Review: “The Anti-Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû: The Cuneiform Sources of a Magic Ceremony from Ancient Mesopotamia” by Daniel Schwemer

Schwemer2017Tzvi Abusch and Daniel Schwemer are two of the most prolific writers with regard to Maqlû¸ the well-known Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft ritual. Already in 2016, Tzvi Abusch published the long-awaited critical edition of Maqlû, a remarkable editorial achievement [1]. This volume, then, serves as a supplement to the critical edition of Maqlû. Instead of focusing on translations and transliterations like Abusch’s critical edition, this volume focuses on the epigraphy and history of transmission of Maqlû.

Chapter One introduces Maqlû. First, he briefly describes the matter of witches, withcraft, and anti-witchcraft rituals in the ancient Near East, a particularly succinct summary which provides (a) scholarship history and (b) a summary of Maqlû. Subsequently, he describes the role which the Maqlû-ceremony played culturally, describing the prestige of Maqlû in Mesopotamian tradition and how it was incorporated into other rituals and texts. Shifting to textual transmission and dates, he suggests that the exact composition date is unknown; however, on the basis of linguistic forms, development of Babylonian literature, and extant MSS, it was likely composed between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with a fixed length of eight tablets, followed by the Ritual Tablet. Even so, evidence from rituals like Bīt Rimki and SpTU 4, 128 point towards “the plurality of maqlû rites used in the ritual practice of āšipūtu” (4). At last, Schwemer provides a thorough synopsis of the maqlû-ceremony.

Whereas Chapter One provides an overview, Chapter Two discusses the MSS of Maqlû. This discussion of MSS also includes, of course, a helpful discussion of the history of scholarship. Figures in this include Fracois Lenormant (1875), George Smith (1875), Theophilus G. Pinches (1891), James A. Craig (1895), and, most importantly Knut Tallqvist (1890s). It was Tallqvist who first reconstructed tablets I and II, some of Tablet III-VII, and a “Tablet VIII,” which he had not yet identified as the Ritual Tablet. After exploration of the Kuyunjik Collection and subsequent work, Meier identified that the maqlû-series was composed of 8 incantation tablets and one ritual tablet. Meier’s work, Schwemer comments, “reflects, on the whole, an understanding of the Akkadian text that is still valid today” (24).

Of those fragments discovered at Nineveh, only 46/221 were known by Meier. Wilfred Lambert and Rykle Borger, though, helped to identify many of these fragments. The fragments were eventually joined together and ordered in Abusch’s critical edition. Subsequently, Schwemer describes the various locations from which other fragments were recovered, such as at Sultantepe, Uruk, Kish, and Nimrud. Other fragments, such as two NB MSS from Nippur, were identified; however, they remain unstudied. Finally, he lays out the distribution of canonical MSS, based on tablet.

Next, he considers source typology, for which he distinguishes between the Maqlû-text and parallel sources. Parallel sources “include text portions or passage that are identical or similar to passages in Maqlû. Those portions, however, are not presented as part of Maqlû, but are embedded in a different literary and ritual context” (26). As for sources who wrote Maqlû proper, he divided these into two categories: full-text tablets and excerpt tablets. The latter includes school texts and commentaries, for which we have 17 school tablets, two commentaries, and a LB explanatory text, demonstrating an understanding of Maqlû as “authoritative textual tradition that could be used as a witness in theological arguments” (27). The former, namely full-text tablets, include the vast majority of MSS. On the basis of the spread of these tablets, Schwemer suggests that they were not complete sets; rather, they were “individual assignments by advanced students of cuneiform” (28). Finally, he provides a chart organizing the MSS by Tablet, Siglum, Museum number and bibliography, Provenance, and Plate number.

Chapter Three attempts to group the various fragments on the basis of palaeography, tablet formatting, physical properties, colophon, and findspot/museum collection context. These categories enable to him to propose 5 plausible full-sets of Maqlû from Kuyunjik. He then proposes some smaller text groups for MSS from Ashur, Sultantepe, Nimrud, and those of unknown provenance, or in some cases no group. He does the same with MSS from Babylonian libraries at Babylon and Borsippa, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, and Uruk.

