend to have a very localized theology and notion of God. Just as they are relatively indifferent about the wider world, so they are unconcerned about the extent or nature of God’s influence over that world. Conversely, the more nomadic, large-scale, or commercially-organized a people, the more experiential knowledge they will have of the wider world. Their microcosm will have been breached, and the macrocosm will be the object of interpretation and meaning (Horton 1975).

It would seem that the audience addressed here has a rather informed knowledge of the macrocosm. At least we are shown that they perceive their God as one who rules far beyond their own land, and not merely as a local god. Some localized people might, as it were, take their god with them if they did happen to travel, because they would know that ‘other lands’ meant ‘other gods.’ The self-perception of Israel, that ‘other lands’ nevertheless meant ‘our God,’ would seem to indicate: 1) that this people was widely travelled, as narratives of the wandering ancestors claim, or, 2) that they had been dispersed, as traditions that follow the fall of northern Israel and the exile of southern Judah indicate, or, 3) that they had a very atypical understanding of God in relation to a people.

2. New Year and Sacred Time

The calendrical note (v. 2) suggests that these people followed a Babylonian calendar, which began its year with spring rather than with autumn, as did the older Israelite calendar (cf. 23:16; 34:22; see Durham 1987:153 for a different explanation). The ruling itself is announced by God through performative world-making language, language that actually brings about what it states. This is an example of the general social function of language in defining and organizing the raw material of the world (Austin 1962). The calendrical reckoning specifically recreates or reorders time. Because time is one of the most fundamental elements of creation itself, its reordering will be rooted in a re-creation.

By marking the beginning of the year, the ritual is related with the primordial beginning of time. The liturgical prescriptions themselves indicate that this time is not merely linear, non-recurring time, but rather it is ‘time out of time,’ cyclic, recurring, and sacred time. This explains why the directives that follow the calendrical reckoning are binding in perpetuity. The concept of perpetuity is significant in another way. It is forward-looking, and this implies that these people, oppressed as they may be, believe that they have a future beyond oppression.

The institution of the ritual as perpetual (vv. 14, 17) both justifies it and explains its effectiveness. This ritual is not an isolated act whose significance is limited to one moment in time. Its meaning is not found merely in ritual action in the abstract, which cancels the social context, but in the action in context which roots it socially. Thus, the meaning of the ritual is actually embedded in the very social context of the people. Ritual both lifts the participants out of and above mundane time and sacralizes the temporal moment of its performance. In the Passover, certain events of historical time, through ritualization, have become sacred events of sacred time. Thus, these ritual acts were not only remembrances of historical events, they were reenactments of sacred events performed during sacred time. We witness here a simultaneity or a convergence of the mythologization of history and the historicization of myth receiving expression in a classic ritual which mediates in-group/out-group; old/new; slavery /freedom; life/death.

3. Election of Israel

The phrase “for you” (v. 2) suggests that the new order is distinctively the order of this particular people and of no other. They perceive themselves as set apart for some reason and by some one, and this self-perception maintains their social identity as elect. Since they have little or no control over the land in which they currently live, it is significant that the new order created is temporal in nature and not defined in spatial terms. The Passover ritual can be enacted anywhere, though not at anytime.

The divine encounter of Moses, Aaron, the Lord, and the heart of the divine message, which is binding legislation, underscores at least three important elements that comprise the people’s perception of God and the relationship between God and themselves. First, it is God who initiated this relationship; they do not choose God. Furthermore, God chooses them, and not some other people. Second, such divine communication presumes that God is accessible to the people through mediators. Third, the message contains directives for ritual reenactment of their proleptic deliverance. This bifocal temporality suggests that their deliverance by God is not a single occurrence but an on-going reality.

4. Social Stratification

Moses and Aaron were made intermediaries between God and the congregation, thus creating a kind of social stratification perceived as divinely ordained. This divine election also legitimated the authority that they exercised within the community. The passage suggests that the entire community is bound by the directives given. However, the words “all,” “every man” (v. 3) and “the whole assembly” (v. 6) need to be analyzed carefully, because their referents are not obvious but are embedded in a particular social world. Since a community is a socially constructed reality, outsiders cannot presume to know who was considered a member, who was not, and in what senses people were, in fact, members. Only by understanding that particular world will we know who is encompassed in these notions. Do these references include every single man, woman, and child without exception? Or do they refer to those, but only those, who have jural or moral title to membership? And if the latter, who in this particular group enjoys such membership and why?

The broader biblical context shows that there were in fact ritual purity restrictions regarding age, sex, and physical or mental condition that limited participation in cultic ceremonies (Leviticus 11–16). Therefore, “all,” “whole assembly” and “each man” must be understood in a limited way. Furthermore, the reference to “whole assembly” cannot be to the entire congregation, for not everyone had a lamb to slaughter. Perhaps the entire congregation (including women and children) was expected to make plans to gather for the ritual, but only the heads of households (or clusters of households) would “kill their lambs” (v. 6).

The first ruling directs the Israelites to select on the tenth day of the month (v. 3) a lamb to be slaughtered on the fourteenth (v. 6). In many contemporary cultures it was quite common that certain specific events were arranged days ahead of time. This enabled the entire community to make arrangements to take leave from their places of residence, to travel, and to arrive at the prescribed location at the designated time. However, this anticipated delay is discordant since there is such clear urgency in the departure of the people in this account (v. 11).

5. Household and Kin

It is clear that the chief man of the house enjoys a certain leadership in ritual. If “their fathers’ houses” implies patrilineality, the women would be part of their fathers’ households and would be assimilated to their brothers for ritual purposes, indicating that the sibling bond (consanguinity) is stronger than the marriage bond (affinity). However, in an uxorilocal marriage, a man’s sisters would not be included in his new household; the marriage bond would take priority over the sibling bond. Every social group has its marriage rules, some of which are ‘preferential’ and others are ‘prescribed,’ though their precise articulation differs from society to society. Knowledge of the actual rules provides us with critical information for an understanding of the social institutions of kinship and marriage as they exist in particular societies.

In many traditional cultures, a ‘household’ is made up of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Both the living and the unborn are protected by the deceased heads, while the primary function of the living is the production of the next generation which will perpetuate the dead into the future. The living includes all those under the control and protection of the designated household head, usually the ranking senior male (i.e., one who is socially active, has children, is honorable and ‘blessed’ according to the perception of his peers). Continuity is both a biological and a social imperative. In patrilineal societies, the household would include wives, children, sisters, younger brothers and their spouses and children, and sick, aged, or widowed parents. Small clans or tribes would consist almost exclusively of consanguines or affines. The prevailing marriage rules would determine whether the neighbor mentioned here (v. 4) would be a man’s brother (in the case of virilocal marriage), a man’s wife’s sister (in the case of uxorilocal marriage), or someone who was not close kin (in the case of neolocal marriage or in groups which included strangers).

This passage does not provide a clear idea of the kinship structure of the group described, and no positive conclusions can be drawn from this fragmentary examination. Although the broader biblical tradition contains examples of different residence rules (e.g., Rebekah left her family to marry Isaac [Gen 24:58], while Samson married a woman who continued to live with her parents [Judg 15:1]), the majority of the texts suggest some form of virilocal practice.

There is no explicit mention of women in this text. Most likely, they did participate in the ritual, either actively or passively, according to consanguinal or affinal rules of reckoning membership. As is frequently the case, women and children are presumed present although they are not actually counted because they are deemed jurally insignificant.

6. The Sacrifice

The Hebrew word שָׁכֵן (neighbor) is derived from the verb which means ‘to dwell’ and connotes nearness or closeness rather than friendship, as does רֵעַ (companion). This means that the neighbor (v. 4) would be someone who lived in close proximity to, yet had no blood ties with, the people. Such a person might also be a גֵר (foreigner or sojourner; cf. v.19), one who lives among the people, is not a blood relative, but is still somewhat protected by law (de Vaux 1965:74–76). This reference is curious since, here, it is the Israelites who are in a foreign land, and those with no blood ties to them most likely would be native Egyptians.

Selection of the sacrificial animal (v. 5) was made according to conditions of purity (male without blemish) as well as category of species (sheep or goats). Since other Israelite rituals prescribed the sacrifice of sheep or goats (Lev 1:10ff; 5:6ff), the point here seems to be less the species of the animal than its pristine maturity: a new animal for a new year. The age specification may signify either a sexually mature or a sexually ‘pure’ animal (i.e., of mating age but unmated), thus emphasizing one or other aspect of ‘purity.’ The ruling on the sex of the animal probably reflects the expendability of the superfluous male compared to the fertility potential of the female.

Most likely, only those men who killed a lamb participated in sprinkling the blood, thus acting on behalf of their households as jural or moral leaders. The apotropaic function of the blood is clear (v. 12f). It is interesting to note that the blood is sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels of the house and not on the people, as is the case in some rituals of purification (e.g., Lev 14:7, 14, 25). Thus, it is the household or those gathered as an assembly, and not merely individuals, that is protected.

7. Cooking the Meal

Directions for food preparation constitute a typical ‘category-defining’ ritual, which serves to identify groups, separating one people from another. Roasted meat is transformed food. Not only is it the quickest and least bloody way of preparing food, as many commentators have remarked (Lévi-Strauss 1970), but it is food of culture (cooked) rather than food of nature (raw). Fire itself is absolutely elemental, universally cherished and feared. Roasting brings something into direct contact with fire, thus achieving a fundamental transformation. Boiling or seething are more gradual, less dramatic, less transformational. Roasting, then, bespeaks people who, though in a hurry (v. 11), have sufficient control over the rite to eat with a certain degree of civility, and not like animals (or, some uncouth people) that eat raw food. This feature could be either a polemic against the eating habits of another society (Egypt?) or a reminder of how close the congregation itself might have come to regressing from a life of culture to one of rustic simplicity or anarchy. In either case, however, the surrender of the meat to fire is consistent with the sacrificial feature of the meal.

The people are directed to eat the entire animal, “its head … legs.… and inner parts.” They show no repugnance toward what some might define as offal. The stylized symbolic behavior of disposing of the entire animal described here is more than mere ‘cleaning up’ after a meal. It seems that nothing of the meal was to remain to be eaten at another time. All of it had to be somehow set aside or re-classified during the ceremony. Burning the left-overs was a sign of closure. It signified the end of the rite, the return of the participants to profane time, and the resumption of “worldly” activities and behavior, a ‘tidying up’ of the world (Douglas 1966).

8. Nighttime Flight

Since the Israelite day begins in the evening (“evening … morning” [Gen 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31]), the mention of morning (v. 10) probably refers to actual daylight and not to a new day. If the terror against which the people are defending themselves strikes at night, then the protection afforded by the ritual would not be necessary during the daytime and so the ritual could be concluded at dawn. While it is true that escape during the night ordinarily might have been a better strategy, according to the narrative, Israel’s departure had to await Pharaoh’s discovery of Egypt’s disaster. This happened during the night (vv. 29–32), and so the haste with which the Israelites left may have had as much to do with Egypt’s panic over the deleterious effects of their presence as with the need to escape.

The ritual takes place at nighttime, after the beginning of the new day but before the light of day dawns. It marks a period of liminality (day, but not yet daytime) and it creates a state of liminality (saved, but not yet freed). The rite, then, is clearly a ‘rite of passage’ (van Gennep 1960). Rites of passage are the socially organized dramatic processes whereby people are moved not only from one status to another (e.g., girls become women, boys become men, etc.), but also from one geographic plane to another (e.g., an exodus from a place or an arrival in a new land).

9. Origins and Appropriation

Passover (v. 11), the word that names the feast, is the nominal form of the verb פֶּסַח which is normally translated ‘to jump’ or ‘to pass over’ (cf. v. 13). The noun designates both the feast itself (cf. Deut 16:1) and the animal offered as sacrifice during that feast (cf. Exod 12:21). The Exodus text itself uses both senses. From verses 3 through 11, the reference is to the lamb, but the entire narrative is the recounting of the origin of the feast. The ritual described probably originated in an earlier celebration. Ancient Near Eastern literature shows that it was customary for shepherds, before they moved to new grazing grounds, to sacrifice a young animal and eat it along with bread and herbs (de Vaux 1965:489). Since such nomadic people usually traveled by night, they sought to appease the night demons or the angel of death by smearing some of the blood of the sacrifice at the entrance of their tents. This biblical passage probably contains a reinterpretation of an early nomadic nocturnal practice which was taken over by the Israelites and assimilated into their own story of deliverance.

The rite, as we read it in Exodus, is a testimony of the people’s understanding of both the power of their God and the ritual power of the blood. The blood of the passover (i.e., the sacrificial animal) is a sign for God to “pass over” the marked households. Like the primordial bow in the cloud after the flood (Gen 9:12f), the blood on the doorposts will be a sign (אוֹת) to God to protect the people. God is perceived as having control over life as such. The blood paradoxically symbolizes both life for the Israelites and death for the Egyptians. In a world of competition and limited resources (cf. Malina 1981), survival among more or equally powerful nations required assurance of God’s power over life and death. God’s power was believed to have been manifested through protection of Israel and triumph over Israel’s enemies.

The ‘first-born’ (v. 12) usually signifies continuity as well as the very identity of the social group. Cutting off the first born bespeaks discontinuity, chaos. Here God explicitly touches the lineage of both people. There seems to be a parallelism between the households being protected and those being attacked. Using the life blood of the sacrificial animal, God both safeguards the life and future of Israel and strikes down the life and future of Egypt.

The phrase “I am the Lord” (vv. 11, 12) appears both in the account of the revelation of the special divine name (Exod 6:24) and as a self-declaratory formula connected with summaries of the special ways that God’s power has intervened on behalf of this people (Exod 7:5, 15; 8:18[22]; 10:2). It is above all a confession of the authority of the real and effective presence of this God (Durham 1987:75f).

The memorial (v. 14), which includes a re-creation of a previous event, is a kind of re-membering of the community. It seems that an ancient nomadic ceremony has taken on new meaning; specifically, the commemoration of the people’s national struggles for political independence from Egypt. In the festival, the land to which the nomads looked is no longer merely new grazing land. It is truly a ‘promised land’ (Gen 15:7; 24:7; 26:3f; 35:12; Exod 3:7f; 6:4). The demon of the night, an angel of death for the Egyptians, is an agent of life for the Israelites. The sacrificed animal, originally intended to assure the continuance of the flock, now symbolizes the survival of the people. It would seem that, gradually, the historical elements of the story became primary and that the original nomadic celebration turned into a memorial of the people’s release from Egyptian bondage (see Deut 16:1).

The obligation of perpetual commemoration denotes a people that understands itself as assured of a future. This is in marked contrast with Egypt whose future is now in jeopardy. Under the circumstances of Israel’s bondage by Egypt, remembering the story in this formal, ritual way would have been a community-building or an affirming act of collective consciousness seeking assurance, survival, and hope. By fusing the common story with the ritual, the generation recalling the event is bound to the previous generations who told the same story. The ritual memorial both creates and maintains identity on the personal, communal, existential, historical, and eschatological levels.

10. Unleavened Bread

The communal sharing of unleavened bread includes the outsider (the observant sojourner) and excludes the insider (non-observant Israelite). The sojourner (גֵר, v. 19) is one who lives among a people, is not a blood relative, but is still somewhat protected by law (de Vaux 1965:74–76). With no native civil rights, the sojourner is dependent upon the hospitality of the group. This point becomes very important to the Israelites, who themselves were originally sojourners in Egypt (Exod 22:20), being merely outsiders at first and eventually virtual slaves. In more congenial circumstances, Israelites who lived with their neighbors were usually treated as protected citizens (Ruth 1:1–5). In the land of Israel itself, foreigners were routinely regarded as proselytes and, in this capacity, participated in the liturgical life of the people (Num 9:14). Since here the Israelites themselves are the outsiders, this reference to people who are sojourning in the land of the Israelites must be proleptic.

Observance of the prescriptions regarding unleavened bread (v. 15) is a marker for inclusion in the community in another way. To those for whom leaven represents corruption, anyone who eats leavened bread is seen as corrupt and must be excluded from the community. This directive creates a distinct social category and explicitly identifies one group as ‘unleavened-bread-eaters,’ a designation intended to symbolize the purity of the group relative to corrupt outsiders, and to gather other ‘unleavened-bread-eaters’ into communion with them. This is the second marker that sets these people off as a distinct group. They are the ones who are saved by the blood of the sacrifice and who avoid the corruption of leaven. This inclusion/exclusion characteristic, similar to the salvation/destruction potential of the blood of the lamb reveals something very important about the multivocal and polyvalent nature of living symbols and their underlying rituals.

The temporal prescriptions about eating unleavened bread, like the previous ones regarding the preparation of the lamb (vv. 3, 6), suggest a celebration of some duration (seven days [23:15; 34:18], beginning on one sabbath and ending on the other [Lev 23:6–8]). This memorial, observed at the beginning of the year—coinciding with the New Year’s commemoration of creation—is celebrated between sabbaths (the weekly commemoration of creation). The Israelites entered into and moved out of the ritual experience of liminality in Passover through the sacred portals of the sabbath.

Refraining from work is a good example of the ritual significance of the moment and recalls the primordial sabbath rest (Gen 2:2f). The designated time (from the first day to the seventh day) is raised to a position of preeminence in this given context. Beginning and ending with a “holy assembly,” it marks “time out of time,’ ‘no-work’ in a schedule of work (cf. Gen 2:2f). Here the demands of ritual supersede even the normal demands of laboring for one’s sustenance. It is clear that the mundane world is reorganized by the ritual and its specific demands.

The specific ritual injunctions are quite simple because they must create and sustain a social group over time. Anything too elaborate risks being forgotten or confused or losing its meaning as it is passed down through the generations. Ritual does not need to be complex, but it does need to be standardized and effective.

Profile of a People and of a Method

The notion of meaning-acted-out seems to be a very helpful description of the behavior described in the Exodus text. Meaning-acted-out is also an acceptable way of understanding ritual, the primary expositor of tradition (Worgul 1984). The present inquiry has not explicitly or formally demonstrated the nature of ritual as such. Instead, using ritual informally or as an intuited category, it has attempted an excavation of a particular social context. What has it uncovered? And how helpful has the approach been?

In the first place, it is clear that the behavior described in Exodus was intended to create, identify, and maintain meaning. The calendrical reckoning (vv. 2–3, 6, 14–19) actually reordered time. “This day” became the first of days, both calendrically and primordially. (The fact that the texts contains several allusions to primordial events supports this claim.) The events that are recounted established the order of the created world and brought the people into existence in this world. The ritual remembrance of these events would establish this order anew. Henceforth, the day of their deliverance was regarded as the first day of creation; and the first act of creation was their deliverance out of the night of chaos.

Within this newly created world order, the Israelites were set apart from all other people. They were the elect ones, and their privilege was not perceived as spatially circumscribed. It issued from their relationship with a God who is able to ‘passover’ territorial boundaries. They perceived themselves as a people specifically called by a God who would deliver them from oppression, who assured them ethnic continuity through protection of their first-born, and who was accessible to them through intermediaries. This self-perception was actively forged and insured, not passively observed, by means of the Passover ritual. Since the ritual was understood to have been prescribed by God, the people believed that the community was itself divinely ordained and eternally valid.

The radically creative character of this ritual cannot be over-emphasized. Although subsequent reenactments would recall the events of deliverance, at this point in the narrative, there is not yet anything to commemorate. This is initially a performative rather than an anamnestic ceremony. Its proscriptions established and endorsed the people as both selective-meat-eaters (vv. 4–5, 9) and unleavened-bread-eaters (vv. 15, 17–20). concerned with questions of purity and corruption. By obeying the divine directives, the people described in this biblical text fashion for themselves an identity that has primordial roots. In years to come, when they remember these particular events (vv. 12–13, 17), events which tell them who they are (i.e., a people perpetually bound to this particular delivering God), their remembering will create this identity anew.

Although the ritual did not originate with the group, it did make use of the already established social patterns and structures of the group (e.g., household organization), and thus reenforced them. This is a patrilineal society with complex socioreligious stratification (vv. 3–4, 6–7, 12) which, nonetheless, in certain circumstances could include people who did not initially belong to their kinship group (vv. 4, 19).

The future-orientation of the group is seen in the ritual’s expressed concern for perpetuity (vv. 14, 17). This particular characteristic also illustrates the inherent function of the performance in educating the community in those values and traditions which the ‘collective consciousness’ does not want to forget. Such indispensable education is accomplished by means of the interpersonal, repetitive, adaptive behavior, which has been more substantially described as, “a communal activity aimed at sustaining the convictions of a community through the enactment of a regular and patterned system of behavior” (Worgul 1984:141). The education of the whole people is guaranteed by the insistence on fidelity to ritual observance by the entire community (vv. 15, 19).


All of these insights together yield a profile that will take on flesh when it is fused with the horizon of the various interpreters. The interpretive possibilities are myriad. At the end of this study, one might ask: What insights has this approach yielded that a more ethnological technique would not? This study has attempted an examination of meaning-in-context. It has not been concerned primarily with the degree to which the social behavior came to be compared or contrasted with a pattern of behavior. Here ethnological information did not serve as the measure of the behavior. Instead, it was used to enhance one’s understanding of what was being observed.

Ethnographers insist that there is an intuitive character to their work. This can be seen as both a weakness and a strength. On the one hand, intuition relies on the insights of the individual ethnographer rather than on heuristic models critically designed after extensive investigation. The risk of superficiality and/or idiosyncratic interpretation is clear. On the other hand, ethnographers study a particular social group within a specific social context. Their first concern is meaning-in-context rather than meaning-in-general. The imposition of ethnological models risks a forced conformity and, consequently, misunderstanding.

A second issue must be considered before judgment on the value of this approach can be passed. As stated at the outset, the focus of this investigation is the fictive world of the text rather than the historical world of the author. Interest is in the potential worlds projected by the text rather than the particular world(s) projecting it. What has been described has been regarded as sequential behavior rather than diverse traditions originating from various sources. A method intent on discovering meaning-in-context can prove helpful when the text is considered as a literary unity, but not when the composite nature of the text is an issue in itself. By itself, a modified ethnographic approach may be limited, but it does provide a perspective missed by an exclusively ethnological approach. Ideally, the two approaches can enhance one another.

Nor can we overlook implications for the development of biblical theology. The recontextualization of the originally historical anthropological data results in a distancing not unlike the distanciation referred to by Ricoeur. The fictive setting is removed from its historical referents in three ways: 1) Once the text is written, it exists by itself, without the author to throw light on its meaning. 2) It is also removed from the original audience and is available to a limitless number of readers. 3) It can be carried beyond cultural and generational boundaries and convey its message in very diverse contexts.

Distanciation makes interpretation necessary, but also possible. It is necessary, because the text has no specific reference. It is possible, because the text is now open to a variety of referents without compromising its literary integrity (see Ricoeur on ‘surplus of meaning,’ 1976:45–46). In a similar way, the fictive world created by the recontextualization of anthropological data opens horizons for the reader that a purely historical ethnological approach cannot.

Works Consulted

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A Matter of Urgency: A Response to “The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:1–20”

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley

What land could I, as a scribe, enter without quotations?

—Andrei Bitov,

A Captive of the Caucasus


Dianne Bergant wishes to use a modified ethnographic (anthropological) method—as opposed to an ethnological one—to interpret Ex 12:1–20, her focus resting on the performance in this text segment. But a conflict looms with respect to the stated aim, which is to get at the “meaning-in-context,” as opposed to the (maligned) ethnological “meaning-in-general.” But how large a context? Of which kind? In both space and time? Bergant claims to deal “with the social world depicted within the fictive world of the semantically autonomous text,” rather than the historical world which produced it. She invokes Ricoeur, but “the semantically autonomous text” still cannot be loosened from the world that produced—”inscribed”—it, to use Ricoeur’s language. It remains unclear what the relationship is, in the author’s eyes, between the “fictive” and the “social” worlds. Only towards the end of her study does Bergant refer, in passing, to the methods of historical criticism and literary criticism. But it is precisely in regard to the issues of critical methods that my disagreements with her arise. The text as we have it is a conglomerate, and the author’s disregard of this fact creates problems. Josef Scharbert, for example, noted the post-exilic, priestly redactor battling with combining the J and P sources, facing the task of making sense of the unleavened bread feast in vv. 15–19 not only in conjunction with the passover-meal but also with the commemoration of the (later) exit through the sea out of Egypt (49). If Bergant seeks “meaning-in-context,” whose context is implied? The text itself moves back and forth between what seems like a historical “report,” a “this happened to our ancestors” story, and didactic interruptions of the kind “and therefore you should do such and such.” To me, the article lacks a sufficiently sharp awareness of the gap between the historical periods and the social structures, and the interpreter’s stated intentions therefore remain unclear.

“Ritual” is replaced with “behavior” because the former term allegedly implies an already existing pattern. But “ritual” keeps cropping up throughout the article, and a reader is not alerted to why this happens. If “behavior” is preferred in order to discourage the presumably opposed idea of long-existing precedents (or “rituals”) this might in itself betray a kind of revelatory, theological prejudice, a hint at “sui generis” behavior, acts never before seen or recorded. But throughout the article there is a striking lack of precisely such self-consciously stated theological or traditionally biblical interpretive models. Still, they are in evidence. At the same time, the author makes comparisons by drawing freely on rituals from presumably already-existing cultures, which tends to undercut her aim. For, if the Israelites are expressing behaviors recorded in Exodus 12:1–20 for the first time, because God told them to, how does one explain the precedents Bergant uses for comparisons?

Bergant wishes to examine social relations within the “limited yet authentic setting” of the text segment. If we collapse the time of the ancient Israelites and that of the Babylonian priesthood into a “fictitious” unity, questions should be asked about the behaviors both of the ancients on their way out of Egypt and of the priesthood struggling to intepret their hallowed traditions. But this does not occur, for the later interpreters and their shaping of the tradition are left out. So, speculations on neighboring nomads’ ritual influences on the Israelites may appear, but not the Babylonian priesthood’s ideological agendas, their retrojection of their contemporaneous social institutions or cultural customs into the mythic past.

Now, to the analysis of the text. I find simply wrong the author’s claim (citing Horton) that sedentary traditions tend to be uninterested in macrocosmos (peoples as different as the Mandaeans and the Cherokees would dispute this). If people who move around have wider horizons and better imaginations, the logical conclusion regarding the Israelites would be that as soon as they had settled in the “promised land,” their minds shrank. Maybe they did.

Bergant remains confused about the apparent contradiction between vv. 3 and 6 regarding the lamb destined for slaughter. How could the Israelites wait for several days if they were in a hurry to leave? Historical consciousness of the sort I have indicated above would lead to a different interpretive track here as well as in the next long section on kinship, which provides few firm arguments or conclusions.

I regard the blood smeared on the doorposts to be one of the narrative climaxes of the story. Bergant notes the apotropaic function of the blood, but seems surprised that the blood is not sprinkled on the people for purification. But that would be a totally different ritual. To me, Bergant here squanders an important interpretive chance.

One might say that “boiling or seething are more gradual, less dramatic” than the method of roasting meat. But “less transforming”? Only in terms of speed. Bergant seems to rescue the Israelites from possible accusations of barbarity by stressing that they had “sufficient control over a rite to eat with a certain degree of civility.” As for control, all rituals operate on the condition of humans taking control. But Bergant appears to view the ritual as existing primordially, a priori, and not as a result of human creativity, strategy, and control. What Bergant sees as a narrowly averted threat of an Israelite fall from culture into “rustic simplicity or anarchy” betrays a certain allegiance to evolutionistic, now long-abandoned, anthropological theories.

That the whole animal is to be eaten in v. 9 strikes the author as being “more than mere ‘cleaning up’ after a meal.” What is this “more,” then? And if the burning of the leftovers marks a closure, “a ‘tidying up’,” why does “tidying up” suffice here, but not regarding the meal? (Indeed, if everything is eaten, what is left over?). Why are head, legs, and innards all mentioned? Lists in the Bible always invite caution. The peculiarity here is that this list stresses inclusion, not exclusion; the divinity is not, it seems, in his usual mood of discrimination, of listing forbidden items. Why not?

I do not see how Bergant (presumably knowing van Gennep’s theory) can claim the Passover is a rite of passage. Rites of passage emphasize a change in social status, not merely movements in space. If such occur in rites of passage, they are part of the symbolism of status elevation or degradation. Regarding the word pasah, the verb carries a pun, conveying simultaneously a “going through” (Egypt) and a “going past” (the houses of the Israelites) (Scharbert: 50). This gives a reader a clue to the doubleness in God’s actions, and the reader should therefore be prepared for saving and destructive activities going hand-in-hand, by the same actor (God). None of this is observed by Bergant, who focuses on the noun designating the feast and also the sacrificial animal. She then delves into Near Eastern parallels for comparisons and avoids attention to “meaning-in-context.”

If “cutting of the first-born bespeaks discontinuity, chaos” (in v. 12), I suggest trying to take the opposed view, for according to sacrificial logic, destruction is required for a creative act to take place. This is commonly known in anthropology and in the discipline of comparative religions. What is this turn-around in sacrificial logic, so that what was chaos becomes survival? To say that “gradually, the historical elements of the story became primary and the nomadic celebration turned into a memorial” begs the question: what exactly does “historical” mean here? Furthermore, were the Israelites nomads in Egypt?

The reader is left with the impression that leavened bread is always bad, corrupt. This can hardly be the case: what we have here is an exception from normal use. It is then the job for an interpreter to find out why the exception is made in the case of Passover, why the prohibition is so strong, what symbolic significance leaven carries within the specific time frame. If note had been taken of the Passover as marking a new creation, a new time, one could see the significance of old leaven as something left over from the previous “world,” something that would corrupt the new creation. The symbolic meaning of the specified time period for “no leaven” is insufficiently stressed by Bergant.

Her assertion that specific “ritual injunctions are quite simple” and “anything too elaborate risks being forgotten or confused or losing its meaning as it is passed down through the generations” seems derogatory. Does this reflect the author’s general view of ritual? It seems to be a purely utilitarian view, unattuned to a complex symbolic understanding.

In her summing-up, the author states that rather than demonstrating “the nature of ritual as such,” she has, instead, “attempted an excavation of a particular social context.” She has examined “meaning-in-context,” through use of “ethnological information,” in order “to enhance one’s understanding of what was being observed.” It remains unclear, however, exactly “what was being observed.” As I noted at the beginning, the author makes no distinctions between the time periods that produced the text; thus, her interpretation remains ahistorical. The putatively “modified ethnographic approach” seems to me to have been of limited use.

It is necessary to clarify first of all how one might go about studying an ancient text in an anthropological mode, and second, which theories one should bring to bear on understanding ritual action (whether one calls it “behavior” or “ritual”). The rituals are not sufficiently analyzed or sorted out, and recurring symbolic and narrative structures remain undetected.

When Mary Douglas set out to make sense of the rules for purity in her study “The Abominations of Leviticus,” she criticized what she perceived previous analyses to have produced, namely “pious commentaries” (48). I doubt that the present study by Bergant succeeds in going beyond this category. Her stated aim of employing an anthropological model is laudable, but the model remains obscure and too superficial.


Let me now offer some alternative interpretations. In my view, Ex 12:1–20 hardly lends itself to be read in its given sequence (which Bergant does, but with intriguing selections/omissions). If one insists on reading it in sequence, I suggest starting next, as a second exercise, with v. 17, and pausing there. For this is where, even in the most innocent of readings, the text’s “historical” time-frame breaks down: the command to observe the feast of the unleavened bread is associated with an event that has not yet happened! The priestly editors are (of course) ahead of themselves, already taking for granted the miraculous trip across the sea-bottom. But they are also retrojecting themselves back into time, presenting the events in Egypt as if the writers/editors were privy to these events.

So, we have here a tradition manipulating mytho-historical time, Babylonian priests looking back hundreds of years to their “own” beginnings. Our “hermeneutics of suspicion” should therefore immediately click into effect and we must scrutinize how the priests understand and reinterpret “their history.” What are the stated and unstated interests fueling their interpretations? Quite intriguing interpretive possibilities emerge if, after halting at v. 17, we then reread v. 1–17, and pause again there before finishing the piece.

God gives specific calendrical instructions along with detailed rules for the lamb-sacrifice. He is creating a new time period, a watershed in time, to be commemorated forever after (compare this with the Noah story, literally a watershed, a new creation replacing his so far botched experiment). From now on, time begins anew every year as a sacrifice takes place, one in which a lamb is correlated with household size—clearly, the one stands for the other. Preparing for God’s destructive rampage against the Egyptians, the Israelites are instructed to stay just one tiny step ahead of God in order to escape being destroyed themselves.

Extraordinarily, God, who usually teaches his people discrimination—don’t eat that, don’t marry those, don’t be influenced by X—now reveals himself as (at least temporarily) completely untrustworthy in matters of discrimination. Were it not for the blood smeared on the door-posts, the Israelites would be killed—not by any “night-demon,” but by God himself. Seeing blood, God will think he has already visited the Israelites’ households. So, the breath-stopping gist of the message is that God warns his people against himself, outrightly telling them how to fool him. Yahweh “may be uncontrollable, even by himself” (Bloom: 13). (Were this a Hindu small-pox goddess, the character would be utterly commonplace, familiar through hundreds, if not thousands, of years’ efforts at honing rules for etiquette in addressing and entertaining divinities not unlike Yahweh).

It seems unlikely to me that the priestly tradition is innocent of its message; it forthrightly conveys the magnitude of God’s destructiveness and inevitably raises the question of control and clearheaded thinking. The priests say, in fact, that God cannot be trusted to save his own people, to tell them apart from their enemies.

One saving step ahead of God—because they have smeared the blood—the Israelites precisely parallel his action regarding the carnivorous meal. As if prepared for war—loins girded, feet sandaled, staff in hand (v. 11)—they are to eat on the run, which is what God is doing. The nightly meals are not suitable for the light of day, since we are truly dealing with “deeds of darkness” here. And the meals are two: just as God hastily “eats” the Egyptian firstborns whole, so the Israelites gobble up roasted meat, not boiled, not raw. Here is an early reported incidence of “fast food.” In a hurry, both God and the people eat their food whole. To insist on consumption of the entire being accords with the stress of urgency, but stands curiously opposed to the otherwise expected discrimination as regards sacrificial food. However, the Israelites’ meal is no ordinary sacrifice, subject to rules for slaughter and consumption, for it parallels a large-scale, indiscriminate murder.

I see the meal as redescribed cannibalism: lamb substitutes for household, and the Israelites mimic eating themselves. Had they not, God would have eaten them. The ritual is indeed apotropaic. In the priestly interpretation, however, it becomes something else: commemorative. The difference lies in the conception of time: apotropaic rituals try to prevent something, while commemorative ones dwell on the past by making it present. Who would want to make a commemorative ritual out of God’s mass-murder? The answer is: the Babylonian priesthood, safely removed both spatially and temporally. By shifting the emphasis, the priestly tradition reinterprets the ritual into something more palatable.

The unleavened bread and bitter herbs suddenly enter into the meal at v. 8. This marks a combination of pastoral and agricultural ideologies. One should ask: why does the meat disappear after v. 11? Scharbert notes that the bread ritual evinces an old agricultural festival, in which the first-harvested grain was eaten (51). But this too is a kind of sacrifice of the first-born! “To be cut off from Israel” (v. 15) echoes the death-penalty for neglecting the festival, which meant refusing to give the agricultural divinity his due, harboring “old leaven,” ignoring the newness of God-given time. For leaven denotes something carried over from the old order.

Bread is “cooked” twice: first, the leaven changes it, then the baking of the dough marks a second treatment. As the Israelites could not—would not—eat raw bread dough, (just as, back in v. 9, raw meat was forbidden), they at least avoid the first step of “cooking.” One notes again the emphasis on haste and on the correlation in the treatment of meat and bread: both are “half-treated,” neither in a state of pure nature nor of complete cultural transformation.

The priestly tradition found the commemoration of the meat-meal too much to bear. Shrugging it off, then, the priests present a reinterpretation in which the bread (now harmless, agricultural) is played up, the violence-ridden, pastoralist-nomadic meal of meat played down. This suited the ideology of a settled nation better. Still, the ripping seams of the story threaten to tear its fabric, in part because the period of wandering and the events prompting it, must carry positive value. As noted, violently competing emotions are at work: the priestly tradition thanks God for the trek on the sea-bottom—a saving act not yet performed—and bungles the linear narrative by resolutely repressing the implications of remembering an event too close for comfort: the killing of the Egyptians and the near-murder of themselves. Reinventing their mytho-history, however, the priests come close to revealing the mental and imaginative limits of the monotheistic idea. With a god like this, who needs a “night demon?”

The text fairly seethes with endangered life, compressed tension, and irony, and its devastating implications demonstrate to the full what it would mean to love and fear God. The priests try to domesticate the story and the rituals, and the way they do this offers a lesson in the economics of religious psychic energy. If the result is a rewriting close to a “lie,” one can only admire the priests for daring to tell the story the way they do.

In the study of a canonical text it is always instructive to look for the text’s counter-message because canons usually have something to hide. But this text contains its own self-critique, and therefore makes the task of interpretation all the more interesting.

M. Bal, in her trenchant critique of Kermode and Alter’s The Literary Guide to the Bible, states, “The structure of symmetry proclaims its own message, its own meaning: that development and change are less relevant than identity; that the text is more stable, reliable, and important than its readings; that the structure goes back to the beginnings, which ultimately means back to God” (381). This type of thinking is shown powerfully in Ex 12:1–20, for the text demonstrates a culture’s interpretation of itself in terms of symmetries. One needs to ask deeper questions about why such symmetrical structures are so important to the priestly tradition. I miss attention in Bergant’s piece to the text’s intricate, insistent dynamics.

If rituals bring out conflicts rather than permanently solving them, the priests’ way of presenting the insoluble tension in the text focuses on the dangers of indiscriminate action and the slender but vital possibility of rescue by adherence to symmetries. Had not God, while in a cool, collected state of mind—though planning to become exceedingly angry—warned the Israelites against himself, there would have been no one to remember the saving passage through the sea, no one to try to forget the narrow escape just before that event. Swallowed by neither God nor sea, the Israelites might, with a sigh of true relief, have added another commandment for themselves, “Eat, that ye not be eaten.”

Obviously, unlike Bergant, my approach is not one centered on social relations and social dynamics. It is, however, one that tries to take “meaning-in-context” seriously, one that I might call “dynamic-hermeneutical structuralism.” It surprises me that Bergant leaves out God as a chief social actor in the story. If the story deals with relationships of power, surely God needs to be in it, for without him the story would not exist. And if the story describes, among other things, how some of the ritual and social institutions of the Israelites came about, the behavior of the putative creator of those institutions ought to be analyzed.

Perhaps most important, in view of the study’s missing historical consciousness, is the neglect of an excellent opportunity to deal with an instance of ritualized interpretation. In retrojecting its own social institutions and codes of behavior back onto the mythical time of the Exodus, the Babylonian priesthood creates a specific dynamic allowing readers a glimpse into the tensions between two social structures: that of the priests as interpreters, and that transmitted in the ancient tradition. But the tensions multiply, for both structures exhibit strains and are unsteady, perhaps even in a state of internal war.

Works Consulted

Bal, Mieke

1989    “Literature and Its Insistent Other.” JAAR 57:371–83.

Bell, Catherine

1992    Ritual Theory, Ritual Pratice. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre

1984    Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloom, Harold, ed.

1987    Exodus. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York/New Haven/Philadelphia: Chelsea House.

Douglas, Mary

1976    Purity and Danger. Ed. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon. London/Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Douglas, Mary

1983    Midrash Rabbah. Vol. III, Exodus. Trans. S. M. Lehrmann. London/New York: Soncino.

Scharbert, Josef

1989    Exodus. Die neue Echter Bibel. Würzburg: Echter Verlag.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1982    Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1987    To Take Place. Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship

James G. Williams

Syracuse University

Ritual and Sacrifice in Biblical Studies

Ritual and the Sacred

Ritual has been of central importance in the genesis and maintenance of culture. But to say “culture” is to imply “religion” or the “sacred” in some basic sense, for there can be no doubt that culture and the phenomena and structures associated with religion are inseparable from one another. Establishing a human world occurred through the emergence of prohibition, ritual, and myth.

