Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

William K. Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).  Pp. x + 260.  Cloth, US $55.00.  ISBN 0-8018-7993-0.

In this well written and often intriguing study Gilders discusses the meaning of blood in the rituals of the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally scholars have interpreted these blood rituals by referring to Lev 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (NRSV). The use of blood in the cult is thus linked to the identification of “blood” with “life.” In a short introduction Gilders challenges this traditional interpretation, offering a brief outline of his own approach. First of all, rituals are seldom univalent and may have been understood differently by different practioners. Moreover, the interpretation of a ritual is not exhausted with its “symbolic” meaning. Ritual practices as such create relations between the participants and order the space in which they are performed. Finally, a reader-oriented analysis of ritual texts shows that textual representations of rituals often require the reader to fill in gaps to arrive at a coherent picture.

In the first chapter Gilders draws attention to the fact that Lev 17:11 must be attributed to H. In accordance with recent developments in Pentateuchal Criticism endorsed by Gilders, however, H may be considered as a supplement to P. As Lev 17:11 is the only text in the Hebrew Bible that explicitly links the atoning power of “blood” in the cult to “life,” this explanation may thus not be applicable to the earlier P materials without further ado. The ban on the consumption of blood in D (Deut 12:16, 23-25) and P (Gen 9:4), for example, admittedly identifies “blood” with “life,” but is never derived explicitly from the use of blood in the cult. In a short appendix to chapter one the exact meaning of the “blood manipulation terminology” in the Hebrew Bible is briefly discussed and clarified: e.g. zāraq, “toss,” nāzāh, “sprinkle,” nātan, “daub,” kipper, “effect removal.”

Chapter Two discusses the few non-priestly texts in the Hebrew Bible that mention the manipulation of blood (Ex 24:3-8; Ex 12:21-22; Deut 12:27; 2 Kgs 16:10-18 and perhaps 1 Sam 14:31-35). Gilders emphasizes that these texts do not offer an “interpretation” of the blood manipulation rituals. The rituals, nevertheless, “index” relations between persons who are (Moses, elders) and are not (lay Israelites) allowed to manipulate blood, and the space (altar) in which ritual activities may be performed.

The following chapters offer a meticulous study of the representation and interpretation of the blood manipulation involved in the Burnt Offering (Chapter Three), the Sacrifice of Well Being, the Ordination Offering, the Reparation Offering (Chapter Four), and the Ḥaṭṭāʾt (Chapter Five). Over and over again Gilders demonstrates that the priestly (P) manual of sacrifice preserved in the Book of Leviticus does not offer a “symbolic” interpretation of the blood manipulation rituals involved. Scholars have often had recourse to Lev 17:11 to explain the “meaning” of these sacrifices, but the texts do not explicitly support such an interpretation. The few interpretative comments on the function of the ḥaṭṭā’t scattered throughout the priestly corpus (Lev 8:15; 16:18-19) admittedly attribute a purifying effect to the daubing of blood on the horns of the altar, but never refer to the link between “life” and “blood” to explain the purifying effect. However, the manipulation of the blood as such functions to “index” the relations between the persons who are allowed to handle the blood in certain circumstances (head priest, priests) and those who are not (Levites, lay persons), order the space in which the ritual actions may be performed (altar, shrine, adytum) and establish a relation between YHWH, the (head) priest and the community. The blood manipulation rituals in Ezekiel and 2 Chronicles discussed in Chapter Six are similar to those in the P texts. The rituals again “index” the special status of priests over against nonpriests in the manipulation of blood and map order onto space (Ezek 43:13-17; 45:18-20).

Chapter Seven, finally, deals in detail with the enigmatic explanation of the blood ritual presented in Lev 17:11. Gilders makes a strong case for identifying the text in question as an interpretative addition by H putting forward a new interpretation of “atonement.” The interpretation is the result of an act of creative and idiosyncratic exegesis by a late H tradent who understood the equation of “blood” with “life” in the light of the kōper, “ransom,” ordered by H in case of a census: “making atonement for your lives” (Ex 30:11-16; Num 31:48-54). As P nowhere employs kipper in the sense of “ransom” in connection with blood manipulation, Lev 17:11 may obviously not be used to explain blood rituals in P or elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

To round out the conclusions, Gilders summarizes the manifest (blood purifies, cleanses, makes holy and the like) and latent functions (the rituals establish and defines social-cultic relations, status and identity, as well as map and order sacral space) of the blood manipulation rituals. All in all, a thought provoking and stimulating book!

Jan A. Wagenaar
Utrecht University