Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

McClymond, Kathryn, Beyond Sacred Violence: A Comparative Study of Sacrifice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2008). Pp. x + 216. Hardcover. US$55.00. ISBN 978-0-8018-8776-5.

The interpretation of sacrifice continues to be a topic of much scholarly debate. In Beyond Sacred Violence, Kathryn McClymond, associate professor of religious studies at Georgia State University, makes an important contribution to this discussion by envisaging sacrifice as a dynamic cluster of interconnected events, and by shifting the attention from ritual actors to ritual substance. While the readable style of the volume makes the unfamiliar world of sacrificial rituals accessible to non-experts, her insistence that animal slaughter is not the culmination or essence of sacrificial rituals will challenge many experts.

The book is organized in seven parts. In the introduction McClymond shows how dominant theories of sacrifice by, e.g., Tylor, Robertson Smith, Hubert/Mauss, Girard, Burkert, Jamison, Jay, and Staal share the common feature that animal slaughter is central to sacrifice and must be considered key to its interpretation. Thus it seems that violence is an essential and indispensable element of sacrifice. These assumptions show that “there is a fixation on animal sacrifice to such an extent that vegetal and liquid oblations are virtually ignored in theorizing, even though these substances are used far more frequently than animal offerings” (p.17). McClymond challenges such reduction of the evidence by claiming that academic theorizing needs to be adjusted to the relevant data: “A comprehensive approach to sacrifice has to incorporate all the offering substances employed in a sacrificial system” (p. 61, emphasis in the original). She then provides a comparative study of sacrifice in brahmanical Hinduism and biblical/mishnaic Judaism.

Chapter 1 starts with the general observation that sacrificial rituals are always complex events and need to be interpreted accordingly. McClymond re-imagines sacrifice through a polythetic approach. Instead of focusing only on a single sacrificial activity, she considers all of the seven actions typically occurring in sacrificial rituals, such as the selection of the sacrificial material, the association of that material with the god(s), the identification of the ritual patron with the sacrificial material, its killing, its “heating” (in contrast to cooking), its apportionment among the patrons, priests, and the god(s), and finally its consumption. Her approach also highlights the interdependence of these activities as characteristic features of sacrifice; conversely the presence of just one of these activities does not define a sacrificial ritual. Finally, the polythetic approach allows McClymond to pay adequate attention to vegetal and liquid substances that are usually neglected in modern scholarship.

In Chapter 2 the insights about the complex nature of sacrificial rituals are utilized as the conceptual framework for reevaluating the importance of killing in sacrifice. In Vedic cosmology, the soma plant represents the god Soma and plants are similar to animals since both share the same “life essence.” Thus Vedic source texts state that, in the process of being ground (“pressed”), the soma plant is indeed killed (“slain”). Yet the culmination of the sacrifice is not this “slaying” but the moment when the participants of the ritual consume the potent soma juice at three different times of the day. According to Vedic texts about animal sacrifice, on the other hand, the animal should be strangled. Thus its death appears less violent and is not described as cruel in the source texts. The modern interpreter might, of course, construe the killing of the animal or the soma plant as merely destructive. McClymond, however, adopts an interesting positive perspective by discovering the interdependence of the killing to subsequent events: Based on Vedic priestly manuals, “killing can be viewed as a constructive act because after death both animal and soma offerings are divided into multiple portions. The sacrificial process, which ‘constructs, integrates, and constitutes the real,’ transforms a single substance (such as a goat) into multiple distinct offerings (skin, head, heart, entrails, fat, blood, and so forth)” (p. 55). Finally, Vedic and Judean sacrificial ritual feature types of sacrifices without killing, thus without victim, like the Vedic agnihotra offering, consisting of cow's milk, and the Judean minḥâ, consisting of cereals. Theoretical approaches to sacrifice need to incorporate such data as well as those of animal sacrifice.

Chapter 3 deals with the problem that vegetal offerings are typically considered substitutes for or accompaniments to animal offerings and, as such, are excluded from most general theorizing about sacrifice. Vegetal offerings can, however, also be principal offerings, such as the Vedic iṣṭi and soma rituals and the Judean minḥâ. McClymond points out that sacrifices made of vegetal substances differ from those made of animals because the process of “heating” becomes a transformative process which reconstitutes a grain cake as sacrificial offering. Furthermore the Vedic sacrificial system differs from its Judean counterpart because, in its cosmology, vegetal materials are considered to be alive. Processing vegetal offerings might, therefore, involve killing, yet the climax of the ritual is the subsequent apportionment of the offering substance.