It is now commonly recognized in religious studies and other fields that ritual, as the routinizing and structuring of gestures and acts of paradigmatic importance (cf. Eliade), both in periodic events such as ceremonies and in daily life, has not only been intrinsic to the existence of people in primitive and archaic cultures, but extends even into the modern and contemporary world of industry and technology. Indeed, even in contexts where ritual in its obvious, “religious,” sense is no longer found, an understanding of the relation of ritual to human acts and interactions is still relevant. For example, Sigmund Freud’s observations on the game of a child of eighteen months (his grandson) provide basic clues to ritual activity, whether or not they are construed exactly as Freud did. The child would throw toys and other small objects away from him into a corner and exclaim “o-o-o-o.” One day Freud observed him playing with a wooden reel that had a string tied around it. He would throw the reel over the side of his bed and utter “o-o-o-o.” Then he would pull the reel back and say quite clearly “da.” Freud concluded that the boy was acting out his anger and apprehension when his mother left him for a few hours. Freud says, “He compensated [for her disappearance], as it were, by himself staging the disappearance and return of the objects within reach” (Freud: 11). The child, inferred Freud, was uttering fort (“away”) and da (“there” or “here,” i.e., back again). This “away/back again,” the staging of a crisis and its resolution, is, in my view, germane to ritual performance in its various modes. I will return to this point when I give my working definition of ritual.

Ritual and Sacrifice

Now my career has not involved specialization in ritual studies. I was first led to an interest in ritual, and specifically sacrifice, through literary research in biblical narratives; and the questions emerging in my literary research, particularly in the patterns I noted in the stories of enemy brothers, led me to the work of René Girard in 1985. From the standpoint of the interstices of biblical studies, literary theory, and Girard’s mimetic model (to be sketched shortly), I would say that ritual is always, in some mode, concomitant to expressions of the sacred, and the heart of ritual is sacrifice, viz. “to render sacred” (Latin sacrificare, French sacrifier).

In the Anglophone world, and perhaps in Western Europe and the United States generally, the best known approaches to the sacred are those of Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade. In The Idea of the Holy (German Das Heilige) Otto focused on the experience of the numinous, which makes itself felt as the tremendum or awe-inspiring majesty, and the fascinans or force that draws the subject toward it. Although he did not intend to interpret religious experience as entirely a matter of subjective consciousness, his emphasis is clearly on the individual subject. Eliade, on the other hand, takes into account the collective experiences of human communities and traditions. He delineates the sacred as a totally separate sphere from the profane and as the primary category for understanding homo religiosus. The manifestations of the sacred, towards which the consciousness of religious humanity is directed, should not be reduced to any other reality or category.

It is striking that Otto did not give any attention to sacrifice or ritual killing, and Eliade did so only by subsuming it under larger categories. His real interest was myth. It was quite different for Emile Durkheim, who understood religion as the expression and chief unifying element of the social order that encompasses and transcends all individuals and particular groupings within it. It was Durkheim who first predicated the absoluteness of the differentiation between the sacred and the profane in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (51–54; this is not acknowledged by Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane). Although he does not place sacrifice at the center of his theory of religion and the social order, its function is viewed as of a piece with his theory:

If we are to see in the efficacy of the rites [including sacrifice] anything more than the product of a chronic delirium with which humanity has abused itself, we must show that the effect of the cult is to recreate periodically a moral being upon which we depend as it depends upon us. Now this being does exist: it is society (389; emphasis mine).

Durkheim’s research is extremely significant if one understands the human subject or “self” as fundamentally social, basically constituted by relations (or in some cases, a lack thereof) with certain “others.” If the subject is so viewed, it makes a decisive difference in understanding the function of ritual and sacrifice.

It is not my purpose here to survey theories of sacrifice (see Mack 1987; Chilton: chap. 1; Williams 1991: 14–20; for a social-scientific approach, Jay: chap. 1). My own view is that ritual is sacrifice, that is, sacrifice is the essential synecdoche, the part that is necessary to explain what the whole is about. To explicate this assertion, I will first give my own working definition of ritual, which is based on René Girard’s mimetic model of culture and human interaction; thereafter I will make some explanatory comments.

My understanding of ritual is that it originates in the sacrifice of a victim. Ritual reenacts and thus represents to the group the unifying energy of the founding “moment” when all turn against one, when the embryonic group lynched a victim (or victims). Ritual reenacts the crisis in such a way that it is emptied of all real violence in order to arrive at the resolution, the production of peace through the death or expulsion that produced peace in the first place. Ritual is a process in which a community goes into a mock mimetic crisis, representing to itself the disorder caused by putative transgressions that are transferred to the victim. It differentiates sacred time—the occasion of the festival or observance—from ordinary time, and within the reenactment of sacred time it represents the necessary differentiations, the threat to these differentiations, and the overcoming of this threat. One way to describe the mock crisis is to say that ritual undoes prohibition and then reestablishes it. The danger lying behind the prohibition, mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry, is embodied by the victim, whose divine or sacred status validates the community and confirms its identity.

To begin my commentary on this working definition, let us note once again the pertinence of Freud’s fort/da scene for understanding it. The young child’s “expulsion” of his wooden reel, which Freud understands as a substitute for his mother, is resolved, momentarily at least, by pulling it back again. The child undoubtedly already senses or feels a prohibition, namely that he must not and shall not make his mother disappear. In his little “ritual” he vents his anger by ridding himself of a substitute for her, but then he makes her reappear, as it were. Observing a child’s very serious game does not, of course, warrant extrapolation to a whole theory of sacrifice. However, it fits perfectly with the understanding that human beings find substitutes, whether human, animal, or objects, to reenact both events or situations that are intolerable (murder, incest) and the remedying of these events and situations.

As important as Freud is for understanding the structure and function of ritual, it is, I think, René Girard’s mimetic model that provides the proper context for the insights of Freud. Girard has great appreciation for Freud’s work, especially for images in the manifest content of dreams as distortions of reality (representation as distortion), transference of repressed feelings to some other thing or person, particularly the therapist, and the scenario of a collective murder in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism.

Freud’s hypothesis of the murder of the father seems like a myth to most researchers in psychology, anthropology, and religion, but Girard holds that the repetition of some original collective violence is the explanation that best fits the many instances of ritual killing of human and animal victims and the various myths of founding murders in diverse traditions around the world (A. Jensen; Green). Simon Simonse, a field archaelogist, has shown that as recently as the mid-1980s kings in the Nilotic Sudan were victims of consensual scapegoating, to which we will return shortly.

It is well known, of course, that many myths of creation recount establishment of order through the slaying of a serpent or some kind of monster: Indra and the Serpent, Marduk and Tiamat, Yahweh and Leviathan. There are also mythical and legendary tales of brothers as enemies, one of whom slays or displaces the other: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Eteocles and Polyneices, Romulus and Remus, Richard the LionHearted and John Lackland. We could mention also other such relationships, such as brothers-in-law (Polyneices and Tydeus, Oedipus and Creon), and cousins (Pentheus and Dionysus). Some of these figure in founding myths (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus) or cultic traditions (Pentheus and Dionysus). In all instances of battle and death in creation myths and founding legends, the generative violence is the moment of differentiation, the inauguration of the primary difference by which order and disorder are defined. Before and after, inside and outside, good and evil, we and they—all these fundamental distinctions are implied in this primary differentiation.

The tendency in scholarship has been to separate ritual killings and slayings in myth and legend from actual events and social experience. But the influence of Durkheim has countered this, and since World War II there have been notable investigators who have held ritual, including sacrifice, to be firmly embedded in the ongoing life of societies (e.g., A. Jensen; Turner). In introducing a discussion of the work of Girard, Walter Burkert, and Jonathan Z. Smith, Burton Mack concluded:

No longer does an epiphanic object or being focus the picture for the religious imagination, providing a center around which a Sacred Order is organized by a means of a system of symbols. Instead, an act (action, activity) has been noticed as a transaction of consequence, reflected on as a patterned sequence, and cultivated in ritual as of prime importance (Mack 1987: 58–59, emphasis his).

In agreeing with Mack I am not pitting symbol systems and ritual acts against one another as mutually contradictory; I wish rather to emphasize the importance of event, action, and, as Mack indicates in context, social code (59).

One of the notable researchers finding ritual to be rooted in social behavior and codes is Walter Burkert (1979, 1983). Taking his cues from the pervasiveness of sacrifice in ancient Greek religion and the similarity of Greek sacrificial practice to that of Paleolithic hunters, as observed by Karl Meuli, he has proposed that sacrifice originated in the Paleolithic era when humans began to cooperate in the hunting and killing of animals. Older patterns of intraspecific aggression had to be redirected upon the prey, which was anthropomorphized. This process of redirection and reflection led to ritual procedures for the hunt and the creation of myth.

This theory of the origin of sacrifice has the virtue of focusing on human behavior and social embeddedness. I think Burkert is on the right track in stressing the redirection of human aggression, but probably wrong in restricting its genesis to the development of hunting. However, here I am not concerned with critiquing his theory. I wish rather to acknowledge two of the aspects of Burkert’s work that are of extreme importance for the study of ritual. One is his grasp of comparative themes and structures. In Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual he juxtaposes, for example, a Hittite scapegoating ritual, the ritual procedure described in Leviticus 16, and instances of Greek purification ritual (katharsis) which involved expelling or execution of a pharmakos, or “scapegoat” (1979:59–67). The time has come for biblical scholars likewise to broaden their scope by considering not only the usual “Near Eastern” materials in studying ancient Israelite thought and practices, but also texts and artifacts from Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean world.

Burkert has also graphically described the sacrifice of an animal (1983:3–7). Reconstructing the procedure from Homer and various tragedies, his description indicates that all the elements, from the initial washing of hands and sprinkling of the animal victim, through the deathdealing blow and the great outcry of the women present, to the eating of entrails, bespeak the routinized repetition of an event of collective violence. The emotional high point of the ritual is the act of slaughter, which is accompanied by a loud outcry. For my purposes in this essay it is important to note that the meal occurring at the end expresses the relief and peace that prevail after the violent act.

Simonse has given similarly graphic descriptions in his anthropological study of the scapegoat king in southeastern Sudan. He identifies the simulation of regicide as a ritual drama (354–59), then in the ensuing discussion he documents 24 cases of actual regicide occurring between 1850 and 1984 (359–73). He holds that the actual instances of killing the monarch are neither ritual nor political assassination. Regicide is, rather, a deliberate act, “the tragic dénouement of a protracted confrontation with its King” (372). Nonetheless, the full scope of Simonse’s analysis indicates that the killing of the king is certainly closely related to ritual in that it is an organized activity generated by the deep structure of the social tradition. There is a scapegoat mechanism whose main outlet is the person of the king; if the rains do not come, it is he (or she, if a queen reigns) who must bear the blame. Moreover, the instance that Simonse reports in detail, the lynching of the queen of the Pari, has many features of ritual procedure. She was surrounded by mojomiji (the male warriors of the ruling generation), beaten and passed through a fire, and, most significantly, her abdomen was cut open and a melon crushed and mixed with her stomach contents and blood. The mixture was placed back in her stomach, her mouth was pierced with thorns, and her body was left in the bush. Before reentering their village the mojomiji “slaughtered a goat and took out its stomach contents. These were smeared onto their bodies together with a mixture of ant-hill soil, water and crushed wild cucumber” (370).

Mimetic Desire

But what is the basis of the claim that sacrifice is inherent to ritual and has been, in its various forms (including scapegoating), the primary human means of avoiding and managing conflict and violence? Or to put it another way, why is violence an inevitable (though not necessary) feature of the human condition and how does sacrifice serve to regulate it? According to the mimetic theory, the key lies in understanding the dynamic structure of mimetic desire.

Mimesis, or mimetic desire, is the foundation of René Girard’s theory. Human beings have very limited instincts, the genetic directives that serve as guiding and braking functions to other animals. Human needs and drives (neither of which could be called “desires”) become actual and take certain pathways through mimesis or imitation of others. Only through imitation do drives, needs, and precognitive feelings become “desires.” The dynamic of the human system is desire; the structure is mimetic. One could call this “imitational” desire. However, because imitation is a word that has become watered down and conveys no connotation of acquisitiveness, Girard prefers the classical word, mimesis, and its adjective, mimetic.

The acquisitive character of human desire lays the groundwork for human conflict. The subject not only seeks to be like the model, the one who is imitated; s/he wants to have what the model has and even to be what the model is. The object of desire is what the model or mediator desires. The result of this relationship of subject to model has great potential to turn to conflict or violence. The message given off by the model may be “imitate me”—except in this one respect, “don’t imitate me.” A classical instance of this is Freud’s so-called “Oedipus complex.” However, from the standpoint of the mimetic theory it is the desire to imitate the model/mediator (more or less the same as Freud’s “identification”), not sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, that may (but does not always or necessarily) issue in rivalry. In other words, the child identifies first with a given parent, then imitates her or him in desiring the other parent. This can lead to the child’s attempt to displace the parent who is the model in order to take his or her place with the other parent. But this sort of conflict is not restricted to parent-child relationships. It can occur in all sorts of relationships, including, and perhaps above all, relations with peers.

Of course, in human relationships conflict doesn’t always emerge, and in most cultural contexts conflict and violence do not reign most of the time. This is because cultural forms, which cannot be separated from what we now call the religious or the sacred, establish differences, such as roles, rules, institutions, etc. These differences function to keep people from destructive rivalries, yet enable them to enter into cooperative relations.

According to the mimetic theory, the slaying of the victim is the first act of differentiation in the mimetic crisis that led to the emergence of human culture. In this crisis everyone imitates everyone else in violent reciprocity and so all differences collapse. An insight into this sort of crisis can be gained from observing the universal phenomenon of crowd panic. “Panic,” from the Greek pan, neuter form of pas, meaning “each, every, all,” is the chaos generated when each person imitates everyone else, so that there is an “all” of chaos, and differences are dissolved in fear and desperation. The phenomenon of each person imitating every other, seeking to attain the other’s object of desire (in the case of panic, safety or refuge), is the epitome of chaos.

The convergence upon a victim brings such relief from mimetic conflict or violence that just as the victim was blamed for the group’s ills during the mimetic rage, so now the victim is apotheosized, divinized. As a result, the victim as god or sacralized hero or ancestor is now the “Difference” by which the others become a community and define themselves. The community repeats the act that founded it by representing the crisis that threatened it and the slaying that (re)established it. The purpose of prohibition is to prevent the same or similar crisis from recurring. The repetition of the slaying is enacted in sacrifice. And myth tells the story of the founding and the differentiations established. With myth comes the greatest possibility of displacement and deferral of meaning through shifts and transformations in the story and symbols. What Girard’s theory about the originary elements of religion and culture entails, in other words, is that the primitive sacred is violence: the collective violence of the community that is transmitted, transformed, and routinized in such a way that its object is to protect the community from violence.

The Bible and Ritual Sacrifice

It is evident that in the Hebrew Bible there are many instances of sacrifice at altars and that sacrifice was an important institution in ancient Israelite religion and culture. In The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred I argued that Israel, emerging out of the peoples and cultures of the Near Eastern world, became more and more conscious of its tradition as a people witnessing to the God of victims, and sensitivity to victimization led to the intuition that the sacrificial cult was implicated in violence. One finds this awareness particularly in the prophets (Williams 1991:148–62).

Here I am concerned with the ways in which the canonical form of the Hebrew Bible is determined by ritual (which, again, always has a sacrificial element or a trace thereof). There are three ways to go about investigating this: (1) to observe any isomorphic pattern between biblical texts and ritual or ritual institutions, (2) to note the connection of narrative, and thus of reading, to ritual, and (3) to examine the role that references to ritual play in the meaning of a narrative.

That the received form of biblical texts has been determined by ritual or ritual institutions is a truism. The beginning of the Hebrew Bible presents a story of creation that moves toward the institution of the Sabbath as based on God’s own rest from his work, and the ending, 2 Chronicles 36, narrates the announcement of Cyrus that he will rebuild the Lord’s house in Jerusalem. The Books of Chronicles begin with a genealogy, whose purpose is ultimately to establish patriarchal authority and priestly status (see Jay: chap. 7). Exodus begins with a genealogy and ends with the tabernacle. There are many instances such as this, and a rejoinder could be that these instances are obvious because they are texts formed out of the Priestly tradition. However, there are others that are not so obviously from a priestly setting. The text to be examined in the second part of this essay, the beginnings of kingship in 1 Samuel, is an example. It starts with the yearly offering of sacrifice by Elkanah at Shiloh and recounts the greatest number of sacrificial occasions of any narrative portion of the Hebrew Bible. Yet it is not obvious at all that priestly narrators composed the text.

If “form” is understood as shape, particularly external shape, and “structure” is understood as a system viewed synchronically, then many passages are undoubtedly formed and structured by ritual. Exodus 1–20, 24 is one example often noted by biblical commentators. The story of the Passover and exodus from Egypt reads like an initiation ritual. The phases noted by Van Gennep and adopted by Victor Turner, separation, margin, and reaggregation or reincorporation (Turner: 94–95), are all there. The exodus from Egypt is celebrated with the Passover sacrifice (Exod 12:1–28) and the constitution of Israel as YHWH’s covenant people is likewise celebrated by a sacrificial ceremony (24:3–8) and a postsacrificial meal (24:9–11).

In discussing sacrifice as basic to the very structure of narratives, we already touch on the connection of narrative and the reading of narrative to ritual. If ritual functions basically like Freud’s fort/da scene, as construed in the context of Girard’s mimetic model, then reading will have a ritual function, the origin of which is a crisis precipitating collective violence and its resolution in the lynching of a victim. At least this would be true of collective reading and recital; and derivatively, of any reading in which the individual reader is conscious of sacred tradition or is influenced by collective pressures to approach a text as of supreme value (e.g., Mao’s “Red Book” under Mao Tse-Tung in China), even if it is ostensibly removed from traditional religion.

I have elsewhere noted that protagonists in biblical texts, particularly stories of enemy brothers, must undergo some sort of scapegoating ordeal (Williams 1991:64–65). I think that a narrative poetics of such texts requires viewing their structure and movement as a kind of ritual process. In the brother stories, for example, the older brother is displaced from the primary line of inheritance and the favored younger son is subjected to an ordeal that has a ritual character (Gen 22:1–19; 32:22–32; 37:17–36; cf. Ex 4:24–26). The resolution that comes about in the new status of the chosen pne is structured basically like the fort/da game of Freud’s grandson.

As for the role that refers to ritual play in a narrative, we now turn to Saul and sacrifice in 1 Samuel.

Saul and Sacrifice in 1 Samuel

Sacrifice in 1 Samuel 1–10

The conception and birth of Samuel is placed in the context of pilgrimage to Shiloh. The narrator tells us that Elkanah and his household did this yearly so that he could offer sacrifice and pay his vow (1 Sam 1:21). We have thus the picture of a pious family, and this piety is defined in terms of sacrifice at Shiloh. Hannah is a devout woman who conceives and bears a child, a child given to the Lord and, after having been weaned, taken to Shiloh to be under the tutelage of Eli. Meanwhile, we read that Eli’s sons are immoral priests who did not properly manage the offering of sacrifices, but took the best portions and raw meat with fat for themselves (2:12–17). They look with scorn (or “with greedy eye,” LXX) at the sacrifices, according to a man of God who delivers an oracle to Eli. Eli’s ancestor Aaron was chosen as YHWH’s priest and given charge of sacrifices, but now Eli’s sons are corrupt. Therefore, a faithful priest, evidently Zadok, will be raised up to start a new priestly line. Meanwhile, Samuel’s faithfulness in ministering to YHWH at Shiloh is an apparent contrast to Eli’s sons.

The crisis of the Philistine capture of the ark of the covenant of YHWH, 1 Samuel 4–7:2, is related to sacrifice; indeed, it stems from a sacrificial crisis, for the reader of the narrative knows that the Philistines bring this disaster upon the Israelites because of the corruption of the Shiloh priesthood. The presence of the ark among the Philistines causes the statue of Dagon to topple over in Ashdod, so the ark is moved to Gath. But in Gath a plague strikes the populace, causing “a very great panic” (mehuma, 5:9). The same thing happens in Ekron, so the leaders decide enough is enough. Priests and diviners are consulted and they instruct the leaders to send it away with an asam, a guilt offering of five golden tumors and five golden mice or rats. The tumors and mice are offered in exchange for the five cities of the Philistines (6:17–18). Commentators commonly point out that this is a form of sympathetic magic. This is correct but does not deal with the deeper dimension of sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is based on a twofold principle of imitation and exchange, and the exchange is clearly sacrificial, as the text tells us: it is a guilt offering in which the tumors and mice are likenesses or substitutes for the plague-power believed to radiate from YHWH’S ark, and are offered instead of the cities and their rulers.

The ark is sent to Beth-shemesh in Israelite territory. The narrative indicates the Philistines’ awareness of the possibility of chance in crises which call for sacrifice: if the ark does not return to the Israelites, then “it happened to us by chance” (6:9). The people of Beth-shemesh offer sacrifices (זבָהִים and עוֹלוֹת), but later the LORD makes “a great slaughter among the people” (6:19). So the people of Beth-shemesh send the ark away to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for twenty years. One can infer from the text that there were no more plagues because a priest, Eleazar, the son of Abinadab, was properly consecrated, made sacred or holy (*קדּשׁ Pi), to care for the ark. We know that the priest was not only a mediator and minister at a shrine or altar but also a substitute for the people on whose behalf he officiated (see Nu 3:44–51). The consecration of a priest reflects the downfall of the house of Eli and indicates the end of the crisis.

The ark is therefore basically a sacrificial object through which YHWH rules (see Hans J.L. Jensen). But this form of rule does not suffice in the face of the Philistine threat, so the narrative moves the reader toward the selection of a king. When we first encounter the king-to-be in the narrative, Saul seeks the seer Samuel, who he hopes will be able to locate his father’s lost asses for him. As he approaches the city where Samuel resides, he finds that Samuel is presiding over a sacrifice (9:12–13). Samuel had already learned from YHWH that Saul was to be anointed to rule over Israel, so that when Samuel meets Saul he invites him to the meal that concludes the sacrifice and he puts the best portion of the meat before him.

If we pause to consider Saul just before Samuel anoints him ruler or נָגִיד, we see that the way has been prepared in narratives that focus on sacrifice and sacrificial issues. Samuel is born of parents faithful to their sacrificial duties and is ordained to take over leadership from the Elide priesthood at Shiloh that has been negligent and corrupt in its sacrificial office. This priestly corruption is the backdrop of the Philistine defeat of the Israelites, whose focal point is the capture of the ark of the covenant. The ark is a sacrificial object that emits a numinous violence, and the Philistines expel it back to Israelite territory with likenesses (=substitutes) of the tumors and mice in order to save the Philistine cities from the plague. In Israelite territory it also wreaks havoc, although most of the people of Beth-shemesh participate in a sacrifice of burnt offerings and so are spared. When a priest of Kiriath-jearim is placed in charge of the ark, the calamities cease, probably because the priest offers sacrifices regularly. Then Saul, who is to be anointed ruler, is set at the head of the table at a sacrificial meal. (See Burkert 1983:37–38, 89–90). The picture is that of a chaos, a lack of יָשָׁר and מִשְׁפָּט, that had continued from the time of the judges. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Ju 21:15). When everyone does his or her own thing, it is usually the most basic form of imitation: doing what the other does or does not do, above all retaliating against others, which is basically imitative violence. Samuel had done מִשְׁפָּט, “judged” (שָׁפַט) Israel (7:15), but he had not made the difference that could avert the Philistine threat and bring security and peace to the Israelites. That “difference” would be Saul, whose first step toward kingship is a sacrificial meal with Samuel. Samuel becomes his guide, his model, giving (or “giving off”) the message, “Do as I say and do”—except in one respect, which would be to displace Samuel as the authority over sacrifice and communication of the divine will.

When Samuel anoints Saul, he tells Saul that he will encounter three parties of men, evidently of increasing number each time: two men, then three men, then a band of prophets. The second group will be “going up to God at Bethel” (10:3) and the prophetic band will be “coming down from the high place” at Gibeath-elohim (10:5). “Going up” means to offer sacrifice, as in Samuel’s going up in 9:14, and the prophetic group descends from what was probably a sacrificial occasion at Gibeath-elohim. Saul will be caught up by the divine spirit in a prophetic frenzy with the prophets, which is the second initiatory step into kingship. The third will be when he is confirmed in a sacrificial festival at Gilgal. Saul is to wait at Gilgal for seven days until Samuel comes and instructs him.

At this point we reach another stage in Saul’s ascent to the status of anointed nagid over Israel. For Saul, whose way to leadership is occasioned by a sacrificial crisis, now becomes himself the sacrificer. It is a fateful role for Saul, but at a deeper level he becomes the sacrifice or scapegoat for Israel.

Saul as Sacrificer

We first encounter Saul as the one who offers sacrifice when the messengers from Jabesh-gilead come to him as he is leaving a field behind his oxen. The messengers inform him of the Ammonite siege of Jabesh-gilead. The spirit of God possesses Saul, and he cuts a yoke of oxen in pieces, sending them throughout Israelite territory with the message to follow Saul and Samuel against the Ammonites. There is no doubt that cutting of the oxen into pieces is a kind of sacrificial act. The same verb, נתח (Pi), is used also in Judges 19:29 and 20:6 in the story of the Levite’s concubine and the war of the other tribes with the tribe of Benjamin. The relation of the story in Judges to Saul’s act has been frequently noted and analyzed. The verb is used otherwise in the Bible only with reference to severing an animal for an עוֹלָח or burnt offering (Exod 29:17; Lev 1:6, 12; 8:20; 1 Kings 18:23, 33). The act of cutting in this case amounts to an indication of what will happen not to the enemy but to the Israelites if they do not respond positively to the summons. This is clearly stated by Saul (11:7). The animal parts are substitutes for the people, but the sacrificial exchange cannot be completed until the enemy is defeated.

Saul had earlier been prepared for kingship by experiencing prophetic rapture as he encountered the groups who were going to and coming from the places of sacrifice. Now he is caught or seized by the spirit and consequently engages in a sacrificial act to demonstrate the charisma of leadership. This episode is extremely important, for it shows Saul as the divider, as the one who makes the difference—the differentiator who brings order to Israel in its time of crisis. This is precisely the function of the prince, the נָגִיד, the one distinguished before the others. It is also the function of the victim.

Saul’s sacrificial act in 1 Samuel 11 is an apparent success, and there is as yet no implication that he has infringed on Samuel’s prerogatives. However, the narrative in 1 Samuel 13:7–15 presents Saul’s act of sacrificing a burnt offering at the altar in Gilgal much differently. Samuel had told Saul to wait for him seven days in Gilgal (1 Sam 10:8). When Samuel did not arrive in seven days, Saul proceeded to offer the עוֹלוֹת. Samuel denounced Saul, and Saul excused himself by pointing out that the people were slipping away in the interval and the Philistines might attack at any moment.

The narrative offers a strong sense of rivalry between Samuel and Saul. Samuel has been the divider, the one making the difference in offering the sacrifice. Now Saul presumes to assume that authority. One could, of course, construe Saul as simply disobedient to YHWH and his prophet. I think, however, that the biblical text is more profound and complex than that. Saul is caught between Samuel and the “people,” particularly those he needs for military engagement. There is a mimetic feedback between Saul and his troops: just as they imitate him, he must also desire what they desire in order to maintain their loyalty (see 13:11, 15:15).

As Saul leads his troops against the Philistines, he swears an oath that no one is to eat anything during the day. Jonathan his son knows nothing of the oath and eats some honey. Meanwhile, Saul noticed some of his troops eating animals with the blood (this was presumably after nightfall), so he supervises the sacrificial slaughter and proper eating of the meat (14:31–35). Then Saul wishes to take the unusual step of proceeding against the Philistines by night, but when he inquires of God through a priestly oracle, there is no answer. He then knows his oath has been broken, and orders the casting of lots to determine the offender. He and Jonathan are taken, then Jonathan is taken by the casting of lots. However, the soldiers ransom Jonathan, presumably through the substitution of an animal offered at the altar set up by Saul. Whereas at Gilgal the people were scattering, here the people are ranged with Jonathan against Saul, who once more is isolated, singled out (as in 10:21–24) even though it was Jonathan who was taken by lot.

Saul’s fate is sealed when he attacks the Amalekites, 1 Samuel 15. On behalf of the God of Israel Samuel orders Saul, “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy (והַחֲרַמְתֶם) all that they have.…” (15:3). Saul and his army destroy everyone and everything except the Amalekite king and “the best of the things devoted to destruction” (רֵאשִׁית חַחֵרֶם) in order to sacrifice them to YHWH (15:21). Samuel condemns him in no uncertain terms, informing him that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (15:22), and announces that the authority to rule has been torn from Saul and given to a neighbor “who is better than you” (15:28).

Saul the sacrificer, the divider, the one who makes a difference, is now an utter failure from the standpoint of the Yahwist prophet. His fate is sealed, as it has been all along from the standpoint of some of the narratives. (See David Gunn; also Williams 1991:138–41.) But the narrative of the disastrous outcome of the attack on the Amalekites is fraught with irony, for two reasons. One is that although Samuel condemns gathering the best of the devoted spoils for sacrifice, the חֵרֶם itself is the object of a sacrificial act. This is even clearer in Joshua’s invasion of Jericho than it is here, but the realm of sacrifice is the necessary context for understanding 1 Samuel 15. Both the verb חרם (Hi) and the noun חֵרֶם could be used in a manner not directly related to the realm of the sacred and sacrifice, but it is evident that in origin they represent the sacred quality of persons, animals, or things that are set aside for utter destruction. This is especially the case in the occurrences of the noun. A חֵרֶם to YHWH could not be redeemed or ransomed; it must be destroyed or put to death. Every devoted thing is “most holy” (קָדָשִׁים קֹדֶשׁ) (Lev 27:28–29). In Joshua 7 the people must be sanctified (קדשׁ [Pi]) before the lots are cast to find out who has taken of the חֵרֶם (Josh 7:13; cf. 7:1, 11, 15). Passages like these clearly reflect the ancient idea that the sacred is not only life-giving and beneficial but is also that which is dangerous and deadly. Sometimes it is so dangerous that it must be destroyed. Once anything or anyone becomes חֵרֶם, it must be destroyed, presumably as a kind of gift of appeasement to the God of Israel. Saul has indeed transgressed the ancient prohibition of the sacred ban in order that he, or those with him, may offer sacrifices to God. Saul, in his desire to offer sacrifice, or allow his people to offer sacrifice, has disobeyed the injunction to make a sacrifice of the enemy people.

The other reason for reading the account as ironic is the fate of Agag, the Amalekite king. The description of his execution implies a sacrificial act at Gilgal. “And Samuel hewed (?) Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15:33). In Gilgal, where Saul had previously disobeyed YHWH’S prophet, at the altar of the sanctuary (“before the LORD”), Agag is executed. This serves to reinforce the sacrificial motif in the account: once Agag is actually present among the Israelites, he must be done away with as befits a sacrifice in the form of a חֵרֶם.

The texts do not again present Saul as offering sacrifice. The movement of the narrative shifts to David and David’s relationship with Saul and Jonathan. When Samuel visits Jesse the Bethlehemite in order to anoint a new king, he uses sacrifice as his cover (1 Sam 16:1–3). If Saul hears of the selection of a new leader, he will kill Samuel, so sacrifice is the justification for Samuel’s trip to Bethlehem. It is interesting that the transition to a new anointed one is marked by sacrifice, even though it appears to be simply a ruse to prevent violence. Yet according to Girard, that is basically what sacrifice is, a “trompe-violence,” an attempt to maneuver around violence, to “deceive” it. Saul is deceived and there is no immediate violence.

Samuel’s use of sacrifice as a “trompe-violence” in 1 Samuel 16 is ironic in conjunction with David’s later deception when Saul has begun to see him as a rival who must be eliminated. David, in trying to avoid contact with Saul, has Jonathan report to Saul that he has gone to Bethlehem to participate in the yearly sacrifice for the family (20:6, 29). In this case, however, the sacrificial ruse breaks down.

The rest of the narrative of Saul’s reign represents a sacrificial crisis in which no sacrifice can be effective in managing violence, so there is practically no mention of sacrifice. The one exception is found in the aftermath of Saul’s vision of the dead Samuel. Saul, obsessed with his model/obstacle Samuel, seeks reassurance from Samuel after his death. After the appearance of Samuel and Saul’s collapse, the medium of Endor feeds Saul and his servants. She takes a fatted calf and she “quickly slaughtered it” (וַתִּזֱבָּחֵהוּ), giving it to the men with unleavened bread (28:24). Since the common verb meaning to offer as sacrifice, זָבַה, is used here, this passage is an important bit of evidence for the connection of slaughtering and sacrificing, and it reflects the common occurrence in traditional societies of eating a meal at the conclusion of the sacrifice of an animal or human victim. It does not, however, really qualify the observation that sacrifice is no longer effective in the story of Saul.

Saul as נָגִיד or מֶלֶךְ is the supreme differentiator for Israel; this means it is he above all who functions politically and religiously as the leader through crisis to resolution. In offering sacrifice he represents the mock mimetic crisis in which differentiations are dissolved in the killing of the victim and reestablished through the efficacy of the victim’s sacredness. Saul’s failure associated with his inability to handle sacrificial occasions is closely related to his status as a scapegoat in the narratives.

Saul as Scapegoat

Scapegoating is structurally closely related to sacrifice and probably stems from the same originary phenomenon of victimization. The victimization could take the form of murder or expulsion. Scapegoating depends upon selection of a victim (this is a primarily nonconscious process) who or which is disposed of for the sake of the group in crisis. All the rivalries and conflicts of the group are transferred on to the victim, who is typically blamed for bringing about a crisis. The phenomenon of victimization we call scapegoating may be ritualized, as we see in the scapegoat narrative of Leviticus 16 and the ancient Greek pharmakos rituals. (See Burkert 1979, 1983.)

There is therefore a close connection between Saul’s failure to understand and enact his role with respect to offering sacrifice and his fate as a scapegoat. But first I must make the case that he is, indeed, a scapegoat. To do this I will take up first Saul’s ominous selection by lot in 1 Samuel 10:20–24 (see reference note 6). The NRSV translates, “… and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot,” as does the Revised Standard Version. The rendering “taken” probably goes back to the King James Version. The Hebrew verb is לַכַד, which may often be translated “take” but whose usual sense is a much stronger “capture” or “seize,” either in military battle or hunting. For example, the Israelites capturing of Ai (Josh 8:21), Samson’s capturing of the foxes (Ju 15:4), or a snare’s capturing a bird (Amos 3:5).

In any case, Saul is the “pick,” he is “captured” by lot and is thus a kind of “captive.” There are three other biblical texts that recount someone taken by lot. In all three the person is surrounded by a crowd and faces the fate of death (Josh 7—Achan is stoned; 1 Sam 14—Jonathan is redeemed; Jonah 1—Jonah is thrown into the sea). These other instances of someone identified by lot are instructive. We see here classical instances of fate at work. The casting of the lot is a fateful thing; it finds the odd, the different, that allows the others involved to agree. The scenario of scapegoating thus functions similarly to sacrifice at an altar (see above, 16.).

I think the reading developed here unravels a seeming conundrum: the chosen one who is viewed as an offender, the unfavored favored one. And it does so because it proposes a hermeneutic theory that illuminates the paradox of the scapegoat king, whose role is rooted in the sacred. This role manifests itself in the complex and paradoxical ways of the sacred: beneficent and injurious, life-giving and death-dealing, blessed and accursed. Saul’s selection by lot is fundamentally a scapegoating process and as such tied to ancient traditions of fate, like the Greek, moira, as we see in Sophocles’ King Oedipus. Saul’s downfall is connected with his inability to handle the fundamental role of the king: that of being the source of differentiation, which creates and maintains social and political order. The king is both the difference and the differentiator. He is the one who brings order into the conflict of competing desires. He is the main person, the “subject” of those he leads but also the one subject to (the subjectum, “one cast under”) those he governs. One of his main responsibilities is to oversee, if not actually to offer, sacrifices. Sacrifices, the offering of victims, is the fundamental mode by which the community represents its origins in victimization while disguising this victimization at the same time. The king is the sacrifice if he cannot handle the processes of exchange and substitution which prevent a reversion to chaos, and this is the fate of King Saul.

It is no wonder that Saul hides among the baggage or vessels after he is chosen by lot! Saul has become “odd man out,” and furthermore the text notes that he is odd in the sense of being “head and shoulders taller” than any of the others around him. It is striking that this narrative literature, obviously far removed from “primitive” or “prewriting” culture, could so clearly present the newly selected king as victim. Of course, the king is no longer, as in Girard’s originary hypothesis, a victim or captive who has only a certain period of time to gain influence over his captors, an influence made possible by the sacred status of the one chosen to die. (Girard 1987:51–57.) However, aspects of “being caught” or “captured” may still be discerned in the depiction of Saul and his reign. He is a mediated figure, subject to mimetic rivalry with Samuel and his troops. (Also with Jonathan and David, but that is outside the purview of this paper.) Saul’s relationship with Samuel is such that Samuel sees Saul as undercutting his authority, represented particularly in the authority to supervise and offer sacrifices. Saul is bound to his people, above all the troops, whose desires must be his desires. Saul’s anxiety about his military following is expressed in 13:11 (“the people were scattering from me”) and probably implied in 15:15 (“for the people spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to YHWH your God”). So as we follow Saul’s inexorable descent to collapse and death, including the condemnations by Samuel for not fulfilling obligations associated with sacrifice, the final and absolute rejection by Samuel and Samuel’s god comes as no surprise.

To conclude, the narratives of 1 Samuel recount the sacrificial roots of kingship and, concomitantly, the desire and rivalry that necessitate sacrifice and the selection of the king as sacrificer and victim. It is striking that the text is so clear about this; some of its narratives even condemn kingship (1 Sam 8; 12) and raise a question about sacrifice itself (1 Sam 15). But these narratives achieve this position only by means of emphasizing the scapegoat status of the first king.

Works Consulted

Burkert, Walter

1979    Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Burkert, Walter

1983    Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Trans. Peter Bing. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Chilton, Bruce

1992    The Temple of Jesus: His Sacrificial Program within a Cultural History of Sacrifice. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Durkheim, Emile

1965    The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. J.W. Swain. New York: The Free Press. First published in 1915.

Eliade, Mircea

1959    The Sacred and the Profane. Trans. W.R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row.

Freud, Sigmund

1961    Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York and London. Standard Edition 18, 3–64. First published 1920.

Girard, René

1966    Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Trans. Y. Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, René

1977    Violence and the Sacred. Trans. P. Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, René

1986    The Scapegoat. Trans. Y. Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, René

1987    Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. S. Bann and M. Metteer. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Green, Alberto R.W.

1975    The Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. ASOR Dissertation Series. Missoula: Scholars.

Grimes, Ronald

1990    Ritual Criticism. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Gunn, David

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1992    “Throughout Your Generations Forever”: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jensen, A.E.

1963    Myth and Cult Among Primitive Peoples. Trans. M.T. Choldin and W. Weissleder. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jensen, Hans J.L.

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Re-Mythologizing Scriptural Authority: On Reading “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship”

Björn Krondorfer

St. Mary’s College of Maryland


In his study of Saul’s ascension to the throne of Israel’s first kingdom, James G. Williams applies René Girard’s hermeneutic universe of generative violence. My response takes the perspective of ritual criticism and questions the claim of mimetic theory that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are a progressive revelation of the source of sacrificial violence and the mechanism of victimization.

In accordance with mimetic theory, Williams assumes that sacrificial violence is the “defining core” of ritual (“the heart of ritual is sacrifice”). Sacrifices are ritual enactments which hold a community-in-crisis together and protect it from the contaminating power of violence. Since the story of Saul’s rise and fall records a dense cluster of sacrificial occasions, it offers itself to the Girardian gaze; and Williams’ mimetic interpretation of the ritual dynamics of 1 Samuel offers stimulating insights.

However, instead of critically engaging the Girardian model with a “thick description” (Geertz 1973) of ritual, Williams is more concerned about demonstrating that the mimetic mechanism of sacrificial violence is reflected in the biblical text. The Girardian model is superimposed on Saul’s story; and the biblical text is read as if it were a historic document, which—under the careful scrutiny of mimetic theorizing—reveals “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Girard 1987). Through layers of mythical distortions, one can catch glimpses of what Girard says is a scientific basis of explaining the origins of violence. This circular procedure surprises me: I did not expect contemporary biblical scholarship to try to trace global violence to one originary source and to claim that the Bible holds the key for understanding and ending the mechanism of all victimizations. But exactly this is the underlying dynamic of “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship.” It remythologizes Scriptural authority rather than engaging us in ritual criticism.

My remarks, then, are guided by what I think ritual criticism—understood as a reflexive, self-critical, and contextualized interpretation of ritual theory and practice—may have to say about “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship.”

