Wenham on Rituals

In my studies for the Book of Numbers-Bible Study for the youth group (www.generationacts.de) on Tuesday nights, I am currently reading the Tyndale Commentary on Numbers, written by Gordon J. Wenham. The things he writes on the meaning and importance of rituals in the Bible (and in general, really) in the introduction were very helpful. That’s why I decided to post some of it here:

„In the preface I alluded to the great gulf that separates the mentality of our age from that of Numbers, a gulf that makes it very hard for us to appreciate much of the book. We are moved by the tragedy of the spies and Moses‘ exclusion from the promised land, and we can enjoy the comedy of the Balaam story, but these narratives comprise a relatively small proportion of the whole book. Most of it concerns various rituals and organizational details that are dull to read, hard to understand, and apparently quite irrelevant to the church in the twentieth century. Of course, these problems are not confined to Numbers: the situation is similar in Exodus and Deutoronomy, and even less narrative is to be found in Leviticus.

Yet the sheer bulk of ritual law in the Pentateuch indicates its importance to the biblical writers. This judgment is confirmed by modern anthropologists; for them the key to understanding a society’s fundamental values is its ritual system.

Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies.

In short, if we do not understand the ritual system of a people, we do not understand what makes their society tick. It is not without purpose, then, that more than half of the Pentateuch, alsways considered the most authoritative section of the Old Testament, consists or ritual regulations, instructions about building the tabernacle, laws on sacrifice and festivals and so on. If we can understand these arrangements we shall be near to grasping the very heart of ancient Israel’s religion and its values, at least according to cultural anthropologists.

But it does not come easily to us. Moderns have a built-in antipathy to ritual and symbolic gestures. We prefer to do without it, and when others use ritual, to ignore it. Victor Turner, who has probably done most in recent times to open up the interpretation of ritual symbolism, candidly admits that when he first studied the Ndembu tribe in Zambia he ignored their rituals. But

Eventually, I was forced to recognise that if I wanted to know what even a segment of Ndembu culture was really about, I would have to overcome my prejudie against ritual and start to investigate it.

Most Old Testament scholars share a similar aversion to studying ritual. (…) This gives a clue as to why we find ritual as such, and the Old Testament law in particular, so dull and uncongenial. Not only do we not realize its significance, but we minimize the importance of form and organization in both our religious and secular callings. (…) Yet ultimately we cannot get away from both ritual and organization. If hand-shaking is on the decline, kissing is on the increase. (…) House groups claiming to dispense with formal liturgy and professional ministers soon establish their own idiosyncratic way of conducting worship and a recognized leadership, for without organization they withe away. Thus, however much ritual and organization are anathema to modern man, they re-emerge despite the most strenous attempts to eliminate or minimize them.

It is no good, then, ignoring rituals as if they were of no consequence. Every society has them, though the outsider is always more aware of them than the native. (…) What then is the essence of religious ritual in the Bible? It is a means of communication between God and man, a drama on a stage watched by human and divine spectators. Old Testament rituals express religious truths as opposed to verbally. They are the ancient equivalent of television; the ancient equivalent of radio was prophecy and prayer. These were the recognized modes of communication between the human and divine worlds in Bible times. Like words, rituals are a two-way channel of communication. On the one hand they are dramatized prayers, expressing men’s deepest hopes and fears; on the other hand they are dramatized divine promises and warnings, declaring God’s attitude towards man.“

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