Chapter Four describes the variants and versions of Maqlû. In doing so, he distinguishes between the multiple levels of variation: section level, line level, word level, and morphological variation. For variations at each of these levels, he further distinguishes between legitimate variants, inferior variants, and scribal errors. Moreover, on the basis of the “comparatively homogeneous group of manuscripts with a low incidence of scribal errors,” Schwemer views the Kuyunjik Maqlû sources as the textual standard. In laying out the information as such, he effectively demonstrates the variation in Maqlû MSS through time and space. Perhaps more importantly, his analysis uncovers important morpho-syntactic patterns and peculiarities from Maqlû MSS, patterns which may help to make sense of morpho-syntax in other Assyrian and Babylonian texts.  

Chapter Five, forms a brief supplement to the critical edition by Abusch. Schwemer offers readings of cuneiform signs different from those of Abusch on the basis of hand copies in this volume. This is followed by hand copies of 126 Maqlû MSS.

Overall, Schwemer’s presentation of Maqlû MSS and variation within them is extremely valuable. His organizing MSS into tablet groups and subsequent tracking of variants between Maqlû MSS offers a helpful reconstruction of how texts were received and copy in Mesopotamia. Furthermore, his analysis of the variants by group has much potential for strengthening our understanding of various Akkadian dialects. For example, he notes that “The attestations for the nominative in -a­ found in the Maqlû manuscripts would suggest that scribes were prone to use them in intransitive clauses or in semantic contexts with low transitivity, but future studies based on a more comprehensive dataset of pre-Late Babylonian manuscripts of Standard Babylonians texts may invalidate this observation” (70). In other words, the spelling conventions and linguistics variations may be helpful data in elucidating how Akkadian developed in space and time.

I only noted a single typo on pg. 66. In the left column, the paragraph beginning with “The addition of ina before ŠU.[SI in RT 66′” does not include a final ] bracket after SI.



[1] Tzvi Abush, The Magical Ceremony Maqlû. A Critical Edition (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016).

On the Mahābhārata

One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.

First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.

Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.

Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.

In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.

Notes on Leviticus

This post contains my notes from my reading of Leviticus 1-16. I will post my notes on Leviticus 17-27 tomorrow (i.e. the Holiness School plus Leviticus 27).  I am using the Jewish Study Bible for my translation.

Things I need to pay attention to:

  1. The Holiness School material of Leviticus 17-26
  2. The nature of ritual
  3. The goal of ritual
  4. Magic and ritual (?)
  5. Structure of Leviticus
  • Leviticus 1:5 specified that a bull shall be slaughtered before the lord; 1:11, speaking of a sheep or goat sacrifices, specifies “It shall be slaughters before the LORD on the north side of the Altar“.
  • Leviticus  1 offers a general overview of how to do each animal sacrifice (bull, sheep, or bird) for a burnt offering.
  • For meal offerings in Leviticus 2, there is a certain amount of “meal” from the offering which is expected to be left over. This indicates that there is (was) a prescribed amount to be used for the meal offering. Remainder goes to Aaron and his sons.
  • Every meal offering seems to have (1) oil and (2) frankincense.
  • In Leviticus 1, the burnt offering specifies that “He shalllay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him” (1:4). 3:2, though, simply says that “he shall lay his hand upon the head of his offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (3:2). There is, thus, a clear difference between one of well-being/peace offering and a burnt offering. The latter expiates something, while the former does something different.
    • Well-being/peace offerings focus more on the fat which is the LORD’s: the tail, fat of the entrails, kidneys, loins, protuberance on the liver, etc. These elements are not emphasizes, or even mentioned, in the burnt offering.
  • Is a priest incurs guilt unwittingly, he specifically must offer a bull. as an offering of purgation. Within this process, it seems to combine elements of the burnt offering (dashing blood on all sides of the altar) with that of the well-being/peace offering (presenting the fat to the LORD). Leviticus 4: 10 acknowledges this: “just as it [the fat] is removed from the ox of the sacrifice of well-being. The remainder of the ox, namely the hide, dung, entrails, heads, legs, are to be carried to a clean place outside the camp. They are to be burnt. (Leviticus 4:1-12)
  • If the community errs unwittingly, a bull is offered on behalf of the community. Unlike the burnt offerings and well-being offerings though, the elders lay there hands on the head of the bull. (Leviticus 4: 13-21
    • This suggests a hierarchy: Priest, elder, People, Individual. The remainder of Leviticus four supports this, as it is divided into these sections.
  • If a Chieftan incurs guilt unwittingly, he brings a male goat. The goat is offered as a burnt offering and is a sin offering. Like the sacrifice of well-being, the fat is for the LORD (Leviticus 4:22-26).
    • The text specifically notes that “the priest shall make expiation on his [the chief’s] behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven” (4:26b).
    • This demonstrates what what Wright and Milgrom argue for: a gradation of holiness. Ultimately, according to Leviticus, the holiness descends from the God, to priest, to chief, to community, to individual.
    • Note, though, that the issue of a Chief erring only occurs after the community erring, suggesting the priority of the communal image over the leader(s) of the community.
  • If a person incurs guilt unwittingly, he brings a female goat, lays his hand on its head, and it is slaughtered where burnt offerings occurs. Likewise, the fat is removed. And like the chief, “the priest shall make expiation for him, and he shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:31). (Leviticus 4:27-31).
    • There is a strange relationship between 4:27-31 and 4:32-35. They are parallel, yet the latter includes information not included in the former. The latter also seems to change the interpretation of some ritual actions.
      • 4:31b: “Thus the priest shall make expiation for him, and he shall be forgiven”.
      • 4:36b: “Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the sin of which he is guilty, and he shall be forgiven”.
      • Why does the latter text emphasize “the sin of which he is guilty, while the latter does not? Is 32-35 perhaps another gradation of holiness, and the social structure (perceived or real) therein?
  • SUMMARY: Up to this point, Levitcus 1-3 specified how to do burnt offerings, meal offerings, and well-being/peace offerings. Chapter 4, which speak of sins unwittingly performed, specifies the ritual involved in purgation of the sins, sin offerings. Rather than using one of the three types of offerings, it seems to combine the burnt offering and well-being/peace offering in order to construct a ritual geared toward purgation of sin.
  • Additionally, Leviticus 4 imagines/reflects some sort of social gradation of holiness: Priest, Community, Chief/Elder(?), Individual (1/2?), Individual (2/2?).
  • Leviticus 5 beings by listing causative laws. 5:1-6 – if somebody realizes they have sinned through incurring ritual impurity, they (1) confess and then (2) offer a sheep of goat as a sin offering.
    • Like a standard sin offering, “the priest shall make expiation on his behalf.
  • 5:7-10 offers an alternative: if the person cannot afford a sheep, he may offer a bird. This inclues a sin offering, again, and burnt offering of the bird. Because the entrails can’t be offered, though, there is no question of the fat for the LORD.
    • 5:10b uses the same languages 4:35b: “The priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the sin of which he is guilty, and he shall be forgiven”.
    • 5:6 does not specificy this. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suggest that the language choice of “sin of which he is guilty” may relate in some way to the perceived or imagined social structure of ancient Israel.
  • If he is unable to offer a bird, he may offer a meal offering, as outlined in Leviticus 3. This meal offering is the sin offering. (Leviticus 5:11-13).
  • The text shifts in 5:14: the LORD speaks to Moses again.
    • First, a person who trespasses against the LORD’s sacred things must offer a ram, or a comparable weight in silver, as a guilt offering, plus adding more to sacred things of the priests. In other words, he must provide more material that can be sacred.
    • Second, if a person sins regarding the lords command, he must do the same thing: bring a ram without blemish or comparable weight of silver.