The Belief in One Origin

Williams’ choice to adopt Girard’s model of cultural anthropology (Girard 1977; 1987)—itself derived from literary criticism (Girard 1966)—for the study of biblical literature is reminiscent of nineteenth century scholarship which applied general insights from the history of religion and ethnographic writings to the so-called “Semitic” religions. In 1880, for example, William Robertson Smith published a monograph on the “Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament” in which he applied McLennan’s theory of totemism, published a decade earlier. Agreeing with McLennan’s assumption that all religions have passed through a totemic stage of plant and animal worship, Robertson Smith argued that “evidence of a totemic stage of religion was present in the earliest Semitic sources and that survivals of totemism were still evident in the Bible itself.” Robertson Smith himself proudly said of his method that “it is not often that a historical speculation receives such notable experimental verification” (quoted in Eilberg-Schwartz 1990:116).

Williams’ interpretation of 1 Samuel is also an “experimental verification” of a “historical speculation”—though the object of speculation shifted from totemism to mimetic theory. Both Williams and Robertson Smith, like other historians of religion, contend that the function of religion and the organization of culture can be traced to one original source, and that the task of rituals is to repeat, commemorate, misapprehend, hide, or repress this source. Totemism, as described by McLennan and Robertson Smith, was a people’s belief that they were descendants of specific animals and plants; this system engendered prohibitions to protect the ancestor species or totem, and these could be violated only on sacred occasions. When Freud formulated his concept of totemism, partly based on Robertson Smith, he shifted the focus to the scene of the original murder. The sons of the primal horde, so the Freudian theory goes, frustrated by their father’s control of and sexual access to the women, killed the father, ate his body, and were subsequently plagued by guilt. In the totem meal, they ritually repeated and remembered their deed. “The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things—of social organization, of moral restrictions and religion” (Freud 1950:142).

Girard, the father of mimetic theory, does not use totemism as his primary category of explanation but his system is akin to Freud’s psychoanalytic reconstruction of humankind. The origin of religion and culture is no longer the descent from natural species or the murderous act in the primal horde, but mimetic rivalry from which all violence originates. Like French intellectuals before him (George Bataille, Roger Caillois), Girard sees an intimate connection between violence and the sacred (“Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred” [1977:31]), while the sacred is concomitant to sacrifice. The impulse for organizing rituals, and thus religion and culture, stems from sacrifices, in which the slaying of the victim saves the community from further violence. “The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric … [and] to protect the entire community from its own violence” (Girard 1977:8). Paradoxically, the victim that is to be killed is first protected by being declared sacred.

In the process of religious development, the original victim was replaced by surrogate victims (note that Freud also has a substitution theory: the totem substitutes for the murdered father). The purpose of the surrogate victim is to hide the true source of the community’s violent crisis, thus opening a door to the historical speculation of mimetic theory that the authentic source can be found in mythological and sacred literature. “The celebrants do not and must not comprehend the true role of the sacrificial act,” writes Girard (1977:7). The sacrificial act serves to replace original violence with ritual violence:

The original violence took place within a single, solitary group, which the mechanism of the surrogate victim compelled either to split in separate groups or to seek an association with other groups.… Ritual violence is intended to reproduce an original act of violence … [but] it conceals the site of original violence, thereby shielding from this violence, and from the very knowledge of this violence, the elementary group whose very survival depends on the absolute triumph of peace.… Ritual violence invariably takes place between already constituted groups (Girard 1977:249).

Sacrificial rituals, so the assumption goes, convert bad violence (i.e violence that spills over, dissolves differences, and leads to indiscriminate murder and chaos) to good violence (violence that reestablishes boundaries, differentiation, order). “Ritual is nothing more than the regular exercise of ‘good’ violence” (Girard 1977:37). For this conversion to function, a victim is arbitrarily chosen, imbued with special powers, eventually scapegoated for the ills of the community, and ritually sacrificed. Order is restored through controlled violence (the function of sacrificial rituals) in a community that experienced itself at the brink of violent chaos.

In Williams’ application of this model to 1 Samuel, Saul represents the arbitrarily chosen victim (he is chosen by the lot), whose task it is to restore order in Israel after the chaotic and king-less period described in the book of Judges. Saul is victim and king, sacrificer and sacrificed. Eventually, he becomes the scapegoat for Israel. From the very start, Saul is doomed.

But the biblical text, according to Williams, does not simply yield to sacred fate, shrugging its shoulders in indifference to the decline of Saul from king to scapegoat. Rather, the text reveals a burgeoning, self-critical awareness of the mechanism of the sacred and its deceptive need for scapegoats. “It is striking that … [the story of Saul] could so clearly present the newly selected king as victim,” Williams concludes the article. “Some of its narratives even condemn kingship … and raise a question about sacrifice itself.” For Williams, 1 Samuel is evidence of a general trend in the Bible: as the reader moves from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament, the mechanism of victimization is gradually revealed and people are sensitized to the violence of the sacrificial cult. “What I wish to do,” Williams writes in The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, “is to explore this revelation, this uncovering of the victimization mechanism and the favoring of the innocent victim that the biblical heritage ascribes to the God who sides with victims.… This story … will lead us through the Law and the Prophets to the Gospels, where we find a radical articulation of the revelation in the story of the Innocent Victim” (1991:30).

Reading “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship”, I felt the same Unbehagen, the same ambivalent reaction, as when reading the studies of Otto, Caillois, Girard, or some of Freud’s more anthropological works. On the one hand, I am fascinated by their attempt at offering a theory of the sacred that can explain beginning, end, and everything in between. Especially in moments when helplessly watching the global violence spiraling out of control, I know of my conservative yearning for a monolithic theory. On the other hand, I read these studies with a great deal of skepticism, for I know that rituals, like other forms of performance and play, are polymorphic, liminal, transgressive, and generally resist subjugation to one unifying theory (cf. Doty 1986; Grimes 1990). When approaching biblical rituals, we may be well advised to listen to the postmodernist admonition that the attempt at tracing human history to one originary source is a futile endeavor. The epistemological paradigm of the post-modern mythopoeic being, Derrida writes, is play, “the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin” (1978:292). At times, I wished that Williams as interpreter of biblical rituals showed some of this playfulness rather than pursuing so steadfastly the notion that the Bible can reveal the truth about the origin of violence.

Reading and Gender

I learn most from “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship” when I approach it playfully; that is, when I treat it as one possible interpretation of a biblical text rather than an illustration of a unifying theory. Having said this, it should not surprise that I find the second, exegetical part (“Saul and Sacrifice in 1 Samuel”) more intriguing than the more theoretical part (“Ritual and Sacrifice in Biblical Studies”). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether Williams’ exegetical work really needed the lengthy explanations in the beginning. Although they help to situate the author’s theoretical background, they touch on many issues too briefly. Two examples: among other things, Williams wants to investigate the “connection of narrative, and thus of reading, to ritual”—a helpful exercise, particularly if we question the process of reading itself. But does this theoretical ambition bear on the interpretation of Saul’s story? Williams writes that “collective reading and recital” have a “ritual function.” Is he suggesting that 1 Samuel is a text that has been recited for ritual purposes, or that it becomes significant only when read aloud and in a group? We do not find out. The theoretical statement is simply left hanging.

Williams convincingly argues that the narrative structure of the Bible follows a ritual structuring. But what about the connection of “reading to ritual”? Williams suggests that “reading ha[s] a ritual function;” but he does not acknowledge that our own reading of Scripture is in itself a ritualizing activity.

Ritual criticism endorses a self-critical reading that reflects the interpreter’s presence in his or her writing. Some anthropological studies have recently begun to let the ethnographer reappear “as a character in his or her own account” (Grimes 1990:213); religious scholars, too, should become visible in their writing as reading/researching/ritualizing agents. In “Sacrifice and the Beginning of Kingship”, I do not find an awareness of the author’s “ritualizing self” as he proceeds to analyze Saul’s kingdom in light of mimetic theory.

The second example of a theoretical encumbering is the “fort/da” game of Freud’s grandson, to which Williams makes several references. I am not convinced that the fort/da (away/back again) is “germane to ritual performances in its various modes,” as Williams writes. He argues that the individual resolution of psychodynamic tensions (the infant’s need to act out the frustration about his mother’s absence) is “structurally” the same as the ritual “staging of a crisis and its resolution” by a collective body. Implicit here is the assumption that individual ritualizing is mirrored in collective rites, and vice-versa (just as Freud linked individual neuroses to cultural pathologies). But Williams does not fully problematize this methodological claim, nor does he apply it to the exegesis of 1 Samuel. Are the people of Israel, like Freud’s grandson, acting out their frustration over the absence of a kingdom by playing a fort/da game with Saul? If, indeed, this game reflects a general reciprocity between individual behavior and collective rites, what are other possible interpretations of 1 Samuel?

If we assume for a moment that we can extrapolate insights from individual ritualizing and apply them to collective rituals, the category of gender may provide new perspectives. It is, after all, the male analyst (Freud) who interprets the male infant’s behavior (his grandson) as an angry reaction to female absence (mother). Applied to the collective level, what can a gendered reading of ritualizing male agents tell us about sacrificial rituals? Considering the fact that all the important sacrifices in 1 Samuel are conducted by men (except for the woman at Endor), is it possible to interpret religious rituals as a response of men-in-crisis, a male reaction to the absence of the protective mother? Men in patriarchal systems, some feminist philosophers have argued, have symbolically substituted the mother by creating institutions to which only men have access (at least traditionally): the temple, the church, the military, the government, the university. These institutions are declared “sacred” (i.e., they are closed to women and men of lower status) and regulate various forms of violence. If we are willing to give this reading some credit, sacrificial rituals—through which, according to mimetic theory, order is restored and a community protected—could be interpreted as a mechanism by which men-in-crisis reaffirm the mother in the form of institutional power and protection.

This interpretation is particularly compelling if we consider the striking absence of female personae in 1 Samuel (except for the medium at Endor and Hannah, who manages to establish her son Samuel in the political institution of sacrificial power at Shiloh). Israel’s first kingdom is established among men and accompanied by male competition, rivalry, intrigue, condemnation, sacrifice, murder, and war. The men are Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, Samuel and Saul, Jonathan and David, Agag, the thousand men of Israel, the Philistines, and so forth: they all compete with each other in the form of ritualized behavior (e.g., military and political maneuvering) and concrete sacrificial rituals. In their struggle to achieve and maintain institutional power and divine blessings, do they, perhaps, woo the favor and protection of the (lost and absent) mother? It is also interesting to compare the male rivalry between and among political and sacrificing agents in 1 Samuel with Judges 19–21, describing the end of the period “when there was no king in Israel.” There, the rape and “sacrifice” of the unnamed concubine does not restore order but leads to further chaos and disorder. I wonder: do sacrificial rituals achieve their goal (order, harmony, protection) only under certain conditions? Is the gender and, therefore, “value” of the victim of any significance? Is there an implicit hierarchy of victims based on gender?

Mimetic theory, we may assume, does not ascribe much significance to gender because of the arbitrariness of the victim’s selection (“the crucial fact is that the choice of the victim is arbitrary” [Girard 1977:257]). Although mimetism claims that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures reveal a God who sides with the victims, the actual victimized people are not read in the context of gender, class, and race. Is Saul as male sacrificer, scapegoat, and king a more valuable victim to Israel than the unnamed concubine? Does our value-laden gaze render certain victims invisible, an invisibility that began with the formation and redaction of biblical texts and has continued throughout the long history of interpretation, our contemporary reading not excluded?

Saul is remembered, the unnamed concubine not. What kind of gender assumptions and gender blindness do we carry with us when we approach biblical rituals? Does the category of gender resist the application of a unifying theory to the complexity of ritual practices?

My comments about gender and the link between reading and ritual are not meant to be any truer than Williams’ interpretation. Rather, they suggest the need not to close our hermeneutic models to critical inquiry. As interpreters of rituals, we must remain visible in our writings and resist monolithic theorizing.

The category of gender is particularly reticent about universalizing the causes and effects of violence, for more often than not women are at the receiving end of violence and remain invisible even as victims (cf. Trible 1984; Camp and Fontaine 1993). Ritual criticism is gender-conscious.

A de-Contextuatized Victimology

As I said above, I enjoyed reading Williams’ exegetical work. His discussion of the rivalry over sacrificial power between the sons of Eli and Samuel, between Samuel and Saul, Saul and his troops, etc., is intriguing. The many dimensions of Saul as a scapegoat would have escaped me without Williams’ insightful analysis. Picked by lot, Saul is declared sacred in the double role of king and victim. Samuel scapegoats him (for mishandling sacrificial rituals), and so eventually do his people. Particularly provoking, though not spelled out entirely, is the idea that YHWH contributed to the scapegoating. “[T]he final and absolute rejection by Samuel and Samuel’s god,” Williams writes, “comes as no surprise.” What is surprising, however, is that Williams passes over a passage that strongly suggests Saul’s abandonment by God, because Saul, as king of Israel, is YHWH’s rival (1 Sam 8).

Williams seems to read 1 Samuel in a literal way and treat it as a historic and revelatory document; but he also decontextualizes the socio-historical setting. At times, I wanted to hear more about the political dimension of Samuel and Saul’s rivalry rather than having it reduced to the inevitable sacrificial climax of mimetic theory. We are not led to believe that Samuel may have followed a political-pragmatic instinct when favoring David over Saul, or that he had been highly ambivalent about the kingdom because a centralized, royal institution would have limited his priestly power.

Mimetic theory, I suspect, would argue that politics are nothing but a misleading legitimation of the need for victims. Political circumstances are interchangeable and do not affect the basic mechanism of the sacred (i.e., to victimize in order to convert bad to good violence). Saul’s failure, accordingly, was neither due to a character flaw (his erratic nature), divine judgment (God’s interference on David’s behalf), nor his political incompetence (being tricked and defeated by Samuel) but to the supra-personal destiny of all surrogate victims. His failure consisted of his inability to be “the source of differentiation, which creates and maintains social and political order” (Williams). But if it is true that the reason for failing was his inability to maintain differentiation, why wasn’t Samuel chosen as scapegoat? Samuel’s unusual establishment at Shiloh, his rivalry with Eli’s sons and with Saul, and his need for Saul in times of danger would make him a perfect victim (even Williams admits that “Samuel … had not made the difference that could avert the Philistine threat”).

Mimetic theory may even concede that Samuel could have been the scapegoat for Israel because prophet and king have a close mimetic relatedness. “Prophecy and kingship … stem from a ‘selection’ that amounts to exclusion and expulsion from the community” (Williams 1991:131). Both Samuel and Saul are insiders and outsiders. Since “ritual victims tend to be drawn from categories that are neither outside nor inside the community” (Girard 1977:271) both men could have been victimized. Does it make a difference to mimetic theory who the scapegoat is? Are Saul or Samuel only playthings of the mechanism of the sacred? And if so, is history merely a repetition of arbitrary victimization? Indeed, if all victims are arbitrarily chosen, we end up with a mythological rather than an historical reading. Mimetism does strike me as an ahistorical and anti-historiographical project. Ritual criticism, I believe, cannot afford to decontextualize rituals. It must “re-contextualize” them (cf. Grimes 1990:16), and that includes the contextualization of victims.

What I am concerned about is the victimology that emerges in Williams’ work—not only because of the scant political and historical contextualization of victims but also because of the absence of victimizers. Why, for example, is Saul portrayed as victim but never as victimizer? Why is Saul’s political violence (e.g., his war against other tribes and cultures) not part of the analysis?

Williams concedes that Saul is a sacrificer, that is, an active agent of violence; but as such, he is a doomed sacrificer, an “utter failure,” whose “fate is sealed.” He is neither truly guilty nor truly innocent (for the only true “Innocent Victim” is Jesus Christ, Williams argues elsewhere [1991]). The absence of individual victimizers is, perhaps, endemic to a theory that features so prominently an everlasting need for victims: the sacrificer is merely the henchman of the sacred, the ritual performer of violence, always at risk of becoming the sacrificed himself. “[T]he victimizers can be victims of their own system of victimization” (Williams 1991:255).

A victimology that affirms so strongly the structural affinity of sacrificer/sacrificed relativizes and exonerates the real guilt of victimizers. It is no coincidence that mimetic theory prefers to talk about the “persecuting community” rather than individual victimizers. The latter are historic accidents, as involuntarily chosen for their role as the victims. But what do we do with real social, political, and moral guilt? If, indeed, mimetic theory does not “separate ritual killings … in myth and legend from actual events and social experience” (William’s), how would it, for example, interpret the Holocaust? Following mimetic logic, would not Hitler have to be viewed as the ultimate scapegoat, entangled in the “mimetic triangles” of Jews, Germans, Communists, and the Allies? After the scapegoating and sacrificing of Jews, was Hitler’s suicide a final sacrificial act? Considering his biography, Hitler seemed as unlikely a candidate for moving into a position of power as Saul, who had been a nobody before he was picked by lot from a Benjamite family. Did Hitler, the Führer, become the victim of mimetic desire? I shudder at the possibility of such theorizing, for it would play into the hands of historic revisionism.

When ritual criticism insists on the necessity of contextualizing victims, it does so to make us aware of the implicit victimologies and political consequences of our ritual approaches. The study of ritual is never disinterested but “always political, always interested, and thus always negotiated” (Grimes 1990:17).

Of Friends, Meat, and Asses: A Thick Ritual Description

Thick description, Clifford Geertz writes, “supports broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics” (1973:28). Williams does well in engaging specifics with a larger theory but tends to overlook details that may challenge his assumptions about ritual. The three examples below will illustrate the neglect of obstinate specifics.

1. Enemy Brothers and Friends. Victims, scapegoats, monstrous doubles, twins, rivals, and enemy brothers populate the landscape of mimetism. Friends seem to be as absent as individual victimizers. Is friendship possible in a system dominated by sacrificial rituals?

The mythological motive of enemy brothers is found in great numbers in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau—they all struggle for power and over inheritance rights (cf. Williams 1991; Girard 1977:61–65). In the text of Samuel, there is also a pair of “brothers”: David and Jonathan, two soul-mates, almost brothers, since Saul has more or less adopted David. Are they friends or rivals? The logic of mimetic theory would dictate that Jonathan would imitate the love/hate relationship of his father to David. Jonathan and David would vie for the protection of Saul but also for royal power. Rather than friends, Jonathan and David would have to be viewed as rivals. Indeed, Williams hints at this interpretation: Saul is “subject to mimetic rivalry with Samuel and his troops” but also “with Jonathan and David.”

If mimetic logic assumes rivalry as a root metaphor, we would have to disbelieve David’s grief over Jonathan’s death. “I ache for you, Jonathan, my dear brother, you have been so deeply beloved by me, and your love … far surpass[ed] the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). Is David deceiving himself, lamenting openly only after his rival has been killed? Or do these two men have, in fact, a loving relationship? Do Jonathan and David defy Saul’s false accusation and jealousy as they challenge our heterosexual assumptions about male friendship? We may never know (though I am inclined toward this understanding). As ritualizing/reflexive agents, our task is to become conscious of how cultural assumptions influence our own reading of rituals of male friendship (cf. Culbertson 1992).

2. The Raw and the Cooked. Not all brothers and soul-mates are enemy brothers. Like David and Jonathan, the sons of Eli the priest, Hophni and Phinehas, are another case in point. The two may not be good men (1 Sam 2 describes them as “worthless men”) but they are no rivals. They neither fight nor scapegoat each other, as enemy brothers always do. Rather, they are co-conspirators who take the good portions of the meat offered for sacrifice. Both of them are punished by God for their greed. Or so it seems.

1 Sam 2 contains the curious passage about the priest’s servant who would thrust a fork into a pan “while the meat was boiling” and “all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself.” Next, the servant is reported to “come and say to the man who was sacrificing, ‘Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but raw’ ” (1 Sam 2:13–15). Is this merely evidence of the brothers’ gluttony that justifies God’s wrath? Is it, perhaps, significant that the text mentions the difference of boiled and raw meat several times? We may recall Levi-Strauss’ observation that cooking is associated with culture and roasting with nature. Did the conspiring but not competing brothers symbolically consummate both culture and nature? Is their “sin” a symbolic rivalry with YHWH? In some cultures, boiled food is for insiders, roasted meat for outsiders. Does the fact that Hophni and Phinehas take from the cooked and the raw indicate their marginal status as insiders and outsiders, thus making them, according to mimetic theory, likely victims of sacrificial violence? Are they punished by God because they mix the raw and the cooked? It is a puzzling passage which challenges the interpreter’s imagination.

3. The King and the Asses. There is the equally strange passage about Saul being sent out to recover the lost asses of his father shortly before being anointed by Samuel (1 Sam 9). The ass, we know, is a royal and messianic symbol. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz further argues that the ass is also a metaphor for the resident alien, “for it stands in the same relation to the herds and flocks as the resident alien stands in relation to Israelite society. Like the resident alien, the ass is a loner.… [Both] are neither complete insiders nor total outsiders” (1990:126).

The task of finding the asses ties Saul symbolically to the animal that is neither inside nor outside. Like the ass, Saul is a marginal figure (a resident alien?), whose status is ambivalent. This explanation would actually support Williams’ thesis of Saul’s ambiguous status of king and scapegoat. As designated, sacrificial victim, Saul, like an ass, can neither be too closely related to the community nor be a complete stranger.

A thick description of biblical rituals, I suggest, would have to struggle with these and other obstinate details that may or may not match the larger theory. The specifics often resist a facile adaptation of theoretical models. As I said earlier, I wished Williams would have taken mimetic theory a little less seriously and moved from his mytho-historical interpretation of biblical literature to a more ludic realm. The beauty of interpreting biblical narratives, as some literary theorists have pointed out, lies in the fact that behind their apparent simplicity lingers a background full of ambiguity and complexity which challenges our imagination (cf. Alter 1981; Sternberg 1987).

“Metaphor”, Francis Landy writes in a recent Semeia issue, “diffuses, multiplies, splits selves into fragile alliances between genders, substitutes one word for the other, … [and] resists the truth of revelation with the elusiveness of Melusina and the refraction into the 600,000 faces of Torah” (1993:221). Likewise, ritual criticism resists the “truth of revelation.” It continuously probes and questions the theoretical model that is applied to a ritual practice and text.

Triumphant Theology

According to Williams’ larger interpretive frame, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures progressively reveal the truth of the victimage mechanism and a God who sides with the victims. “Revelation is a key term, for Girard finds in the Bible the revelation or disclosure of a God who does not want victims” (Williams 1991:12). 1 Samuel represents one episode in this ongoing revelation. “[T]he peoples and cultures of the Near Eastern world,” Williams writes, “began more and more to become conscious of its tradition as a people witnessing to the God of victims … [and] to the intuition that the sacrificial cult was implicated in violence.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, however, full revelation does not break through. It is still incomplete, merely an “intuition.” It takes Jesus Christ to complete it.

With the great prophets and the Job of the Dialogues in the Book of Job we come to a high point of insights concerning the connection of sacrifice to the violence of the persecuting community. But these fragments of revelation are still shrouded with ambiguity. We now arrive at the culmination of the Israelite-Jewish tradition of revelation in the narrative witness to Jesus in the New Testament Gospel. (Williams 1991:188)

Clearly, this passage expresses a traditional theology in which Jesus is fulfillment of the prophecies of the “Old Testament”. The Christian myth, as recorded in the Gospels, is the culmination of revelation and reflects a more advanced stage in religious development than the writings of the Jewish tradition. The New Testament is qualitatively different from any other myth because, so the assumption goes, Jesus’ sacrifice is the end of all sacrifice; his sacrifice reveals the mechanism that has kept the world in the claws of sacrificial violence.

But Jesus’ fate is not the same as that of the tragic hero or the dying and rising god, for his death on the cross is not a necessary sacrifice of man to God but God’s self-giving gift of love to his creatures. It reveals the violent origins of sacrifice and the complicity of us all in victimization, which makes our world go around. It is the secret hidden since the foundation of the world (Williams 1991:211).

Girard already prepared the way for such a revival of Christian triumphalism. “Throughout the Old Testament”, he wrote, “a work of exegesis is in progress, operating in precisely the opposite direction to the usual dynamics of mythology and culture. And yet it’s impossible to say that this work is completed. Even in the most advanced texts … there is still some ambiguity regarding the role of Yahweh.” Only the sacrificial death of Jesus reveals the founding murder and the mechanism of victimization: “Because it reproduces the founding event of all rituals, the Passion is connected with every ritual on the entire planet” (1987:157, 167)

This is theology triumphant; superseding, fulfilling, and completing the Hebrew Scriptures and featuring Christ’s sacrifice as a redemptive act for all humankind—if only we would correctly understand the Gospels’ disclosure of the victimage mechanism. Mimetic victimology is transformed into a Jesusology, in which Jesus figures as the only true “Innocent Victim” (William uses the capitalized spelling). Because of Jesus’ innocence, we, the readers of the Gospel, have the unique chance to understand and therefore end the mechanism of victimization.

Needless to say, I find such anthropological theologizing problematic: beside the question whether Jesus was as innocent as portrayed in the Christian tradition (after all, the New Testament writings are not disinterested), why, we may ask, is mimetic theory so interested in portraying Jesus as a completely innocent victim? What is at stake here?

Others have begun to respond to the theological bias of mimetic theory and have criticized it for its implicit ethnocentrism and Christocentrism (cf. de Huesch 1985; Mack 1985; Scubla 1988; Golsan 1993). Let me conclude by suggesting a reason why Williams’ approach to biblical rituals models itself after a triumphant theology.

In The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, Williams writes that contemporary biblical studies “obviate revelation and detest theology.” Because of their antitheological and antirevelatory values, they “contribute to the degeneration of the current intellectual situation into a mimetic pluralism in which everyone tries to outdo everyone else in being against victimization and oppression of every sort, against ethnocentricism, and finally, basically, against Christianity.… The dominant intellectual tradition of the last century, from Nietzsche through Heidegger to Sartle to Derrida, has cast out the old sacred at the price of the new sacreds of fascism and communism and atheology and amorality.” (1991:186).

This sweeping attack against modern biblical scholarship is not only a gross misrepresentation of the current intellectual debate, it also wrongly blames modern and postmodern thinkers for being anti-Christian, for the decline of morality, for ideological evils, and generally for “degeneration.” These are very loaded words: is postmodernism Williams’ scapegoat?

I wonder whether mimetic theory has become an academic attempt to salvage the superiority of the Christian Gospel. This would, perhaps, explain the uncanny feeling with which I left an academic session on “Religion and Violence” at the AAR/SBL in San Francisco, 1992, featuring Rene Girard and supporters of mimetic theory. Half-jokingly, I told friends after the session that it reminded me of a revivalist meeting among academics. Clearly, this was a spontaneous, emotional reaction. But my intellectual criticism points in the same direction: mimetic theory vests the Scriptures—and especially texts about the sacrificial death of Jesus—with authoritative, revelatory, and redemptive power. Ironically, it claims that it desacralizes the mechanism of the sacred and demythologizes the various myths that falsely legitimate the necessity of victims (“Jesus as Apocalyptic Judge and Wisdom is a language demythologized” [Williams 1991:210]; “the primary expression of this desacralization we now know as ‘Scripture’ ” [Williams 1993:8]). What I hoped to show, however, is that the mimetic enterprise cannot be accurately called a project of de-mythification but represents a theological anthropology that re-mythologizes Scriptural authority. As a deepening and diversifying of my understanding of biblical rituals, I can learn from mimetic theory; as a revelatory truth, I cannot.

Works Consulted

Alter, Robert

1981    The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books.

Camp, Claudia V. and Carole R. Fontaine, eds. 1993 Women, War, and Metaphor. Semeia 61.

Culbertson, Philipm

1992    New Adam: The Future of Male Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress.

De Huesch, Luc

1985    Sacrifice in Africa. Trans. L. O’Brien and A. Morton. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Derrida, Jacques

1978    Writing and Difference. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Doty, William

1986    Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. University, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard

1990    The Savage in Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Freud, Sigmund

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The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition*

Paula M. McNutt

Canisius College


The Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites are portrayed in biblical tradition as peoples who were loyal to Yahwism, but nevertheless marginal to Israelite society. In this article I propose that the roles and statuses of these groups, the nature of their relationship to Israel, and their literary roles in the narrative traditions about the development of Israel can be illuminated through comparative analyses and the application of ritual theory. My hypothesis is that the ritual role explicitly attributed to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law is related to the marginal nature of the social groups with which he is identified, and that other members of these groups functioned as ritual specialists and/or as mediators in other social realms. This mediatory function is reflected in the roles played by these groups, or members of these groups, in the content and structure of the Pentateuchal narratives.


Among anthropologists who have had a significant impact on the development of ritual studies, Victor Turner stands out as one of the most prominent. Turner was wide-ranging in his interests and risked the criticism of more conservative anthropologists by applying insights from his studies of the Ndembu to other societies, both contemporary and historical (e.g., 1969; 1974). His interest in liminality and liminal symbols in the context of the processual structure of rituals led him to consider this phenomenon in relation to marginal social groups. Because he understood ritual to be a form of communication, he proposed that theories relating to the processual structure of rituals and the relationship of rituals to “social dramas” could also illuminate our understanding of texts (1981).

Turner’s work has also been influential in recent developments in biblical studies, both in literary critical and social scientific circles. As is evident in the following pages, his ideas have influenced my own interpretations. Since my aim in this article is to shed some light on how we might understand the nature of marginal social groups portrayed in ancient Israelite tradition, in particular those groups that may in some way have been associated with metallurgy and/or craftsmanship, I begin with a working definition of marginality, borrowed from Turner. Turner distinguishes in this definition between “outsidership” and “marginality”:

… the state of outsidership [refers to] the condition of being either permanently and by ascription set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system, or being situationally or temporarily set apart, or voluntarily setting oneself apart from the behavior of status-occupying, role-playing members of that system.… They should be distinguished from “marginals,” who are simultaneously members (by ascription, optation, self-definition, or achievement) of two or more groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often even opposed to, one another.… What is interesting about such marginals is that they often look to their group of origin, the so-called inferior group, for communitas, and to the more prestigious group in which they mainly live and in which they aspire to higher status, as their structural reference group. Sometimes they become radical critics of structure from the perspective of communitas.… (1974:233)

Methodological Considerations

Who were the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites? Were these social groups related to one another, and if so how? What was their relationship, socially and historically, to the ancient Israelites (and/or protoIsraelites)? What roles do they play in the biblical narratives relating to the development of Israel? Because references in the Hebrew Bible provide us with only fragmented, and sometimes contradictory, information, answers to these questions remain elusive. My aim here is to propose some partial answers to these questions through: first, an analysis of the roles and statuses of these social groups in ancient Israelite society in light of ethnographic studies of marginal artisan/smith groups in traditional African and Middle Eastern societies; and second, an interpretation of their literary roles in the content and structure of the Pentateuchal narratives.

My approach is integrative and draws on several disciplines: biblical interpretation, archaeology, and comparative anthropology. The archaeological and biblical materials are analyzed for the information they convey about both social and literary roles. Comparative analysis is used as a heuristic aid, not as “evidence,” for clarifying the literary and archaeological information.

My working hypothesis is that the ritual role explicitly attributed to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law is related to the marginal nature of the type of social groups with which he is identified, and that other members of these groups functioned as religious specialists, and/or as mediators in other social realms. This mediatory role is reflected in the content and structure of the narrative traditions.

My analysis also supports the former hypothesis that some members of these groups may have been artisans or metalsmiths. Artisans and metalsmiths in traditional African and Middle Eastern societies tend to form marginal groups that are regarded with ambivalence by the dominant social groups with which they are associated, as seems to be the case in the biblical portrayals of the Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites. There is, in fact, a clear incongruence between notions and actions with regard to such marginal groups—between the ambivalent attitudes directed toward them and a reliance on them for the production of economic and cultural necessities. The variety of mediating roles attributed to individuals within these groups in traditional African and Middle Eastern societies, and the attitudes directed toward them, therefore present possibilities for how we might better understand biblical portrayals of similar groups, and individual figures such as Cain (Genesis 4), Barzillai (2 Sam 17:27–29; 19:31–39; cf. Ezra 2:61–63; Neh 7:63–65), Bezalel (Exod 31:1–5), and Hiram (1 Kgs 7:13–14).

Also important in the approach I have taken here is a consideration of the technological process of metalworking, and how it relates to the apparent attitudes of ambivalence toward smiths. For those who have no knowledge of the chemical changes that radically transform the substances that are manipulated by smiths in this process, metalworking appears to be somewhat mysterious and magical, and therefore is considered dangerous. Because of their knowledge and the power associated with facilitating transformation, smiths are at once respected and feared. Although the end products of metalworking are economic and social necessities, the process itself is regarded with some amount of fear—thus, the material and notional realms of culture come into conflict. The marginal character of such groups, particularly because they do not participate in the primary economic activities such as farming or herding, reinforces these ambivalent attitudes. The material impact of technology, therefore, should not be confused with its impact on the ways in which societies apprehend and express meaning about the world.

Considering the symbolic value of biblical texts, and their symbolic expression of meaning about the world, is therefore also important in my analysis. In particular, I am interested in the impact of dominant or “defining” technologies on culture, and how this is expressed symbolically. According to J. David Bolter:

… the technology of any age provides an attractive window through which thinkers can view both their physical and metaphysical worlds … Very often a device will take on a metaphoric significance and be compared in art and philosophy to some part of the animate or inanimate world.… A defining technology … is always available to serve as a metaphor, example, model, or symbol. A defining technology resembles a magnifying glass, which collects and focuses seemingly disparate ideas in a culture into one bright, sometimes piercing ray. (10–11)

Bolter’s assertion that defining technologies often serve as metaphors underlies my interpretations of the symbolic roles of artisans and smiths in biblical traditions. They play an essential role in the facilitation of technological transformations, and are therefore an important element in technological metaphors that symbolize mediation and transformation.

References to Smiths and Artisans in Biblical Tradition

None of the terms used for identifying artisans or smiths in the biblical traditions is attached to the Kenites, Midianites, or Rechabites. However, because I am proposing that the biblical writers made some connection between these groups and smiths and artisans, it is useful to include a brief survey of biblical portrayals of smiths and artisans.

Several passages in the Hebrew Bible point to the important contributions smiths and artisans make to society (e.g., 2 Kgs 24:14, 16; Jer 24:1; 29:2; Sir 38:24–34). The fact that they are numbered among those of high status who were carried off into captivity by the Babylonians (2 Kgs 24:14, 16; Jer 24:1; 29:2) suggests that by the sixth century B.C.E. they were highly regarded. In Sir 38:24–34 artisans and smiths are acknowledged as individuals whose skills are necessary for the maintenance of social stability and the stability of the “fabric of the world.” In several other traditions it is also clear that artisans are accorded great respect. For example, in Exod 31:1–5, Bezalel, the artisan commissioned by God to construct the ark and tent of meeting, is not only credited with skill, intelligence, and knowledge, but is also seen as filled with the Spirit of God (cf. Weber: 28). Wisdom and skill are likewise attributed to Hiram of Tyre, a bronzeworker commissioned by Solomon to assist in building the temple (1 Kgs 7:13–14; cf. 2 Chron 2:13–14).

In spite of the high regard expressed in a number of traditions, there are other traditions in which smiths and artisans are viewed with some ambivalence. Perhaps the best example is Tubal-Cain (Gen 4:22), the first forger of bronze and iron, whose relationship with Cain places him in this category (see below). Other examples are found in prophetic texts where they are portrayed in a negative light because smiths are responsible for the production of idols (e.g., Isa 44:9–20).

Some of the biblical traditions, then, suggest that smiths and artisans were regarded with some amount of respect for their skills and their wisdom. Similarly, the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites, are accorded great respect and/or attributed wisdom. However, as is typical for artisan and smithing groups in other societies, and as is suggested in other biblical traditions, a certain amount of ambivalence is apparent.

The Kenites

The Kenites are portrayed as a people who were staunch supporters of both Israel and Yahwism but never fully incorporated into Israelite society.6 Some interpreters have hypothesized that the southern tribes were familiar with them for generations before the exodus and that they were responsible for having introduced Yahwism to the Israelites (see, e.g., Rowley 1946; 1950). Their status in relation to Israel and to other groups in Palestine is unclear, but they do appear to have been socially marginal. This is implied in Judges 4 and 5 where the clan of Heber the Kenite is described as having peaceful relations with Jabin, the king of Hazor (Judg 4:17), but as nevertheless allied with the Israelites, with whom Jabin was at war. Alliance with Israel is implied in Judg 5:24–27 (cf. 4:17–22) where Heber’s wife Jael is praised for her bravery in disposing of Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army.

The Kenites are related in traditions about the exodus to the Midianites. In the exodus stories themselves Moses’ father-in-law is called a Midianite, but in other passages Kenite (Judg 1:16; 4:11). In 1 Sam 15:6, the Kenites are remembered as having been loyal to Israel during the exodus, a role attributed to the Midianites in the Pentateuchal narratives. Whatever the explanation for this inconsistency (see e.g., Parke-Taylor: 23), it is clear that some biblical traditions regarded the father-in-law of Moses and the group with which he was identified as Kenite.

The Kenites are not mentioned by name in any of the traditions concerning the later history of Israel. But some kind of relationship with the Rechabites, a socially marginal group mentioned in monarchic traditions (2 Kgs 10:15–28; Jeremiah 35), has been postulated on the basis of a genealogical link in 1 Chron 2:55.

It is possible that the Kenites’ marginal position in relation to the Israelites was associated in part with their geographical location, although whether they were ever identified with a particular geographical region is not clear. On the basis of biblical references, their geographical origin is normally identified as southeast of Judah on the border with Edom. But if they were actually closely related to or a part of the Midianite group, it could have been further to the south and east. Biblical scholars have tended to argue that they were associated with activities that required moving between different geographical locations (which doesn’t necessarily militate against their having had a “home-base” in some specific area), either as caravaneers or as nomadic or semi-nomadic itinerant metalsmiths (see e.g., Albright 1957:257; 1963; 1968:96; de Vaux: 478–79; Halpern).

Cain’s portrayal in the Genesis myth provides an important clue for understanding how the Kenites, and smiths and artisans in general, may have been regarded in ancient Israel. He is one of the most ambivalent figures in the Hebrew Bible, the “culture hero” who is ultimately responsible for introducing to humankind some of the primary elements of civilization through the activities of his descendants. In the Genesis 4 genealogy, he is portrayed as a marginal and ambivalent figure in a number of respects: he is a murderer, who is nevertheless protected by God (Gen 4:15), an agriculturalist for whom the earth will bear no fruit (Gen 4:12–13), a marginal wanderer who dwells in the land of Nod (“wandering,” Gen 4:16). As the ancestor of both city-dwellers (Enoch) and tent-dwellers (Jabal), he is also socially marginal (Gen 4:17, 20). His other descendants, a metalworker (Tubal-Cain) and a musician (Jubal), introduce to culture both arts and technology (Gen 4:17–22), and represent categories of persons who would be equally welcome among nomads and settled agriculturalists (cf. Leach 1969:60).

The Midianites

Midian, the eponymous ancestor of the Midianites, is identified in the Genesis 25 genealogy (v. 2) as the son of Abraham and Keturah, along with the Letushim (v. 3; compare Tubal-Cain, who is called a לטֵשׁ [“forger”] in Gen 4:22). In some traditions, the Midianites are also identified with the Kenites—thus the hypothesis that they were associated in some way with metalworking. In the exodus traditions they are, for the most part, presented in a favorable light. Moses flees to Midian, is accepted among the Midianites, and marries a Midianite woman (Exodus 2). Moses’ father-in-law is portrayed as a Midianite priest who is devoted to Yahweh and officiates in a sacrificial ritual at “the mountain of God” (Exod 18:5–12; cf. Num 10:29–33).

Apart from these traditions, however, the Midianites are not looked upon favorably and are typically portrayed as Israel’s enemies (e.g., Numbers 31; Judges 7–9; Ps 83:9; Isa 10:26).

The political relationship between the Midianites and the Israelites is no clearer than it is for the Kenites; nor is the character of the Midianites as a sociopolitical entity less opaque. They are believed to have been associated with regions in southern Transjordan and the northern Hejaz, so as a group it is likely that they were geographically marginal to Palestine. Recent archaeological surveys in this area have yielded evidence of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age walled cities and irrigation systems that indicate the presence of a “highly sophisticated” society (Mendenhall: 817). George Mendenhall identifies this society with the Midianites, arguing on the basis of biblical references (Num 31:8; Josh 13:21) that their political organization consisted of a federation of five city-states. Given the nature of the available information, it is not really possible to substantiate Mendenhall’s proposal. The identification of these sites as Midianite is based on the presence of a distinctive type of pottery that has been called “Midianite”. But there are problems both with the argument that ethnicity can be identified on the basis of pottery and the related argument that the presence of a certain type of pottery indicates dominance of a site by a particular ethnic group. Even if the pottery is actually Midianite in origin, it is just as possible that these cities were occupied by another group in relation to which the Midianites were marginal. In any case, the correlation of the biblical and the archaeological information does suggest that the Midianites were associated with this region.

