Blood Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power, by William K. Gilders. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. 272. $55.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0801879930.
Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism, by Jonathan Klawans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 384. $74.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0195162633.
Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture, by Wesley J. Bergen. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies. London: T&T Clark International, 2005. Pp. 160. $120.00 (hardcover). ISBN 056704081X.
Wholly Woman, Holy Blood: A Feminist Critique of Purity and Impurity, edited by Kristin De Troyer, Judith A. Herbert, Judith Ann Johnson, and Anne-Marie Korte. Studies in Christianity and Antiquity. London: T&T Clark International, 2003. Pp. 264. $34.95 (paper). ISBN 1563384000.
Soon after I began writing this review, I was making small talk with an acquaintance who asked politely what I was working on. I told her that it was a review essay on biblical sacrifice. She blinked uncomprehendingly. "You know? I said lamely, "in the ancient world, they would kill animals. For God." She shook her head, appalled. Uneasily, I changed the subject.
Given the constant use of the word "sacrifice" in today's media, it never occurred to me that an intelligent young woman might not have heard of real sacrifice, the sacredmaking slaughter that characterized so many religions in the ancient Mediterranean and elsewhere. And though this same woman might not think twice about the use of the word "sacrifice" to describe, say, what is currently taking place in Iraq, and though I happen to know that she is willing to eat meat and wear leather, she experienced confusion and revulsion when presented with the idea of killing animals in a sacred context. In popular culture today, animal sacrifice is the purview of Satanism and "voodoo," and has nothing to do with our own religious legacy.
Why is that the case? The author of one of the books under review asks the question even more pointedly: Why is our culture more comfortable with the idea of human sacrifice (soldiers, firefighters) than with animal sacrifice? (Bergen, Reading Ritual, 83).
Part of the answer can be found in the grim history of Christian supersessionism, which, taking its cue from the NT Epistle to the Hebrews, declares animal sacrifice to be useless routine, a temporary practice that the true children of Israel have now outgrown. Another part of the answer can be found in the history of Judaism itself, which was forced by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to reimagine the human being's relationship with God in ways that did not depend on an altar. Finally, we must look to the roots of our own academic discipline, particularly among the anthropologists and biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, who saw sacrifice as little more than a quaint reminder of the curious literality with which ancient people understood the concepts of food or gift.
And yet, even knowing all this, the problem has not gone away. The lengthy instructions that the Pentateuch provides for sacrificing animals feel, to the modern reader, somehow both gory and oddly abstract, both tedious and sparse. The authors of Exodus and Leviticus do not provide any interpretations for their instructions, nor do they offer any justification for the work that they describe as so important. This has not stopped generations of Christian, Jewish, and secular scholars from trying to explain what it all "means," of course, but it does make an emic interpretation of the data unusually difficult.
William Gilders's book, Blood Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, addresses this problem by trying to understand specifically what assumptions the priestly writers had about blood (although the relative dating of the Priestly [P] and Holiness [H] sources in Leviticus are important for Gilderss argument, this textual analysis does not bear directly on the broader themes that I am discussing here, so I will speak more generally about the "priestly" writers without addressing the significance of the relationship between P and H). …