The Study of Ritual in the Hebrew Bible
David P. Wright
The past forty years have seen significant developments in the study of ritual in the Bible. Several factors are responsible for this. First of all, anthropologists, sociologists, scholars of religion, and even philosophers have expanded the methods and perspectives with which we approach the topic. The development of interdisciplinary ritual studies has naturally led biblical as well as nonbiblical scholars to bring insights from this general field to bear on biblical data. A second factor is the comparative literary evidence that has come to light over the last century and a half from the ancient Near East, including Hittite, Ugaritic, Sumerian, and Akkadian ritual texts. Third, the growth of biblical studies itself has led to increasing specialization, with several scholars devoting much of their careers to questions of ritual. And fourth, there has been continued questioning about the development of the Torah and especially its priestly source, which contains more information about ritual matters than any other single corpus in the Bible. Understanding this literature has thrown light on the development of both the Torah and the religious history of ancient Israel.
As the particulars of the study of biblical ritual have advanced, so has the definition of ritual among non-biblical scholars. Earlier definitions, which still hold some sway, tried to provide a list of criteria for identifying an act as ritual. For example, the anthropologist Victor Turner defined ritual as “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings or power.”1 Other definitions have focused on the function of ritual behavior, specifically as