“Midianite” pottery has also been found at the Late Bronze Age/Iron Age I camps in the Timna Valley (see, e.g., Rothenberg) where there is evidence of mining and metalworking, pointing to a possibility that the Midianites engaged in some kind of metalworking activity. At Site 2, a camp dated to the Ramesside period, smelting activity is indicated by the presence of slag heaps, furnaces, workshops, copper ore, stone-crushing tools, and a large number of clay tuyères. Layers of wind-blown sand indicate that the site may have been occupied seasonally (perhaps by itinerant smiths?) rather than year-round.

West of the smelting area at Site 2, a cultic structure was uncovered. Associated with this structure were the remains of both cultic and metallurgical activities, suggesting that ritual may have been an integral part of the metallurgical operations, and by extension, that the metalsmiths may have functioned in some capacity as ritual specialists.

The other cultic area in the Timma Valley where there is evidence of metalworking activities is the Hathor sanctuary. Finds from this sanctuary include copper and iron jewelry, a copper snake, and a faience face of Hathor. The final phase of its use (dated no later than the mid-twelfth century B.C.E.) has been attributed to the Midianites. This “Midianite” phase yielded evidence (large quantities of cloth and pole-holes) that a large tent had been erected over the temple court. This tent shrine also contained a row of mas\s\eboth and round incense altars. Midianite pottery and a copper serpent with a gilded head, found in situ in the naos, were also recovered.

Rothenberg (183–84) suggests that the Kenites/Midianites may have had some role in metalworking at Timna. It is interesting to note the similarity between the tent shrine and copper serpent (cf. Num 21:6–9) recovered from this site and religious practice as it is represented in the Moses traditions. Did the Midianites have some influence on the development of religion in early “Israel”?

Excavations at Deir Alla, a site in the eastern Jordan Valley, have also yielded evidence of a possible connection between metallurgical and ritual activities associated with the Kenites or Midianites. During the first half of the twelfth century B.C.E., the site appears to have been used for metallurgical activities. Remains of an industrial area were found—associated with a shrine—that contained furnaces, a tuyère, and slag from bronze-casting operations (Franken 1969:20–21; 1992:127). Because the only other evidence of occupation consisted of courtyards, pits, holes for wooden posts, and ovens, Franken suggests that itinerant smiths occupied the site on a seasonal basis during this period (1969:21).

Although the nature of the relationship between metallurgical activities and cultic sites cannot be defined clearly on the basis of the archaeological remains, and no definitive connection with the Midianites has been made, it is nevertheless possible that metalworking activities were carried out under religious auspices, as is often the case in traditional African societies (see e.g., van der Merwe and Avery).

The Rechabites

It has been postulated that the Rechabites also shared the Kenites’ vocation as metalworkers (Frick 1971; 1992), an interpretation that is based on a genealogical link in 1 Chron 2:55. As is the case with the Kenites and the Midianites, their origins are unclear. Baruch Halpern (19) suggests that they may have been a lineage of the northern Kenites (associated with Heber, who had “separated” from the Kenites; Judg 4:11). Moshe Weinfeld (311), on the other hand, argues that they originated with the related Kenites/Midianites in the “land of Yahweh” mentioned in Egyptian toponymic lists (in the south).

Whatever their origins, their portrayal as fierce supporters of Yahwism (2 Kgs 10:15–23) is similar to that of the Kenites and Midianites, as is their apparent socially marginal lifestyle:

“We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commands us, to drink no wine in all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters, and not to build houses to dwell in. We have no vineyard or field or seed; but we have lived in tents, and have obeyed and done all that Jonadab our father commanded us.” (Jer 35:8–10)

Avoidance of settled life and restrictions against participating in farming activities are reminiscent of the lifestyle attributed to Cain in Genesis 4. And, as Frank Frick has argued (1992:631), it may also be related to the ideals often associated with metalworking guilds.

Social Roles and Status

The marginal character of the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites represented in biblical texts supports the hypothesis that they may have been associated in some way with metalworking and/or some other kind of craftsmanship (see e.g., Albright 1957:257; 1963). Marginal status is common for metalsmiths and other artisans in traditional societies throughout Africa and the Middle East. It is possible, therefore, that a group of people called the Kenites or Midianites had a relationship with pre-Israelite groups akin to that between smiths/artisans and dominant groups in traditional African and Middle Eastern societies, and that this same type of relationship existed later between the Israelites and Rechabites. It is also possible that these groups had important mediating functions in the more dominant groups to whom they were marginally related, as various mediatory roles are often assigned to individuals from marginalized social groups (see e.g., Turner 1969:96; 1974:231–33).

In traditional African societies, the roles and statuses attributed to artisans/smiths, and the attitudes directed toward them, tend to vary according to social complexity (see McNutt 1991). The general pattern is that in West African societies, where subsistence is based primarily on agriculture, and social organization is hierarchical, they are both respected and feared (see e.g., McNaughton). They are believed to be bearers of profound knowledge and power, are highly honored, and tend to have important social roles. They also play primary roles in mythology.

In East African societies, on the other hand, especially among pastoral peoples with less hierarchically oriented social structures, smiths and artisans are viewed with more ambivalence and fear (see e.g., Hollis; Huntingford; Shack). They are perceived as dangerous sorcerers or bearers of the “evil eye,” and are often spurned, but are nevertheless held in awe. Their social status tends to be lower, they occupy less prominent social positions, and they play no significant part in mythology. However, in some cases, they do have ritual functions and are recognized as mediators in settling legal disputes and upholding social justice. The role of religious specialist in initiation rites involving circumcision or excision is particularly pervasive in both East and West Africa.

The role of mediator is also played in West African myths by the first smith or iron god, who is typically the agent of the creator god, the trickster, or the culture hero (see e.g., Dieterlen; Griaule 1965; Griaule and Dieterlen). In the role of culture hero, the smith as a god or semi-divine figure assists in the completion of creation, in organizing the world, and in educating humans. Among the Dogon of West Africa, for example, as both a descendant of the gods and the first human ancestor, the first smith mediates between the heavenly and earthly realms and transmits to humans crucial knowledge about social organization, agriculture, animal domestication, and technology. He is responsible for maintaining a balance between the divine and human spheres and for resolving internal and external controversies.

Essentially interrelated with their social functions as mediators is the marginal position traditionally associated with smiths and other artisan groups. In the organization and structure of traditional African societies, smiths tend to form groups apart. This separation may be radical, especially in societies in which they are held in low esteem (see e.g., Hollis; Huntingford; Shack), or it may take the form of endogamous families or guilds (see e.g., Lloyd), as seems to be typical of societies in which they are honored. In either case, contact with them is avoided. Intermarriage with them is considered to be dangerous and polluting and, at least ideally, is forbidden.

The pattern in traditional Middle Eastern Bedouin societies basically conforms with that identified for East African pastoral societies. Artisans and smiths are marginalized, feared (they are believed to possess the “evil eye”), and shunned, but function in some contexts as ritual specialists, circumcisers, entertainers, diviners, healers, or guides; and they are believed to have supernatural powers. They form groups apart that are typically fragmented and scattered, as is the case with the ṣunna (tinkers and blacksmiths) and the Ṣolluba. Intermarriage with them is discouraged or forbidden.

The roles and statuses of smiths and artisans in town and city contexts in the Middle East, however, are quite different. There appears to be little evidence that they are marginalized in these contexts; and there is little indication that they are attributed any type of extraordinary status, either positive or negative. One corresponding characteristic is that craft specialization is traditionally passed on within families and/or organized in guilds. Apparently, in these contexts the artisans are better-integrated into the overall social structure than is the case even in the hierarchically structured West African societies, where they are clearly attributed marginal status.

The attitudes toward artisans and smiths represented in the Hebrew Bible are similar to those found in traditional African and Middle Eastern societies (cf. Sawyer). As in West African mythology, Cain, the culture hero and ancestor of the first smith in Israelite myth, is a marginal and ambivalent figure, as is indicated by his “mark” or “stigma” (Gen 4:15; cf. Aycock). As Edmund Leach has noted, he represents the margins of oppositions—purity/pollution, life/death, limitation/creativity, this world/the other world (1969:60). In West African myths, smiths are often portrayed as both human and divine, as individuals set apart from conventional morality, as sacrificing something of themselves for the good of humankind, and as creators/destroyers. A similar stigmatization can be seen, for example, in the West African Dogon characterization of smiths as individuals who possess a diminished life force that removes them from the category of the “living” (i.e., other Dogon). This diminished life force derives from the first smith’s sacrifice of energy for the common good of humanity, and contributes to the belief that as a result smiths are impure. A similar belief among the Bambara is represented in their belief that smiths possess and manipulate nyama, a word that connotes both an impersonal power that animates the universe, and filth, which is rich in nyama (Paulme). The stigma of East African smiths is often identified with the potency of their blood, which causes ritual impurity.

Some of the marginal characteristics of traditional African and Middle Eastern smiths and artisans can also be seen in the literary portrayals of the Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites. Although they are portrayed in a number of traditions as being dedicated to Israel and Yahwism, it is apparent that none of these groups was ever fully incorporated into Israelite society. The characteristics of the Rechabites listed in Jeremiah 35 (especially the restrictions against participating in farming activities, which were essential to the economy of ancient Israel) are particularly reminiscent of the marginal character of artisan and smithing groups and the characteristics of marginality defined by Turner (cf. Weber: 28). The kind of marginal political status of the Kenites suggested in Judges 4 and 5 is also common, especially among smiths in East Africa and the Middle East, who typically provide weapons for both parties engaged in warfare and are exempt from threats by either side.

The belief that intermarriage with individuals from marginal smithing clans is dangerous and polluting may be represented in Numbers 25, where a plague occurs because of the indiscretion of a man who “brought a Midianite woman to his family” at the tent of meeting (v. 6). Both he and the Midianite woman are slain (v. 15). Considered in light of traditional African and Middle Eastern beliefs and customs, it is possible that the gravity of the offense may have more to do with the fact that it was committed with a polluting Midianite woman (that is, a woman from a metalworking clan) than with entering into a relationship with just any “non-Israelite” woman. This contrasts with the apparent acceptance of Moses’ marriage to a Midianite woman. One possible explanation for this contradiction is that because Moses is himself a mediator, and his role as mediator is related to his association with the Midianites, he is exempt from the condemnation imposed on other Israelites.

As Max Weber has argued (29), the social status of artisans and smiths in ancient Israel probably changed over time, particularly as the social structure became more hierarchical. They probably continued to be socially separated to some degree (as is suggested of the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35), perhaps as endogamous families or guilds, but this social separation was not as radical as it was during the premonarchic period (as is suggested in the traditions about the Kenites and Midianites). Mary Douglas (1966:99) has argued, along similar lines, that attitudes toward marginal peoples tend to vary according to the degree to which the power structure of a society is articulated, and the degree to which they have been integrated into society. According to her argument, if the power structure is well articulated, powers are vested more in those in authority and less in marginal individuals; whereas, if the power structure is less articulated, powers tend to be invested in marginal individuals who are perceived as potential sources of disorder. It is quite feasible that the ambivalence with which smiths and artisans were regarded in early Israel decreased over time as Israelite society became more centralized and craft organizations were institutionalized.

The role of ritual specialist, which is often played by smiths in Africa and the Middle East, is clearly attributed to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law (Exod 2:16; 3:1; 18:1, 12). It is also possible that the Kenites/Midianites in general functioned as priests or ritual specialists (e.g., Mazar: 302–3; Aharoni: 60; Cross: 201–2; Halpern: 19–20). Halpern argues that the “mark of Cain” may be related to the ritual status of the Kenites (19), noting that prophets enjoyed a personal protection comparable to Cain’s, and may have been similarly marked. He further proposes that there may have been some kind of connection between the Levites and the Kenites/Midianites (cf. Cross: 201). This argument is based on the tradition that the Levites received their commission at Sinai (Exodus 32), which in one tradition (Exodus 3) is located in the region of Moses’ Kenite/Midianite father-in-law. Frank Cross (206) has also posited a ritual connection, suggesting that there was an allied Mushite-Kenite priesthood associated with the shrines at Arad and Kadesh.

The role of ritual specialist may be represented in Exod 4:24–26 where Moses’ wife Zipporah (a Midianite) is said to have circumcised her son. It is possible that Zipporah takes on this responsibility because she is a Midianite and possibly from a smithing clan (cf. Cross: 200). As was noted earlier, one of the primary ritual functions of smiths in Africa and the Middle East is in circumcision rites. Zipporah’s role as mediator in this context may also have some structural significance in the narrative, since Moses is returning to Egypt and thus into another symbolic realm. This is an appropriate place in the overall structure of the exodus narratives to include a rite of passage (see the discussion of narrative structure below).

The Mediating Role of the Kenites/Midianites in the Structure of the Pentateuchal Narratives

Analysis of the literary role of the Kenites/Midianites in the structure of the Pentateuchal narratives, in relation to the mediating function of the artisan or metalsmith in transforming matter, illustrates how an understanding of the roles and statuses of marginal social groups in ancient Israel can illuminate implicit meanings in biblical narratives.

Symbols derived from metalworking in the biblical traditions often convey information about significant transformations that contributed to Israel’s social and religious identity. Typically related to these transformations is some form of oppression, a “liminal” state often represented by an image associated with the metalworking process. Oppression is identified as part of a process of purification, just as metal is purified in the metalsmith’s furnace. Thus, for example, the two major transitions in Israel’s religious “history,” the exodus from Egypt and the Babylonian exile, are symbolized by reference to a furnace or to the metalworking process. God is represented as the Divine Smith who is responsible for facilitating the purification and transformation. The metaphor of Egypt as an “iron furnace” (כוּר הַבַּרֽזֵל) (Deut 4:20; 1 Kgs 8:51; and Jer 11:4), for example, is a “root metaphor” (Ortner) that symbolizes both the oppression imposed on the people during their sojourn in Egypt and the process whereby a transformation is facilitated, although this is implicit rather than explicit in the text (see McNutt 1990:249–60). It communicates in condensed and tacit form information about the development of Israel as a people with a religious and national identity.

The processual structure of rites of passage as defined by Victor Turner (1969; cf. van Gennep) is a useful analogy for evaluating the structure of the Pentateuchal narratives and the mediating role of the Kenites/Midianites within that structure. According to Edmund Leach:

if we consistently think of text in relation to ritual and vice versa instead of keeping the two modes of metaphorical expression in mutual isolation, then matters which might otherwise seem obscure may come into sharper or even quite different focus. (1983:100)

Rites of passage mediate transitions in space, social status, social position, or age. There are three phases in the processual structure of such rites: separation, marginality, and aggregation. In a social setting, separation consists of the symbolic detachment of an individual or group from an earlier fixed point in the social structure or from a particular set of social conditions (a “state”). It is a kind of symbolic death that prepares the initiates for the ritual transformation. The marginal, or liminal, phase marks a move from structure to anti-structure. The participants in the ritual are “betwixt and between” and their characteristics are ambiguous (see e.g., Turner 1979). It is during this phase that reorientation and transformation occur. The final phase is reincorporation into the normal structure of society in a transformed state, a symbolic “rebirth” that represents a change in status.

The smith facilitates a similar kind of transformation in the ironworking process. Drawing an analogy between the processual structure of rites of passage and that of the metalworking process reveals the following structure: In its preliminal state the iron ore is a relatively inferior material. Once it is introduced into the furnace by the smith, it is separated from its previous state and moves, metaphorically, into the liminal or marginal phase during which it is transformed by the fire. It is during this crucial phase that it is reoriented through carburization and forging and is prepared to move into a higher state as a strong metal superior to the substance that entered into the process. Once quenched, it is “reborn.” It takes on a new set of characteristics that allow for its use in the form of tools and weapons.

Within the structure of the final form of the Pentateuchal narratives about the development of God’s relationship with Israel, Egypt represents a transitional, or “liminal,” period during which Israel was transformed from the disparate peoples represented in the ancestral stories in Genesis, to Israel as a united political entity. Israel’s “previous state” as a scattered people living in Canaan, with a promise yet to be fulfilled, is represented in the ancestral stories. Joseph’s entrance into Egypt and the subsequent descent of his family represent a break from the past way of life and an entrance into the “iron furnace” of Egypt in preparation for the fulfillment of the promise. This symbolizes Israel’s separation from its previous state culturally, socially, spatially, and temporally. Cultural and social autonomy are lost to slavery and oppression, the land promised left behind, temporal reality passed over with a mere reference to the number of years spent in Egypt (Exod 12:40). As Terence Fretheim (93) has noted, the non-human elements in the story are all out of kilter with their created way of being: water is no longer simply water; light and darkness are no longer separated; diseases run amok; insects and amphibians swarm out of control. In effect, there is a return to the precreation state of chaos.

The process of aggregation—the fulfillment of the promise, the forging of the people into the political entity Israel—begins with the pivotal event in Israel’s sacred story, the exodus from Egypt. It is at this point that Yahweh begins the process of liberating the people from their bondage in the “iron furnace,” the liminal “betwixt and between” in which their status as an autonomous people is suspended and ambiguous. Symbolically, this is the beginning of a process of “rebirth” (cf. Anderson; Fretheim). But this is only the first step toward the ultimate goal of achieving a new status as a people possessing a land of their own. Once they pass out of the furnace, symbolized by the crossing of the Reed Sea, they must be forged into a people with a common identity, sharing in further trials to cement their solidarity.

The final steps toward transformation are taken in the wilderness. In the Hebrew Bible, wilderness symbolizes liminality or marginality par excellence. The wilderness is a place of chaos, of hunger and thirst, and of demons. But it is also a place of divine revelation. In the wilderness Moses encounters God, and Moses’ followers experience both threats of death and hope for new life. The wilderness, in the words of Edmund Leach, is the “Other World” in which everything happens in reverse—bread falls from the sky and water emerges from a rock (1987:587).

Following the forging in the wilderness, both through the gift of covenant law and through shared experience, the Israelites take the final step toward aggregation. Under the leadership of Joshua, they pass over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. They are “quenched” and reborn. They enter into the same land left behind by Joseph and his family, but as a transformed people, as “Israel.” It is the same land, yet not the same land. Before, it was a land in which Abraham and his kin travelled and dwelt as sojourners. Now it is a land possessed through the graciousness of God. On one level in the narrative, then, the sojourn in Egypt is a transformative stage between Joseph’s descent into Egypt and the ascent into the wilderness. But on another level, this whole complex—Joseph’s descent into Egypt, the Egypt experience itself, and the wilderness experiences—is a transformative stage between the ancestral residence in the land and the final occupation of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua.

The role of the Midianites as marginal mediators is important in facilitating the transitions between stages in the narrative structure of this sacred story. In the Joseph stories (Genesis 37 and 39–50), Midianite traders are ultimately responsible for mediating the symbolic “death” of Jacob’s family by transporting Joseph to Egypt (Gen 37:28, 36), into the betwixt and between where Israel’s transformation as a people is to take place. In the final canonical form of the Pentateuchal narratives, this reference in particular and the Joseph stories in general function structurally as a bridge between the ancestral and exodus traditions (cf. Noth: 208–13; Coats).

The Midianites also play a symbolic role in mediating the subsequent “rebirth” of the people. They give Moses refuge when he flees from Egypt. It is in the geographically marginal boundary between Egypt and the Promised Land—Midian—where God reveals the divine name to Moses and commissions him to act as the mediator of divine liberation (Exodus 3). He becomes a Midianite himself by marrying into a Midianite family (Exod 2:21).

Moses’ father-in-law, a priest of Midian, plays an especially significant structural role in facilitating the transition from liminality in Egypt to rebirth through liberation and possession of the Promised Land. He is responsible for accepting Moses into Midianite society, for offering sacrifice to God and presiding over a sacred meal following the exodus (Exod 18:10–12), and for advising Moses in matters of governance and conflict mediation (Exod 18:13–27). More significant from a structural point of view is the passage in Num 10:29–32 where Moses requests that Hobab (apparently another name for Jethro) serve as the people’s guide through the wilderness, as their eyes, because it is he who knows how to survive in this marginal realm. Just as the Midianites are responsible in the narrative structure for facilitating the symbolic death represented by the descent of Joseph into Egypt, so a Midianite is given responsibility for guiding Israel through the final step in the process of rebirth—the passage through the liminality of wilderness toward the goal of the Promised Land. Jethro is a priest-smith who mediates between the realms of the divine and human. He mediates in the human realm as legal counselor, and, most importantly, he facilitates the completion of Israel’s “rite of passage” into a new “state” as a people with a national and religious identity. He has a hand in assisting Yahweh, the Divine Smith, in “forging” Israel into a united people.

Concluding Remarks

As interpreters of ancient cultures, we seek to understand the complexities of ancient societies that are now lost behind our sources. Neither ethnographic studies nor application of anthropological models can be used as evidence to fill in the gaps in the ancient information, but they do provide us with one possible means of reconstituting a clearer image of the ancient situation. Although a reconstruction of the nature of marginal social groups in ancient Israel based on comparisons with marginal groups in other societies cannot be viewed as conclusive, it nevertheless provides some basis for a continuing discussion of the questions I have asked here: What was the nature of these marginal groups and why were they marginal? Why are they in some traditions portrayed positively and in others negatively? What significance does their portrayal in the narratives have in relation to their socioeconomic position?

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A Response to Mcnutt: “The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition,”

Don C. Benjamin

Rice University

Come out of the dark earth

Here where the minerals

Glow in their stone cells

Deeper than seed or birth.

Come under the strong wave

Here where the tug goes

As the tide turns and flows

Below that architrave.

Come into the pure air

Above all heaviness

Of storm and cloud to this

Light-possessed atmosphere.

Come into, out of, under

The earth, the wave, the air.

Love, touch us everywhere

With primeval candor.

“Invocation,” in Selected Poems of May Sarton (1978:45)

In “The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition,” Paula M. McNutt argues that the technology of iron working in the ancient Near East was a defining metaphor for the tellers who plotted the shape of the Pentateuch. In this great story, the ancestors who herded in Syria-Palestine in the book of Genesis are like ore gestating in the earth. Like iron workers, Midianites mine Joseph and separate his household from the land. The Hebrews who slaved in Egypt and who wandered in the desert in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are as liminal as ore smelting in a crucible, bar iron heating in the coals and being forged on an anvil and finally quenched in water. This time the iron workers are not only Midianites, but Kenites who smelt, carburize, forge, and quench the household of Jacob into tools and weapons. And, if McNutt’s proposal were continued beyond the Pentateuch, the Israelites in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel-Kings, would be weapons and tools working the same land where the ore from which they were made was mined. Here the iron workers are Rechabites who sharpen and repair the Israelites like swords and plowshares.

McNutt develops a provocative construct. She is careful not to overstate her evidence or conclusions. It is a good and balanced piece of research. She represents a generation of biblical scholars now seriously working with the social sciences and biblical interpretation. She knows the social scientific literature on iron working well, and she is an active participant in this significant academic conversation. McNutt’s familiarity with the literature on iron working and its impact on Mediterranean cultures, and the respect which her work thus far has received, are strong recommendations for the proposal which she makes here. In my opinion, she clearly demonstrates the importance of understanding both the technology of iron working and the ritual of the smith for correctly understanding the Bible. Iron working is certainly an important metaphor in the Bible. However, I do not think it is a defining metaphor for the world of the Bible in general, or the Pentateuch in particular.

Technology of Iron Work

McNutt’s interest in iron working began more than 10 years ago with a masters’s thesis at the University of Montana. It was entitled: “An Inquiry into the Significance of Iron Technology in Early Iron Age Palestine” (1983) Two further studies followed. Her Ph.D. dissertation on iron working at Vanderbilt University, and, on the basis of this work, McNutt published The Forging of Israel: iron technology, symbolism, and tradition in ancient society (1990) in the Social World of Biblical Antiquity Series. McNutt’s standing question in the history of her own research is: “What kind of impact did the introduction of iron technology have on ancient Israelite culture, and how is this impact reflected in the use of iron technology as a cultural symbol?” (1990:19) Three important colleagues for McNutt’s study of the technology of iron working in the Mediterranean world are Charles J. Singer, Jane C. Waldbaum and James D. Muhly.

The History of Technology (1954–1984) by Singer is a standard reference work for understanding the actual process of iron working. It is an encyclopedia of terms and techniques for the ancient science.

In From Bronze to Iron (1978) Waldbaum demonstrates how slowly and irregularly the mining and smelting of iron spread throughout Syria-Palestine. She argues that there was no absolute beginning for the Iron Age here, and that the appearance of the technology of iron working was not an important impetus which led to the clearing and settling of the hills north of Jerusalem by the Hebrews. Furthermore, there is still no conclusive archaeological evidence to support the passage in the books of Samuel-Kings which observes that “… there was no smith to be found in all the land of Israel” (1 Sam 13:19–22) because the Philistines enjoyed a monopoly on iron working in the region between 1250–1000 BCE. David C. Hopkins, in his work on the dynamics of agriculture in state formation (1983; 1985; 1987), has shown that the conclusions which Waldbaum drew for Syria-Palestine in general are true for ancient Israel in particular. The technological impact of iron working there was modest.

Muhly is professor of ancient Near East History at the University of Pennsylvania where, since 1965, he has worked with a team to research iron trade and production in the eastern Mediterranean between 1200–800 BCE. With Theodore A. Wertime, he edited The Coming of the Age of Iron (Yale University, 1980). The publication of this seminal work and the popular article “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World” in the Biblical Archaeology Review (8/6: 40–54) coincided with McNutt’s research at the University of Montana.

Symbolism of Iron Working

To assess the relationship of the technology on storytelling, McNutt has drawn on Arnold van Gennep, Victor W. Turner, Mircea Eliade, Jack Goody, and James Flanagan. McNutt applies the pattern of separation, liminality, and reintegration established for rites of passage in The Rites of Passage (1909) by Van Gennep and The Ritual Process (1969) by Turner to iron working. When smiths mine the ore from the earth and smelt the iron from its slag, it is separated from its community of origin. When they forge and process iron into tools and weapons, it is liminal or marginal, and belongs neither to the earth, nor to the human community. When the tools and weapons are finished and handed over to the farmer, the warrior, or the mother of the household, the iron is integrated into a new community with a new identity.

McNutt is not quite clear as to whether she considers the Hebrews’ liminality to end at the threshold of the Red Sea or at the Jordan River (25). The sea and the river are closely related in the Bible, and, therefore, either could serve equally well as a threshold. For Frank M. Cross (1973:103–112; 138–44) it is the celebration of the ritual conquest of the land at the Jordan River where the motifs now preserved in the Red Sea stories in the book of Exodus develop. Therefore, I think McNutt’s pattern would do better to close at the river than at the sea.

There is no extended treatment of iron working or the role of smiths in the Bible. Sometimes the biblical metaphor for Yahweh is a smith (Ps 12:7; Isa 1:25; 31:9). Sometimes the metaphor for both Yahweh (Prov 17:3) and Egypt is a crucible (Deut 4:20). A key to the importance of McNutt’s subtle pattern is the association of the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites in biblical or post-biblical times with iron working. McNutt notes that Tubalcain is an iron worker (10), that the etymology of “Kenite” is associated with iron working (14), and that Midianite pottery has been found at iron working sites like Timna (12). Each group appears at thresholds where the Hebrews are introduced to Yahweh, or are indicted for failing to fulfill the stipulations of their covenant with Yahweh. Although the interpretive tradition associates the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites with iron working, the actual evidence is inconclusive. For example, the pottery at iron working sites was labeled “Midianite” to some extent because of a pre-existing assumption that the Midianites were iron workers.

In The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy (1962), Eliade popularized the study of the symbolic value of defining technologies like stone work, the arrow, the bow, the wheel, iron work, the clock, the machine, the steam engine, the railroad, and the computer. These defining technologies are parallel to, but quite different from cosmic symbols like stars, rivers, oceans, and the seasons. Technologies, for Eliade and others, affect the way peoples think and feel about themselves and others and about the world around them. They also pattern and mediate the ways people relate to one another and to their environments. Technologies do not cause social change, but rather focus a culture’s understanding of itself as it changes, by cataloging its beliefs about its divine patron, nature, humanity, and society. Cultural feelings about defining technologies are always ambivalent. They are the epitome of the strongest hopes and strongest fears of a people for themselves and in their time. Among peoples as diverse as Eskimos, Aztecs, Egyptians, Europeans, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, and Koreans, iron is either taboo, or a prophylactic against members of the divine assembly who threaten humans in one way or the other.

Eliade’s observation that cultures are ambivalent about smiths is important for McNutt’s understanding of the ambivalence in the Bible toward the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites. McNutt’s language is careful, but generally she shares the assessment of anthropologists that smiths are often marginal. Iron workers in African cultures, for example, are both feared and revered. To mediate the community’s relationship with the earth and the ores that it produces, they provide economic necessities like tools and weapons. To mediate a community’s relationship with its divine patron, they also manage political distributions of power by performing circumcisions. Therefore, by casting Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites as marginal characters, storytellers in ancient Israel portray them as other cultures—including African cultures—portray smiths. And if they portray them as smiths, then the tellers of the Pentateuch, McNutt argues, understand the Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites to mediate Israel’s relationship with both Yahweh and the land.

Smiths may be marginal characters, but the reason for the marginalization of smiths is not simply that ancient cultures consider them magicians. Although many anthropologists and biblical scholars treat both magic and miracles as actions, they are, in my opinion, better understood as notions (Flanagan 1988). The terms do not distinguish one kind of power from the other. Magicians and miracle workers both exercise the same divine power. Instead, the terms indicate how the power affects the clans whose traditions celebrate them. Clans that benefit from their use of divine power consider them miracle workers. Those who do not consider them magicians. Therefore, traditions which label smiths as magicians develop in clans threatened by their craft; traditions which label them as miracle workers develop in clans which profit from the tools and weapons which these smiths produce.

Furthermore, it is more likely, as Frank S. Frick has argued in “The Rechabites Reconsidered” (1971) that smiths themselves decided to live on the margins, rather than that society forced them into their eccentric lifestyle. Frick holds that smiths were itinerant and lived in tents because they traveled both to mine ore and service their customers. Smiths camped outside villages both because their work was noisy, dirty, and required dangerous amounts of fire, and because they wanted to protect their craft from poachers who might observe and then copy it. Similarly, they refrained from drinking wine or beer, in order to keep from revealing trade secrets when they got drunk. Traditions like those in the book of Jeremiah (Jer 35) do not idealize these smiths; they consider them eccentric. Nonetheless, even these eccentrics are more faithful to their covenants than the people of Jerusalem. I would agree with McNutt that the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites are smiths, and that they are marginal. But it does not necessarily follow that they are magicians, and, consequently, are marginalized. I would agree with McNutt that the Hebrews consider iron working foreign, strange, and eccentric to their culture, but I would find it hard to agree with her that the Hebrews would cast these iron workers in such a pivotal role in traditions as significant as the Pentateuch.

It is also not clear enough to me just how McNutt wants the marginality of the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites to function in the Pentateuch. She does, for example, refer to images of Yahweh as a smith, but she does not directly discuss how the Kenites, Midianites, and Rechabites are images of Yahweh. She observes that each group is connected in the Bible with some original or fundamental tradition of Yahwism, which serves to critique the traditions of the Hebrews. And she does identify the mark of Cain with the smith, and the tatoo would be a sign that Cain is under the protection of Yahweh, the divine smith. But is Yahweh, like the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites, also marginal to Israel?

McNutt also applies the distinctions between the text as notion and the artifacts as action proposed by Flanagan in works like David’s Social Drama: A Hologram of Israel’s Early History (1988). The importance of a metaphor as a notion in a culture, for example, is not directly proportional to the impact of the technology as an action in the culture. Consequently, some technologies dramatically change the way a culture does things, but have little impact on the way it thinks about things. And some technologies make only a modest contribution to the way a culture carries out its daily life, and yet revolutionize the way in which the culture thinks about life. The technological impact which iron working had on African culture is comparable to the dramatic role which it plays in African traditions. In Africa, the action of iron working is in tandem with the notion of iron working. In contrast, the technological impact which iron working had on cultures like Israel in Syria-Palestine was incidental. Nonetheless, McNutt proposes that, as a notion, iron working played a significant role in the formation of the Pentateuch. As an action, it had a modest impact on the cultures of Syria-Palestine, but as a notion, iron working revolutionized the way they thought about their world.

Van Gennep, Turner, Eliade, Goody, and Flanagan are certainly important contributors to the understanding of how technology and tradition affect one another, and McNutt makes good use of their work. However, I would have benefitted from listening to her assess and apply the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Ronald L. Grimes as well.

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson study how cultures create metaphors in the process of defining themselves, and the importance of metaphor and language in understanding cultures. They have defended a position that language is a window on the cultural mind, and that language is fundamentally metaphorical. Lakoff continues this work in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (1987).

In 1982, Grimes published Beginnings in Ritual Studies, and in 1990, Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. For Grimes, ritual criticism studies how to make visible what is often invisible (1990:1). It denies the persistent tendency in western European societies to isolate the inspired body from the inquiring mind, as if these were not only separable but enemies. Like anthropology, ritual criticism requires observation, participation, and documentation of enactments and performances. But unlike anthropology, ritual criticism also discusses and then draws judgments about the adequacy, authenticity, and effectiveness of rituals (1990:2). Ritual criticism invokes the assumption of narrative critics working with myth and ritual, for whom the appropriate literary companion of ritual is the myth or creation story. Those texts most often linked theoretically with ritual are mythic ones. Many scholars still treat myth and ritual as a pair (Doty 1986) and some still read secular literature for its mythic and ritualistic resonances (Grimes 1989; Hardin 1983). McNutt and Grimes read many of the same sources, such as Eliade and Raymond Firth, but I would have expected her to interact further with Grimes himself.

The fieldwork in Africa on which McNutt draws is solid, and she creates a productive bridge between biblical studies and anthropology here. I think the work of anthropologists in Africa on technology and tradition is extremely important for a better understanding of the world of the Bible. Here McNutt provides an invaluable service. But, in my opinion, McNutt’s application of the evidence on iron working from Africa to cultures in Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine does not take into account some important differences between Africa and the ancient Near East.

First, there is good evidence that smiths exercised political authority in the villages of Africa, which they did not in the ancient Near East. My limited access to this fascinating discussion is courtesy of two colleagues in the anthropology department at Rice University who are active participants in discussions of the role of the smith in the development of African traditions (R. McIntosh 1993a, 1993b, 1989; SAR Advanced Seminar Paper S. McIntosh, forthcoming). For R. McIntosh, authority can only be exercised by those who can access symbols from the symbolic reservoir of a culture. In decentralized or horizontal societies, hunters exercised authority or nyama by killing archetypical creatures, whereas smiths exercised authority by taming them. By 1000 BCE, according to R. McIntosh, smiths had appropriated key ideologies from the symbolic reservoir and had become the most powerful figures in African village culture. In the decentralized village cultures of Africa, smiths were good. States emerged in Africa only when monarchs could successfully curb or control the authority of smiths. In the centralized state cultures of Africa, smiths were evil. But R. McIntosh would argue that the smith plays such a central role as a notion in African traditions because of the action of the smiths in either facilitating or opposing the formation of the state in Africa. There is no parallel struggle between smith and monarch in Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, where the struggle is between elders and monarchs. In the process of state formation, African cultures divinize the smiths whom the monarchs have deprived of their political authority, whereas cultures in Mesopotamia and Syria Palestine divinize the elders whom they have overthrown as the divine assembly. The defeated on the human plane are promoted to the divine plane.

Second, African cultures were revolutionized by the appearance of iron working because it was their first significant encounter with technology. It changed their lives and the way they thought about life. As actors, smiths provided critical services to their villages in forging and maintaining tools and weapons. They also functioned ritually, often in connection with circumcision. As ideals, smiths also began to appear as dominant characters in stories which played important roles in the formation of states. In Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa (1971) Goody uses three criteria to compare and contrast cultural development in Europe and Africa. The first is trade, the second, technology, and the third, warfare (22). There are strong similarities between the manner in which trade and warfare influenced the development of culture in Africa and Europe. Technology, however, and especially iron technology, had quite a different impact on the development of culture in Africa than in Europe. Iron smelting and working, which reached Africa after 900 BCE, was the first significant technology on the continent. There had been virtually no prior use of the plough, the wheel, copper, or bronze. Consequently, traditions in Africa often associate major cultural changes with iron working, and stories in African cultures are full of smiths. But iron working was not Mesopotamia’s or Syria-Palestine’s first encounter with technology. Therefore, Africa’s response to iron working may be unique. Goody certainly shows that while trade and warfare in Africa follow patterns found in other cultures, iron working does not. Therefore, it seems that African patterns of trade and warfare might enrich the study of ancient Israel, but not necessarily patterns of iron working. Iron working did not revolutionize the way of life in ancient Israel.

Third, smiths are not pivotal characters in the traditions of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine parallel to the Bible. The role of the smith in the divine assemblies of African cultures is not comparable to the role of the smith in the divine assembly of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine. Even as thorough a catalog of motifs as Bernard F. Batto’s Slaying the Dragon: mythmaking in the biblical tradition (1992) does not identify the smith or iron working as a defining metaphor in the way ancient Israel and the other cultures of the ancient Near East think about themselves and their lives. Therefore, it would be surprising to me if the Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites were pivotal in the Pentateuch. In the stories of Ba’al and Anat and the stories of Aqhat from Ugarit, for example, Kothar-wa-hasis is a smith. He forges battle axes for Ba’al, and builds a bow with arrows for Aqhat. Certainly, the evidence which McNutt presents connecting the smith with circumcision may suggest that Kothar-wa-hasis is not only arming warriors, but circumcising them as well. If both connotations are present here, then when Anat stalks Aqhat for his weapon, she not only wants his bow and arrows, but to have a child with him as well. There is enough double entendre in their conversation to warrant such a reading. But Kothar-wa-hasis is not a pivotal character.


The Forging of Israel and “The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israelite Tradition” have added yet another enlightening entry to the study of Israel’s symbolic reservoir. The work of Paula M. McNutt and the work in progress by other scholars make meaningful contributions to the understanding of the Bible and the world from which it comes. This wonderful archive of metaphors is essential for understanding the Bible today. But I am not yet convinced that iron working, or any of the other metaphors in the growing archive, defines the Pentateuch in particular or the world of the Bible in general.

Certainly related to the work which McNutt has done so well for iron working is the work which Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin are doing at Ekron on olive oil production. In “Olive-Oil Suppliers to the World” (1990), Gitin explores the relationship between this technology and worship. Ekron had a huge olive-oil industry. Ten four-horned altars were excavated in the pressing rooms. They were an integral part of a well-planned and organized industry. The altars may have been both the tool of the priests who controlled production and a symbol of their central authority. Olive oil production was clearly a metaphor in Ekron (1990:40).

More than one metaphor in the archive developed from technologies of the Neolithic period. Between 10,000–4000 BCE stone-age humans took momentous steps toward civilization. They learned to make pottery. This invention created a new world. Consequently, they and their descendants often thought about the creator as a potter. Nintu-mami thins her clay with blood (Atra 1:229–34), Aruru uses saliva (Gilg 1:30–40) and Yahweh wets the clay with only the condensation created by breathing on it (Gen 2:7). To create and to throw a pot virtually became synonymous. Therefore, Yahweh potted (Hebrew: יִּיצֶר) the adam in the book of Genesis (Gen 2:7).

Stone-age humans also learned to farm and herd. Consequently, they also considered the farmer a metaphor. In The Savage in Judaism (1990), Howard Eilberg-Schwartz studies how the book of Leviticus uses herding and farming to structure the social life of ancient Israel. Like most traditional people, the Hebrews treated land and animals in the same way as they did themselves. Daily activities like cooking, eating, and sexual intercourse reflect their world view (see also C. Levi-Strauss 1966; M. Douglas 1973). Without knowing how biblical people made a living, it is impossible to understand the behavior described in Leviticus.

