Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 20 (2020) - Review

Cranz, Isabel, Atonement and Purification: Priestly and Assyro-Babylonian Perspectives on Sin and its Consequences (FAT 2/92; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017). Pp. xiii + 178. Sewn paper. 59.00 €. ISBN 978-3-16-154916-8.

This concise monograph is a revised version of the author’s dissertation, analyzing the rituals of atonement and purification in the Priestly Source (P) of the Hebrew Bible in comparison with Assyro-Babylonian traditions. This Assyriological perspective on the biblical texts is combined with insights drawn from ritual studies and a concern for understanding the professional circles responsible for the production of these texts. Grappling with the significant differences between the biblical and Mesopotamian ritual texts, specifically the absence of exorcistic practices in P, Cranz calls into question the theological interpretation given by Yehezkel Kaufmann and further developed by Jacob Milgrom, that these differences represent an underlying polemic of the monotheistic Priestly authors against their “pagan” counterparts. In contrast, Cranz seeks to explain such differences as a function of different sociological contexts; whereas P represents a focus on the purity of the sanctuary, the corresponding Assyro-Babylonian texts are concerned with healing individuals in their domestic situation.

After presenting the aims and theoretical background for the study in the opening chapters, ch. 3 engages in a detailed analysis of the Šurpu incantation series. While the relevance of this composition for studying P, particularly Leviticus 4–5, has been recognized previously, Cranz’s comparison of these texts, their terminology and their officiants is unprecedented in its meticulousness. While the fundamental similarity between these texts as dealing with cases of unknown sin has been recognized, Cranz seeks to find a much more comprehensive identity between the transgressions listed in these texts, raising the possibility “that the similarities are based on a traditional catalogue of sins which was known in both cultures” (49). Based on this illuminating analysis, however, the adduced similarities appear to be more of a general nature, representing a shared psychological perspective which links sin and suffering. Leaving aside the question of a shared tradition, this commonality remains highly significant for understanding the background of P’s expiatory rituals.

Indeed, as has been insinuated already in earlier studies, an intriguing problem emerges when comparing Lev 4–5 to Šurpu. Whereas Šurpu explicitly presents itself as a treatment for bodily illness, Lev 4–5 are unclear regarding the circumstances when a person would suspect that she or he committed a sin. Cranz accepts the view that the biblical text also refers to a situation in which suffering leads to a suspicion of guilt (48), but her explanation for the text’s silence on this matter differs from that of other scholars (myself included) who have suggested that the Priestly authors sought to implicitly deny a direct association between sickness and transgression. Cranz resists this inference, attributing the differences between Lev 4–5 and comparable Assyro-Babylonian therapeutic rituals to the distinct types of ritual specialists responsible for composing these texts.

The following chapters are devoted to further elucidating the participants and dynamics of the Šurpu incantations and ritual. Cranz examines the institutional background of the exorcists mentioned in this text, on the basis of a survey of some better-known exorcists in Assyrian documents. While most of this documentation links these exorcists to institutional contexts, related to temples and the royal court, Cranz argues that they were also employed as private healers. As usual, we are at the mercy of our known sources, and Cranz is probably correct in stressing that these officiants’ activities were not confined to the better-attested institutional contexts.

Yet, this valid observation could also be raised to question her contention that they were not involved (or at least not as prominent) in the purification of temples (81). For example, building her case that “exorcists were only marginally involved in the purification of temples” (86), she cites various historiographic sources dealing with the theme of divine abandonment, but these texts—deriving from a completely different genre and sociological milieu—have their own rhetorical foci and have little to teach us regarding the delegation of functions of cult specialists. Moreover, some of the evidence cited seems to undermine this contention, e.g., the akītu festival discussed on pp. 84–86 (though admittedly late in its documentation).

More fundamentally, some of the analytic categories employed in making this argument can only be applied reservedly to the Mesopotamian evidence. For example, a letter from Mari describes the role of exorcists (LÚ.MEŠ mašmašū) and lamentation priests in purifying (ullilū) a city stricken by plague by (ARM 26/1 564–65; text 263, ll. 17–20). Aside from blurring the boundary between (private) healing and (public) purification, this example raises another difficulty pertaining to our use of analytic terminology. As can be seen, the terminology of purification is used in reference to healing and controlling the spread of infectious disease, indicative of the characteristic vagueness of purity terminology in Akkadian sources.[1] Considering this evidence together with incantation rituals such as Šurpu, one is hard-pressed to find a clear distinction between pollution and sin comparable to that represented in P, where it is explicit and systematic.

Considering such contrasts, the central question of this study reemerges with greater force: how should we account for such striking contrasts between corpora which are otherwise so similar to each other? For her part, Cranz boldly offers an account that challenges previously proposed theological interpretations of the differences between the Mesopotamian and biblical materials:

To sum up, the Priestly conceptualization of pollution need not be understood as a theological statement. Rather, the fact that the priests in P were not directly involved in the healing process of the individual can be viewed as the result of the Priestly focus on matters relating to the sanctuary. The responsibility of the priests in P lay solely with assuring the purity of the camp and holiness of the sanctuary, which allowed the divine presence to reside in their midst. That the treatment of physical disorders fell outside the scope of Priestly duties explains why P refrains from addressing these matters in ritual legislation.

In offering this sociological interpretation, Cranz offers a valuable alternative worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, she here raises the question of how the Aaronide priests related to other healing specialists in ancient Israel, suggesting an important direction for further research. Nevertheless, this characterization does not do justice to Lev 13–14, which provide the instructions for the diagnosis and purification of the skin disease ṣara‘at. As I have argued elsewhere on the basis of a parallel from Emar,[2] the absence of a comparable healing rite in the biblical text is conspicuous and invites a theological interpretation. At the least, Lev 13–14 demonstrate that the priests were not exclusively involved in temple purification, but also provided a function to private individuals (so too Deut 24:8). While Cranz may be correct in raising the possibility of a concealed (or not so concealed: cf. Num 16) political agenda informing P, one should not hastily dismiss the inference of an implicit theological agenda.

In summary, this monograph offers a provocative challenge to dominant views regarding P and its theological premises. As Cranz ably demonstrates, extra-biblical comparisons offer a possibility to peek behind the scenes of P’s ostensibly dry, procedural instructions. Interested readers will find an abundance of stimulating material to consider and reconsider in seeking to reconstruct the sociological, political and theological motives underlying these texts.

Yitzhaq Feder, University of Haifa

[1]For further discussion, see Yitzhaq Feder, “Disgust, Disease and Defilement: The Experiential Basis for Akkadian and Hittite Terms for Pollution,” JAOS 136 (2016): 99–116. reference

[2]Yitzhaq Feder, “Behind the Scenes of a Priestly Polemic: Leviticus 14 and its Extra-Biblical Parallels,” JHS 15, article 4 (2015), available at reference