Chapter 4 discovers that liquid sacrifices consisting of milk, ghee (clarified butter), soma juice, oil, wine, and blood are integral features of their pertinent sacrificial systems. McClymond compares the Vedic soma offering which consists of extracting the plant's juice as its “life essence” to what she calls “blood offering” in the Judean sacrificial system. As the substance representing an animal's life (Lev 17:11), blood belongs to YHWH, the creator of life. Contrary to the scholarly opinion on the Judean cult, McClymond claims “that blood is, in fact, a sacrificial offering” (p. 112; see also p. 120). Integrating insights of Jacob Milgrom, she suggests that blood application has the function of purging the sanctuary and its objects from contamination. Specific methods of slaughter assure that blood is available for these purposes, so the purpose of animal slaughter is the subsequent blood application.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the ritual division and distribution of sacrificial materials. McClymond chooses to call these activities “apportionment” in order to avoid connotations of violence that are absent from source texts. Rather, the apportionment of the sacrificial material, regardless of whether it is of animal or vegetal origins, is a complex and carefully orchestrated activity that is regulated through lengthy instructions, thus attesting to its significance. It appears as a creative process that transforms the physical material of a single offering into multiple discrete parts. Transcending the sacrificial ritual, apportionment appears as a structuring paradigm for the socio-cultural realm. “Here, at the most fundamental level, is where ritual practice contributes an important sense of ‘ought’ to human culture…with the very presence of imperatives governing and directing human behaviour and interaction with the natural world” (p. 147). Seen from this perspective, sacrifice emerges as a model for social order and hierarchy.

The conclusion applies various aspects from the comparative study of sacrifice to the realm of sacrificial metaphors used in non-cultic language. While the practice of actual material sacrifices has been abandoned in many cultures and is often met with contempt, the term sacrifice continues to be employed as a metaphor that authoritatively validates human behaviour. Acknowledging a variety of interconnected actions, the polythetic approach to sacrifice provides the conceptual framework for understanding how and why different religious traditions have considered yogic discipline, Torah study, or prayer as metaphorical sacrifices. Outside of the religious realm, sacrifice is a frequent but also problematic metaphor in patriotic discourse intended to motivate self-giving for one's country or for violent objectives.

In Beyond Sacred Violence, Kathryn McClymond manages to provide an introduction to Vedic and Judean/Jewish sacrifice that is helpful for all who approach these topics for the first time. In addition, she successfully challenges dominant scholarly theories of sacrifice that depict the center of religious worship of some traditions as an institution bent on the annihilation of life. In response to such interpretations, McClymond's polythetic approach offers a compelling alternative through a holistic view of sacrificial rituals and incorporates previously neglected aspects. It may be mentioned that her view of Judean sacrifice is corroborated by the temple cult in Elephantine which consisted only of cereal offerings and frankincense. This example confirms that the Hebrew sacrificial cult could be performed without any animal sacrifice, and thus entirely without killing.

Also McClymond's emphasis on the apportionment of sacrificial material provides an important corrective to current scholarship since it interprets sacrificial rituals as dynamic processes. Of further benefit to this section could have been a study of terminology. In the Hebrew Bible, one of several general terms for sacrifice, qōrbān (Lev 1:2; 7:38; Num 7:3, etc.), means “offering/bringing near.” It is frequently accompanied by the verb qrb Hif. (“to bring close”) and equivalents such as bw’; Hif. and ngš Hif., conveying that sacrificial materials are being brought to the altar. These terms depict sacrificial rituals in the priestly writings as dynamic processes as well. Furthermore, biblical terminology suggests familiar images for apportionment when sacrifices are called “food/bread of YHWH” (Lev 21:17, 21; 22:25; Num 28:2; Mal 1:7, etc.). In private or public meals, the division, distribution, and apportionment of food according to the social standing of participants offers potent paradigms for sacrificial rituals.

Finally McClymond suggests that “blood offering” existed in Judean sacrificial rituals, which means that blood was actually sacrificed. Her argumentation has not convinced this reviewer. Her rationale is mainly based on the observation that blood is applied within the sanctuary and to sanctuary objects. She does not, however, discuss the purification rituals of lepers in which the blood of a guilt offering is applied to the person to be purged (Lev 14:14), or the priests' ordination rituals in which the blood of ordination sacrifices is applied to both the priests who are being consecrated and their clothes (Exod 29:20-21/Lev 8:23-24, 30). These data make it difficult to interpret the application of sacrificial blood as a genuine act of offering. Specifically, McClymond treats blood sacrifice as a distinct category next to animal and vegetal sacrifice. Yet she does not address the problem that this classification assigns any type of animal sacrifice to two distinct categories. I prefer, therefore, to understand blood application rites as an associate function within the category of animal sacrifice.

This is, however, just a minor criticism of a stimulating book that will guide its readers in their (re)discovery of the multifaceted practices of ritual sacrifices and how they function as paradigm for the cultural and socio-political identity of various human societies. I recommend McClymond's book to all interested scholars, clergy, teachers and students. I have made it a required reading in my own course on sacrifice and atonement.

Christian A. Eberhart, Lutheran Theological Seminary