Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
THE ORIGIN OF ISRAELITE RITUAL

THE last chapter argued from the evidence of biblical texts to the conclusion that the rites used in Israelite sacrifices were of ancient origin. This conclusion can be confirmed by comparing Israelite ritual with the rituals of other Oriental religions, in which there are similar practices. But this similarity raises another question: did Israel borrow its rites from the cultural background of the neighbouring Semitic peoples; for the connections with other nations, belonging to more distant races or lands, are either accidental or of secondary importance.


I. Mesopotamian sacrifice

The normal term for sacrifice in Akkadian is neqû; the Akkadian equivalent of the Hebrew zebaḥ is zîbu, but it is rarely used and may be borrowed from West Semitic. The literal meaning of neqû is a 'libation' of water, of wine or of beer and so on, which is made along with a sacrifice. The sacrifice was first and foremost a meal offered to a god. The altar was the table of the god, and every kind of food which men eat was laid upon it: meat (especially mutton, but also beef and gazelle), poultry, fish, vegetables, fruit, sweets, and, of course, drink and bread. In rituals or in descriptions of sacrifices, we sometimes find mention of twelve, twenty-four or thirty-six loaves (the figures are bound up with the sexagesimal system of counting used by the Mesopotamians). The god's table was laid twice a day (four times in the latest ritual), and the priest arranged the feast. Alongside the altar table stood a perfume-brazier upon which fragrant wood and aromatic substances burned in order to delight the gods and to attract them to the feast. In the Babylonian story of the Flood, Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, offered a sacrifice: 'I set up seven and seven incense-burners, and laid upon them reeds, cedar-wood and myrtle; the gods scented the fragrance, the gods scented the lovely fragrance, the gods collected like flies around the sacrificer.'

In Mesopotamia, the blood of victims was used only in a very minor way: it is doubtful whether it was ever used in the ritual, for there is no explicit reference to libations of blood in normal sacrifices. There was an official called 'the sword-bearer', but he merely cut the throat of the animal which was destined to be the food of the god. The food was shared between the

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