Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Mary Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Pp. vi + 211. Cloth, US$90.00, CAN$141.00. ISBN 0-19-926523-2.

This book is a collection of essays on the priestly work by Mary Douglas. Some of the subject matter under discussion has been dealt with in earlier publications (see, for example, material concerning the analogical relationships between the bodies of sacrificial beasts, the tabernacle and the holy mountain [the subject matter of chapter 6] in Leviticus as Literature [Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], pp. 66-86). The essential and underlying thesis of the collection is that the priestly authors were concerned with the exclusion from legitimacy of their sacerdotal counterparts in the north within the political world of the south towards the end of the southern kingdom. For Douglas, the xenophobic tendencies of the post-exilic province of Yehud regarding Samaria, as reflected in the rhetoric of Ezra, is the continuation of this religio-political tension between north and south. Working against this trend, the priestly writers selected from sources emphatic upon the unity of the tribes of Israel. The final product was a document, the Pentateuch, that stood in contrast with the ethos of Ezra-Nehemiah with its proscription of intermarriage and application of an understanding of impurity for the purpose of exclusion.

The eight essays in the volume come under four divisions. The first division (The Legacy of Jacob’s Sons) deals with narratives and laws in the Pentateuch supportive of solidarity amongst the tribes, the offspring of Jacob/Israel. Within the first division, Chapter One focuses upon priestly narratives in Numbers and Genesis. In Numbers, for example, recurring reference to the twelve tribes in census lists and elsewhere (e.g., Num 2:2) and grave concern regarding defection (e.g., Numbers 32) betray priestly consternation regarding religious schism between north and south in the sixth century. Chapter Two offers a new interpretation of the scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 16. The scapegoat does not carry away impurity arising from human transgression, but rather functions as an envoy of peace and salutation to the tribes not chosen to enter the covenantal relationship with Israel’s god. Within the context of the post-exilic period, the ritual becomes a priestly gesture of peace and reconciliation, on behalf of Yehud, to the former kinsman of the north so bitterly excluded by Ezra’s policies.

The two chapters (chapters 4 and 5) of the second division (Who is ‘All Israel’?) concern the definition of ‘Israel’ in the post-exilic period. For Douglas, the priestly texts challenge the view of Ezra that the inhabitants of the land encountered by the returnees from Babylonia were outsiders, apostates who had adopted the illegitimate religious practices of the nations. Chapter Four defines a likely historical situation productive of this conflict of perspective. The returnees under Ezra’s leadership expect allotments of land upon arrival. Charges of impurity and religious syncretism become reasons for the forceful removal of settlers who stand in the way. The priests, on the other hand, are mindful of the financial support from a cosmopolitan populace for the Jerusalem cult in pre-exilic times; any talk of confining national membership and cultic participation to the returning group could jeopardize the fiscal status of the temple. Priestly texts, therefore, emphasize the inclusion of the sojourner and the claims of the northern tribes to membership in Israel. Chapter Five presents the story of Balaam as a satire. The story supports the priestly agenda through Balaam’s reference to earlier words of blessing and promise in the Pentateuch. Some of these references combine and alter the language of earlier pronouncements, for the sake of enforcing the view that the pronouncements apply to all Israel, not just Judah (compare Num 24:17 with Gen 49:10). As political satire the story of Balaam, in the period of the Second Temple, represents the folly of the Persian monarchy (represented by Balak) in sponsoring an agenda of national restoration under the auspices of a misguided governor (represented by Balaam) at odds with the aims of the priests.

The third division (Before and After Exile: The Gap in Learning) within the collection is focused upon the literary features of Leviticus. Chapter Five argues that the Babylonian exile created a gap in the traditions of interpretation, leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the priestly literary agenda. Literary features like ring-composition and parallelism are passed over; a preoccupation with impurity leading to an abhorrence of things foreign arises in their place. Chapter Six focuses on one consequence of misinterpretation. Readers in the period of the Second Temple fail to see the analogical and structural correspondence between the text of Leviticus, the tabernacle, the bodies of sacrificial beasts on the altar, human bodies and the holy mountain (Sinai). The analogies explain otherwise obtuse features of priestly laws. For example, the categories of animals forbidden to human consumption are the same classes excluded from the sacrificial altar. The purpose of the correspondence is to point to the mystery of the divine encounter with humanity on the holy mountain and the tabernacle. Through this imagery the mediation of the covenant with Israel and the closeness of God become occasions for celebration.

The fourth and final division (Magic and Monotheism) views priestly conceptions of impurity and assessment of ancestor cults against the broader designs of priestly rhetoric. Chapter Seven discusses theories for the function of notions of taboo and impurity in various societies. Douglas concludes that the priestly understanding of impurity reinforces the analogical relationships proposed in Chapter Six. Chapter Eight argues that the priestly diatribe against ancestor cults is part of its argument against the proliferation of cultic sights, leading to divergent loyalties, in a region already torn by strife and mutual suspicion.

The proposition of a priestly agenda for reconciliation over and against tendencies to exclusion in the closing decades of Judah’s existence, and beyond into the post-exilic landscape, provides the common framework for the author’s interests in various aspects of priestly texts, religious and literary. The arguments are cogent and persuasive in many places, but some problems remain. I shall confine my comments to two areas. In Chapter Five, Douglas presents an insightful comparative reading of Balaam’s blessings, pointing to a priestly agenda of fostering unity. However, in view of the negative portrayal of the prophet in Numbers 31, she must postulate a later priestly hand from the Second Temple period working to soften the summons to solidarity. The perception of Samaria as a haven for idolatry had become too prominent by that time to endorse blatant remonstrations against the exclusion of Samaria (p. 107). This suggestion of a motive for interpolation is not implausible. However, by my estimation, it points to a need for more stringent criteria in identifying and explaining divergent tendencies within the text by appeal to historical circumstances. Elsewhere, in arguing for a tripartite partition in the structure of Leviticus reminiscent of the structure of the tabernacle, Douglas designates chapters 17-24 as representative of the middle compartment of the tabernacle (pp. 127, 149). For Douglas, the content of these chapters mark this portion of the text as corresponding to the middle portion of the tabernacle. The focus is on instructions for priests (on marriage, food and avoidance of corpses), the only ones permitted in this area, and things in that portion of the tabernacle (the altar of showbread and the candelabra). But this material must be confined to chapters 21, 22 and a portion of 24 (vv. 1-9). Chapters 17 (on the sacrifice of domestic animals), 18 and 20 (on sexual relationships), 19 (stipulations on various ethical and religious matters), and 23 (calendar of festivals) contain instructions applicable to the larger community. To the credit of Douglas, it should be noted that the more comprehensive correspondence between textual content and cultic edifice in the other two portions of Leviticus makes up for weaknesses in this portion of her argument.

In my judgment, these points constitute minor problems in a brilliant synthesis of literary, historical and anthropological perspectives in understanding the priestly contribution. Thank you, Professor Douglas, for a stimulating hypothesis and an insightful engagement with the particular emphases of the priestly work.

Bernon Lee, Grace College, Winona Lake