Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Political Theology of Leviticus 16: The People as Agents of History

Scholarship has reached a consensus that the Priestly authors placed Leviticus 16, the "day of atonement" or Scapegoat ritual, at the architectural center of the Torah. As the ritual that begins the year and purifies the cosmically central sanctuary, it also lies at the center of ritual space and time. And it has been widely noted that the ritual prescribed shares essential features with other ancient Near Eastern expiation rituals.

What has not been recognized is the politics this implies. Unlike almost every other known ancient Near Eastern expiation ritual, the day of atonement is not performed on behalf of a king, country, or medical patient, but on behalf of a collective: the people of Israel. Is it an accident, then, that the one other known ritual from the entire ancient Near East done on behalf of collective population groups was KTU 1.40, the most widely-used ritual at Ugarit? For Ugarit is home, not only to the first known literary use of the alphabet, but also to the world's first vernacular literature, designed to speak to a 'people' in their own language.

If this ritual connection between the world's first and second known vernacular literatures is not an accident, then we gain here an insight into the origins and development of a previously unrecognized but powerful West Semitic political theory, one that had its greatest impact in what Foucault was to call"Biblical History."

This is: 1) the expansion of an idea I published in Maarav 2004, "What was the alphabet for?" 2) A teaser for my forthcoming book, The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois, 2009), and 3) A paper I might give at this year's Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in New Orleans.

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