Carol Delaney in The Seed and the Soil (1992) studies human sexuality as a metaphor. Traditionally, anthropologists have studied the ways in which a culture teaches adolescents about human sexuality to better understand its grasp of human anatomy and the reproductive process. Delaney, however, argues that the instructions which elders give on sexuality reveal little, if anything, about whether this people understands the biological connection between menstruation and fertility or coitus and conception. For Delaney, traditions on sexuality are creation stories in which the world view of a culture is ritually handed on from one generation to the next. They are not anatomically naive, but a sophisticated expression of ultimate human realities.

I have argued elsewhere that throughout the world of the Bible midwives were as highly regarded as they are in most traditional societies (1988; Matthews and Benjamin 1993). However, midwives were important in ancient Israel not only to the parents, but also to the whole community which learned from their work how to understand Yahweh. Israel’s gratitude to these women remains enshrined in the powerful metaphors of birth and birthing with which it described the Creator and creation.

Dance is also an important metaphor, which appears, for example, in the stories of Elijah in the books of Samuel-Kings. Carmel was a fitting location to tell the story of Elijah and Ahab, which asks: “Who Rules?” “Who is Lord?” “Who Makes it Rain?” The innovative language with which Elijah issues this challenge is lost in translations. “How long will you waver or limp (Hebrew: פסח) between two opinions?” (1 Kgs 18:26)?” can convey the image of traveler lost at an intersection or a bird hopping from one branch to the other. But the most appropriate translation for Elijah’s question is: ” ‘How long are you going to dance for Ba’al Marqad, divine patron of the dance?’ ” For Mayer I. Gruber, dancing is an important religious expression (1990; 1993). Thus, the book of Psalms sings: “… I dance (not ‘go’) around your altar (Ps 26:6, NRSV). Cultures for whom dancing is a metaphor consider their divine patrons to be dance masters or musicians, whose blueprints for creation are the melody to which humans must dance. Elijah wants Israel to decide with whom to dance, Yahweh or Yahweh Ba’al (Benjamin 1991:27–42).

In The Forging of Israel and in her article here, McNutt has certainly accepted Muhly’s challenge that “… [t]he Biblical authors had a multi-faceted view of their world—of its domestic and industrial life as well as its monuments and ceremonies. It is time that modern scholars attempt to reach the same level of competence. We must strive to recreate, through all the means at our disposal, a world that was taken for granted by its contemporary inhabitants (1982:54).” It is a pleasure to read the good work she has done, and to look forward to the good work she has yet to do.

Works Consulted

Batto, Bernard F.

1992    Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Benjamin, Don C.

1991    “Stories of Elijah.” Pp. 27–42 in The Land of Carmel: A Festschrift for Joachim Smet on his 75th birthday. Rome: Institutum Carmelitanum.

Benjamin, Don C.

1988    “Israel’s God: Mother and Midwife.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 19:115–120.

Bourguignon, Erika

1991    Review of Ritual Criticism by R.L. Grimes. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30:343–44.

Cross, Frank Moore

1973    Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Delaney, Carol

1992    The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society. Berkely: University of California Press.

Doty, William G.

1991    Review of Ritual Criticism by R.L. Grimes. Interpretation. 45:440.

Doty, William G.

1986    Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. University: University of Alabama Press.

Douglas, Mary

1973    Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Vintage.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard

1990    The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eliade, Mircea

1978    The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy. Trans. by S. Corrin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Firth, Raymond

1973    Symbols Public and Private. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Flanagan, James W.

1988    David’s Social Drama: A Hologram of Israel’s Early History. Social World of Biblical Antiquity, 7. Sheffield: Almond.

Frick, Frank S.

1971    “The Rechabites Reconsidered.” JBL 90:279–87

Geertz, Clifford

1973    The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Gennep, Arnold van

1909    The Rites of Passage. Trans. by M.B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Goody, Jack

1971    Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa. London: Oxford University Press.

Goody, Jack

1961    “Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem.” British Journal of Sociology. 12: 142–64.

Gitin, Seymour

1990    “Ekron of the Philistines, Part II; Olive-oil Suppliers to the World.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 16:32–43.

Grimes, Ronald L.

1990    Ritual Criticism: Case Studies on Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia: South Carolina University Press.

Grimes, Ronald L.

1982    Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Lanham: University Press of America.

Gruber, Mayer I.

1990    Aspects of Nonverbal Communication in the Ancient Near East. Rome: Biblical Institute.

Gruber, Mayer I.

1993    “Ten Dance-Derived Expressions in the Hebrew Bible.” Pp. 48–66 in Dance as Religious Studies. Ed. by D. Adams and D. Apostolos-Cappadona. New York: Crossroad.

Hardin, Richard F.

1983    “Ritual in Recent Criticism: The Elusive Sense of Community.” PMLA 98:846–62.

Hilsinger, Serena Sue and Lois Brynes, eds.

1978    Selected Poems of May Sarton. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hopkins, D.C.

1983    “The Dynamics of Agriculture in Monarchical Israel,” SBL Seminar Papers 17:177–202.

Hopkins, D.C.

1985    The Highlands of Canaan. Sheffield: Almond.

Hopkins, D.C.

1987    “Life on the Land: The Subsistence Struggles of Early Israel.” BA 50:178–91.

Lakoff, George

1987    Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson

1980    Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levi-Strauss, C.

1966    The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McIntosh, Roderick J.

1989    “Middle Niger Terracottas before the Symplegades Gateway.” African Arts 22: 75, 77–8.

McIntosh, Roderick J.

1993    “The Pulse Model: Genesis and Accommodation of Specialization in the Middle Niger,” Journal of African History 34: 181–220.

McIntosh, Roderick J.

1993    Unearthing the Early Mande World of Authority. unpublished.

McIntosh, Susan

forthcoming    “Blacksmiths and the Evolution of Political Complexity in Mande Society: an Hypothesis.” SAR Advanced Seminar Paper.

McNutt, Paula M.

1983    “An Inquiry into the Significance of Iron Technology in Early Iron Age Palestine”. Master’s thesis. University of Montana.

McNutt, Paula M.

1989    The Symbolism of Ironworking in Ancient Israel. PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University.

McNutt, Paula M.

1990    The Forging of Israel: Iron Technology, Symbolism, and Tradition in Ancient Society. Social World of Biblical Antiquity, 8. Ed. James W. Flanagan. Sheffield: Almond.

Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin

1993    The Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250–587 BCE. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Miller, P.O.

1982    Review of Metaphors We Live By by G. Lakoff and M. Johnson. American Anthropologist 84:953–4.

Muhly, J.D.

1982    “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World.” Biblical Archaeology Review 8/6: 40–54.

Singer, Charles Joseph, ed.

1954    A History of Technology. Oxford: Clarendon.

Stang, Barbara M.H.

1982    Review of Metaphors We Live By by G. Lakoff and M. Johnson. Modern Language Review 77:134–6.

Turner, Victor W.

1969    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. New York: Aldine.

Waldbaum, Jane C.

1978    From Bronze to Iron: The Transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Goteborg: Paul Astroms.

Transformed on the Mountain: Ritual Analysis and the Gospel of Matthew*

K. C. Hanson

Creighton University


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus repeatedly goes “to the mountain.” Traditionally, scholars have interpreted these passages solely in terms of their ideas (e.g., Christology and ecclesiology); but the passages also call for a ritual analysis. Following a phenomenological analysis of the importance of mountains in a cross-cultural perspective, a ritual analysis is employed to analyze how the Evangelist portrays Jesus as following a three-stage transformative process of separation, liminality, and aggregation. Beyond this recognizable sequence, the evangelist adds a further dimension by employing catchword associations to call for mimesis of the transformations among the disciples: the transformations are not solely experiences of Jesus in his earthly ministry, but are meant to be replicable experiences within the community on the path of discipleship. The five transformations encompass some of the basics of the spiritual quest and encounter with the divine: testing, catechesis, healing, epiphany, and commissioning. In terms of redaction, the evangelist chose a set of five transformations—a number used repeatedly in this Gospel to highlight the Mosaic connection (the five books of the Torah). This connection is reinforced by the importance of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Pisgah for Moses. The placement of these stories of transformation in the Gospel narrative emphasizes their importance to the evangelist for the understanding of Jesus’ ministry and mission.

I’m a dweller on the threshold

And I’m waiting at the door

And I’m standing in the darkness

I don’t want to wait no more

Feel the angel of the present

In the mighty crystal fire

Lift me up and soothe my darkness

Let me travel even higher

—(from Morrison 1982)

My connection to both valley and sky are different for being on a mountain. One does not see clouds or stars the same way when they are framed by peaks and valleys. The purity of the air, the smell of the trees, and the sound of the river provide a different ambience than does the city below. Living at 5500 feet above sea level on Mt. Baldy has significantly affected my perspective. An important aspect of social location is geographical location: locus and worldview are intimately connected.

A Hermeneutic of the Mountain Symbol

My interest in rehearsing ancient references to mountains and the scholarly discussion of them is to highlight the importance of mountain symbolism in the ancient Near East and provide the backdrop for my analysis of mountains as ritual symbols in Matthew. Throughout the ancient Near East, mountains were locations of ritual performance; the linkage between mountain and ritual is pivotal for understanding Matthew’s usage of mountain symbolism in the symbolization of Jesus’ story in Matthew.

Numerous studies have been carried out which have demonstrated the symbolic significance of mountains in ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultures: Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, Greek, Israelite, Judean, and Samaritan. Most of these works have focused upon questions of terminology, ideological functions, and history of religions. The emphasis here, however, is on the mountain as a focalizing symbol in Matthew’s Gospel. By “symbol” I mean:

any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception—the conception is the symbol’s ‘meaning’ … [symbols] are tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs (Geertz: 91, following Suzanne Langer).

Not only does this definition account for the multivalence of symbol, but combines both the cognitive and emotive aspects, or “intellective” and “affective,” to use Geertz’s distinction (81 n. 70).

The mountain in Matthew is a focalizing symbol in that it not only draws the reader’s attention, but also concentrates key aspects of what the Evangelist is trying to communicate, what Turner calls “condensation” (1967:28). The mountain setting heightens, so to speak, the import of events which transpire on it. F. R. McCurley sees Matthew’s use of the mountain as specifically exemplary of the “cosmic mountain” based upon what Jesus does there (164). T. L. Donaldson suggests that Matthew does not designate a particular mountain so as not to tie the Christian community to a specific location (202; see below). This may be a partial explanation: by not naming the mountain, Matthew allows “mountainness” as such to come to the foreground and function in the manner that Turner calls the “unification of disparate significata” (1967:28).

In addition to condensation and unification, Turner identifies a third aspect of ritual symbols which helps to open up the mountain symbol in Matthew: namely, the “polarization of meaning.” The two poles are the sensory and the ideological. By “sensory” Turner means the identification between the physical characteristics of a symbol and its meaning. With regard to mountains, this relates especially to height and distance from society. The ideological pole relates to the moral and social order of the culture (1967:28–30). Mountains are cosmological symbols of the divine-human meeting, as well as the point of creation—of community as well as cosmos.

Depending upon the era, culture, and text, the cosmological emphasis on the mountain might be one or more of the following: the assembly place of the gods, the connection between heaven and earth, the center/navel of the earth (and thus the locus of creation), the locus of revelation. Donaldson identifies four types of mountains significant for the interpretation of second temple Judean theology: covenant mountain, cosmic mountain, mountain of revelation, and eschatological mountain (82).

Although Donaldson’s conceptual categories are helpful, my focus here is rather on the power of the mountain symbol when it is employed in a context of rituals of transformation. To use J. Z. Smith’s terms, the mountain becomes “locative” in Matthew, where ritual transformation “takes place.” If ritual is a “mode of paying attention,” and “place directs attention” (Smith: 103), then Matthew’s imaginative use of the mountain symbol directs attention to the ritual transformations which transpire on the heights.

Some societies identified sacred mountains with the location of their own political-religious center (e.g., Babylon, Delphi, Zion, Gerizim). Others pointed to a distant, high mountain associated with divine presence, abode, or theophany (e.g. Sinai, Zaphon, Olympus). The Sinai and Zion traditions demonstrate that one society could identify with multiple sacred mountains for different functions, demonstrating the multivalence of symbols.

One can readily see why mountains came to have these politico-religious significance. Their height is a multivalent symbol of: reaching up toward the sky (and thus the divine world); prominence and honor symbolized as “above,” “high,” or “over”; center of attention; distance from daily existence; danger (especially when volcanic); and inaccessibility. Isaiah captured several of these elements in reference to Zion:

It shall happen in the latter days that the mountain of Yahweh’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to Yahweh’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God …” (Isa 2:2–3; all translations are mine unless otherwise noted)

And Exodus vividly captures the elements of purity, danger, and inaccessibility with reference to Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud horn blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh descended upon it in fire; and its smoke went up like kiln-smoke, and the whole mountain shook mightily. (Exod 19:16–18)

It was common in the ancient Near East to construct temples and altars with mountain symbolism (Clements: 1–16). The religious center is thus accorded cosmic significance. That is, the mountain-temple or temple-mount—especially in the political capital—manifests a divine sanction, a sacral quality, and thus a relationship to the cosmos which other places do not possess. The symbolic importance of David’s bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, for example, can readily be seen: Mt. Zion becomes both the new political capital and the cultic center with divine sanction (2 Sam 6:12–15; see Ps 99:9).

Besides natural mountains, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the Canaanite temples were constructed as sacred meeting places between humans and the gods, as gateways to the heavens, as divine thrones, and likely also as altars: that is, locations for the enactment of ritual at or upon the axis mundi.

Egyptian pyramids also bore this cosmological significance. In the inscriptions found in the pyramids of Mer-ne-Re and Nefer- ka-Re (both Sixth Dynasty, 24th century bce), an analogy is made between the primeval hill that emerged from the watery chaos at creation and the building of the pyramid:

O Atum-Kheprer, you were on high on the (primeval) hill.… (So also), O Atum, put your arms around King Nefer-ka-Re, around this construction work, around this pyramid, as the arms of a ka. (adapted from Wilson: 3)

And, indeed, mountains were favored as locations for temples and altars. They take worshipers off farmland and up to divine heights. Before David took the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, it was at Abinadab’s house “on the hill” (2 Sam 6:3). The prevalence of this practice in worship is demonstrated in Hosea’s accusation against the Israelites: “On the tops of the mountains they sacrifice, and on the hills they make offerings …” (Hos 4:13a).

In several instances, the terminology of the umbilicus/navel is used with regard to the sacred mountain: Akkadian Dur-an-ki, Greek ὀμφαλός γῆς, Hebrew טֳבּוּד הָאָרֶץ (see e.g., Eliade 1959b:38–47; Terrien: 315–20; McCurley: 139–41). The identification of mountain with navel is itself multivalent: center, birth/creation, connection/disconnection, and gateway. Judges 9:37 makes reference to troops descending from “the navel of the earth”—probably so-called because of the central shrine on Mt. Gerizim (see Boling: 178–79). And the significance of calling Jerusalem “the navel of the earth” in the biblical texts is certainly cosmological (Ezek 5:5; 38:12; see Stadelmann: 147–54; McCurley: 162; Levenson: 115–20; contra Sperling: 622–23). While a minor motif in Old Testament literature, the mountain’s cosmic symbolism is elaborated in later Judean literature. In Jubilees (ca. 2nd cent. bce), for example:

And he knew that the garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the LORD. And Mount Sinai (was) in the midst of the desert and Mount Zion (was) in the midst of the navel of the earth. The three of them were created as holy places, one facing the other. (8:19; trans. Wintermute: 73)

In 1 Enoch one finds the connection of the navel of the earth, the cosmic tree, and three holy mountains, all symbols of connection between sky and earth:

And from there I went into the center of the earth and saw a blessed place, shaded with branches which live and bloom from a tree that was cut. And there I saw a holy mountain. And I saw in a second direction, (another) mountain … which was higher than (the former) … In the direction of the west from this one there was (yet) another mountain, smaller than it and not so high … (26:1–4; trans. Isaac: 26)

Levenson’s analysis (1985) of the Sinai and Zion traditions as entry points for understanding the Hebrew canon indicates how much ancient Israelite and Judean self-understanding revolved around these two mountains as dynamic symbols of their relationship to God.

Mountains in Matthew: A Symbolic Hermeneutic

T. L. Donaldson’s Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthean Theology (1985) analyzes the six narratives in Matthew in which Jesus goes up a mountain. He notes that “mountain” also appears in sayings material five times (5:14; 17:20; 18:12; 21:21; 24:16), but these have no direct bearing on Matthew’s redaction or theology (12). His analysis has two components: analyses of the function of mountains in the Gospel and Matthew’s literary and theological use of the mountain motif (13).

After an extensive redactional analysis, Donaldson draws conclusions concerning the relation of the mountain motif to Matthean themes. He understands the Temptation (Matthew 4) and Transfiguration (Matthew 17) stories as relating to Jesus’ true sonship and the path of obedience. The ecclesiology of the eschatological community is the focus of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), the Feeding (Matthew 15), and the Commissioning (Matthew 28) narratives. “Salvation history” is the focus of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25; Donaldson: 196). He also concludes that Matthew’s mountain symbolism is dependent primarily upon the Judean Zion traditions. But the Evangelist also adapts this imagery for his own purposes:

In Matthean perspective, therefore, it is when Jesus is ‘on the mountain’ that his significance and the nature of his mission are most clearly seen. Consequently it can be said that mountains in Matthew function not primarily as places of revelation or isolation, but as eschatological sites where Jesus enters into the full authority of his Sonship, where the eschatological community is gathered, and where the age of fulfillment is inaugurated. (197)

For Matthew, there is no thought of a “holy mountain,” a Christian Zion to rival the temple mount, to do for the church what Gerizim did for Samaritanism. Jesus himself, and not any mountain on which he ministered, is for Matthew the Christian replacement for Zion … The mountain in Matthew has significance only because Jesus is there. Matthew uses it in the framework of his christological portrait where it functions as a vehicle by means of which Zion hopes are transferred to—and seen as fulfilled in—Jesus of Nazareth. (202)

Substantial agreement with Donaldson’s conclusions is possible if one stays within the sphere of literature and theology. Rather than limited solely to the realm of ideas or themes (e.g., ecclesiology) and literature (the literary construction of the Gospel), however, the mountain symbol in Matthew also functions as the focalizer of a ritual process in which those who cross symbolic boundaries are transformed through imagination and performance. Analyzing the symbolic and ritual dimensions will provide, I hope, a more complex and nuanced approach to the material. Furthermore, it will bring into focus the “affective” aspects of the material, in conjunction with Donaldson’s more “intellective” analysis.

Ritual Process and Matthew’s Strategy

Every society employs means of creating, maintaining, and celebrating its group identity. If we speak of these cultural performances—whether religious or not-as “rites,” then two basic types can be discerned. The first are those performed repeatedly (daily, weekly, annually), which can be labeled “ceremonies.” Ceremonies emphasize an already established identity, solidarity, meaning, and allegiance. They focus upon those within the circle of belonging, that is, on members and membership per se (see Neyrey 1991). Examples of ceremonies are: the celebration of the Eucharist (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually—depending upon the particular Christian tradition), the Passover meal (annually), and the Sabbath (weekly). Ceremonies, then, celebrate and reaffirm an already existing status.

Related to ceremonies, but quite distinct, are “rituals.” Rather than affirm a status, rituals change a person’s status by taking the subject across social boundaries. Rituals occur as needed rather than according to schedule, and thus, unlike ceremonies, are not usually tied to the calendar. They are “rites of passage,” in the phrase of Arnold van Gennep (1960). Examples are: circumcision, baptism, marriage, anointing the sick, bar/bath mitzvah, confirmation, ordination, bishop’s consecration. Purification rites also fall in this category (e.g., Christian penance rites, and Jewish purification baths [mikvaoth]). Through these various rituals, participants cross a variety of boundaries: outsider to insider, single to married, life to death, laity to priesthood, priesthood to bishopric, unclean to clean. The following comparative chart, adapted from M. McVann (1991:335), illustrates the relationships between and distinctiveness of rituals and ceremonies:










predictable & planned







status transformation


status and role confirmation

FIGURE #1: Rite: Ritual and Ceremony

We now turn to developing the implications of the left side of this chart. Victor Turner (1967; 1969) has been the one most responsible for building upon the anthropological foundation of ritual studies laid by Arnold van Gennep. These two concluded from their fieldwork that rituals entail three basic steps. Rather than merely stepping from unclean to clean, or outsider to insider, the participants must enter an intermediate stage as well.

Step One of the ritual process is constituted by the formal separation of participants from the larger society. For example, children preparing for baptism are separated from all other children. Or an individual formally identified as a postulant for ministry enters seminary. This separation may take place in space, time, or both.

Step Two is the “liminal” (margin/boundary/threshold) phase. In this phase the participants are on the margin of society: neither outside nor inside, but in process. But they are also on the threshold of transformation to a new state and status. It is here that ritual transformation occurs. The change is usually signaled by overt acts: humiliation, cleansing, teaching, healing, testing, cutting of flesh, etc. Turner identifies three aspects of this liminal phase: 1) communication of the sacral; 2) recombinations and inversions of traditional sacral images and symbols; 3) authority between social categories (elders over initiands) and communitas (egalitarian relation) is stressed within and among the initiands in a small-scale ritual replication of the structure of society as a whole (1969:94–165).

Step Three is the aggregation of the participants to the larger group. They formally rejoin society or the community, but are reintegrated with a new status. They necessarily function differently now that the ritual has taken place and now that they have a new status: they are clean, knowledgeable, ordained, married, and so forth, and thus empowered to act with a new capacity in the society which they have rejoined at the aggregation.

I employ this three-phase model as an interpretive tool to explain the narrative, linguistic, and performative signals which Matthew inscribes into his narrative. The model both clarifies the Evangelist’s mode of narrative discourse and connects this mode of discourse with other narratives which draw on the ritual imagination (see Bal 1990). If Driver is correct that to “lose ritual is to lose the way” (4), then to create ritual is to make a way and point a direction. The Evangelist thus cuts a new path by shaping these mountain narratives into ritual drama, and is therefore “ritualizing,” creating new ritual forms for the community (see Driver: 30).

If mountains in the ancient Near East are often symbolic of where the divine and human meet, then one would expect to see a juncture where the sacred is experienced, boundaries crossed, and life transformed. T. L. Donaldson ties Matthew’s mountain narratives to the evangelist’s themes, and interprets them propositionally as cognitive expressions of Christology, ecclesiology, and salvation history. The evangelist, however, is not merely interested in passing along data or iterating ideology about Jesus. He wants rather to communicate transformative experiences of and with Jesus: actually moving disciples through the process of formation as disciples. The evangelist wants his readers to understand that entering into discipleship entails the transformation of life, and that transformation takes place not only cognitively, but concretely in ritual as an emotional and embodied experience.

The thread which ties these transformative experiences together is the focalizing, ritual symbol of the mountain. It stands apart from civilization. It is not a temple made with hands, but a meeting place for the divine and the human, whose meaning is created by the community (Smith). What happens here is not what happens daily in the village or on the farm: it is space apart and time apart. Comparing initiation rituals across cultures, La Fontaine argues:

The effect is to separate members and non-members in terms of distance travelled. In those rituals, performed within a ‘temple’ or a ‘lodge’, the actual space used is minimal. Those of the Mende and Hopi are not confined within a building; their candidates for initiation are taken into the forest away from the village, or down into the sacred chamber underground. Distance and location emphasize the separation of the novices from ordinary life. (84)

The evangelist has signaled these transformations and the connections between them with at least three types of parallels: narrative signals (e.g., departure/separation and return/ aggregation, change in characters), vocabulary (e.g., “to the mountain”), and motifs (e.g., ascent and wonderment).

A further point should be made concerning Matthew’s technique of setting up these mountain ascension narratives. In each case, the Evangelist leads into the narrative by indicating to the reader Jesus’ qualifications to make the next ritual move. The initiation-ordeal is immediately preceded by the declaration of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am delighted!” (3:17). The instruction in 5–7 and the healing in 15:29–31 are preceded by the notice of the spread of Jesus’ honor as a healer and exorcist (4:23–25; 15:21–28). The epiphany in 17:1–8 is preceded by Jesus’ declaration that: “the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels …” (16:27). And the commissioning is preceded by Jesus’ resurrection (28:1–10).

The following chart identifies the three steps of ritual transformation as outlined by van Gennep and Turner. But I have also included two other columns of information indicated by Matthew’s linguistic and narrative clues: disciples’ mimesis and communal consequences (usually wonderment and praise). The regular occurrence of these two features also requires interpretation in the sections below. Moreover, the evangelist each time expands upon Jesus’ separation by tying it to his ascent of the mountain.












Jesus was led up [anêxtha] by Spirit into the Wldemess


the devil took [paralambanel] him to a very high mountain


to be tempted [peirasthênai] by the devil


do not lead us into temptation [peirasmon]

[10:16–25]; 18:7 26:41


angels came and ministered [diêkonoun] to him


he withdrew [anechôrêsen] into Galilee … and dwelt [katôkêsen] in Capernaum




many crowds followed [êkolouthêsan] him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea


he ascended [anebê] the mountain


he opened his mouth; he taught [edidasken] them, saying


the one who does them and teaches [didaxê] them shall be called in the great kingdom


the crowds were astmished [exeplêssonto] at his teaching


When he descended [katabantos] from the mountain, great crowds followed [êkolouthêsan] him




Jesus left there [metabas] passing [êlthen] along the sea of Galilee


he ascended [anebê] the mountain


and he healed [etherpeusen] them


he gave them authority to heal [therepeuein] every disease and every malady


the crowd wondered [thaumasal] … and glorified [edoxasan] God


then Jesus summoned [proskalesamenos] his discipes to herself




Jesus took [paralambanel] with him Peter, James, and John


he led [anapherei] them to a very high mountain


he was transfigured [metamorphothe] before them … appeared [ôpsthê] to them


for they shall see [opsontai] God 17:9b tell no one the vision [horama] until …


disciples fell on their faces; greatly awed [ephobêthêsan]


they were descending [katabainontôn] the mountain 17:14 and when they came [elthontôn] to the crowd




Now the eleven disciples went [eporeuthêsan] to Galilee


to the mountain


he commissioned [elalêsen] them


teaching [didaskontes], them to obselve all that I commanded [eneteilamên] you


they worshiped [proskunêsan], but some doubted [edistasan]


FIGURE #2: Mountains and Ritual Process in Matthew

The Mountain of Initiation-Ordeal (Matthew 4:1–12)

M. McVann has demonstrated the ritual structure of this passage. He argues that Jesus, who had most likely been a disciple of John, is himself transformed into a prophet (1993:14–15, 19). Following Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan (3:13–17), he was “led up” (ἈΝΉΧΘΗ) into the Wilderness by the Spirit, 4:1a. Jesus is thus separated from the community at the river for forty days of fasting. The three tests by “the tester” (Ὁ ΠΕΙΡΆΖΩΝ v. 3), “the devil” (Ὁ ΔΙΆΒΟΛΟς vv. 5, 8, 11), or “satan” (ΣΑΤΑΝΑ v. 10) culminate in the ascent to “a very high mountain” (ΕἸ ὌΡΟς ὙΦΗΛῸΝ ΛΊΑΝ) in v. 8. Jesus is now alone with his ordeal-master on the mountain to complete his testing.

This ordeal, or ritualized initiation (πειρασθῆναι, v. 1b), tests his spiritual strength, loyalty, and obedience: will he opt for food, or perform spectacular feats, or accept power from an ungodly source? The element of testing is further accentuated by specifically playing on Deut 8:2–5 (see also Exod 16:4), part of which is quoted in Matt 4:4. The motifs employed are: forty, leading, wilderness, commandment, humbling, testing (nassotheka), discipline, obedience, hunger, bread:

And you will remember each way which Yahweh your God has led you this forty years in the Wilderness in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. And he humbled you, and let you hunger, and fed you with manna (with which you were not acquainted, nor were your fathers acquainted), in order that he might bring you to know that a person does not live only by bread, but that a person lives by everything that comes out of Yahweh’s mouth … Then you will know with your heart that just as a man disciplines his son, Yahweh your God disciplines you.

Note that the ordeal of the flood also lasted forty days (Gen 7:12). More closely connecting the motif of forty with the mountain and fasting, Moses fasted forty days and nights on Sinai when receiving the second set of tablets (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9–11, 18); and Elijah fasted forty days and nights on his trip to “Horeb, the mountain of God” (1 Kgs 19:8). McVann points to the importance of the fast in the ritual process:

The fast is what grinds Jesus down, empties him of his old self, so he can be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers for his new station in life. Through the ritual fast, the patterns and dependencies of the old identity are eradicated so the new can take root. It is at the end of the fasting in solitude that the testings begin. (1993:16)

Jesus successfully counters each of his temptations with the quotation of scripture (Deut 8:3b; 6:16a; 6:20a), demonstrating his knowledge of the tradition, his Torah-acumen, and his loyalty to God as well. This type of ordeal of degradation or testing is especially well known in initiation rituals. In hunter-gatherer societies the adolescents are often required to go into the bush alone and survive the elements, kill an animal, submit to humiliation, or fight an opponent. In the initiation ritual of the Powamu association, Hopi children receive the group’s secrets while sitting in cramped space for hours, then receive four severe lashes with a yucca whip (La Fontaine: 89, 111). La Fontaine goes on to identify several types of testing: oath-taking, ordeal (privation and pain), harangues, and teasing/ridicule (186–87). One should add to her list another that is implicit in her discussion: tests of knowledge. In the Jewish tradition of bar mitzvah, the initiand must successfully chant from the Torah in Hebrew before the congregation. (Even in technological societies, dissertations have to be written and defended!) If Jesus is to lead his disciples in taking on demonic forces, he himself must first demonstrate his own abilities, survive deprivation, and overcome demonic power.

A further element recognizable here is the folkloric triad (see Olrik: 132–33): the three tests are located in three different locations: the wilderness (vv. 3–4), the temple pinnacle (vv. 5–7), and the mountain (vv 8–10)—each with its own associations: food, miracles, and power. This is diagrammed in figure #3:



Mountain: political power


Temple: miracles


Wilderness: food



FIGURE #3: Progressive Temptations in Locus

Thus Matthew not only emphasizes multiplicity in the formulaic three, but movement, intensification, and ascension: as the tests become more difficult, the location changes to a higher plane, culminating on the mountain. This lends added significance to the mountain as ritual symbol of the highest order for Matthew.

The consequence of Jesus’ successful completion of the tests is that angels arrive to minister to him (4:11). This provides divine confirmation of his status elevation. As God announced “This is my beloved son, with whom I am delighted” after the baptism (3:17), here he sends messengers to serve Jesus after his ordeal.

The final step of the ritual is taken with Jesus’ aggregation into the community: he went to Galilee to settle in Capernaum (v. 12). This leads into his ministry of preaching repentance (vv. 14–17) and the calling of disciples (vv. 18–22). This follow-up to Jesus’ testing further indicates that the testing is preparatory to proclaiming his message; the temporal orientation is towards the immediate future: a new existence, a new status, a new mission.

The Evangelist relates Jesus’ ordeal to the life of the Christian community by reiterating that testing is part of discipleship—even if the testing is not of identical type (see Luz: 186). In the “Lord’s Prayer” the disciples are taught to pray: “… and do not lead us into testing (πειρασμόν), but deliver us from the evil one” (6:13). In 10:16–25 Jesus tells the disciples to expect persecution; but he also assures them that they will be provided with the words to answer the accusers. But successful completion of the ordeal is a necessity: “the one who endures to the end will be delivered” (10:22; see also 18:7). And in 26:41 Jesus warns Peter, James, and John: “Be on guard and pray so that you do not enter into testing (πειρασμόν).”

From the evangelist’s connecting the testing of Jesus and the disciples, one may conclude that he knows that testing is a part of the life of discipleship, but a dangerous business. Jesus successfully completed the testing, but it is an open question how well the disciples will perform. The danger inherent in any ritual is that it will either be done wrong, or that it will not be successfully completed. For an example of failure at a three-fold “test,” note Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 14:66–72; Matt 26:69–75; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27).

The Mountain of Instruction (Matthew 4:25–8:1)

The evangelist indicates the popularity of Jesus in 4:25 as a transition in which Jesus gathered crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea (the north, east, and south). “And seeing the crowds, he ascended up the mountain; and when he sat down, his disciples gathered to him” (5:1); in ritual terms, he left the general population and gathered his disciples for instruction. Jesus’ disciples follow him, receive his teaching, and acknowledge him; all this must happen on the mountain.

Like Sinai, this mountain is the place where revelation will proceed from God to the community via a mediator. But whereas the Israelites remained at the base of Sinai waiting to receive the divine message brought down from Moses (Exod 19:10–25), Jesus’ followers ascend with him to receive his teaching on the mountain—the place where the divine and human meet. The multivalence of the mountain-symbol is clearly manifested here: it unites the symbol of revelation/instruction (mountain as gateway to the heavens) and the symbol of creation, since a new community is created here (mountain as umbilicus or point of creation). Both of these themes are reflected in the Sinai narratives as well (e.g., Exodus 19–24), and these are sources from which Matthew undoubtedly drew heavily.

What happens on the mountain is the group’s initiation into Jesus’ teaching. In terms of composition, the Evangelist provides an overview of Jesus’ message by gathering the many individual Jesus-sayings into this “sermon.” But in terms of the story, a single crowd of disciples is initiated into his teaching. Prior to Matthew 5–7, the reader is only given one brief summary of what Jesus is up to: “Repent, because the Kingdom of the Heavens is drawing near!” (4:17). So this “sermon” functions to instruct Jesus’ followers in the content of his message. Furthermore, the address is Jesus’ first full discourse as a prophet to his disciples. Hearing the message, they know what they are responding to. The fact that this is the broader group of followers, and not only the Twelve, is indicated by the response of the crowd in 7:28, the same crowd (οἱ ὄχλοι) mentioned in 4:25 and 5:1. They are now all initiands.

The response to Jesus’ teaching is acclamation: “And when Jesus completed these sayings, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one possessing authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28–29). This highlights the distinction between what Jesus does and what the scribes do. While the scribes interpreted the tradition, Jesus proclaimed a distinctive message of the Kingdom. The acclamation also indicates that the master-teacher has guided the initiands into a new status. The astonishment emphasizes that what has transpired is an extraordinary and uncommon, indeed, a divine event.

Having initiated the crowds into his teaching, Jesus descends (καταβάντος) the mountain, and is again followed by the crowds (8:1). He and they reenter society. The revelation is complete, the meeting between the divine and human concluded; they cannot and must not stay in the liminal phase of receiving instruction. They step back across the threshold into daily life, but with a new identity as Jesus’ disciples. Thus, on the Mountain of Instruction, Jesus is portrayed as the master who initiates others into discipleship and thus transforms their status.

The Mountain of Healing (Matthew 15:29–31)

Sickness and brokenness are signs of disorder and chaos. On the mountain of healing, Jesus demonstrates his power over these conditions. He has healed before, but the mountain setting lays greater stress on the significance of Jesus’ healing action. “Then Jesus left there [the Phoenician region of Tyre and Sidon], passing along the Sea of Galilee; and he ascended the mountain (ἈΝᾺΒΑς ΕἸς ΤῸ ὌΡΟς), sitting down there” (v. 29). Not only does Jesus leave Phoenicia, but the Galilean villages as well.

The boundary-crossing that Matthew describes is Jesus taking “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others” from brokenness to wholeness: he “healed” (ἐθεράπευσεν) them (v. 30). This encompasses the taxonomy of three body zones repeatedly articulated in the Bible, as first identified by De Geradon (1960; see Malina: 73–81): hands-feet (lame and maimed), heart-eyes (blind), and mouth-ears (mute). Symbolically, then, Jesus addresses the whole human person by healing in each of body-zones in this narrative, also healing conditions which would exclude people from the temple (see Pilch 1986).

As J.J. Pilch has demonstrated in numerous articles, what is at stake physically in biblical healing narratives is not the “curing” of “diseases,” terms referring to modern medical diagnosis and interventions. Rather, traditional societies are concerned with “healing” of “illness.” That is: “When an intervention affects an illness, that activity is called ‘healing.’ ” This “involves the provision of personal and social meaning for the life problems that accompany human health misfortunes”; put succinctly, curing is to disease as healing is to illness (1991:192; see also 1986). This is true in general for traditional societies, and it is especially clear in this text. The sick and those who care for them separate themselves from society to follow Jesus up a mountain and through a ritual of healing. All types of maladies are healed, and those healed cross the boundaries from marginalization to integration; meaninglessness to meaningfulness; chaos to order. Thus, the symbol of the mountain here is not linked to revelation, but creation, specifically the creation of order out of chaos.

The “wonder” θαυμάσαι of the crowds, and their “glorifying the God of Israel” ἐδόξασαν τὸν θεὸν Ἰσραήλ again emphasize the extraordinary character of the healing Jesus performs as God’s Son (v. 31). A profound and world-encompassing change has occurred on this mountain-top, and those who have experienced it return to the world below wholly renewed and transformed.

The mimesis of the disciples, in parallel to the other mountain symbol passages, is further argument that the ritual performance on the mountain is healing, and not principally feeding (pace Donaldson). In Matt 10:1 Jesus “called his twelve disciples to himself, giving them authority over unclean spirits, to exorcise them, and to heal θεραπεύειν every disease and every malady.” The power which Jesus has demonstrated over all sorts of brokenness, he has now given to the Twelve. The healing, integrating, and inclusiveness that he begins they are to continue. The aggregation is less specific here, compared with the other passages: Jesus moves from dealing with the sick to addressing his disciples (v. 32), and feeding the crowd. He dismisses the crowd—healed and fed—and he and the disciples depart for the region of Magadan (v. 39).

The Mountain of Epiphany (Matthew 17:1–8)

The particular narrative unit is 17:1–8, but the ritual process has to be seen in 17:1–14. Verses 9–13 narrate the action “while they descended the mountain” (v. 9), and full aggregation is not mentioned until v. 14: “And when they approached the crowd …”

Jesus took Peter and James and John, separating them not only from society generally, but also from the other nine disciples, “and led (ἀναφέρει) them to a high mountain by themselves” (v. 1). This highly significant event is reserved for the innermost circle. The scene is reminiscent of Moses taking Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders with him to Sinai: “they had a vision of God, and they ate and drank” (Exod 24:11).

What happens on the mountain as a vision/audition experience is a variation on the classic form of an Israelite/Judean “vision report”; Jesus was:

transformed (μεταμορφώθη) before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared (ὤφθη) to them, talking with him … and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved son with whom I am delighted; listen to him.” (17:1–3)

McCurley clearly demonstrates that this account integrates different aspects of Israelite/Judean mountain symbolism (170–77). Many of the narrative details are analogs of the Sinai narratives in Exodus 24 and 34 (e.g., cloud, audition, transforming glory). The auditory “This is my son” plays on the royal adoption motifs connected with Mt. Zion in Psalm 2: “I have placed my king on Zion, my holy hill” (2:6), and “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (2:7b). And the phrase “beloved son” (υἱός ἀγαπητός) appears in the LXX only with regard to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain in Moriah (Gen 22:2, 12, 16). McCurley also notes that Mt. Moriah and Mt. Zion are identified with each other in 1 Chron 3:1; thus he identifies the integrative and resymbolization process as diagrammed in Figure #4, what he calls the “Quality of the Transfiguration Mount” (176):


FIGURE #4: Integration and Re-symbolization in the Mount of Transfiguration

Clearly, this passage has a double focus: attention is directed to Jesus’ sonship/kingship, and to the manifestation of the holy, whether one calls this epiphany, theophany, or Christophany. That this is a vision is stated explicitly in v. 9 (ὅραμα) and further indicated by the term “appeared” in v. 2 (ὤφθη).

The reaction of the three disciples was to fall upon their faces, awestruck (v. 6). This is the appropriate and expected reaction to a theophany/revelatory experience, e.g.: “This was the visionary likeness of Yahweh’s glory. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face …” (Ezek 1:28). But more than simply a literary motif, this is the appropriate ritual action and posture. The disciples have been taken further along on their journey of discipleship by being granted this vision in which Jesus’ unique status as God’s son is revealed to them. Thus, their status as disciples is heightened even as Jesus’ exalted status is revealed.

One might expect this visionary experience to be unique to the three disciples. But the evangelist indicates that it is much broader in implication. In Matt 5:8 the grant of honor to the “pure in heart” is that they shall see God. This is rooted in a long Judean tradition of seeing God in the context of the temple worship: “They go from strength to strength; the God of gods shall be seen in Zion” (Ps 84:7[8]; see further Hanson, forthcoming). Additionally, this vision prepares for the appearance of the resurrected Jesus which the Eleven will have at the Gospel’s conclusion when they are commissioned as apostles.