      • This law is very vague and ambiguous, at least in the JPS translation: “sins in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done” (5:17).
  • Again, the text shifts and the LORD speaks to Moses: (Leviticus 5:20-26)
    • If a person sins against the LORD by dealing deceitfully with neighbors, and he realizes the guilt, he must restore the fraud or robber in the principle amount plus a fifth extra.
    • THEN he goes to make a guilt offering.
    • One of the most interesting things about this is how actions against humans are actions against God.
      • It echoes the theological concept within the P material of imago Dei.
  • Chapter 6 shifts to commanding Aaron and his sons. In other words, it is now the turn of the priesthood.
    • 6:1-11 detail what the priests are to do with the burnt offering(s), well-being offering(s), and meal offering(s).
      • The text distinguishes between the burnt offerings/well-being offerings and the meal offerings.
    • 6:12-16 speaks what the priests are to do when they are annointed as priests. Unlike the other meal offerings, which they offer, the priests do not keep the remnants of their offering to the LORD.
      • Perhaps this is because, while the Priests, who serve as the conduits for sanctifying the community, are able to eat the remnants of those offerings, their offering for anointment is different. Now, God is the one who serves as the conduit for sanctifying them; therefore, God alone is permitted to eat the remnants of the offering.
    • 6:17-23 shifts back to what the priests are to do with offerings, as in 6:1-11. 12-16 seems to interrupt the flow of the text. I wonder if this is a later addition or part of the Holiness School.
  • Leviticus 7:1-6 explicates the guilt offering discussed originally in Leviticus 4.
  • 7:7-10 ties together the roles of the priests in the guilt offering and sin offering.
  • 7:11-21 details the ritual of sacrifice for well-being:
    • It distinguishes between two types:
      • 1) Offering for thanksgiving with a meal offering.
      • 2) Votive or freewill offering
  • 7:19-21 is odd.
  • 7: 22-27 explains the importance of not eating the fat of ox or sheep. And, in particular, not eating the blood.
  • 7:28 begins details the role of Israelites in all of these rituals:
    • 7:28-34 details this.
  • SUMMARYish: 7:37-38 wraps up the whole previous section which detailed the rituals of offerings. It includes the offering of oridination (6:12-16). Even so, this still seems somewhat out of place.
  • Chapter 8 shifts to the anointing of the priesthood, which directly involves the community.
    • This entire ritual seems to use elements from all of what is detailed in 6:1-7:38. It is as if the author is writing a ritual narrative, not just rules for doing rituals.
  • Chapter 9 has a similar thing: each offering type is done in order to prepare for the presence of the LORD. In Leviticus 9:8, Aaron finally becomes the agent in acting as the high priest. Previously, it was Moses.
  • Only after the major acts of sanctification in Chapter 9, which include the purification of the Tabernacle, Priesthood, and Community, does the presence of God appear in 9:23. This seems to be the climax of the ritual narrative. Again, it points to the fact that ritual is more than mere “ritual”: ritual is a rich narrative which serves some end.
    • In my reading of the book of Leviticus, the most intriguing observation is that the ritual within the book is not a list of laws. It is enumeration of actions which lead up to an experience or an event.
  • SO, Leviticus 10:2 occurs because Nadab and Abihu break the commanded cycle/narrative of ritual offerings and actions.
    • Naturally, this causes an issue of impurity within the precincts of the Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus 10:20 offers a sort of flexibility to the ritual narrative.
  • GENERAL NOTE: My notes are not nearly as detailed at this point because I need to (1) move onto other work and (2) get home.
  • Leviticus 11 shifts from the ritual narrative to law code (I used the term “law” very generically). Below is an outline with notes.
    • Leviticus 11:1-47 discursively addresses the issue of diet, physical contact with impure animals, and material contact with impure animals.
      • Dietary restriction is justified by God: the LORD brought people out of Egypt to be their God, and they should be holy as he is holy.
    • Leviticus 12:1-8 covers issues of female purity in light of childbirth and menstruation.
      • This is typically deemed anti-women. In an conceptual environment where blood is of the utmost significance, though, it makes sense.
      • There is also nothing in the text which suggests that the author actually believes women are “gross” or that the author is attempting to restrict women from worship. As noted by JPS, it is contrary to that: the rituals serve to enable women to join in cult worship at the tabernacle.
    • Leviticus 13: 1-59 covers issues of rashes, inflammation, “leprosy”, cloth growth, etc.
    • Leviticus 14:1-33 issues the ritual for combating leprosy. Like the ordination of priests, the priest puts oil on the right ear of the one being cleanses, as well as the thumb and big toe for his right hand and foot. Echoes in specific applications oil suggest a similar approach/efficacy/goal/etc.
      • Going into greater detail, Leviticus 14:33-53 speaks of what may be mold.
    • Leviticus 15:1-32 focuses on discharges for men and women. It offers both the problems and the ritual solutions.
    • Leviticus 16 continues the ritual narrative which originally ended at the end of Leviticus 10.
      • It concerns purging the Shrine, more popularly known as the Holy of Holies, from impurities.
      • In 16:29, the ritual narrative for the purgation of the Shrine is turned into a holy day: “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall 0practice self-denial…”. The text continues with more details about how it is a day for atonement of all sins and is a sabbath of rest.
      • In this day, the Day of Purgation, 16:32-33 emphasizes the priests role in the purgation for the people of the congregation.




Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Phocylides

Introduction to the Text: 

Pseudo-Phocylides is a text of maxims for people in their daily lives. Written between 1st century CE and BCE, the author wrote under the name Phocylides, an Ionic poet who lived in the 6th century BCE, in order to bolster the importance and value of the text. Unlike the original Phocylides, Pseudo-Phocylides merged Jewish and Greek ideas. Consequently, Pseudo-Phocylides is now “representative of that universalistic current in ancient Judaism” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume II; P. W. van der Horst, “Pseudo-Phocylides”, p. 569).

The maxims within the 230 line poetry are remarkably poignant (at least from my modern perspective). As I read Pseudo-Phocylides, I considered how the ideas within the text are actually extremely valuable to our own society. Yet, I also recognized that many of my initial interpretations were very wrong. Certain ideas in the 21st century, for example, did not mean the same thing at the turn of the millennium.

The Threshold and Sacred Ritual: 

Line 24a is the perfect example of something which, in the 21st century, means something very different than it did in the 1st century.

Line 24a: Receive the homeless in (your) house…

Initially the maxim seems straight forward. If a homeless person needs a place to briefly stay or a place to eat, invite them in for a meal. In my interpretation, the focus is on the concept and action of inviting somebody into my house, a relatively simple and mundane act, albeit significant from a social perspective. Reception of this text in my own mind draws out the social emphasis, not any concrete, spatial reality.

In the ancient world, though, receiving the homeless was an incredibly significant act. In order to be received into a household, the homeless person had to cross a threshold, namely the entrance of the household. The threshold “defines a basic opposition between people who own a dwelling place and people who don’t”, a boundary which marks distinction between those with a dwelling place and those without. Now, in religious Greek thought, beggars all come from Zeus. To receive a beggar beyond the threshold (door) and into the dwelling place was a sacred, ritual act (Pietro Giammellaro 2013, 162). So, by receiving a beggar and permitting him/her to cross the threshold, they performed a sacred, ritual act of worship.

Because Pseudo-Phocylides was written within a Hellenistic context, namely a Jewish and Greek context, we should assume that a similar conceptual framework informed the reality of the author. The maxim “receive the homeless in (your) house” is not merely a maxim calling for good deeds; rather, it calls for sanctified and sacred ritual act within a physical space, which results in direct worship Yahweh. In terms of Judaism, it was an act which sanctified the name of God, as the homeless were implicitly sent from Yahweh.

As these two interpretations demonstrate, the conceptual framework of the origin of the text is incredibly valuable. My original interpretation highlighted how it was a good deed and socially beneficial to receive the homeless. My interpretation informed by historical and textual studies of Greek culture highlighted how it was a sacred, ritual act to receive the homeless. These two interpretations are both valid; however, the latter allows us to more fully engage with the mind, context, and intentions of the author of Pseudo-Phocylides. For this reason, it is always important to consider the original conceptual environment of any text.

Ritual Applications of Salt in Mesopotamian Texts

SaltI’m primarily posting this article from a book published in 2010 for my own records. Though, I do hope that somebody will find use of the article. I have a few ideas percolating in my brain involving salt and ritual.

