Book Write-Up: Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus

James W. Watts.  Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Watts argues in this book that Leviticus 1-16 employs rhetoric to uphold the authority of the Aaronide priests.  Watts notes examples in the Hebrew Bible of texts being read aloud to the people, and he believes that the use of the second person in Leviticus is one indication that this text is intended to be read aloud to persuade the people using rhetoric.

The message and intent of Leviticus 1-16 is largely political, according to Watts.  Sin offerings were invented so that more offerings would come to the Aaronide priests, in a time when they lacked a royal sponsor and were suffering a dearth of priestly revenues.  The story of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, highlights the serious (even dangerous) work that the Aaronide priests are doing.  Burnt offerings are often mentioned before other offerings because that would highlight to the people the importance of offering to God.  And the Aaronide priests are depicted in Leviticus 1-16 as the only people who brought atonement, or purification.

From a religious perspective, one that looks to the Bible for spiritual edification or enlightenment, this book is quite baffling.  I may be post-evangelical in many respects, but I still want to be edified when I read the biblical text.  At the very least, I would like to understand what the details of the Bible have to do with religious conceptions of God.  But Watts challenges this tendency within me and many others in a variety of ways.  Not only does he contend that aspects of Leviticus 1-16 had a political motive, but he argues that rituals often precede the interpretation that is attached to them, and that many writings of the Hebrew Bible attained authoritative status on account of the rituals within them, meaning that the stories and theological ideas came along for the ride and were actually secondary.  Watts also dismisses one scholar’s theological idea that the Book of Leviticus was about the healing of the world.

Is there a way to be theologically edified, while embracing Watts’ ideas in this book?  Well, maybe one can learn the lesson of supporting one’s leaders and appreciating the difficult work that they are doing.  From a Christian standpoint, perhaps one can apply what Leviticus 1-16 says about the Aaronide priests to Jesus Christ.  Watts in this book points out that, while many Christians have presented Jesus as the sacrificial offering itself, the Book of Hebrews is actually closer to the spirit of Leviticus 1-16 in that Hebrews emphasizes Jesus’ status as high priest.  Overall, however, Watts appears to believe that the goal of deriving spiritual or theological meaning from Leviticus 1-16 has baffled many.  Watts notes interpreters, such as Philo, who seek to interpret the sacrifices in Leviticus from a spiritual standpoint.

Watts’ book is interesting on a variety of fronts.  He discusses a variety of scholarly ideas about the Book of Leviticus, such as the view that Leviticus 11 has an environmental purpose for forbidding the Israelites to eat unclean meat (an idea that Watts rejects).  Watts also compares and contrasts Leviticus 1-16 with other ancient Near Eastern books of ritual.  While Watts notes some overlap, he also sees differences: the way that Leviticus 1-16 puts the commands for rituals in the mouth of the deity (which occurs occasionally and briefly in ancient Near Eastern stories, but not on the level that we see in Leviticus), and the status of the Torah, not only as a book of rituals, but as a religious book that is to shape the lives of the Israelites.  Watts also makes an interesting observation about how the Samaritan priests held that they were Aaronides, and Watts contends that this was pertinent to the attempts by Judean priests to form connections with the Samaritans.

I found the book to be a difficult read, not because the prose and the vocabulary were hard for me, but rather because Watts was throwing at me one pearl after another, and it wasn’t always easy for me to stay caught up.  There were also times when I was unsure of where Watts was going with his points.  He did well to summarize his main arguments in the course of his book, but that tempted me to want to go back and see how the trees related to the forest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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