The evangelist extends the aggregation into a dialogue on the way down the mountain (vv. 9–13). Verse 9 begins with them descending the mountain; but they do not fully aggregate until v. 14 “When they came to a crowd …”

Mountain of Commissioning (Matthew 28:16–20)

This pericope is the conclusion toward which the whole Gospel builds: here the transformed Jesus in turn transforms his inner circle from an inwardly-directed, tightly knit, fictive kin-group to an outwardly-directed group of teachers and disciplers. It also plays upon the dialectic of presence and absence. Jesus is present with them in the story, and the story ends without Jesus having left. But Jesus’ words imply his absence, even while vowing continued presence.

The Eleven depart for Galilee, and go “to the mountain” (v. 16); this separates them from Judea and Jerusalem, and from Galilee itself. Note that the phrase “to which Jesus directed them” modifying “mountain” (v. 16b) acknowledges that it must be a specific location, while maintaining the mountain’s anonymity. Important for the evangelist, then, is not the identity of the mountain, but its “mountainness” and the resurrected Jesus’ presence to his disciples/apostles.

Jesus’ commission of the Eleven is introduced with his statement that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (v. 18; see also 7:29; 9:8; 11:27; 21:23–27; Dan 7:14; John 3:35). As in the other mountain passages, the basis for Jesus’ action is established: authority ascribed by God (see John 20:21). Jesus had previously commissioned the Twelve to preach, heal, resurrect, cleanse, and exorcise (10:5–15); but this earlier mission explicitly excluded gentiles and Samaritans (10:5–6). So, while they had previously been sent out, their mission has now been transformed from an ethnic into a global one. And a further shift is that they are now to teach and baptize (v. 20b). The commissioning, then, changes the status of the Eleven from disciples to apostles, matching the nature of their changed mission.

The encounter with Jesus, however, produced a mixed reaction: “they worshiped, but some doubted” (28:17). Each of the earlier examples of “consequence” were unequivocal: ministered, astonished, wondered and glorified, and greatly awed. In this final scene, even some of the Eleven are doubting. Note how Matthew had earlier played upon the “mixture” within the church, for example: the sown seed with various yields (13:3–9), the wheat and weeds (13:24–30), and the mixed catch of fish (13:47–50). The evangelist seems to use this theme one last time to emphasize the lack of purity in the church, even among the leadership. As I noted before, one of the dangerous aspects of ritual is that a participant may be unsuccessful in its completion, and the evangelist is alerting the reader to this danger.

The missing element in this pericope, when compared to the other mountain ascension passages, is the aggregation: neither Jesus nor the Eleven rejoin society; the scene ends with all of them still on the mountain. This lack of closure provides the Gospel with a sense of openendedness: the success of the Eleven is left unnarrated, Jesus remains standing within the community, and the future is uncertain except for Jesus’ vow of continued presence. That is, Jesus’ status as resurrected Lord to whom all authority has been given is firmly established. What is uncertain is what will become of the newly commissioned apostles. Thus, the ritual model further illuminates the purpose of the lack of narrative closure.


Matthew’s sequence of the ritual mountain ascents and descents is not accidental. The mountain passages chart the developmental process of discipleship and formation from initiation to deputation. This sequence of ritual movements up and down mountains takes the disciples from group-maintenance to group-building, from self-in-relationship to the community-within-society. Before they can move outward into the world to preach, teach, and baptize (itself a central ritual of status transformation), the disciples must be taught, “healed,” and given a glimpse of the divine. The ritual transformations associated with mountains in Matthew are not “once for all”; they are part of the on-going tradition. Neither are they narrated in great detail, but are suggestive and multivalent. They may be experienced and manifested diversely in the community: but despite that diversity, they are no less fundamental transformations. And finally, Matthew’s ritualized mountain symbolism integrates the affective and intellective processes: the symbolization exhibits conceptual and ideological content, but also provides the concrete expression of emotive and experiential realities.

A final comment on the disciples’ mimesis is in order. The evangelist has not only paralleled Jesus’ action with that of the disciples in other parts of the Gospel, but has set up the principle of mimesis. In the context of the disciples’ travels, deeds, and subsequent persecution, Jesus declares: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his owner. It is sufficient for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the slave like his owner (Matt 10:24–25a). Thus for Matthew, Jesus’ deeds are paradigmatic for the community; mimesis is fundamental for identity, action, and relationship. Ritual becomes the creative medium which mediates mimesis. In order to follow Jesus, the disciples must pass through the dangers of the ritual process. Ritual, as Victor Turner has demonstrated, has the power and potential both to preserve and to transform the community.

Works Consulted

Bal, Mieke

1990    “Experiencing Murder: Ritualistic Interpretation of Ancient Texts.” Pp. 3–20 in Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Ed. K. M. Ashley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Boling, Robert G.

1975    Judges. AB 6A. Garden City: Doubleday.

Butterworth, E. A. S.

1970    The Tree at the Navel of the Earth. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Clements, R. E.

1965    God and Temple. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Clifford, Richard J.

1972    The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament. HSM Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

De Geradon, Bernard

1960    “L’homme a l’image de Dieu.” Nouvelle Revue Theologique 80:683–95.

Donaldson, Terence L.

1985    Jesus on the Mountain. A Study in Matthean Theology. JSNTSup 8. Sheffield: JSOT Press.

Driver, Tom F.

1991    The Magic of Ritual. Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. San Francisco: Harper.

Eliade, Mircea

1959a    Cosmos and History. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. W. R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row.

Eliade, Mircea

1959b    The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. Trans. W. R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Eliade, Mircea

1985    Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts. Ed. D. Apostolos-Cappadona. New York: Crossroad.

Geertz, Clifford

1973    The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

van Gennep, Arnold

1960    Rites of Passage. Trans. M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul [orig. pub. 1909].

Grimes, Ronald

1990    “Victor Turner’s Definition, Theory, and Sense of Ritual.” Pp. 141–46 in Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Ed. K. M. Ashley. Bloomington: Indiana University

Hanson, K. C.

1995    “How Honorable!’ ‘How Shameful!’ A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches.” Semeia 68:83–114.

Isaac, E., trans.

1983    “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch.” Pp. 5–89 in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Ed. J. H. Charlesworth. Garden City: Doubleday.

La Fontaine, Jean

1985    Initiation. New York: Viking Penguin.

Levenson, Jon D.

1985    Sinai and Zion. An Entry into the Jewish Bible. New Voices in Biblical Studies. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Luz, Ulrich

1989    Matthew 1–7. Trans. W. C. Linss. Continental Commentaries. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

McVann, Mark

1991    “Rituals of Status-Transformation in Luke-Acts: The Case of Jesus the Prophet.” Pp. 333–60 in The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation. Ed. J. H. Neyrey. Peabody: Hendrickson.

McVann, Mark

1993    “One of the Prophets: Matthew’s Testing Narrative as a Rite of Passage.” BTB 23:14–20.

McCurley, Foster R.

1983    Ancient Myths and Biblical Faith. Scriptural Transformations. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce J.

1993    The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Morrison, Van

1982    “Dweller on the Threshold.” On Beautiful Vision. Essential Music (BMI).

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1991    “Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table Fellowship.” Pp. 361–87 in The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation. Ed. J. H. Neyrey. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Olrik, Axel

1965    “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative.” Pp. 129–41 in The Study of Folklore. Ed. A. Dundes. Trans. J. P. Steager. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall [orig. art. pub. 1909].

Pilch, John J.

1986    “The Health Care System in Matthew.” BTB 16:102–6.

Pilch, John J.

1991    “Sickness and Healing in Luke-Acts.” Pp. 181–209 in The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation. Ed. J. H. Neyrey. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Sanders, James A.

1972    Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Sanders, James A.

1991    “The Integrity of Biblical Pluralism.” Pp. 154–69 in “Not In Heaven“: Coherence and Complexity in Biblical Narrative. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Ed. J. P. Rosenblatt and J. C. Sitterson, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1987    To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Speiser, E. A.

1969    “Akkadian Myths and Epics.” Pp. 60–119 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Ed. J. B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sperling, S. David

1976    “Navel of the Earth.” Pp. 621–23 in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume. Ed. K. Crim. Nashville: Abingdon.

Stadelmann, Luis I. J.

1970    The Hebrew Conception of the World. AnBib 39. Rome: Biblical Institute.

Terrien, Samuel

1970    “The Omphalos Myth and Hebrew Religion.” VT 20:315–38.

Turner, Victor

1967    The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor

1969    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vermes, Geza

1987    The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 3rd ed. Sheffield: JSOT.

Weinfeld, Moshe

1991    Deuteronomy 1–11. AB 5. New York: Doubleday.

Wilson, John A., trans.

1969    “Egyptian Myths, Tales, and Mortuary Texts.” Pp. 3–36 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Ed. J. A. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wintermute, O. S., trans.

1985    “Jubilees.” Pp. 35–142 in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works. Ed. J. H. Charlesworth. Garden City: Doubleday.

Zimmerli, Walther

1983    Ezekiel 2. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 25–48. Trans. J. D. Martin. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Mountaineering in Matthew: A Response to K. C. Hanson

Philip F. Esler

St Mary’s College The University of St. Andrews

In a paper delivered in July 1994, Vernon Robbins acutely observed that “the boundaries of a discipline evoke a purity system whereby any ‘mixing’ of approaches, practices, or methods creates ‘impurities’ ” (1995). The continued resistance to the importation of social-scientific ideas and perspectives into New Testament criticism nicely illustrates how real the traditional boundaries of the discipline seem to some, even though they are largely social constructs, and historically contingent ones at that.

The established historical method insisted upon in certain quarters had been developed in its essential characteristics by Strauss and Baur by the end of the 1830’s. Its advocates are really asking us to treat the disciplined and brilliantly revealing social-scientific research conducted since then as irrelevant to understanding Christian origins. We are asked to accept a method snap-frozen in the 1830’s. Yet as those with home freezers discover, snap-frozen products sometimes rot as they thaw.

Since the phenomenon of early Christianity does not conveniently mirror the way we have traditionally chosen to categorize our investigations of it, the need for interdisciplinary research is apparent. The present volume is predicated upon a recognition of such a need, and in K. C. Hanson’s essay, “Transformed on the Mountain: Ritual Analysis and the Gospel of Matthew”, we have a fine example of what can be achieved by someone rising to meet this challenge.

Although the subject of mountains in Matthew has been subjected to solid analysis from a more traditional perspective (Donaldson 1985), Hanson’s limpid essay shows how an interdisciplinary approach can produce an abundance of fresh insights. While his main dialogue partner in the social sciences is the ritual theory of Victor Turner, he also benefits from the fact that he is at home in both Testaments, now a rare phenomenon on either side of the Atlantic.

His starting-point is that in Matthew the mountain is a symbol (in the Geertzian sense) having three functions: (a) to focus the attention of the reader, (b) to condense or unify disparate aspects of the Matthean message, and (c) to establish a polarity of meaning between the sensory as pects of the mountain (especially its height and distance from society) and ideological aspects, the moral and social order of the culture. Yet the symbol is significant for Hanson only to the extent that it is employed in a process, by becoming the locus for transformation rituals. This factor differentiates the Matthean mountain from different uses of the symbol in connection with political-religious centres, such as Zion and Gerizim. He is interested in the extent to which the mountain is “the focalizer of a ritual process in which those who cross the symbolic boundaries are transformed through imagination and performance”. He regards this approach, with its “affective overtones,” as preferable to Donaldson’s “intellective” emphasis on christology and ecclesiology.

Hanson concentrates on five mountain narratives: the Temptation (Matthew 4), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), the Feeding (Matthew 15), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17) and the Commissioning (Matthew 28). He analyses each in terms of the ritual theory established by Van Gennep and developed by Turner which fixes upon three moments in the process: separation, liminality, aggregation. Hanson briefly discusses the liminal phase and the notion of “communitas” associated with it, yet he may underestimate the significance of this aspect of Turner’s theory for his approach to mountains in Matthew; I will return to this issue below.

Hanson argues that, in each of the five narratives just mentioned, Matthew is concerned not merely to pass on data or iterate ideology about Jesus, but rather to “communicate transformative experiences of and with Jesus: actually moving disciples through the process of formation as disciples“, so that his readers will understand that “discipleship entails the transformation of life … not only cognitively, but concretely in ritual as an emotional and embodied experience.” I will now test each of the passages in question against this thesis.

Although, as Hanson’s excellent analysis demonstrates, the temptations of Jesus are certainly susceptible to analysis as a rite of passage, with the emphasis falling heavily on the liminal phase (the forty days, the fasting and hunger), there are difficulties in regarding the narrative as a pattern of discipleship. The issues raised relate to the messianic status of Jesus, which was not shared by his followers. The passage describes the successful testing and preparation of the hero, not the realities of discipleship. That the Lord’s prayer contains the invocation “do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13; also cf. 26:41) is a shaky base for Hanson’s argument that this passage is connected with discipleship. Furthermore, the locus of the transformation is not the mountain at all, but the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). The mountain figures, in the third temptation, not as a place of transformation, but merely as a conveniently high spot from which to get a good view of the kingdoms of the world and their glory. It is possible that the reader would understand that, when the Devil leaves Jesus in Matt. 4:11 and the angels attend upon him, the setting is the mountain, but it is just as likely that the scene has shifted back to the wilderness of 4:1. For these reasons, it cannot be said that this passage unequivocally supports Hanson’s proposal.

The Sermon on the Mount is a little more promising for Hanson’s view. Here at least we have disciples on a mountain (Matt. 5:1). That the reference to the mountain (as compared with Luke’s mention of a plain, Luke 6:17) evokes some of the Old Testament images cited by Hanson is certainly possible, although there is no explicit reference to them. This does look like a liminal phase. On the other hand, there is some imprecision surrounding the phases of separation and aggregation, since it appears from 7:28 that the crowds (ὄχλοι) were on the mountain all along, even though Matt. 5:1 gives the impression that only the disciples, not the crowds (ὄχλοι) had gone up with Jesus. Moreover, the nature of the transformation is not easy to isolate. The fact that the crowds were astonished (ἐξεπλήσσοντο–7:28) at his teaching does not itself indicate a new status, still less that they had become ‘initiands’, as Hanson suggests. After all, astonishment was precisely the reaction of those who heard Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth (ἐκπλήσσεσθαι- Matt. 13:54), yet they still rejected him (Matt. 13:55–58). Once again, the focus is more on what Jesus did than on any transforming experience of discipleship.

Considerable support for Hanson’s thesis can be found, however, in the description of how Jesus healed the crowds who came to him in Matt. 15:29–31. There is clearly a transformation here both in the restoration to wholeness of the sick and broken who come to Jesus and in the fact that, upon seeing this, the people give glory to the God of Israel. Hanson’s discussion is admirably attuned to the social realities of the first century Mediterranean context.

Hanson’s next case is the narrative of the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–8), supplemented by the details in Matt. 17:9–14. This passage contains solid support for the case he is making and it is a little surprising that he deals with it more briefly than some of the other, less promising examples. The pattern of separation, liminality, and aggregation is very clear and the transformation in the three disciples’ experience and knowledge is obvious, both in their terrified reaction to what they saw and heard and in the statement of Jesus: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (17:10). Moreover, the scene clearly has a mimetic aspect, since the words from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, he enjoys my favor: Listen to him” (17:5; JB) are matched by the first part of Jesus’ final instruction to the disciples to obey everything which he had commanded them (28:20).

Lastly, Hanson considers the mountain in Matt. 28:16–20. It is difficult to disagree with him that here ‘the transformed Jesus transforms his inner circle from an inwardly-directed, tightly knit, fictive kin-group to an outwardly-directed group of teachers and disciples.’ Yet the lack of aggregation at the end leaves the scene with an open-endedness, the earlier doubt of some of those present (20:17) being a possible harbinger of trouble ahead. While Jesus will be present, perhaps not all the disciples will be transformed.

Hanson’s stress on the role of these narratives to provide models for discipleship contemporary with the initial readers of Matthew’s Gospel means that he is aligning himself, admittedly by implication, with Ulrich Luz (1983) in the debate with Georg Strecker (1983) over the role of the disciples in Matthew. For Strecker, the presentation of the disciples is of historical significance only; they are set in an unrepeatable, holy past, since Matthew was interested in christology, not ecclesiology. Luz rightly rejects this position, demonstrating to the contrary that the disciples who surround Jesus are “transparent” for those contemporary with Matthew. Hanson’s view, that Matthew’s readers vicariously enter into the transformations of the narrative, that these transformations take place not only cognitively, but concretely as emotional and embodied experience, represents, in effect, a methodologically sophisticated explanation for one manner in which this transparency is achieved.

Underlying this position, although not expressed, is the recognition that the initial readership should be seen as an intra-Christian one (even if that self-designation had still not been taken up when Matthew was writing). In other words, we are invited to see this Gospel, quite correctly in my view, not as set adrift on the seas of Graeco-Roman literary opinion, but as a communication directed to an audience which already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, although with varying levels of commitment.

Yet this cannot be the end of the story. It is necessary that we ask in what sense literature can inscribe ritual or, as Hanson puts it, in what sense a reader or hearer of Matthew can vicariously share these mountain-top ritual transformations. The fundamental questions, posed by Hardin (1983) and reiterated by Bal (1990), are whether such an equation really stretches the concept of ritual too far and whether one can equate an event with a representation of that event. Mieke Bal (1990) helpfully proposes a way out of this apparent impasse by suggesting two ways in which we can conceive of literature, not as identical with ritual, but as related to it adequately enough for present purposes. The first, not relevant to this discussion, occurs when literature represents an actual ritual. The second, which is germane here, consists of the situation in which a representational practice can be, “under specified circumstances, such as oral, communal performance, a ritual practice.” In this second case: “The common aspects between ritual and a literary event, such as the use of condensed symbols, repetition, community, make for a relation that allows us not to equate the two but to understand the one better through insight into the other” (Bal 1990:6).

It is possible for a text to function as a ritual without actually being one. On this approach, it is worthwhile to tease out further the significance of Hanson’s more convincing mountain-top transformations, especially the Matthean Transfiguration, through the insights into ritual provided by Turner. In other words, even if it were stretching things somewhat to claim that Matthew’s readers or hearers actually experienced a ritual of transformation in the oral and communal appropriation of this text, that still represents a viable, lively and revealing analogy for what they did experience. Or perhaps, more potently, a powerful model of what they should experience. In the latter case, the Transfiguration serves to enliven the imagination with the pattern and transforming possibilities of discipleship. In this sense, Hanson is correct to speak of the transformation which comes from exposing a community to a narrative such as the Transfiguration.

Yet the communal dimension of this proposal brings us back to the issue of communitas and one particular element of the whole process. Turner saw liminality as the stage in a ritual in which the participants underwent a change in status, abandoning their established place in the social system to enjoy a period of communitas, where the dissolution of social boundaries momentarily brought people together in an undifferentiated community of equals who recognized each other in an entirely fresh way. Yet, in a way, this process actually resulted in a reinforcement of the prevailing social bonds when they were subsequently re-established. Bal picks up this side of the process, that the temporarily revolutionary effect of ritual may ultimately be conservative, by indicating one interpretation of Yael’s slaying of Sisera (Judges 4–5): “let the woman have power for a moment, feel the anxiety that situation triggers, and you will never let her have it again” (Bal 1990:18).

The application of this aspect of Turner’s model of ritual transformation to Matthew raises interesting questions for the nature of social relations within the community. If the social levelling of the liminal stage leads to the reaffirmation of traditional structures during aggregation, what consequences would that have for the original readers’ understanding of the social structure and institutions of Matthew’s community? Matt. 15:29–31 is a good test case. On one view, those disabled who are healed, who pass through the glorious moment of communitas when their sicknesses and disabilities are removed, are presumably aggregated into the wider community. Yet they do so blessed with a wholeness they previously lacked. On the other hand, the aggregation which follows the Transfiguration is more ambiguous. Not only is it rather overshadowed by the signal failure of the disciples who remained behind to exorcise a demon from a boy, it is also not clear whether Peter, James, and John could have done any better. Thus, it remains uncertain whether the status of the three disciples who went up onto the mountain has been reaffirmed, or somehow modified.

At a more fundamental level, however, to investigate whether the communitas (which accompanies all the ritual descriptions in the First Gospel, dealing with mountains or otherwise) underpins or subverts social relations in the Matthean community, would involve a thorough discussion of social roles, statuses, and institutions in relation to ritual—a discussion which would go far beyond the bounds of this essay. In the meantime, Hanson’s essay has laid the foundation for a significant interdisciplinary understanding of how the Matthean text functioned in its context.

Works Consulted

Bal, Mieke

1990    “Experiencing Murder: Ritualistic Interpretation of Ancient Texts”, Pp. 3–20 in Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology. Ed. Kathleen M. Ashley. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Donaldson, Terence L.

1985    Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthean Theology. JSNT sup. 8. Sheffield: JSOT Press.

Esler, Philip F. ed.

1995    Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context. London and New York: Routledge.

Hardin, Richard F.

1983    “Ritual’ in Recent Criticism: The Elusive Sense of Community.” PMLA 98: 846–61.

Luz, Ulrich

1983    “The Disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew.” Pp. 98–128 in The Interpretation of Matthew. Ed. Graham Stanton. Philadelphia: Fortress and SPCK.

Robbins, Vernon

1995    “Social-Scientific Criticism and Literary Studies: Prospects for Co-Operation in Biblical Interpretation”, in Modelling Early Christianity. Ed. P. F. Esler. London and New York: Routledge.

Stanton, Graham, ed.

1983    The Interpretation of Matthew. Issues in Religion and Theology 3. Philadelphia and London: Fortress Press and SPCK.

Strecker, Georg

1983    “The Concept of History in Matthew.” Pp. 67–84 in The Interpretation of Matthew. Ed. Graham Stanton. Philadelphia: Fortress and SPCK.

Reading Mark Ritually: Honor-Shame and the Ritual of Baptism

Mark McVann.

“Ritual is, first and foremost, a mode of paying attention.”

—Jonathan Z. Smith (103)


This paper is divided into three parts. The first part shows the connections between the Mediterranean cultural value of honor-shame and social status and their relatedness to ritual. The second provides a discussion of Victor Turner’s model of the ritual process. This model will be used as the basis of a discussion of baptism as a rite de passage. The third part treats baptismal imagery in the Gospel of Mark. Mark here is read as a text which is built upon and reflects baptism, the Christian ritual of status transformation par excellence.

Introduction: Honor-Shame and Social Status

Honor and shame as axial cultural values in the ancient Circum-Mediterranean are by now probably well enough known and accepted categories in biblical interpretation that they need no lengthy introduction or defense as legitimate perspectives brought to bear on the interpretation of biblical texts. We will begin immediately, then, with the definition of honor-shame provided by Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey in The Social World of Luke-Acts (1991:45):

Honor is the positive value of a person in his or her own eyes plus the positive appreciation of that person in the eyes of his or her social group … [it is] a claim to positive worth along with the social acknowledgement of that worth … Honor … serves as a register of social rating which entitles a person to interact in specific ways with equals, superiors and subordinates, according to the prescribed cues of the society. (p. 26) [Being shamed, on the other hand, happens when people] aspire to a certain status which is denied them by public opinion … [a person] is humiliated and stripped of honor for aspiring to a value not socially his.

As this definition makes abundantly clear, honor-shame and status are closely allied aspects of the social reckoning of a person’s standing within the group.

But what, it must be asked, is the source from which the “prescribed cues of the society” are generated, and how is this source related to providing the index to the social assessment of worth? The immediate answer, of course, must have reference to the significance of boundaries. Attempts to cross—either vertically or horizontally—a particular social boundary may result in ridicule—that is, in being shamed. On the other hand, stalwartly maintaining a publicly recognized boundary is regarded as honorable behavior. For example, an invasion of women’s space by a man or men would be shameful, and repelling it honorable, whether by men or women, because defending and maintaining the status quo are the prime objectives in the defense of boundaries. Or again, expelling “thieves” from the temple whose presence in it makes a mockery of the house of God is an honorable thing to do because it preserves boundaries between the sacred and the profane (Mt. 21:12–13; Mk. 11:15–17; Lk. 20:45–46; “The cleansing of the temple,” to which we will return below.) But these examples necessarily beg the question of the origins of boundaries and the status quo they are intended to protect and maintain. Where do they come from, and how are they established?


It is in attempting to address this question that ritual makes a decisive contribution. The primary importance and function of ritual is to draw the boundary lines that constitute status precisely as such, and precisely as publicly recognized.

Ritual makes order; that is, it draws boundaries through and around both natural and social spaces. It identifies those spaces as in or out, male or female, good or bad, high or low, clean or polluted, sacred or profane. Rituals help create and maintain an ordered cosmos (McVann 1991a:34). From this point of view, the various headings in Malina and Neyrey’s chapter on honor and shame in Luke-Acts, for example, “Challenge and Riposte”; “Honor of Blood and Name”; and, “Gender-Based Honor”, can all be viewed in some sense as speaking to ritual concerns, because all of these cultural dynamics are focused on maintenance of boundaries.

Ritual’s importance as a fundamental constituent of human experience is underscored by Mary Douglas: “It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought. For it is very possible to know something and then find words for it. But is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts” (Douglas: 62). Ritual thus becomes elevated to a level of primary significance because, Douglas again:

ritual focuses attention by framing … It … links the present with the relevant past [and] … changes perception because it changes selective principles … it can come first in formulating experience … [and] can permit knowledge of what otherwise would not be known at all. It does not merely externalize experience … but it modifies experience in so expressing it (64).

The relationship between honor-shame and ritual can be seen in cases of contests of honor. In such exercises, the combatants do not merely play a game, with sometimes subtle and tricky rules; rather, the worth of self, family, patrons, king, and gods—the vertical and horizontal axes of honor (Neyrey: 38)—all come under assault. What is at stake, especially in serious challenges to honor, is the value of the primary constituents of the world inhabited by the one being challenged. When one is shamed, one’s person, prized others, and ideals are all put in the position of appearing to be not only without value, but worse: of being dirt. To be shamed, then, is to be identified or labelled as pollution or garbage, and thus to be denied any value or assigned any positive place or status in the ordered, pure cosmos.

Having honor, on the other hand, means having a proper, “clean,” status, one publicly recognized as worthy of maintenance and defense because it makes up part of the ordered, pure cosmos. If ritual focuses attention by framing—that is, by drawing boundaries—and if honor-shame protects status and the status quo by focusing on the defense of boundaries drawn, then it seems reasonable to conclude that honor-shame, precisely because it replicates concern with boundaries, is a cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in ritual.

Contests of honor, then, are expressions of what is already known, that is, what having honor and being shamed are all about, but they are also simultaneously about what cannot be known in advance—whether or how a particular contest will affirm or undermine the structure of honor-shame itself. The indeterminacy of boundaries and statuses which emerge when a challenge to honor is issued exposes the vulnerability of social organization because the previously acknowledged order is attacked. Challenges to honor thus bear a distinct resemblance to the liminal period in the ritual process (about which more below) because in both situations statuses and boundaries are denied or challenged before the new ones emerge or the old ones are reaffirmed. Therefore, also common to contests of honor and to ritual liminality is the fact that both are dangerous. Both potentiate pollutions which threaten the pure, ordered cosmos.

Let us examine a case of honor challenged as an illustration of the points we have just considered: in Mark 11:27–33, a serious challenge to Jesus’ honor is issued. The authorities demand to know by what authority Jesus does “these things,” a reference to his assault on the temple (11:15–18), which seems to have interrupted a liturgy (Kelber: 60). This assault, a clear rejection of the sacred temple and its cosmos-renewing and sustaining ritual, was regarded by the authorities as an act polluting the temple, the Jewish axis mundi. Therefore, the central institution which regulated and certified the purity status of the whole of the Jewish world was shamed, i.e., publicly repudiated as dirt.

The attempt to avenge the honor of the temple requires the reciprocal shaming of Jesus (11:28) and the attack focuses on his clearly implied status as prophet, the only one which could conceivably permit him to have done “these things.” If the authorities can demolish this implied status, the threat he poses is diminished and revenge for the temple’s honor can be completed if he can be executed as a false prophet, which is what they hope to accomplish (11:18).

Thus, the stakes are very high. However, the authorities are overmatched in this instance and Jesus’ reply not only shames them, but leaves the temple’s honor unredeemed. In his question to them (11:30), Jesus deliberately links himself to the prophet John and his baptism. Thus, their question about Jesus’ status is indirectly answered: like John, Jesus is also a prophet; both the authority by which John baptized and that by which Jesus attacked the temple is divine in origin.

This contest of honor involved venturing into an explosive area where the consequences cannot be foreseen: either the temple’s honor is fully avenged by Jesus’ loss of status and death, or the insult to the temple is deepened. In this case, the dynamic of honor-shame itself is affirmed, and the vulnerability of the temple reinforced. It remains labeled as garbage, denied any value in the ordered, pure cosmos as defined by Jesus who has drawn the new boundaries which exclude the temple, its liturgical rituals, and its authorities. The legitimacy of this exclusion rests on Jesus’ status as a prophet which is vindicated and enhanced by this confrontation.

Furthermore, the entire episode carries the shape of the ritual process because statuses have been thrown into question, altered, and boundaries redrawn as a result. This passage between statuses is fraught with danger: the temple’s integrity and value as well as Jesus’ status as prophet and his life are all at stake. The dangerous liminal period has for the present been passed through: Jesus receives honor as prophet; the temple is more deeply shamed.

However, it cannot be accidental that the question which Mark has Jesus pose to the authorities is precisely about baptism, a status-changing ritual:

Only by completely changing their direction, by a complete return to just, covenantal social practices (“repentance”), can they [Israel] escape the impending wrath of God. [John’s] Baptism in the Jordan was the rite by which that change of direction was symbolized, by which persons passed into the eschatologically reconstituted community of Israel which would survive God’s judgment. (Horsley and Hanson: 177–8).

John’s baptism, then, was symbolically as insulting to the temple as Jesus’ direct assault on it. John’s baptism was an alternative, “protest” ritual, and, in John’s and Jesus’ view, superior to the rituals conducted by the “corrupt” temple. “The priestly aristocracy knew very well that prophetic preaching such as John’s was a direct challenge to their authority and power, considered both illegitimate and oppressive by the ‘multitude.’ ” (Horsley and Hanson: 179). However, the contest of honor between Jesus and the authorities has more at issue than the power relations Horsley and Hanson address, or the honorable or shameful statuses of Jesus (and John) as prophets. Also encoded in it is a prior and long-standing debate about the locus of effective religous ritual: where is access to God to be found—in the temple with its priesthood or at the river with its prophets? Thus, in this confrontation between Jesus and the authorities, it may be observed that ritual concerns with boundaries precede, shape, and inform the honor-shame issues that relate to questions of social power and status.

Mark as a Ritual Text

Having introduced the topic of baptism, it is now necessary to show how and why it is a theme of overarching importance in the Gospel of Mark, and indeed, perhaps the Gospel’s root-metaphor.

Augustine Stock (1989:16–18), taking his lead from Benoit Standaert, writes the following concerning Mark and baptism:

[Standaert argues] that Mark was written to serve as the Christian Passover Haggadah. And this conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the vigil service was followed by the baptism of the neophytes at dawn and the presence in the Gospel of many parts that are admirably suited to such a context. Mark was written to be read straight through at the Easter Vigil as the book of Judith was written to be read at Hanukah.

Mark is an initiation book—written to initiate those soon to be baptized into the followership of Jesus … The story narrated directly portrays thesituation of the baptizandi … Following the dramatic story of Jesus’ life, the hearers cannot but consider Jesus’ words and actions as a pattern which concerns them as disciples … Mark’s narrative seeks to impart what St. Paul says about baptism (Rom 6:1–11). Just as baptism is a death and burial with Christ, in order to rise with him, so the action recounted concerning Jesus is designed to convince Mark’s hearers to follow Jesus even into his passion, in order to be able to follow him into his glory. This initiation aspect of Mark’s narrative strengthens the possibility of a baptismal context for the reading of the Gospel … we should note that the first episode after the prologue is a double vocation account (1:16–20), and that it takes place on the seashore, one of the places suited to baptism my immersion … [These and other] items favor the hypothesis that Mark was written to be read in a baptismal context.

Baptism and baptismal imagery are thus heavily stressed features of the message that Mark wants to convey to his hearers/readers. The message—that a fate similar to Jesus’ awaits those who follow him—is mimed not only by the drama recounted in the Gospel, but also, of course, in the rite of baptism itself.

Baptism (as in Romans 6:1–11) is the ritual reenactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is undertaken by baptizandi to accomplish two objectives: the first is to demonstrate their commitment and loyalty to Jesus and to the Jesus group or faction; the second is to attach themselves as equal members of that group in full and good standing. Baptism, then, is a rite de passage, a ritual of status transformation through the enactment of which outsiders become insiders. It forms the boundary between disciples and non-disciples, the line of demarcation between those who “come after” and “follow” Jesus (8:34), and the “adulterous and sinful generation” which rejects Jesus and his words (and, by implication, his followers [8:38]). Thus understood as a symbolic reenactment of the death-resurrection of Jesus, baptism is the ritual which creates discipleship as a clearly defined social status.

That Mark was composed for a baptismal context is an hypothesis further strengthened by two general and intertwined aspects of the Gospel’s structure that Standaert and Stock have pointed out: its concentric, chiastic structure, centering on the great baptismal exhortation of 8:34–9:1 as the midpoint of that structure.

Mark’s entire gospel is constructed according to a concentric schema: prologue and epilogue correspond, while the three parts of the body of the narrative are centered upon the middle part (6:14–10:52). This middle part is itself divided into three parts, organized according to the concentric principle: the multiplication of the loaves section and the section on the following of Christ frame the central passage, 8:27–9:1. This central passage gathers together all the principal themes, not only of the framing sections but of the entire gospel, and the arrangement of this passage is also concentric—it consists of five sections centered around the great exhortation of 8:34–9:1 (Stock: 25).

Thus, the overall topographically organized concentric and chiastic structure of the Gospel may be outlined as follows:

A.    PROLOGUE 1:2–13 (wilderness theme)

B.    GALILEE 1:14–8:26 (start of following Jesus)

C.    THE WAY 8:27–10:52 (significance of following revealed)

B′.    JERUSALEM 11:1–15:41 (the end of following with flight of disciples; persecution and martyrdom of Jesus)

A′.    EPILOGUE 15:42–16:8 (Tomb: the wilderness theme recapitulated; promised renewal of following)


Conclusion of GALILEE; transition to THE WAY 8:1–26

(8:1–16) loaves section: Jesus gives food to sustain following him in the wilderness (= chaos)

(8:11–13) adulterous generation (Pharisees demanding sign)

(8:14–21) be on guard; disciples’ lack of understanding

THE WAY 8:27–9:13

1    (8:27–30) Question of Jesus’ identity; comparison with Elijah and the Baptist

2    (8:31–33) Passion Prediction: Son of Man must suffer and die before he rises from the dead; Peter’s reaction

3    (8:34–9:1) Great Exhortation on way of the cross as means of crossing boundary from suffering to glory

2′    (9:2–10) Transfiguration: Jesus’ identity revealed in relation to Elijah and Moses; Peter’s reaction

1′    (9:11–13) Elijah and the Baptist compared; the inevitability of suffering summarily reasserted

Conclusion of THE WAY and transition to JERUSALEM: 9:14–10:52

(9:14–10:52) Following the Christ: (19) adulterous generation

(9:28) lack of understanding;

(9:42–48) be on guard

(9:49–10:52) Jesus gives instruction on following him in cultural “wilderness” of “this sinful generation” (= chaos)


Standaert’s comment on his presentation of the Gospel in five topographically organized units is as follows:

The discovery of this thematic structure of the Gospel of Mark obviously reveals the rapport the narrator has with his audience. It is not an exaggeration to say that the text has an ‘initatory’ appeal … This aspect of the text of Mark … reinforces the possibility of a baptismal context for the reading of the Gospel (Standaert: 500, 504).

Thus, the great exhortation of 8:34–9:1 (3 in Figure B above) forms the literal, structural, and symbolic center, the pivot on which both halves of the Gospel narrative turn. This exhortation, the centerpoint that gathers to itself the themes of the Gospel as a whole, admonishes baptizandi that the ritual in which they are about to participate is a serious matter of death and life.

Mark’s narrative is thus thoroughly imbued with baptismal imagery and themes, and baptismal imagery abounds at the three most important points in the Gospel’s narrative structure, namely, the beginning, middle, and the end (so also Stock: 18–19).

The Beginning: Mark 1:9–20

The Gospel’s hearers/readers are introduced to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan by John (1:9–11). In this ritual, Jesus’ status is transformed as he is clearly established as God’s Son. Jesus has crossed a threshold which separates him and lifts him above all others: “[Mark] sets out the person and ministry of Jesus as unique.… The testimony of the divine voice at his Baptism and Transfiguration strongly reinforces this uniqueness” (Best: 155). By this baptism, Jesus has not simply “passed into the eschatologically reconstituted community of Israel which would survive God’s judgment.” Rather, as Mark’s Gospel as a whole shows, he is the divinely designated leader and founder of that reconsitituted community. The baptism (and temptation) certifies for the Gospel’s hearers/readers that the eschatological proclamation which Jesus makes in 1:15 is a legitimately prophetic oracle because of the proclaimer’s status as God’s Son.

In this pericope, in which Jesus makes his all-important first appearance in the narrative, Mark sharply trains his hearers’/readers’ attention on Jesus’ newly acquired status at the outset of both the Gospel narrative and Jesus’ career by emphatically stressing the radically transformative power of the ritual of baptism.

God comes, as the Baptizer had promised, but instead of inaugurating the kingdom names a viceregent to reorder reality … as God’s surrogate. His identification by the Heavenly Voice is simultaneously his commission. The reality of God’s rule must now be constituted, and that task is entrusted to him as the New Human Being (Waetjen: 71).

And that New Human Being, the Son of God and the Son of Man, is “created” and revealed as such precisely through and by the transformative ritual of baptism.

The Middle: Mark 8:27–9:1

The dialogue and great exhortation of 8:27–9:1, which appear at the structural heart of the Gospel, focus on what Standaert and Stock correctly identify, I believe, as baptismal themes—taking up the cross and losing life to save it—in a highly charged eschatological atmosphere. The exhortation itself is cast explicitly in honor-shame terms: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words … of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38). Conversely, the hearers/readers understand that those who recognize Jesus’ status as the Christ, and who demonstrate absolute loyalty to him by taking up the cross, will be honored when the Son of Man comes with the angels (v. 38). The great exhoration also serves the function of forging a strong link between baptism and eschatology by placing baptism squarely in the eschatological context of anticipation of the parousia. If the great exhortation is indeed a baptismal homily, the transformative power of the ritual is heightened even further because it would function for those who undergo it as preparation for meeting “the Son of Man … when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (8:38).

Furthermore, the larger context in which the great exhortation appears bristles with allusions to persecution. The first passion prediction has just been made (8:31), and vv. 34–37 seem also to allude to the very real possibility that the Jesus group is experiencing violent persecution directed against it. Perhaps some in the group had already exchanged their lives for what they hoped would be profit greater than gaining the whole world. Baptism in Mark, then, would seem to function as a form of preparedness for the reception of violence. Thus, persecution and eschatology are both accounted for and mediated by and through baptism, the ritual which prepares baptizandi for both.

The great exhortation, together as a narrative unit with the Petrine Confession of 8:27–29, helps to form the climax of the first half of the Gospel, in which the question of Jesus’ identity (announced to the hearers/readers in 1:1) is definitively answered by an actor in the narrative itself. There have been a number of suggestions up to this point concerning the identity of Jesus: he is a popular and sought-after healer (1:37, 45, etc.); blasphemer (2:7); Son of Man (2:10); sinner (implied by 2:16); breaker of tradition (2:18); lawbreaker (again, implied in 2:24); destroyer of the sabbath (3:1–2); Son of God (3:11); lunatic (3:20); demon-possessed (3:22); teacher (4:38). The question is asked openly in 4:41 by the awe-struck disciples after the calming of the storm: “Who is this …?” He is then gotten rid of as persona non grata from Gerasa (5:17); called teacher again (5:35); ridiculed as though he were an idiot at Jairus’ house (5:38–40); rejected at home in Nazareth (6:1–3); confused with John the Baptist (6:16); mistaken for a ghost (6:49); accused as a defiler of tradition (implied, 7:2); and, he still is not understood by his disciples as late 8:21: “Do you still not understand?”