“In addition to its various utilitarian functions , literary evidence confirms that salt served several purposes in ritual activities across the ancient Near East. For example, Mesopotamian texts describe the use of salt in animal and vegetable sacrifices, incense offerings, various magical rites, and ritual curses. Salt is cited also in the analogies of Mesopotamian omen literature.”
– Jeffrey Stackert (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible; Associate Faculty in the  Department of Classics and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago)
Read the complete article here:

The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

Emerging from an academic environment in which the Hebrew Bible was extremely privileged and West Semitic culture “Canaanized” (Ballentine 2015, 17), much 20th and 21st century biblical scholarship has sought an equilibrium to allow for comparative studies without presupposed significance of one text over the other. By “Canaanized”, I mean the gross misrepresentation of West Semitic cultures primarily via the polemical lens of the Hebrew Bible and cherry picked texts. More recently, from an evangelical perspective, John Walton has championed the importance of comparative studies for the Hebrew Bible, drawing emphasis to the challenges of comparative studies for confessional scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Walton 2006, 29-40). Debra Ballentine succinctly notes in her discussion of “the comparative enterprise” that “Israelite and Judean traditions should be included among Canaanite traditions, not portrayed as being opposed to, completely other than, or superior to Canaanite traditions” (2015, 16).

But how does one avoid privileging the Israelite Judean traditions without abandoning recognition of the role of the Hebrew Bible in the daily lives of the religious? I believe the answer to this question does not rest upon increasing ones faith in the Bible, for doing so would move back towards the “Canaanization” of West Semitic culture and myth. Nor does it require movement towards complete agreement on the authoritative nature of ancient literature. Positive development of supporting the authoritative status for the religious, and avoidance of diminishment of it to one insignificant piece of literature among many, may be found by moving toward questions of the universality of story, myth, and ritual. As Catherine Bell (1952-2008) notes at the end of her introduction to ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (1997, 267). In other words, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the ritual nature of life itself should be drawn out to find common humanity.

By elevating the status of other ancient literature to demonstrate the commonalities of humanity, comparative study may more successfully flourish amongst those who do privilege the Hebrew Bible. The notion of privilege then becomes an issue of praxis rather than glorified literature. So even if one firmly believes in the importance of the Hebrew Bible over other ancient literature, the common ritual, and hence uniting humanity, permits a more balanced equilibrium. Furthermore, this approach would allow confessional and non-confessional scholars alike to be heard better by those outside of the academy. Instead of hearing a person say that the Hebrew Bible is not significant, drawing out the common human elements of other literature allows people to hold to their beliefs while still recognizing the intrinsic value of other ancient literature.

Such an approach accomplishes two important missions for all people. First, this approach unites people in finding common humanity. No evidence need be shown to reveal the disconnected and opposing behavior of many people due to the sense of one’s traditions over another. But by elevating the intrinsic value of ancient literature for human commonalities, an environment is cultured in which conducive discussion may occur and unite, rather than splinter people. Secondly, people are permitted to believe freely in what they understand to be Truth, or truth. Culture of scholarship would permit confessional and non-confessional alike to unite and hold to their own tenants. Hence the validity of scholars are upheld and the community becomes more inclusive, accepting the full spectrum of traditions and scholastic approaches.

Finding the intrinsic value of ancient literature has the potential to improve the quality of biblical scholarship. How do certain texts discuss the nature of humanity? Does the text do so in a ritual manner that compares equally to the Hebrew Bible? Too what extent does ritual illustrate the common humanity between ancient Israel and Canaan? These are the sort of questions that may be explored more thoroughly only when one is willing to note the intrinsic value of all ancient literature for demonstrating common humanity.

Cited Works

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Musings on Critical Approaches to Leviticus

Historically the food laws of Leviticus 11 have no parallels in the Ancient Near East. And while there are proposted explanations for the theological intentions of the Kashruth in Leviticus 11, external evidence for the division of clean/unclean animals during the historical context of the book of Leviticus lacks.

In a lecture regarding the Philistines at Tell Gath, Aren Maeir notes the following:

For many years it was thought that if you have a site with pig bones, it’s Philistine. If you have a site without, it’s Israelite. Seemingly very nice, but it’s much more complicated. And one of the things that we’ve started noticing in Philistia, is that in Urban sites you have pig bones, in rural sites you don’t have pig bones. And when you go to the Israelites, in Judah you don’t have pig bones, in Israel you do have pig bones. So things are a little more complicated than we assume. And like always things are not black and white. They’re grey.

What may something like this indicate about Leviticus? From his statement, there are three indications.

