Uncleanness

Robert Alter

  • Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation by Mary Douglas
    Oxford, 211 pp, £45.00, November 2004, ISBN 0 19 926523 2

Ever since Mary Douglas’s anthropological foray into the laws of impurity in Leviticus in Purity and Danger (1966), her work on the Bible has been constantly stimulating and, at its best, deeply instructive. Over the past fifteen years she has devoted most of her still formidable energies to biblical topics, even acquiring a degree of competence in biblical Hebrew. The present volume includes a succinct and highly effective reprise of her Leviticus as Literature (1999), with some defence of its argument in response to the criticism it elicited. Jacob’s Tears promotes two different and not necessarily related theses, one historical, signalled in the title and subtitle of the book, and the other anthropological. Both theses are argued with exemplary clarity and vigour, but the historical proposal is a good deal less convincing than the anthropological one.

For nearly two centuries, biblical studies have been repeatedly engaged in a quest for origins, or, perhaps more accurately, for explanatory contexts. The typical questions posed by biblical scholars about any given text, from Genesis to Psalms, have been: What was its ‘life-setting’? And what in the historical, cultic or specifically political circumstances of its emergence impelled it to be framed as it was? These are by no means foolish questions, but they are for the most part unanswerable, because our knowledge of the historical contexts is so fragmentary and the dating of the actual composition of many of the books so debatable. The result has been that a large domain of biblical studies has proved to be a happy hunting-ground for undemonstrable, and sometimes highly dubious, conjecture. The game of conjecture can, I suppose, be seductive, though it is a little odd that Douglas should be drawn into it, given the very different character of her most original contributions to the understanding of the Bible.

Her historical thesis, focused on the period of the Return to Zion in the fifth century BCE and based to a large extent on the contemporaneous evidence of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, is as follows. There was a sharp split in the community of Judeans returning from the Babylonian exile between separatists, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, and unifiers, led by the priestly party, who wanted the reconstructed nation to embrace those who had remained in areas to the north of the province of Yehud (that is, in ‘Israel’) and whose population included descendants of the tribe of Levi, kinsmen of the returning priests. These priests are the heroes of Douglas’s book, in both its historical and its anthropological chapters. They are seen as enlightened intellectuals dedicated to a battle, which in the end they would lose, against the intransigent exclusivity of the political leadership. Proposing a fresh vision of the biblical faith, ‘in the spirit of renewal they preached a rational God, they were inspired by joy in God’s love and liberation from the dark superstitions of old.’ This could be a valid picture of the divisions among the Judeans in the fifth century BCE, though we know less about the priestly side of the proposed divide, and Douglas’s admiring portrait of the priestly group depends heavily on her analysis of Leviticus as a sophisticated literary structure embodying a lofty vision of the cosmos. The problem is that she sees virtually every text she mentions from Genesis, Leviticus and Numbers as a direct and pointedly political reflection of the division among the Judeans she has posited. A good deal of this was adumbrated in her book on Leviticus and in her monograph on Numbers, In the Wilderness (1993), but here the historical argument is placed at the centre.

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