Thursday, February 14, 2008

Wenham on Picturing the Sacrifices

Gordon Wenham is one of the world's foremost experts on the Pentateuch. The following is a section I found helpful from his introductory book, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch:
It is very difficult for modern readers to picture the sacrifices described in Leviticus, because they, unlike ancient Israelites, have never seen, let alone participated in a sacrifice. What we really need is a video showing all the different kinds of sacrifices, the burnt offerings, the peace offering, the sin offering, and so on! Just as the stories in the Old Testament are designed for reading aloud, not silently, so these ritual texts are meant for people who already have a good idea of how to sacrifice. They are just underlining important or controversial points, so that anyone offering a sacrifice would do it in a way acceptable to God.

So how can we proceed? The best way is to act them out, or alternatively, if one is more artistically inclined, produce a sort of comic strip showing each step in action. Then it becomes much easier to grasp the steps in the process and see the direction of the ceremony. But it will also show up the gaps in the instructions, things that the first readers just took for granted.

For example, Leviticus never says that the sacrificial animals had to have their legs tied before being killed. But this was the procedure in other parts of the ancient Near East and Genesis 22:9 suggests it was done in ancient Israel.

Another thing that Old Testament nearly always leaves out are the words said or sung during the ceremonies. But one can hardly suppose that the worshipper did not explain to the priest why he was bringing a sacrifice or afterwards that the priest did not give some assurance that the sacrifice had been accepted.

In Leviticus one has the rubric setting out how a ceremony is to be performed, but none of the accompanying words. It is often surmised that the Psalms were used in temple services, presumably as the sacrifices were being carried out, but again there is no hint of this in Leviticus.

Therefore, readers need to use much imagination to recreate the mood and atmosphere of the rites as well as attending carefully to the exact procedures set out in the text. (pp. 82-83)