  1. Leviticus contains several strata of text.
  2. Leviticus is political on some level.
  3. Leviticus must be read diachronically

1. Leviticus Contains Several Strata of Text

While this is commonly accepted in various forms after the ground-breaking work of Julius Wellhausen, the excavations at Tell Gath indicate even more so that the strata of the bible should be recognized. The excavations demonstrate this in that there are pig bones in Judah and not in Israel in the 8th-6th centuries B.C. There are, of course, older layers of text which clearly demonstrate the ancient context of Leviticus. A simplistic explanation simply explains it away as being due to the sins of the North. In contrast, an explanation honest to the text, history, and archaeology must recognize that the food laws may have been a late development in Israelite religion that were edited into older texts.

2. Leviticus is Political on some Level

In continuity with my previous point, the excavations have sociological and, more important, political indications. After all, within the presentation of the Bible, the Southern Kingdom was generally more faithful to God than the Northern Kingdom. It also, in contrast to the North, stayed united. Either way, it is clear that the South, if in control of the redaction of biblical texts, may likely have been willing to establish certain restrictions that may have helped them to become more powerful than the North. They would do so by centering holiness and purity upon their own diet and geographic region. Thus, it is possible that the food laws of Leviticus were redacted to set themselves apart from the North as “superior” in some way. Hence, it Leviticus may be political.

3. Leviticus must be read diachronically

Again similar to point 1, due to the nature of Leviticus, it should be read diachronically. While there are clearly and most definitely benefits to a synchronic reading, a diachronic reading practically takes into account the various strata of the text. The nature of pig bones in Israel demonstrates just this point. Perhaps the food laws were a later development within ancient Israelite religion. Perhaps they were politically driven. No matter the case, the strata of Leviticus must be recognizes and taken into account as one reads Leviticus by reading it diachronically.


These three points provide reasonable basic guidelines by which I may read Leviticus critically. More than reading it critically, a proper reading will assist in understanding the various intertextual connections within the Pentateuch and entire Bible.



“Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder

Yitzhaq Feder’s monograph seeks to clarify and more firmly establish the socio-historical context of the origins of blood expiation within the Pentateuch. In part one, he clearly demonstrates that the zurki and uzi Hittite blood rituals are from the same tradition as the Levitical sin offerings. Part two continues by exploring the finer facets of the Israelite and Hittite blood ritual in order to explain the symbolism and meaning encompassing blood ritual’s expiatory nature. In doing so, Feder establishes a solid framework by which future scholars may approach critical theories of the Priestly biblical source, explore ancient Israel’s context, or better understand the role of sin offering in Jewish and Christian theological developments.

First, Feder’s established framework is one of the most commendable aspects of the monograph. He operates on the basis that rituals are not arbitrary gestures akin to magic, but rather they are actions within a socio-historical context where the ritual affects the world from the inside. His approach, unlike some anthropologists who consider ritual action to be arbitrary, honorably respects the depth and life within the Israelite and Hittite rituals. Such respect is not merely a product of his context within Israel. Genuine respect is also a product of his well-explained and well-reasoned methodological approach to the subject of ritual.

Additionally, relating to methodology, Feder provides an important key to prove the historical connection between Hittite and Israelite blood ritual. Feder utilizes Meir Malul’s Comparative Method to provide evidence for the historical connection, testing for “coincidence versus uniqueness, and corroboration to prove the flow of ideas between the two cultures” (115). Presentation and explanation through this framework provides and supports the remaining portions of his argument quite significantly by his clear justification of why his cross-cultural study is valid. In response to his proof of the historical connection, especially in light of the unique nature of blood ritual for Hittites and ancient Israel, I wonder what other connections may be drawn between the two cultures regarding other aspects of ritual.

In conclusion, Feder contributes a new, relevant, and important analysis of biblical and Hittite ritual to propel discussion surrounding biblical history, traditions, and interpretation. Though focused on proving his argument through concrete evidence, he never loses sight of the significance his work holds for 21st century Jews and Christians. In truth, “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” is more than a socio-historical study of raw facts and data. It is an explanation for human behavior, especially as it relates to theology.

Click here to purchase “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” by Yitzhaq Feder.