The point in all this is that Mark uses a deliberate strategy to create tension by piling up a number of possible, contradictory identities. The tension demands resolution, which it receives with the question posed directly by Jesus in 8:27: “Who do people say that I am?” and by Peter’s answer in the next verse: “You are the Christ.” Here the correct identity is finally recognized. Its importance is heightened by the narrator in 8:30, as Peter’s confession is the only time that Jesus accepts an identity attributed to him by anyone in the Gospel until 14:62 and 15:2, and these affirmations are similarly confessional in character (even though they are not so intended by those who make them: the high priest and Pilate, respectively). But what the identity of being the Christ means has yet to be learned by those who would follow him, and thus the first lesson in the harsh nature of discipleship (8:34ff) is taught in conjunction with the first passion prediction (8:31–33) where the grim fate of the Christ is paired immediately with the high cost of discipleship.

If the first half of the Gospel climaxes in the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” with the response that he is the Christ, then the second half of the Gospel pursues the answer to the next logical question: “What does it mean to be the Christ?” This question is answered not only in the two remaining passion predictions (9:30–31; 10:32–34), but in a number of other utterances attributed to Jesus about his coming death (e.g., 9:1–12, 38–39; [allegorically in] 12:6–11; 14:8, 18, 29, 36, 41, 49). What it means to be the Christ, clearly, is to suffer and die. And it is for suffering and death, in the context of violent persecution, that baptizandi prepare themselves as they hear read to them Peter’s confession and the great exhortation as part of the ritual in which they symbolically recapitulate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It seems likely, then, that the dialogue and exhoration of 8:27–9:1 legitimately may be classified as a homily preached to baptizandi on the occasion of their descent into the waters of status transformation, of death and rebirth, an event of powerful eschatological significance, which “bring[s] neophytes into close connection with deity or with superhuman powers, with what is, in fact, often regarded as the unbounded, the infinite, the limitless” (. Turner 1967:98).

The End: Mark 16:1–8

The Gospel’s conclusion seems also to contain allusion or reference to baptism. Robin Scroggs and Kent Groff (1973); John Dominic Crossan (1976:147–48) and John Drury (1990:411–12) as well as Augustine Stock, all agree that the young man who ran away naked in 14:51–52 and the one in the white robe who announces the resurrection in 16:5 are the same young man. This young man is symbolic both of baptism and baptizandi because, reflecting the ancient ritual practice, he was stripped naked (he disappeared, and, as it were, died in humiliation) and then appears clothed in white. And indeed, he does what the baptized themselves are supposed to do: he proclaims the great eschatological event of the resurrection. He is, therefore, an example of discipleship “before and after”: immediately before the passion, he had been shamed by his running off naked; immediately after the resurrection, he is transformed, and has a new status, role, and honor. Thus, baptismal themes and imagery form the Gospel’s grand inclusio, and both halves of the narrative turn on the central pivot of a baptismal exhortation.

It is also crucial to note that at the beginning, middle, and end of the Gospel, ritual and honor-shame are closely linked. First: the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus is expressed by John in honor-shame terms; i.e., the shame of stooping to untie another man’s sandal becomes an honor too great when the sandal belongs to the Mightier One whom John is about to baptize (1:7–8). Second: as we have already seen, Jesus expresses discipleship’s requirements explicitly in honor-shame terms in 8:38–9:1. Third: the trembling, astonishment, and fear of the women in 16:8 is obviously shameful behavior when contrasted to the young man’s bold proclamation of the resurrection in 16:5. This young man, previously shamed by his fleeing naked in 14:52, now displays honor in his announcement of the Crucified One’s victory over death in the very tomb where that seemingly impossible victory was won. This makes the women’s silence after fleeing that same place all the more shameful.

Thus, Mark’s story not only begins with, centers around, and ends with baptismal themes and imagery: there is also at each of these junctures a clear link among honor-shame, eschatology, and the status-transforming ritual of baptism. These examples would seem to be concrete demonstrations that honor-shame and ritual are solidly interlocked and mutually complementary aspects of the culture known to Mark and his audience.

The Ritual Process

We turn now to a brief overview of Victor Turner’s theory of the ritual process, a process consisting of the three following steps: 1/ separation; 2/ liminality-communitas; and, 3/ aggregation. These three steps constitute the structure of rituals of status transformation, the rites of passage between statuses. The presentation of Turner’s model will be followed by its application to the passages referred to above, that is, the beginning, middle, and end of the Gospel of Mark.

Separation refers to the removal of ritual participants from the ordinary rhythm of the life of the group. Separation may take the form of sending young men away from their village into the bush, as in the Ndembu tribe studied by Turner, or the exclusion of catechumens from the liturgy of the breaking of the bread.

Liminality-communitas, the core of the ritual experience, refers to the period when initiands disappear, as it were, from cultural view. Their previous status, for instance, as boys, no longer obtains, but neither are they men yet. They are betwixt and between, outside all known statuses and beyond all boundaries. As such, they are extremely polluting and dangerous. Contact with them during the liminal period is restricted to the ritual elders, i.e., those authorized to supervise the initiands’ ritual passage from one status to another (Turner 1967:97). But if liminality is negative, communitas is positive because it encourages the formation of strong bonds among initiands, bonds forged in recognition of the naked humanity which is all that remains when status is stripped away. Status, social location, class bias and cronyism, high and low, right and wrong sides of town—all these belong to structure; all are absent from liminality and communitas. It is within the absence of structure that is liminality-communitas that the transformation of status takes place:

The liminal group [undergoing a rite de passage] is a community or comity of comrades and not a structure of hierarchically arrayed positions. This comradeship transcends distinctions of rank, age, kinship position, and in some kinds of cultic groups, even sex.… The arcane knowledge or “gnosis” obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state. It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being. [It reveals] an absorption of powers which will become active after his social status has been redefined in the aggregation rites (Turner 1967:101, 102).

Aggregation, the final stage of the ritual, refers to the point at which the new status is fully in place: thus it serves as the gateway back into structure. This is where the initiands reappear within culture, now classifiable again as members of society because they have identities again. No longer dangerous pollutants which threaten chaos, they are reincorporated into the structure of the ordered, pure cosmos. For example, the circumcised boys are welcomed back into their villages as men; the newly baptized are welcomed for the first time to the breaking of the bread. Before baptism they had been “dead,” and the dead do not eat. Now, newly alive, they eat and drink the bread and wine of (new) life.

We will now apply these three steps of the ritual process to the three crucial passages in Mark’s Gospel that we discussed above: the beginning: Jesus’ baptism; the middle: the dialogue and exhortation in 8:27–9:1, and (expanding a bit here), the end: the crucifixion and resurrection narratives.

The Beginning: Mark 1:9–20

Jesus’ baptism mediates his change in status from a private, pious Jew into the Son of God and a public prophet. John the Baptist serves as the ritual elder who initiates Jesus into the path of prophethood. The three stages are as follows:

1.    Separation: Jesus’ separation from the ordinary places and usual rhythm of life is accomplished with the notice that he came to Judea from Galilee alone, and at an unspecified time. At the baptism, the Voice and the descent of the Spirit reveal to the hearers/readers and to Jesus his status as God’s Son. The second stage of the separation is completed after the baptism itself with his being driven into the desert, where among wild beasts—allies of demons—he confronts and overcomes the devil.

2.    Liminality-communitas: The first stage of the ritual process complete, Jesus enters into liminality-communitas. He is completely outside culture and beyond human contact during his forty days in the wilderness, the traditional biblical topos of chaos and danger, and for the working out of status and the fit of a new identity. The fast, almost a kind of self-torture, signifies his being emptied of the old self in order to make room for the new one that will emerge during the desert sojourn. This bears a distinct resemblance to other initiation rites:

Among many Plains Indians, boys on their lonely Vision Quest inflicted tests on themselves that amounted to tortures. These again were not basically self-tortures inflicted by a masochistic temperament but due to obedience to the authority of tradition in the liminal situation—a type of situation in which there is no room for secular compromise, evasion, manipulation, casuistry, and maneuver in the field of custom, rule, and norm. Here again, a cultural explanation seems preferable to a psychological one. A normal man acts abnormally because he is obedient to tribal tradition, not out of disobedience to it. He does not evade but fulfills his duties as a citizen (Turner 1967:100).

Mark’s audience is shown that during the desert sojourn, Jesus’ obedience to the tradition of Israel is absolute and uncompromised and that he is intimately united with it.

This dimension of communitas is seen in two ways. The first demonstrates Jesus’ solidarity with Israelite tradition by recalling Moses’ forty days on the mountain (Exod 34:28), Israel’s forty years in the desert, and Elijah’s forty day journey to Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). The second is the notice that “angels ministered to him.” That is, Jesus is acknowledged in the heavenly realm as Son of God and prophet.

3.    Aggregation: Jesus returns to culture where he preaches the kingdom. He calls some to become disciples; many others seek him out for his preaching, teaching, and healing. He is thus aggregated back into culture with the new and publicly recognized status of prophet.

The Middle: 8:27–9:1

The second passage we turn to is the dialogue and exhortation at the Gospel’s center. In this scene in 8:27–9:1, it is Jesus who plays the role of ritual elder. He initiates the disciples, who have just recognized his identity as messiah, into the next stage of discipleship—facing death.

1.    Separation: Jesus and his disciples are on the Way, that is, on a road outside and apart from the villages of Caesarea Philippi in the (gentile) region where they are traveling. They are placed in a liminal setting, on the road and journeying, removed from the normal and ordinary rhythms of life, when their instruction in the consequences of following the messiah commences.

2.    Liminality-communitas: the disciples learn that anyone who would come after Jesus must take up the cross in order to follow. Whatever great status they may have thought was involved with following Jesus gets turned on its head when they learn the grim reality. Although they do recognize Jesus as messiah, they are united in what the narrator shows as their willful ignorance of that identity’s consequence, despite Jesus’ attempts to dislodge that ignorance in 8:31–33 and again, for example, in 10:35–45.

3.    Aggregation: The disciples’ aggregation is not narrated in the Gospel. Their aggregation as full and genuine disciples, who understand and accept the teaching of Jesus in 8:34–38, is projected into the future, after the resurrection. It is a consequence of this projected meeting that the failed and shamed disciples are transformed into honorable apostles, since discipleship, like Jesus himself, undergoes a death and resurrection:

This scene [in the tomb] also picks up on the story of the absent disciples. The women are instructed: “But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’ ” (16:7). Even though the disciples had deserted and denied Jesus, the Risen Christ does not abandon them … Now that promised reconciliation is about to take place. In a very true sense, the disciples had “died” during the passion; now they, too, experience resurrection to a new life of discipleship (Senior: 417).

The End: 14:43–16:8

The passion-resurrection narratives are the last passages we consider, but we can do so only briefly, despite their length, density, and complexity. In a ritual process analogous to the baptism, Jesus again is the subject, inasmuch as he undergoes another and extended ritual of status transformation in the passion and resurrection, this time from prophet to Lord. Jesus is guided through this final and dramatic transformation by God, whom Mark has cast in the role of ritual elder, the one who mixes the cup that will not be taken away (14:36).

1.    Separation: Jesus experiences a radical separation at his arrest. This begins the process by which he is identified as pollution and expelled from culture in the most definitive way possible—through execution. This process is also, obviously, the greatest possible shame to which a person can be subjected.


Liminality-communitas: His status as teacher and prophet suspended, and he is rendered totally marginal to Jews and to Romans, as the trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate demonstrate. Now completely liminal to both, he is nevertheless in communitas with God to whom he demonstrates his absolute loyalty by following the Way to its conclusion in the crucifixion. This communitas or union with God is indicated by Jesus’ affirmative response to the High Priest’s question about Jesus’ divine sonship in 14:61–62: ” ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I am, and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ” Here again, the clear connections among persecution, status, and ritual recall the dialogue and the great exhortation in 8:27–9:1. A question about Jesus’ identity is answered with added reference to a dramatic eschatological event, the same referred to in 8:38. Also, the question is asked in a liminal context: Jesus is on trial. It is precisely when Jesus’ status is most seriously in doubt that he affirms that it is the highest possible: he is messiah and Son of the Blessed One who will come in power and glory (14:62) as King of the Jews (15:2) to judge the judges.

The nadir of the liminal phase, of course, is reached with the scourging, the way of the cross, and the crucifixion. These form part of the “passivity of neophytes to their instructors … [and] submission to ordeal … [which] are signs of the process whereby they are ground down to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to cope with their new station in life” (Turner 1967:101). The resurrection, of course, reveals Jesus’ new station as Lord. But also at the nadir, indications of Jesus’ communitas with God and the authentic tradition of Israel are equally clear. Jesus’ prayer in 15:34; the mention of Elijah in the following verse recalling the tradition of martyrdom of the prophets, and the centurion’s declaration that “Truly this man was the son of God” (15:39) all stress Jesus’ “close connection with deity … the unbounded, the infi nite, the limitless” (Turner 1967:98), and his obedience to and communion with God during the passion, his acceptance of the Father’s will (14:36).

3.    Aggregation: Jesus’ aggregation is effected at the resurrection. This event, whatever its precise nature, is analogous to his baptism because it results in a further heightening of status which sets Jesus apart from and beyond all others a second time. His status as Lord, into which he has been transformed by having passed the boundary of death, is the greatest and highest possible. Such status and honor can, of course, be bestowed only by God. The resurrection, then, is an aggregation not into any merely human status, but into a superhuman and divine one. The degradation and shame of the arrest, trials, torture, and crucifixion are reversed by the glory and honor the resurrection brings to Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark, then, both begins and ends with narrations of a ritual of status transformation undergone by Jesus. Both baptism and passion follow the ritual pattern of separation, liminality-communitas, and aggregation, and thus they are parallel in structure. The first launches Jesus into Galilee, and later Jerusalem, as a prophet in the ancient tradition with close links to the likewise martyred prophet, John the Baptist. The second divinizes Jesus and launches him into a cosmic level as a symbol of God’s power over death and coming judgment against the forces of evil.


I have tried to show, admittedly in a brief and fairly breathless fashion, how honor-shame and ritual intersect in three important passages in Mark. If the thesis is correct at least in its broad outlines, the following conclusions seem in order:

First: It seems clear that the phenomenon of honor-shame as a cultural feature of first century Mediterranean society was accepted (though hardly uncritically) in Mark, since honor-shame concerns are inscribed into the Gospel at its three most important structural points. But the valuation of honor-shame is reversed in Mark, where persecution and the cross become sources of honor rather than shame. This reversal, however, is much stronger than a mere up-ending of the status quo. Mark’s interests range far beyond protest and social criticism. Rather, the consequences of the reversal are so powerful that the very system of honor-shame itself is thrown open to question: the savior of the world and God’s Son was persecuted, arrested, and executed in the most gruesome fashion the authorities had at their disposal. A modern equivalent seeking to convey the sense of shock and blasphemy might run like this: the savior of the world and God’s Son was a dark-skinned homosexual refugee on welfare who died of AIDS. Such a proclamation would undoubtedly qualify as an assault on, and rejection of, the neo-conservative worldview currently in vogue.

Second: It seems equally clear that Mark wants his hearers/readers to understand that the status of being a disciple—one who, as a consequence of baptism—embraces the cross, is a very great honor; greater, indeed, than gaining the whole world.

Third, and finally: It seems clear that honor-shame and ritual, at least in Mark, are closely bound together as aspects of discipleship that Mark emphasizes for the benefit of his hearers/readers whom he educates in the honor of discipleship to the Son of God, whom the world covered with shame, but whom God honored above all others.

Works Consulted

Best, Ernest

1965    The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology. SNTS Monograph Series 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, Raymond E.

1994    The Death of the Messiah. Two volumes. New York: Doubleday.

Cohn, Robert L.

1981    The Shape of Sacred Space: Four Biblical Studies. AAR Studies in Religion 23. Chico: Scholars.

Crossan, John Dominic

1976    “Empty Tomb and Absent Lord.” Pp. 135–152 in The Passion in Mark. Ed. W. Kelber. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Derrett, J. D. M.

1984    The Making of Mark, Vol. 1. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire: Drinkwater.

Douglas, Mary

1966    Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Drury, John

1987    “Mark.” Pp. 402–417 in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Ed. R. Alter and F. Kermode. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Gilbert, Lewis

1980    Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilmore, David D., ed.

1987    Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean. A special publication of the American Anthropological Association, Number 22. Washington, D. C.: American Anthropological Association.

Heil, John Paul

1992    The Gospel of Mark as a Model for Action: A Reader-Response Commentary. New York: Paulist.

Horsley, Richard A. and John S. Hanson

1985    Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kelber, Werner

1979    Mark’s Story of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Malina, Bruce

1986    Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta: John Knox.

Malina, Bruce

1993    The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Rev. Ed. Atlanta: John Knox.

Malina, Bruce and J. H. Neyrey

1991    “Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal Values of the Mediterranean World.” Pp. 25–26 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Ed. J. H. Neyrey. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Marcus, Joel

1992    “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark.” JBL 111:441–62.

McVann, Mark

1991    “Rituals of Status Transformation: The Case of Jesus the Prophet.” In The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Ed. J. H. Neyrey. Peabody: Hendrickson.

McVann, Mark

1991a    “Baptism, Miracles, and Boundary Jumping in Mark.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 21:4.

Myers, Ched

1988    Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1985    The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke’s Soteriology. New York: Paulist.

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1991    The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Rossé, Gérard

1987    The Cry of Jesus on the Cross: A Biblical and Theological Study. Trans. S. W. Arndt. Mahwah: Paulist.

Scroggs, R. and K. Groff

1973    “Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ,” JBL 92:531–548.

Senior, Donald

1984    The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.

Senior, Donald

1990    “Mark: Reading Guide.” The Catholic Study Bible. Ed. D. Senior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skorupski, John

1976    Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1987    To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Standaert, B.

1978    L’Évangile selon Marc: Composition et Genre Littéraire. Brugge: Sint Andriesabdij.

Stock, Augustine

1982    Call to Discipleship: A Literary Study of Mark’s Gospel. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.

Stock, Augustine

1989    The Method and Message of Mark. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.

Turner, Victor

1967    The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor

1969    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor

1974    Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Waetjen, Herman C.

1989    A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Exactly What’s Ritual About the Experience of Reading/Hearing Mark’s Gospel?

Carol Schersten LaHurd


This response essay begins by summarizing the major achievements of Mark McVann’s “Reading Mark Ritually: Honor-Shame and the Ritual of Baptism”: clear explanation and application of Victor Turner’s ritual model, attention to particular Markan episodes as support for McVann’s thesis about Jesus’ status transformation in Mark, a comprehensive discussion of the structure of Mark’s Gospel, and periodic reiteration of his various streams of analysis and their inter-relationships. Then this essay explores several specific questions about McVann’s methods and findings, for example, the use of honor-shame categories and the place of baptismal imagery in Mark. Finally, larger issues are raised about the functioning of ritual in relation to boundaries, liminality, and the experience of reading or hearing narrative texts.

Major Achievements

Since his 1984 dissertation, Dwelling Among the Tombs: Discourse, Discipleship and the Gospel of Mark 4:35–5:43, Mark McVann has been making creative use of the ritual studies models of Victor Turner, for example in a 1988 essay, “The Passion in Mark: Transformation Ritual”. Beginning with my own 1987 dissertation I have made similar applications of Turner, often benefiting from consideration of McVann’s work. McVann’s latest project delays introduction of Turner’s ritual models to the last one-third of the essay. After providing a clear summary of Turner’s theory of the ritual process, McVann successfully demonstrates how Jesus’ experiences exemplify the stages of separation, liminality, and aggregation in three major Markan passages: 1:9–20, 8:27–9:1, and 14:43–16:8. This discussion, although it might better have formed the first part of the essay, supports McVann’s arguments about Jesus’ gradual status transformation in Mark’s narrative.

In the process of developing this transformational model, McVann makes effective use of such passages as the temple-cleansing in Mark. and the recurring young man in Mark 14 and 16. In Mark 11:27–33, he finds honor-shame concerns and comparisons with John the Baptist, both of which serve the Markan author’s legitimation of Jesus over against the religious status quo. McVann follows the lead of Augustine Stock and others who identify the naked young man of 14:51–52 with the young man in white at the empty tomb in 16:5, and he effectively describes the baptismal imagery in both scenes. Besides supporting his status transformation thesis with particular passages, McVann examines the whole of Mark, applying the “concentric, chiastic structure” as described by both Stock and Benoit Standaert. This structural model helps McVann demonstrate the development of major motifs he locates in Mark: Jesus’ identity, baptism, honor/shame, and persecution. Two times later in the essay McVann follows this concentric pattern in his analysis of status transformation in the Gospel’s beginning (1:9–20), middle (8:27–9:1), and end (6:1–8). This device of recurring structural themes creates occasions for McVann to reiterate his major points, while examining specific scenes. Especially convincing is his analysis, albeit brief, of how readers undergoing baptism may have been encouraged by textual details to identify with the mysterious young man of Mark 14 and 16.

A final strength of the essay is McVann’s occasional reiteration of his analytical streams and their inter-relationships. At the end of the section on “Ritual” he connects his discussion of the temple episode with earlier claims about ritual boundaries and honor-shame concerns. Similarly, he concludes the segment on baptismal imagery in Mark 16:1–8 by noting how in each major part of the Gospel such imagery is tied to honor and shame, to eschatology, and to baptism as a “status transformation ritual”.

Questions About Methods and Findings

Part I: Honor-Shame

Before criticizing McVann’s work on baptism in Mark, I must stress my appreciation for the undertaking. Biblical interpreters in a postmodern era must certainly be wary of the fallacy of viewing the narrative world of a particular Gospel as a window onto First Century life in the Roman province of Palestine. Nevertheless, scholars like Mark McVann do well to remind us that there are links between literature and life, between narrative and ritual. After all, the narrative world we examine was created by a person or group living in the real world for persons who brought to the listening/reading of the Gospel real experiences, as do we ourselves. Thus, the textual and methodological questions I now raise reflect both my empathy with McVann’s assumptions about how ritual functions in biblical narratives and my sense of the work remaining to be done in order to achieve an effective synthesis of narrative criticism and ritual studies.

First, although there is much to affirm in McVann’s inclusion of honor-shame categories as conceived by such theorists as Malina, Neyrey, and Rohrbaugh, such categories must be applied without losing sight of their tentative and abstract character. My own study of women’s lives in modern Arab Islamic contexts has uncovered significant diversity on honor-shame issues, diversity that urges caution about generalizing across geographic boundaries and certainly across temporal divides. On the hazards of abstracting models from concrete societies, the comments of Wikan (142–3), Abu-Lughod (7), and Osiek (89–90) are especially helpful. As for the tendency to attribute behavioral motivation in the biblical world primarily to honor-shame codes, it is important to recall that other values may be equally powerful. In her study of family structures in Luke in the light of Greco-Roman household norms, Alicia Batten says of the father’s love in Luke 15: “The parable relativizes honor by making it clear that life, hospitality, and solidarity are much more important” (115–118).

Besides raising questions about the relative importance of honor-shame dynamics in Mark’s narrative world, such application of the honor-shame model currently in vogue in NT circles also requires evaluation of the model itself. Is McVann correct when he assumes with Malina et al that honor is necessarily a “zero-sum” game and that honor is gained only at the expense of another? This does seems to be the case in the temple scene of Mark 11. But in the ancient Mediterranean orbit was there just one type of honor, a limited good that required a continual game of challenge-riposte? In The Arab Mind Raphael Patai examines societies that are at least as relevant for Mark’s Gospel as are the modern Mediterranean villages used to generate honor-shame models. He concludes that there are two types of honor: 1) sharaf, generalized and flexible honor, and 2) ‘ird, a more rigid type dependent upon the conduct of a family’s women (120). Perhaps the first type responds to the kind of one-upsmanship McVann sees in Mark 11. But need the second type be a limited good in any given culture? Must the women of one family behave dishonorably in order to create honor for those of another? Indeed, the potential for sexual unchastity must be present to define the female chastity that maintains family honor. But my recent observations in Yemen, a culture very much defined by its honor-shame code, indicate that some societies desire that such honor can and should extend to as many families as possible.

Beyond these questions about the reliability of perhaps too narrowly drawn honor-shame models, McVann’s application of current anthropological notions to Mark’s narrative would be strengthened by an extensive study of Mark’s use of the Greek vocabulary related to τιμάο. McVann notes the eschatological force of Jesus’ use of “ashamed” in Mark 8:38 but emphasizes the honor-shame dynamic. However, without fuller study of Markan vocabulary, is there sufficient evidence to put such a statement in the category of social coding? Similarly, when drawing conclusions about Jesus’ shaming of his opponents, are socio-cultural codes or theological principles more at issue? A clue may come in the term Mark uses for Jesus’ assault on demons in 1:25, 3:12, and 9:25: ἑπιτιμάο. Here the implication goes beyond shame and rebuke to the defeat of God’s enemies (Kee: 232–246). However, the term in Mark also can have the everyday meaning of “warn” or “rebuke,” as in 8:30–33, 10:13, and 10:48.

A final example that raises doubt about the pervasive application of honor-shame coding is McVann’s observation that the behavior of the women in Mark 16:8 is “obviously shameful.” If he is referring to the overturning of societal honor values in favor of Mark’s honoring of the cross (a matter discussed primarily in his conclusions), then McVann is correct to criticize the women’s “trembling, astonishment, and fear.” It is true that the contrasting behavior of the young man who announces Jesus’ “victory over death” is honorable both in terms of existing cultural norms and with respect to Mark’s theological reversal of those norms in the passion narrative. As for the women in Mark 16, in many honor-shame cultures, shame can play the positive role of encouraging “a woman to preserve her chastity as well as her obedience to the man in charge of her” (Moxnes: 168). Might it be possible that in Mark’s narrative world the women who keep silent in their fear at discovering the empty tomb are behaving honorably?

Part II: Mark’s Intended Audience and Concentric Structure

A second cluster of questions surrounds McVann’s reliance on claims by Augustine Stock and Benoit Standaert that Mark was 1) composed as an initiation narrative for baptizandi and 2) given a concentric structure with the exhortation of 8:34–9:1 as “the literal, structural, and symbolic center.” But the question of whether this exhortation—or the confession and passion prediction that immediately precede it—forms the center relates to two larger issues: 1) whether Mark’s Gospel emphasizes primarily discipleship or Jesus’ identity and God’s actions through Jesus and 2) whether the Gospel narrates primarily the transformation or the gradual revelation of Jesus’ status and identity (or even both). Although McVann embraces the Easter vigil/baptismal ritual Sitz im Leben for Mark, his conclusions about the recognition of Jesus’ identity seem to indicate an over-all interpretation of the Gospel as a validation of Mark’s assertion in 1:1 that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God. And although in two major sections Mark does chronicle Jesus’ status transformation, these same passages seem to place emphasis on the revelation, not on the transformation, of identity and status. Schweizer’s exegesis of Mark 1:9–11 stresses not Jesus’ baptismal adoption as Son of God, but rather “a divine ‘epiphany’ “—making known God’s “conclusive acts” through the “Son” (39–41). From Schweizer’s point of view, the narrative spotlight is on “the voice of God which designates Jesus as the ‘Son’ ” (40). As for the question of whether Mark narrates mainly the changing or the revealing of Jesus’ status, Kingsbury says that 1:9–11 uncovers for the reader “God’s understanding of Jesus’ identity,” although he does imply changed status when he notes that God “sends the Spirit upon Jesus and thus empowers him for messianic ministry” (1993:371). In his discussion of Mark 8–15, however, Kingsbury describes the “three stages” by which Mark gradually discloses “the secret of Jesus’ identity” (373). This issue of whether Mark’s Gospel emphasizes the transformation of Jesus or the unveiling of Jesus is crucial for the thesis that readers/hearers of the Gospel narrative are guided to identify with Jesus as their status as baptismal candidates changes. As appealing a model as this is, it nevertheless must be thoroughly supported by textual references, references that must be placed alongside the narrative’s distinctive focus on what God has done in Jesus the Christ (Kingsbury 1993:378–379).

In McVann’s discussion, Mark;s chief vehicle for the portrayal of Jesus’ transformation and for the guidance of reader transformation is, of course, the ritual of baptism. McVann notes the presence of baptismal imagery in the three main sections of Mark;s narrative that he studies. However, that, as Standaert, Stock, and McVann suggest, the Gospel’s intended use was ritualistic is less clear without presentation of more textual evidence. Has McVann with Stock adequately demonstrated that “the story narrated directly portrays the situation of the baptizandi“? Surely there are parallels between the liminal situation of persons awaiting baptism and that of Jesus awaiting trial and crucifixion. But the evidence cited by both Stock and McVann is not material from Mark’s narrative, but from Paul’s notion of baptism as “death and burial with Christ” in Romans 6. How valid is it to view baptism as ritual in Mark through a Pauline lens? McVann’s case for a Pauline understanding of baptism in Mark might have been strengthened through analysis of such Markan passages as the last supper scene in Mark 14 and Jesus; identification of the “cup” of baptism with the cup of suffering and death in 10:38–39.

As useful as baptism can be for analysis of Mark’s narrative as transformation ritual, at least two difficulties arise: 1) such exclusive focus on baptism has the effect of limiting Mark’s project and 2) McVann’s definition of the function of baptism narrows Mark’s total presentation of baptism. First, this tendency to stress baptismal transformation, whether of Jesus or of the readers/hearers, dilutes the powerful Markan theme that it is God who acts through Jesus’ death to bring salvation (Kingsbury 1993:378–379). Second, McVann’s description of baptism’s objectives as demonstrating “loyalty to Jesus” and becoming group “insiders,” while consistent with modern anthropological understanding of rites de passage, ignores the important dynamic of repentance. This turning away from sin and toward God is conveyed in such verses as Mark 1:5, 1:15, and 4:11 and perhaps also in Mark’s unusually strong emphasis on Jesus’ exorcism of unclean spirits (an emphasis which, of course, also serves eschatological themes). In addition to finding space for readers’ baptismal identification with Jesus’ suffering and death (as guided by Romans 6), why not also see in Mark’s narrative the opportunity for readers’ identification with the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus or with Peter’s confession in Mark 8 and subsequent triple denial in Mark 14? Such recognition of needed repentance could expand the scope of the transformation evoked in Mark’s readers, if indeed they are preparing for and/or participating in ritual baptism. Much is valid in McVann’s conclusions about the relevance for baptism of Jesus’ exhortation in Mark 8:34–9:1. But does this speech warn baptizandi that “the ritual [emphasis mine] in which they are about to participate is a serious matter of death and life” or that the life of discipleship that baptism calls them to live means willingness to take up the cross and follow? (But of course such a distinction may be a modern imposition upon a world view that refused to separate life and λειτουργία, “liturgy” as service to God.)

The Functioning of Ritual in Narrative

This last section has less to do with the specific content of McVann’s project in Mark than with larger questions about how ritual sets boundaries, about how ritual relates to liminality, and about how ritual functions in narrative texts. Clearly, McVann, relying on Malina and Neyrey, is correct that rituals are a source for social boundaries, but is setting status-defining boundaries “the primary importance and function of ritual”? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has suggested that ritual enactments serve both as “models of” what people believe and as “models for the believing of it [emphasis in original]” (Geertz: 214). Surely these functions include boundary-setting and much more. McVann’s opening pages inspire a related question: What else besides ritual sets boundaries? He cites the example of social boundaries that prohibit male “invasion of women’s space”. But are not such gender-related limits often dictated by law as much as by ritual? Such certainly seems to be the case in Judaic and Islamic societies, where laws about incest and adultery impose boundaries as much as does ritual. In this connection, McVann’s helpful observation (in his discussion of the Mark 11 temple scene) that “ritual concern with boundaries” may precede “honor-shame issues” suggests the value of further exploration of the relationships between ritual and other forces, such as law, that are operative in particular cultures.

Beyond the role of ritual, McVann’s study makes one wonder how fixed are the boundaries in Mark’s narrative world and how social boundaries function in relation to other types, such as geographic boundaries. Kelber, Malbon, and others have observed that in Mark, the Sea of Galilee bridges rifts between Jew and Gentile more than enforcing them (Malbon 1984:373). The degree to which boundaries may be permeable in Mark is illustrated by the placement of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, within the faithful, rather than as an outsider along with other Jewish authorities (Mark 5). This detail may be part of Mark’s reversal of the honor-shame system as described by McVann in his conclusions.

Just as forces other than ritual can set boundaries, so can other factors transform status. Paul undergoes status changes when he receives revelation from the risen Lord in Acts 9 and when he is arrested in Acts 21, as does John the Baptist when he is arrested in Mark 6. The kind of liminal condition initiated by these arrests is one of the major status transformations McVann attritubes to the ritual process. Yet not all liminality need be ritual in origin, as these examples attest. Jesus and his disciples are in a temporary period of liminality during the episode of the Gerasene demoniac of Mark 5. Their condition may have some ritual overtones, given Jewish sensibilities about the ritual uncleanness of the tombs the demoniac inhabits. However, their liminal state also results from their physical movement to a semi-Gentile region and from the threat of a night-time storm. McVann himself seems to recognize non-ritual liminality when he uses the term with reference to Jesus’ status in the temple episode of Mark 11, well before he introduces Victor Turner’s ritual process model.

After his attack on the temple’s money-changers, Jesus is indeed in a dangerous situation. Such removal from the protection of social structures may also characterize the situation of many in the intended Markan reading audience as they experience religious persecution. When Jesus is on trial or when Mark’s readers face attack they may indeed be experiencing liminality—but is that liminality necessarily ritual? McVann has successfully applied Turner’s stages in a social drama to Jesus’ status transformation in Mark. But need all of these changes be attributed to ritual? As David Rhoads has pointed out, Turner’s model can be helpful for describing broad social movements and change, even apart from what is traditionally thought of as ritual.

Finally, beyond the question of how characters in Mark’s narrative world experience ritual, there is the matter of how ritual elements in narratives affect the readers and hearers of those texts. McVann makes several moves to defend his thesis that Mark is a narrative for baptismal ritual use: from Jesus’ status transformation to that of the disciples experiencing the events of Mark 8–16 to that of the baptizandi hearing the Markan call to discipleship during their own period of liminality. As one who has examined status transformation in Mark 5 and in Acts 9, 22, and 26, I have much appreciation for McVann’s project and especially for his notions about reader identification with and even participation in narrative-contained ritual. McVann has effectively demonstrated that Turner’s stages can help illuminate dynamics within Mark’s story of Jesus. But is there sufficient textual evidence that the ritual status transformation of readers/hearers is a major concern of the Markan text?

Much work remains to be done on what constitutes ritual in narrative and how readers participate (if at all) in that ritual activity. In a 1990 essay on Mark 5, I developed a typology of narrative ritual content as

description of ritual enactments (the spoken words of an exorcism formula), inclusion of ritualistic elements (journeying of Jesus and the disciples in Mark 4–5), and re-creation of ritual experience in which the reading or listening audience participates to some extent (the repetition of “commissioning” endings for healing and exorcism events) (LaHurd: 154).

Yet, in a seminar discussion of such ritual elements in Acts’ story of Paul, questions were asked about how such elements function differently from other elements in narrative that have the capacity to influence readers. When the Markan text invites readers to move beyond the disciples’ apparent lack of understanding and respond to the “mystery of the cross” (Matera: 63–64), are they experiencing a ritual status transformation or primarily achieving a cognitive and attitudinal change?

Textual details in some of the episodes McVann examines point to a Markan interest in readers’ seeing Jesus’ true identity as much as in their identifying with Jesus’ death as status transformation. There are, for example, the epiphanic aspects of Jesus’ baptism story in Mark 1:10–12. In Mark 8, immediately before McVann’s pivotal section, Jesus lectures the disciples on seeing and hearing (8:14–21) and underscores the point by restoring sight to a blind man (8:22–26). Just after Peter’s confession and Jesus’ passion prediction, Mark ends the section by having Jesus predict that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). Finally, in McVann’s third scene, the women at the empty tomb may be failing not only in their fear and silence, but also because they still fail to see Jesus’ identity and mission—in contrast to the young man in white. That character, whom McVann rightly describes as a model for reader identification, does see clearly and indeed promises the women about the risen Jesus: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).

Recalling and emphasizing such textual details is not intended to negate McVann’s creative analysis of Mark as narrative of identification for persons undergoing baptism. These Markan features do suggest, however, that any claim about narrative cues to reader response must include comprehensive scrutiny of all relevant narrative details. Only then will biblical exegetes be able fully to assess what is ritual about the experience of reading and/or hearing Mark’s Gospel.

Works Consulted

Abu-Lughod, Lila

1993    Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford

1965    “Religion as a Cultural System.” Pp. 204–216 in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. Ed. William Lessa and Evon Vogt. New York: Harper and Row.

Kee, H.C.

1968    “The Terminology of Mark’s Exorcism Stories.” NTS 14:232–246.

Kingsbury, Jack Dean

1981    Jesus Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Kingsbury, Jack Dean

1993    “The Significance of the Cross Within Mark’s Story.” Interp 47:370–379.

LaHurd, Carol

1990    “Reader Response to Ritual Elements in Mark 5:1–20.” BTB 20:154–160.

McVann, Mark

1988    “The Passion in Mark: Transformation Ritual.” BTB 18:96–101.

Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers

1984    “The Jesus of Mark and the Sea of Galilee.” JBL 103:363–377.

Matera, Frank J.

1986    Passion Narratives and Gospel Theologies. Mahway, NJ: Paulist.

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1986    “Social Science Modeling and the New Testament.” BTB 16:107–110.

Osiek, Carolyn

1992    “The Social Sciences and the Second Testament: Problems and Challenges.” BTB 22:88–95.

Schweizer, Eduard

1970    The Gospel According to Mark. Trans. Donald H. Madvig. Atlanta: John Knox.

Wikan, Unni

1982    Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Patai, Raphael

1983    The Arab Mind. New York: Macmillan.

An Afterword on Ritual in Biblical Studies

Bobby C. Alexander


This afterword addresses questions raised and directions taken by contributors to this issue of Semeia on biblical and ritual studies. The author, a specialist in the study of ritual, approaches the articles presented here from such a perspective, and evaluates the contributions from that point of view. He concludes that biblical studies has much to learn from the insights of ritual studies, especially with its emphasis on the bodily, spontaneous, open-ended aspects of ritual, which can open up new avenues of analysis to enrich the highly abstractive methods which characterize academic study on the Bible.

The Growing Importance of Studies of Ritual in Biblical Studies and Areas in Need of Greater Attention

The study of ritual is of growing interest within biblical studies. That biblical studies would take an interest in ritual studies should come as no surprise. Ritual is the subject of many biblical texts intended to be read on ritual occasions or which reflect ritual concerns. Although several contributors note the ritual role of certain texts (Williams, et al), only one of the contributors, McVann, analyzes this role in depth in his piece on the Gospel of Mark. The new emphasis on ritual found in many academic disciplines is undoubtedly a result of the growing understanding of the centrality of ritual in human life. Ritual’s role in the maintenance of human society and culture has been recognized for some time. More recently, however, it has been argued that ritual does more than merely manifest or mirror a society’s worldview and ethos; rather, it is seen as the generative source of society and culture, indeed, of human experience itself (Turner 1985, 1982a, 1974; Geertz 1986, 1973).

Clifford Geertz, the influential anthropologist, has shown that ritual shapes society and culture by creating experiences that affirm and thereby make authoritative a society’s worldview and ethos, motivating participants to model their everyday lives by them. Ritual provides experiential grounding for the reasonableness and authority of these life models. Experiential evidence of the legitimacy of a society’s worldview and way of life is provided by certain emotions elicited as a worldview is dramatized. Ritually eliciting emotions suited to a particular view of the world reinforces the belief that the world is in reality constituted as disclosed in, through, and by ritual. A particular way of life is seen to be in accord with the way the world is believed to be put together. Ritual, then, creates, legitimates, and sustains a world and ways of living in it. The worldview is in turn made more plausible as the world is seen to be arranged or ordained in such a way as to accommodate a particular way of living in it (Geertz 1973).

Ritual, however, also helps transform the experiential base out of which life is lived. Victor Turner, another influential anthropologist, has shown that, if ritual creates experience, it also has the capacity to alter it in radical ways. Ritual creates the experience of community among participants, an experience that has the potential to lead them to replace social arrangements with new ones that may better serve communitarian interests (Turner 1982a, 1974, 1969).

Biblical studies is becoming more sharply aware of the critical role of ritual in the formation and maintenance of the communities that have written and read biblical texts. However, biblical studies needs to become even more aware of ritual’s role in generating society and culture. The understanding of ritual prevalent in biblical studies still seems largely to reflect the views of early studies of ritual and of structural-functionalism.

Sociologists and anthropologists engaged in early studies of ritual—W. Robertson Smith, Edward Tylor, Herbert Spencer, James Frazer, Marcel Mauss, Emile Durkheim, E.O. James, and others—observed that ritual presents or dramatizes in symbolic form a society’s worldview and ethos. Early historians of religion and phenomenologists—including Max Muller and Rudolf Otto—observed that ritual gives expression to religious ideas about the sacred. Eliade, cited by some of the contributors here, is a more recent representative of this view. All of the early studies maintained that societies employ rituals that express their guiding ideas and way of life in order to create social cohesion and social control. Studies viewing ritual as an expression of religious ideas held the view that ideas about the sacred are then employed to order and control society. Because ritual expresses a normative worldview and ethos, it is of particular interest to society in times of crisis or conflict when social order must be restored. Ritual reenacts or dramatizes the crisis or conflict interrupting or threatening social order, and it dramatizes the solution.

Biblical studies, like earlier socio-anthropological work, tends to treat ritual as if it were only a symbolic expression of the social realities that exist outside the ritual context. Furthermore, there is a tendency, related to treating ritual as merely expressive of an established cultural world view, to view ritual as a tool used by society to meet its social-structural intents and purposes.

More recent studies of ritual have made it clear that ritual is more than symbolic expression, and that it does more than dramatize social crisis or conflict. Ritual, as Geertz observes, is the “cultural system” at work, redressing social crisis and restoring order (Geertz 1973). While ritual offers a “model of” society’s guiding ideas by dramatizing its world view and way of life, it is also a “model for.” Ritual itself helps shape society and culture as it creates experiences that confirm a worldview and ethos. As a “cultural performance,” or “social drama,” ritual is the social and cultural system regulating itself.

Gorman, therefore, is incorrect to say that Turner views ritual as simply expressive of a social reality that exists outside ritual. While Turner is aware of expressive or symbolic features of ritual, he does not view ritual as a mere epiphenomenon. Ritual is the “social drama” of crisis or conflict and redress bodied forth and not merely abstractly represented (Turner 1974). Dramatization extends social conflict into ritual in order to redress it, which ritual accomplishes by transforming the statuses and identities of participants. Ritual, thus, has an authentic “ontological status,” and is much more than mere symbolic expression.

Newer approaches to ritual have overcome the tendency of earlier studies to oppose the abstractive-symbolic to the concrete or real (Bell 1992). “When we perform ourselves, we do not simply express what we already are. We perform our becoming, and become our performing,” as Driver succinctly puts it (1991). Bell criticizes Turner’s dramatistic model as well as Geertz’s cultural performance model, as Gorman notes, arguing that resolution of social conflict is illusory. Bell argues that ritual never resolves social conflict. Instead, it presents schemes that imply resolution, deferring resolution and offering a temporary solution (Bell). Turner, however, does not claim resolution is permanent; it is always temporary. He understands social conflict to be ongoing, given the ambivalence with which social structure is regarded. It is both necessary in the organization of social relations and burdensome in its restrictiveness and divisiveness. For Turner, then, ritual is a “perennial activity,” emerging again and again in the effort to reconcile the need for structure with the need for more open-ended, communitarian social arrangements, which, although they may emerge, are “fleeting” (Turner 1974, 1969).

Turner points out that, while many rituals do attempt to redress social conflict by dramatizing the advantages of normative social statuses and roles for those participants who challenge the existing social order, other rituals give rise to novel, non-hierarchical, or communitarian social arrangements that go against the social norm and that have the capacity to alter and even replace the existing social order (Turner 1982a; Turner 1974).

Such insights, correctly understood and appropriately applied within biblical studies, could help provide more flexible and open-ended interpretive strategies. Clearly, the communities behind and engaged with the biblical texts involved themselves in rituals dedicated to the formation and maintenance of their communities as distinctive religious and social groups. Clearly, too, biblical communities engaged in the ritual legitimation of their worldview and ethos. Turner’s insights cast a spotlight on a countervailing interest in, or potential of, ritual that exists alongside tribal, national, and ecclesiastical self-interest, namely, the capacity of ritual to promote the other pole of their religious and social vision, one that transcends narrower self-interests: the vision of universal human community. Attending to what Turner calls the “anti-structural” capacities and potentialities of ritual reveals the challenge ritual presents to all social structures, including religious ones. These insights encourage going behind those texts asserting the legitimacy and authority of the biblical communities to examine the possibility of insecurity in the face of claims to authority and power as well as ambivalence toward these claims that might be betrayed by aggressive efforts toward self-legitimation.

Virtually all of the contributors to this volume make use of Turner, but to a limited extent. Most of them, including Gorman, who discusses Turner at length, miss his insight into ritual transformation. Most contributors here make a conservative reading of his theory. They assume that ritual transformation is limited to the assigning of new roles and statuses that integrate participants into an already existing social order or the reassigning of established roles and identities that make possible restoring social order in the face of crisis or conflict. Conservative readings of Turner miss the distinction he draws between ritual and ceremony. Ceremony is “confirmatory”; it reinforces an existing order. Ritual, by contrast, promotes social change in the direction of a more communitarian order (Turner 1982a). Biblical studies, it seems, has missed the implications of Turner’s theory (elaborated below) because ritual’s potential to transform social order has not been fully appreciated.

The applications of ritual studies currently being undertaken by biblical scholarship are helping to bring new meaning to the texts. Within these applications, they are read against a horizon that opens up the larger social contexts as well as immediate contexts within which ritual takes place. While these applications are fruitful, as demonstrated by the articles here, they are still exploratory.

An Anti-Structuralist Approach to the Study of Ritual

Many of the contributors here apply studies of ritual (those of Douglas, Geertz, and others) that are indebted to Durkheimian and structural-functional theories of ritual (Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, et al.; see also Jonathan Z. Smith). Like classical theories of ritual, the structural-functional theories consider the principal role of ritual that of maintaining the established order. Although interested in social change and in the role of ritual in change, Geertz tends to adopt a “functionalistic” view of ritual. He focuses on ritual’s role as “paradigm” or model of the established order that serves as a means of preserving it (Geertz 1973).

The view that ritual’s primary role is maintaining social equilibrium by shoring up the structural status quo has been challenged by Turner and others. He argues that ritual’s fundamental or essential role, if not always its stated goal, is to bring about social change: ritual serves to marshal human and cultural resources and energy to the service of making community a social reality. Those who endorse the functionalist view often have themselves an interest in maintaining the established order, Turner maintains.

Turner shows how structural-functional theory, although it offers valuable insights, does not go far enough in its treatment of the relation between ritual and social structure. While status differentiations and hierarchy are essential for organizing society and meeting its material needs, they are simultaneously divisive, exploitative, and alienating. Consequently, hierarchies produce conflict. For all the virtues of social-structural classification, it impedes or prevents direct, open, egalitarian relationships, the chief characteristics of community. Social structures define people’s identity, value, and worth too narrowly. Requiring people to keep to their places within the structure represses or locks out their full and common humanity. By contrast, community recognizes individuals’ full humanity while promoting the common good. The need for community equals the need for social structure. Ritual, then, is a response to the need to create community: it is put into play in response to breakdown in, or it is enacted to rejuvenate, community. It redresses social conflict not by restoring the status quo ante but by transforming the social order itself.

Ritual transition to an alternative social structure suspends everyday social structure and the social divisions and distinctions that constitute it, and relaxes obligation to them. Liberating ritual participants from obligatory and divisive social roles, ritual “liminality” creates ambiguity in social-structural relations that makes possible and invites communitarian exchange. Spontaneous, direct, and egalitarian, ritual “communitas” invites participants to reflect upon everyday social structure and to assess the adequacy of present social arrangements as agents of community. Communitas invites experimentation with social arrangements that are more communitarian than those which prevail within the everyday social order. The experience of human community infuses everyday social relations with communitarian purpose, if only temporarily. Ritual is thus reflexive action. Since ritual is anti-structural in nature and purpose given its liminal and communitarian base, it stands in dialectical relation to social structure. Ritual always emerges when social structure fails to serve communitarian interests (Turner 1982a, 1974, 1969). Turner acknowledges that ritual often reinforces the existing social structure, assigning identities and roles within the prevailing hierarchy. He sees that ritual frequently addresses social conflict by reminding those protesting against hierarchy of its benefits, namely, stability and order. This is especially true of tribal ritual. Nevertheless, conservative readings of Turner fail to catch his distinction between tribal rituals (Turner undertook fieldwork among African tribes) and ritual in its fundamental nature. Tribal rituals tend to be devoted to preserving the existing social order, on which societies existing in a precarious balance with nature depend to meet their survival needs. Tribal ritual, therefore, does not usually promote social change (Turner 1982a, 1974). In such cases, ritual has been “circumscribed … pressed into the service of maintaining the existing order” (Turner 1982a). However, even when ritual is co-opted, it remains potentially subversive of the social order and often manages to introduce communitarian interests, even in tribal contexts. The experience of ritual community reminds those being assigned high status, such as a tribal chieftain, that they are to use their power and authority to promote the common good (Turner 1974, 1969).

The portrayal of ritual by traditional biblical studies as primitive and restrictive would be, in a Turnerian view, a rationalization. By such portrayals, biblical studies has in the past dismissed ritual, the liminal and communitarian thrust of which threatens its use of the biblical text to claim truth and authority for itself. That is, the reaction against ritual has been ideologically motivated—commitment to Protestant and Enlightenment values has led to harsh judgment against ritual, as Gorman observes—and traces of this motivation are still apparent in this issue of Semeia.

A Structural-Functional Reading of Ritual: Ritual Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible and the “Anti-Ritual” Ritual of a Triumphalist Church

The article by Williams is illustrative of the conservative tendency to view ritual as merely expressive of social reality. In the final analysis, Williams adopts an anti-ritual view. His argument is, in effect, a condemnation of ritual. He equates ritual with sacrifice, which he views as the perpetuation of victimization and violence, which he then condemns with the help of a triumphalist reading of the New Testament.

Ritual, he argues, “represents the necessary differentiations [that constitute the social-structural order], the threat to these differentiations, and the overcoming of this threat.” It does so by reestablishing the prohibition of that which goes against the social differentiation after staging a mimetic crisis. A victim is made a scapegoat onto whom are transferred “transgressions” of the social order before the victim is sacrificed. Once sacrificed, the victim is apotheosized. In the process, the differentiation the victim has come to represent is sacralized, as is the social order that is defined by difference.

Williams’ analysis is heavily influenced by the mimetic, sacrificial theory of René Girard, who is himself influenced by nineteenth-century theories of ritual as catharsis (e.g., W. Robertson Smith; Freudian theory of sublimation; and the more recent Burkert). The earlier theorists viewed ritual, along with religion, as vital to the defense and preservation of civilization. Both were thought to establish taboos or prohibitions that preserved social order and to sublimate violence threatening it through the displacement of violence onto a scapegoat.

Sublimation is achieved through mimetic repetition of an original, primordial violence that protects society from both the outbreak of violence that would destroy the structures underpinning social order and from knowledge of the true source of violence: it lies within humans themselves. Sacrificial violence is enacted regularly or during times of crisis to contain threats of violence. For Girard, as for Freud, civilization itself is at stake. More to the point, for Girard, and, it appears, for Williams and others, the defense of Christian civilization is at stake.

Williams takes a Girardian approach to sacrifice, identified as “the heart of ritual,” particularly as exemplified in the sacrifice surrounding the ascension to kingship of Saul. Following Girard, Williams sees Scripture—both Hebrew and Christian—as progressively critical of ritual sacrifice, and progressively disclosive of the fact that God abhors victimization and sides with the victim. Like Girard, Williams sees ritual sacrifice as part of the dynamic of violence. As the Hebrews became increasingly sensitive to their victimization and progressively conscious of their tradition as a people giving witness to a God of victims, they began to question and let go of sacrifice.

The emphasis on sacrifice as a unifying agent preserving the existing social order is overstated, as Krondorfer recognizes. While the sacrifice associated with kingship offers an occasion for application of sacrifice theory, there are important details in the text that do not fit the theory. Imposing a unifying theory on the text decontextualizes it. What is needed here is a “thick description” of the ritual context (Geertz 1973), which might produce a very different reading, Krondorfer suggests. Decontextualizing the text, as Krondorfer observes, is often a function of bias on the part of the interpreter. Sacrificial theory is not as sensitive to this hermeneutical problem as it needs to be. Recent studies of ritual, Krondorfer notes, have demonstrated how reading texts is itself a ritual that is put to various interpretive uses, one of which is the legitimizing of the interpreter’s point of view. Williams and Girard, Krondorfer claims, are actually engaged in a remythologizing of scriptural authority that supports Christian triumphalism. In the hands of triumphalism (one end of the Christian spectrum), the symbolic sacrifice of Jesus—said to be God’s full disclosure of the origin of sacrifice and victimization and of the perpetuation of violence in sacrifice—is used to support the authority of the official church as agent of redemption over that of Judaism or any other tradition. An anti-structural approach would question such self-legitimizing and self-interested readings of the Bible.

An Anti-Structural Reading of Ritual: Ritual Baptism and Ambivalence Between a Triumphalist and Communitarian Vision for the Church

The article by McVann illustrates the view that ritual has the potential to challenge the existing social order. Ritual initiation into the group of Jesus’ disciples as it appears in the Gospel of Mark is the subject of McVann’s essay. Building on other studies of Mark as a text used on the occasion of baptism, McVann shows how Mark was used to encourage new disciples to persist in discipleship in the face of persecution. Baptism encouraged disciples to challenge a divisive and unjust order and assigned them the status of honor even as their honor, like that of Jesus, was denied. McVann makes use of Turner’s insights into the transformative capacities of rites of passage to show how the ritual of baptism reversed the categories of honor and shame of cultic religion and the Mediterranean social order, and was thus an extension of Jesus’ challenge to the shame-honor dynamic. The link between the struggle of Jesus’ followers and that of Jesus himself was strengthened, McVann shows, as baptism gave the Gospel narrative accompanying it the structure of a rite of passage or ritual initiation. Jesus’ baptism, trial, death, and resurrection are presented as progressive stages of Jesus’ change in status from prophet shamed by the offical temple cult to Lord.

Ritual liminality presents an initial challenge, McVann notes, when it suspends the usual categories of honor and shame and exposes their injustice. There is yet another, all important challenge, as suggested by the application of Turner’s theory: baptism is an attempt to build community among the followers of Jesus, and thereby to overturn the alienating category of the shamed.

As McVann notes, the contest between Jesus and the temple cult underscores the “indeterminacy” or arbitrariness of the social order built upon distinctions of honor and shame. Honor and shame, which the official order equates with order and purity, exist as such in the eye of the beholder. Those with a vested interest in a particular social order view it as pure and honorable (see Douglas). Ritual liminality, then, calls attention to the arbitrary nature of social categories, as Turner observes, when it suspends social structure and introduces social-structural indeterminacy. Ritual communitas makes the arbitrariness of social-structural distinctions even clearer as it calls attention to the underlying equality among human beings. Calling attention to baptism as ritual anti-structure strengthens the argument that the initiation of Jesus’ followers offers a challenge to a divisive and unjust social order and an attempt to establish one that is more communitarian.

At the same time that the disciples of Jesus engage ritual anti-structure to challenge the social-structural status quo and to create community among themselves, they find in ritual initiation an opportunity to promote the narrower interests of the community of the baptized, namely, legitimating the baptized as a group with superior status. Baptism in the service of the self-interests of the initiated thus becomes “ritual counter-structure” (Turner 1974). Baptism, in other words, is ultimately used to replace one social structure with another. Ritual “anti-structure” has been corralled, or tamed, and made to serve competing interests. As the emerging church began to claim authority for itself, followers would have been tempted to delineate social categories that replicated, if in an inverted form, traditional honor-shame and purity-order categories. Followers would have been tempted to claim authority for their own emerging ritual and cult. Ritual anti-structure, however, challenges all social structure. As anti-structure, ritual has the potential to transform a social order, including that of the emergent church, by infusing social structure with communitarian interest, putting in place a social order that serves human community.

Baptism, then, is fraught with tension between ritual as anti-structure and as counter-structure and exhibits tension between two competing visions for human society held by the followers of Jesus. One is that of a communitarian society, faithful to Jesus’ prophetic, communitarian vision, a society in which social relations transcend all social categories and are guided by directness and equality. The other is that of a society, still divided, in which Jesus’ followers are distinguished as those with honor. In this vision, those loyal to the “Jesus faction” are distinguished from outsiders as a superior and competing social group. An anti-structural reading of the Markan text suggests that the initiated might be ambivalent toward both visions, turning to ritual to attempt to realize a transcendent, communitarian vision while tempted to exploit ritual to make concrete the vision of a triumphalist, official church.

The significance of baptism as a “status-changing ritual,” assigning honor to those being received into the church, whom the official cult and the world have shamed, underscores the polemical use of the text on the occasion of initiation. Baptism continues rather than subverts the dynamic of honor-shame, as McVann points out. In the hands of the emerging church, baptism underscores the claim to purity and honor as a component of a competing authoritative social order. Originally a sign of return to “just, covenantal social practices,” baptism is becoming a sign of membership in a church that claims for itself the role of God’s new, just, and pure social order.

Hanson also explores the tension involved in discipleship, tension between a transcendent vision of being a disciple and that of discipleship as conferring special status. He, too, employs Turner to analyze the transformation of followers into disciples. Hanson leaves room for a non-triumphalist reading of the text. He notes that there is some doubt in the text about the complete success of transforming the followers into disciples. For him, however, a text that stops short of triumphalism has less to do with ritual transformation and more to do with the text itself, which leaves the status of the would-be disciples in doubt. If the Gospel is treated as a ritual text, as Hanson appears to suggest, the ritual in which hearers of the text are engaged might itself introduce doubt about a triumphalist church. An anti-structure would seem to assert itself during a ritual ostensibly devoted to exalting the status of disciples as the final stage in their effort to imitate the life of Jesus. Doubt might be said to grow out of the challenge of the communitarian vision to those tempted to find in the exaltation of Jesus’ followers an opportunity for triumphalism. As Hanson observes, there is recognition in the text that ritual transformation is “not ‘once for all,’ ” but ongoing. The rituals associated with the text might be understood to be attempts by the emerging church to underscore the point that disciples faithful to a communitarian vision must never be self-serving.

McNutt also makes use of Turner’s tripartite rite of passage schema, and for a purpose similar to that of McVann. She finds in Turner’s model (transition, liminality, incorporation), a tool for interpreting biblical texts concerning the transformation of Israel from the status of tribe to nation. McNutt reads the rituals described in the text as effecting transition to a competing social order. An anti-structural reading of the text would view this use of ritual as another example of transition to counter-structure. Ritual anti-structure has been co-opted and put to the service of nationalism. An anti-structural reading would inquire about latent anti-structural features of ritual and about the possibility of tension between an antinationalistic vision in the making and the vision of human community transcending nationalistic claims, which is given some witness by the text.

A “Recontextualized,” Self-Reflexive Reading of Ritual as Exploratory, Unpredictable, Creative, and Subversive Activity: A Ritual Studies Approach

Few of the contributors to this volume refer to the relatively new field of “Ritual Studies”. Ritual Studies emerged as a subfield of religious studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. None of the contributors offers an analysis from a thoroughgoing Ritual Studies perspective. McNutt is familiar with the work of Ronald Grimes, who had a central role in establishing the new discipline, but she does not make use of his approach here. Gorman is the only author who discusses Ritual Studies as such. He provides an overview of its chief interests and methods, along with those of other approaches. He does not, however, adequately distinguish Ritual Studies from other studies of ritual. Nor does he adequately identify the contribution of the new emphases and methods of Ritual Studies aimed towards a new understanding of ritual. Ritual Studies builds upon earlier analyses as well as current anthropological approaches to ritual, but goes farther in exploring the implications of current research in regard to the bodily, exploratory, indeterminate, unruly, and subversive features of ritual.

Gorman notes the emphasis Ritual Studies gives to the important features of ritual mentioned above that have historically been minimized or overlooked. Such aspects, once taken into account, shed new light on ritual by placing it in its concrete cultural and experiential contexts. Gorman’s real interest is in how this approach to biblical texts might bring new interpretations to the rituals associated with the text. He does not say, however, precisely how ritual studies would do this.

A tentative answer might involve Ritual Studies’ insistence that the body is the most immediate context of ritual. It recognizes that the body is ritual’s primary vehicle for gesture, activity, and action. Such bodycenteredness leads the discipline to invert the standard emphasis and give primacy to the body over the spoken word (Grimes 1990; 1982): in the beginning was the flesh, and the flesh spoke the word.

The primacy given the body over the word also grows out of the recognition that the body is, first and foremost, a vehicle through which preconscious, precognitive, physical impulses are embedded (Grimes 1982). Ritual Studies recognizes that the spontaneity of the body helps ritual “body forth” immediate experience.

Ritual Studies is also of the view that the precognitive, bodily impulses incarnated in ritual help to give ritual a life of its own. The introduction of preconscious impulses into ritual through the body gives ritual a spontaneous, unpredictable, and uncontrollable dimension (Grimes 1982). Most studies of ritual have viewed the individual body as it appears in ritual as an object to be enscribed by society. Enscribing the body through ritual has been viewed as a means by which society brings individuals under its control (Douglas; Kapferer; Crapanzano). But ritual can equally be a source of liberation and escape from control for individuals, groups, and whole societies. Ritual Studies is aware that bodycenteredness, together with the immediacy and spontaneity associated with it, help give ritual the capacity to generate new experiences of self, society, and the world. Ritual Studies thus views ritual as a dynamic activity, less rule-bound than is ordinarily recognized, given its attention to immediate experience, its spontaneity and open-endedness. Ritual is an important means of responding to and creating a world that exists in greater flux and negotiability than is often recognized.

Ritual Studies shares with anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies of ritual an interest in ritualizing among animals as adaptive behavior, as well as the animal or biological and neurological origins of ritual. Ritualizing accents the responsiveness of ritual to dynamics of change that actually constitute daily life (Bell 1992). Ritualizing or nascent ritual is thus distinct from the set, rule-bound rituals of tradition. Humans invent new rituals just as surely as they inherit them (Grimes 1982).

The characteristics of ritual rejected by early biblical studies—its bodily, experiential, experimental, and unpredictable qualities—are precisely those features that are of chief interest to Ritual Studies. Early biblical studies could not reconcile these features of ritual with the dualistic perspective of its Protestant and Enlightenment commitments.

Ritual Studies recognizes that the bodily features of ritual, conjoined with such features as immediacy, dynamic flow, creativity, and unpredictability, require new interpretations of ritual. Ritual Studies is aware as well that these features of ritual demand the participation of interpreters in ritual in ways that go beyond established participant-observer methods, and that if these basic, defining features of ritual are to be accounted for adequately, students of ritual must become full participants in the rituals studied. We will return to the possibility of participation by those engaged in biblical studies.

Ritual Studies also emphasizes ritual participation as a way of overcoming the gap between participant and observer. Stressing the point that ritual cannot be adequately understood if approached through detached observation, Ritual Studies emphasizes the “subjective” side of ritual (Grimes 1990). Ritual Studies recognizes that there is a false dichotomy between ritual theory and ritual practice, as Catherine Bell has argued (1992), and stresses the critical relation of ritual practice to ritual theory. Discussion of problems of interpretation within Ritual Studies coincides with the new interest in hermeneutics found in anthropology and other disciplines. Greater sensitivity to the gap in understanding between participant and observer and greater awareness of bias on the part of the observer have led to an emphasis on self-conscious reflection on ethnographic fieldwork (Geertz 1983, 1973; Marcus and Fischer; Marcus and Clifford; Drewal). In the effort to gain greater awareness of the observer’s cultural bias, and greater understanding of the culture under study and its rituals, the new reflectiveness also encourages cross-cultural and comparative study (Marcus and Fischer; Marcus and Clifford; Schechner and Appel). Ritual Studies also accentuates “self-reflexive” analysis, encouraging self-conscious identification of the observer’s point of view as well as cross-cultural analysis (Grimes 1990).

Additional efforts to address the hermeneutical gap have led some anthropologists, including Turner, to stage recreations of rituals observed in the field in academic or laboratory settings (Turner 1986b; 1982a; 1982b; see also Schechner and Appel), and others, like Karen McCarthy Brown, to become ritual initiates (Brown). Some in Ritual Studies have engaged ritual specialists to recreate rituals outside their traditional context (see Grimes 1990).

Greater awareness of hermeneutical problems has brought about less emphasis in anthropology and Ritual Studies on constructing uniform theories as it has heavily qualified the use of the grand theories proposed by classical works. Ritual Studies shares with “Performance Theory”, a relatively new approach to theater and performance, an interest in “ritual criticism,” in how and why specific rituals succeed or fail within their cultural contexts, as well as the evaluation of ritual as performance (Grimes 1990; Schechner and Appel). Returning to the contributors here, Bergant approaches her text in the spirit of Ritual Studies, although she does not use a Ritual Studies approach per se. She argues against beginning with a set model of ritual, recognizing that models often impose unwarranted interpretations upon texts. She attempts, instead, a reading of the text and its social meanings in context. To put meanings in context, Bergant draws on the ethnographic method of “thick description” to introduce the native’s point of view as well as the worldview and ethos informing the native’s view (Geertz 1973). She finds in her ethnographic data support for a structural-functional reading of the text. The text, Bergant argues, supports the view that the rituals of the Hebrew peoples helped them create a new social order by drawing distinctions between themselves and outsiders. A Ritual Studies reading of the text would ask whether these rituals succeeded, or whether they also introduced ambiguity into the social categories by which the Hebrew peoples attempted to distinguish themselves.


What does Ritual Studies have to do with biblical studies of ritual? There is obviously no opportunity for those engaged in biblical studies to participate directly in the rituals studied. Students of biblical texts can, however, engage in the rituals described or implied in the text through imaginative participation, as Gorman suggests. One example is the experimental and experiential approach to these texts taken by Bjorn Krondorfer, a specialist in the study of ritual, and that of Samuel Laeuchli. Each reenacts the texts through bodily participation using the method known as “bibliodrama.”

Ritual Studies could have a beneficial impact on the way in which biblical studies imaginatively engages and interprets ritual, encouraging attention to important features of ritual that have long been downplayed or overlooked—particularly the bodily exploration of immediate experience, unruliness, and subversiveness. Focusing on the bodily, experiential, generative, open-ended, and subversive features of ritual—all of which challenge Protestant and Enlightenment biases that remain embedded in some approaches to biblical studies—would suggest new readings of biblical rituals. Recognizing that rituals often bend back upon their social and cultural contexts in unexpected ways, ways perhaps not recorded in Scripture, would help biblical studies avoid the conservative tendency to view ritual as mirroring normative worldviews and ways of life which reinforce the status quo, whether that of established bases of power or new, competing power bases. Greater attention to ritual practice would also help avoid the tendency to impose a unifying or unitary theory upon biblical rituals.

Ritual Studies has much to offer biblical interpreters. It encourages drawing upon the insights of diverse fields of study in the interpretation of texts. Its emphasis on anti-structural dynamics can be marshalled to the service of human liberation, a well-established theological and biblical tradition. At the same time, Ritual Studies’ utilization of structural-functional theories, especially when analyzing ritual tradition (see Grimes 1982), provides a coherent intellectual frame and methodological strength. The intent of Ritual Studies is to open up a wider range of possible readings of ritual in order better to interpret ritual in context. The tremendous stress on historical context within biblical studies is, of course, firmly established and of great value. Ritual Studies’ emphases on flux, spontaneity, the body, and the fundamental negotiability of world-making can help biblical studies become a more supple interpretive enterprise. Ritual Studies can help biblical studies yield richer insights for students of a text of foundational significance for western civilization and of great importance where western ideas have spread to other societies in the world.

Works Consulted

Alexander, Bobby C.

1995    “Ritual and Current Studies of Ritual: Overview.” Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Alexander, Bobby C.

1991    Victor Turner Revisited: Ritual as Social Change. Atlanta: Scholars.

Bell, Catherine

1992    Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Karen McCarthy

1991    Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Crapanzano, Vincent

1980    Rite of Return: Circumcision in Morocco. New York: Library of Psychological Anthropology.

d’Aquili, Eugene G., et al.

1979    The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Douglas, Mary

1973    (1970) Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Random House.

Drewal, Margaret

1992    Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Driver, Tom F.

1991    The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Geertz, Clifford

1986    “Epilogue: Making Experiences, Authoring Selves.” In The Anthropology of Experience. Ed. Victor Turner and Edward M. Bruner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Geertz, Clifford

1983    Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Geertz, Clifford

1973    The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Girard, René

1973    Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grimes, Ronald L.

1990    Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Grimes, Ronald L.

1982    Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Lanham, MD.: University Press of America.

Kapferer, Bruce

1983    A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Krondorfer, Bjorn, ed.

1992    Body and the Bible: Interpreting and Experiencing Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Trinity.

Laeuchili, Samuel

1987    Das Spiel vorden dunkeln Gott: Mimesis ein Beitrag zur Entwicklung des Bibliodramas. Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag.

Mac Aloon, John J.

1984    Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M.J. Fischer

1986    Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, George E., and James Clifford, eds.

1986    Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schechner, Richard

1977    Essays on Performance Theory, 1970–1976. New York: Drama Book Specialists. (See also the revised, expanded edition by Routledge, 1988).

Schechner, Richard, and Willa Appel, eds.

1990    By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z.

1987    To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tambiah, Stanley J.

1979    “A Performative Approach to Ritual.” Proceedings of the British Academy 65:113–169.

Turnbull, Colin.

1990    “Liminality: A Synthesis of Subjective and Objective Experience.” In By Means of Performance. Ed. Richard Schechner and Willa Appel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, Victor

1986a.    “Dewey, Dilthey, and Drama: An Essay in the Anthropology of Experience.” In The Anthropology of Experience. Ed. Victor Turner and Edward M. Bruner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Turner, Victor

1986b.    The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

Turner, Victor

1985.    On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Ed. Edith Turner. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Turner, Victor

1982a.    From Ritual to Theater and Back: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications.

Turner, Victor

1982b.    “Performing Ethnography.” The Drama Review 26/2:33–50.

Turner, Victor

1974    Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor

1969.    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Chicago: Aldine.

von Cranach, Mario, et al, eds.

1979    Human Ethnology: Claims and Limits of a New Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

General Introductory Bibliography for Ritual Studies

Mark McVann

Biblical scholars interested in further reading in the area of ritual studies may find the following briefly annotated bibliography of some value. Probably most scholars who work in the area of ritual studies would agree that some of the works below are highly significant contributions, and, indeed, that a few of them laid the foundation for the maverick interdisciplinary endeavor known semi-formally (the best it can hope for) as Ritual Studies.

An area or field of study may be said to have arrived, perhaps, when a juried journal devoted to publication of studies which meet exacting academic standards appears and persists. The Journal of Ritual Studies fills what had been a long-standing need for such a serial, and has done so with astonishing variety and inventiveness (as has the only slightly less respectable Semeia). JRS is always interesting, sometimes daring, and highly recommended. Biblical scholars—usually tradition-conscious and methodologically conservative—will find reading the journal a bracing experience (again, like Semeia). So much the better.

This bibliography gives ample evidence of the interdisciplinary nature of the ritual beast (one intractably hostile to domestication), as contributions listed below come from anthropologists, historians of religion, biblical scholars, philosophers, and theologians. We will proceed in the usual alphabetical order.

Bobby C. Alexander. Victor Turner Revisited: Ritual as Social Change. AAR Series, Number 74. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.

This fine volume is divided into two parts. The first provides a thorough presentation of Turner’s theory of ritual, corrects misinterpretations of his work, and offers cogent critique and amplification of the theory. The second part of the book is comprised of two studies in which Turner’s theory of ritual as agent of social change is applied to two sharply differing groups: a liberation-minded African-American Pentecostal congregation and Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater.

Catherine Bell. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

This is a serious and densely written book grounded in a broad range of contemporary theoretical discourses, from the philosophical to the ethnological. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is ambitious and challenging, and makes for rewarding reading. It is not, however, a book for the theory-shy. Relentlessly and toughly analytic and critical, Bell’s book is widely and justly admired for its scope and depth.

Robert L. Cohn. The Shape of Sacred Space: Four Biblical Studies. AAR Studies in Religion, Number 23. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981.

A better introduction to the fruitful potential of a union between ritual and biblical studies would be hard to find. This small book—only seventy-nine pages and not as widely read as it should be—is an excellent piece of scholarship. The work is sensitive, sophisticated, and well written. The first essay applies Turner’s ritual theory to the story of the Exodus; this is followed by analyses of mountains in the biblical cosmos and Mt. Sinai (chapters three and four). The work concludes with an exploration of the nature of a Sacred Center. An exemplary illustration of how social-science (that jarring and infelicitous appellation) can authentically enrich biblical study, it is one of the best.

Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966; Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Paperback Edition, 1982.

Both landmarks in the field of symbolic anthropology, both also have had formative influence in social-scientifically oriented biblical criticism, although this is more true of the first than the second. In Purity and Danger, Douglas provides an excellent analysis of the social reckoning of dirt as matter out of place. Chapter 3, “The Abominations of Leviticus”, will perhaps be of greatest interest to students of the Bible. It is a masterly interpretation of the classificatory principles of the priestly school of writers. Natural Symbols ranges through a variety of settings—from the Bog Irish to the Nuer and Dinka tribes—in the exploration of how our attitudes towards the body reflect social structure. In both books, the thinking and writing are brilliant.

Tom F. Driver. The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.

In this gracefully written, deeply human, and extremely user-friendly book, Tom F. Driver explores ritual’s power for social change. He is particularly interested in the ethical dimensions of ritual and the restorative role it can play in a world that “is in urgent need of liberative justice as a condition of its survival” (p. 11). Driver is indebted, though not uncritically, to Victor Turner. As much absorbing reflection on personal experience as exploration of ritual theory, Driver’s liveliness and readability make this book a most attractive introduction to thinking about ritual.

Howard Eilberg-Schwartz. The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Perhaps one of the few books that genuinely deserves to be called a tour de force, The Savage in Judaism is at once a compelling apologia for, and a brilliant exposition of, the comparative method. Eilberg-Schwartz’s book ranges through the Enlightenment’s critiques of “savagery,” to romanticism, relativism, and modern anthropological theory, and offers lively and fascinating discussions of circumcision, bodily discharges, and the nature and status of (ritual) purity and impurity. His work recontextualizes ancient Judaism and places it squarely and irrefutably in a cultural anthropological context, in full dialogue and partnership with traditional biblical methods.

René Girard. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

This is an important work which has generated a strong movement within social-scientific scholarship. Girard’s work has had powerful influence in biblical studies, and many publications which reflect his thought have appeared recently. Victor Turner also admired Violence and the Sacred: “I regard his book as crucial reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of society and culture. He presents the best case I have seen for the primacy of social order.” The work examines the nature and origin of ritual, particularly sacrifice, and explores the relationship between violence and religion at its most elemental and primal levels.

Clifford Geertz. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Harper Colophon, 1973.

This formidable and erudite book, a basic one in the field of symbolic anthropology, forcefully argues for, and repeatedly demonstrates, the tremendous explanatory power of seeing human cultures as comprised of dynamic and interlocking systems of symbols which generate meaning. This collection of essays discusses cultural anthropological theory in a wide-ranging, sharp (and witty!) dialogue with literary criticism, philosophy, and sociology. Rituals as social-symbolic acts receive richly detailed and often exhilarating interpretations. Challenging and stimulating, annoying and inspired, The Interpretation of Cultures is a masterpiece of intellectual and anthropological analysis of human cultures.

Ronald L. Grimes. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Washington: University Press of America, 1982; Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Ronald Grimes is a leading figure in the area of ritual studies, and has published extensively. His first major contribution to the field, Beginnings, is devoted to defining ritual and ritualizing, and is filled with “thick” descriptions of both. He also provides studies of the ritual theories of G. Booth and V. Turner, and turns his attention at the work’s conclusion to ritual and theater. This is an excellent introduction to the area of ritual studies.

Ritual Criticism works to show that ritual and thought are mutually complementary, that is, that ritual activity and critical thinking are in reality allies that have been falsely dichotomized. As is expected in ritual studies, this book traverses a number of fields from literature and medicine to education and anthropology. Interesting and provocative, Grimes works to overcome the spirit/flesh, subject/object splits so deeply inscribed in our intellectual heritage.

Gilbert Lewis. Day of Shining Red: An Essay on Understanding Ritual. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (paperback) 1988.

The first two chapters, “Introduction”, and “Problems of Ritual in General” are worth the price of the volume. These essays are lucid treatments of the problems and conundrums associated with the interpretation of ritual, not the least of which is what we mean by the word: “The word ‘ritual’ like the word ‘art’ does not have one commonly agreed definition.… We find we have to use it and in many circumstances we do not doubt that we use it rightly even though it is hard to say exactly what it rightly means” (p. 9). What follows the theoretical discussion are sustained and detailed accounts of puberty rites in Papua, New Guinea, which pay special attention to the experiences of the actors themselves in such rites.

Bruce Lincoln. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

This is an adventuresome and startling book which ranges through world cultures and treats the symbolic value of such topics as American professional wrestling, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the exhumation and public display of priests’ and nuns’ corpses in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Lincoln shows how the resources of myth and ritual hold societies together, and how they can be used to reconstruct a society undergoing crisis. His arguments are carefully crafted and immensely instructive exercises in cultural and ritual analysis.

James Shaughnessy, ed. The Roots of Ritual. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.

This is a fine collection of essays by distinguished scholars, including J.Z. Smith, R.N. Bellah, and Margaret Mead, among others. Various academic perspectives are brought to bear on the natures, purposes, and effects of ritual and rituals: anthropology, architecture, communication arts, English, liturgy, sociology, are all marshalled to the service of a multifaceted examination of ritual and its significance. All the essays are well-written and probing. This book is an excellent introduction to thinking and learning about ritual.

Jonathan Z. Smith. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Readers have rightly come to expect from J.Z. Smith incisive and illuminating analyses of religious themes, issues, and questions. He does not disappoint in this volume where he turns his hand to a superb exploration of the purposes and effects of ritual, especially as to how ritual creates human and sacred space. Chapter 5, “To Take Place”, is particularly interesting because it lays bare the anti-ritual prejudice characteristic of much scholarly religious discourse, biblical or otherwise. Published as part of the Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism, the scope is broad, and this is a magisterial work.

Victor Turner. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967); The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969); Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (1974). All published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

As is evident throughout this issue of Semeia and the titles listed here, Turner’s influence has been profound and far-reaching. Some familiarity with his work is fundamental for understanding the strong impulse towards reexamination of ritual in fields as diverse as biblical studies and feminism. These three titles represent, perhaps, the most significant aspects of Turner’s corpus, for in them (particularly in the chapter titles pointed out below) he helped to lay the foundations of what has emerged as the broad and highly varied area of ritual studies.

In The Forest of Symbols, perhaps the two most important essays for understanding Turner’s perspective are chapter 1, “Symbols in Ndembu Ritual”, and chapter 4, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”. The latter, especially, is a clear and cogent exposition of the dynamics of status-changing rituals.

Probably the major statement of his theories, The Ritual Process is an exploration of the various kinds of boundaries and statuses that are drawn by and through ritual. Perhaps the most intriguing essays are chapter 3, “Liminality and Communitas: Form and Attributes of Rites of Passage”, and chapter 4, “Communitas: Model and Process”.

Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors is thoroughly interdisciplinary. Turner converses with philosophers, historians, and scholars of comparative religion and other fields as he explores the generation of meaning and human symbolic action. Chapter 1, “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” provides the background to his work in the rest of volume. Chapter 6, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Symbols of Communitas” and chapter 7, “Metaphors of Anti-Structure in Religious Culture” provide insights into the nature of liminality and communitas. Chapter 2, “Religious Paradigms and Political Action: Thomas Becket at the Council of Northampton”, is a fascinating interpretation of the events leading to Becket’s murder as a ritual of status transformation.

Arnold Van Gennep. The Rites of Passage. Trans. M.B. Vizedom and G.L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Originally published in 1909, The Rites of Passage is the pioneering study of rituals of status transformation and a perennial classic, one which influenced Turner, and which continues to be widely revered. The book provides a classification of rites, and passes through the life-stages of pregnancy and childbirth, birth and childhood, initiation rites, betrothal and marriage, and funerals, which are marked in all human cultures.

Published: March 20, 2015, 17:42 | Comments Off on TRANSFORMATIONS, PASSAGES, AND PROCESSES
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