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.

Symptomatically, the first sentence of her first chapter is cast as follows: ‘What motivated the priestly editors to compose the Pentateuch?’ The choice of the verb ‘compose’ for a process of redaction or editing of centuries-old materials tilts the playing-field at the outset. The Patriarchal tales then become a sustained polemic against the fifth-century separatists. Jacob’s deathbed curse against Simeon and Levi for massacring the male population of Shechem ‘was inserted into Genesis to represent the editor’s case against the government of Judah’s foreign policy’. Balaam’s practice in his poetic oracles in Numbers of setting the names Jacob and Israel in apposition is said to be an affirmation that Israel is an integral part of the nation; but in poetic parallelism throughout the Bible, including the Psalms and the Prophets, ‘Jacob’ (the primary name) always appears in the first half of the line and ‘Israel’ as the answering term in the second half. Balaam himself is described here as ‘a brilliant pastiche of a colonial governor’, with Ezra and Nehemiah in view, and the Moabite king who engages him is said to be reminiscent of Nebuchadnezzar or the Persian emperor. All this is extremely far-fetched: Balaam in the story is a seer and a professional hexer, not by any means an administrator, and the entire literary unity, especially its poetry, bears signs of considerable antiquity. The story of Joseph and his brothers, to which Douglas’s title alludes, is represented as an argument for reconciliation between the returning Judeans and the remnants of the northern tribes. This contention would be more plausible if this story, more or less in the form that has come down to us, had actually been ‘composed’ in the fifth century BCE, or at least if it were feasible to imagine the existence at the time of a radically competing version, rejected by the priestly editors, in which, say, the rift between Joseph and his brothers was never healed.

In all likelihood, the composition of the narrative in Genesis antedates its redaction by at least three centuries, and conceivably by four or five, and there is no reason to infer that this moving story about the reconciliation of strife among brothers was politically motivated. Indeed, if some consciousness of politics is involved, the more likely frame of reference would be the early history of Israel, when Hebrew writers might well have been sensitive to the fragile unity of a nation formed from a fitful confederation of tribes. But sibling rivalry, from Cain and Abel on, is the compelling model used by the biblical authors for the manifestation of violence and the struggle for power in all human events, and it diminishes the universal scope of these stories to imagine that they were primarily intended as an allegory of the internal politics of fifth-century Judea.

In all this, Douglas plays the ingenious but arbitrary game of more conventional biblical scholars, which is to date any given text, or at least its purportedly determinative redaction, to the period that interests you, and then to read all its details as a reflex of a particular ideological trend in that period. Israel Finkelstein, for example, has placed the writing of much of the Pentateuch and of the Deuteronomic history in the time of King Josiah’s reforms in the late seventh century BCE, and claimed that these texts were framed to reinforce Josiah’s programme of centralisation of power. This account ignores the historically stratified character of the texts and the fact that Deuteronomy, avowedly linked with Josiah’s reforms, is clearly responding to considerably older legal and literary materials. It also has the effect of flattening these ideologically variegated materials into a single royal agenda.

An even more extreme position has been laid out by a variety of scholars – Scandinavian, American, and Israeli – sometimes referred to as minimalists, who contend that the entire Pentateuch and the Deuteronomic history after it were written very late, in the Persian period or even in the Hellenistic era, as the nostalgic invention of a national past that never was. This line of thought ignores the linguistic evidence – late biblical Hebrew, as in Jonah, Esther or Ecclesiastes, is as different from the Hebrew written in the First Commonwealth as contemporary English is from the language of the 17th century – and pays scant attention to the thoroughly unnostalgic approach of these texts to the Israelite people and to many of its leaders, including David, the founder of the national dynasty.

It is unfortunate that Douglas should have chosen to engage in the same conjectural enterprise as such interpreters, for she is certainly more interesting intellectually than they are. In her discussion of the scapegoat rite of atonement in Leviticus, for instance, she properly warns against the dangers of the comparative method in anthropology. The ritual, in which one goat is sacrificed and a second, chosen by lot, is sent out into the wilderness, has often been associated with Greek and Hittite practices in which the community rids itself of guilt by driving out and destroying a beast or person said to bear the guilt. (René Girard, fixated on violence against scapegoats, has made much of this.) But Douglas instructively calls our attention to the fact that the scapegoat is not killed, but rather set free in the wilderness. Then, with her keen eye for detecting parallel patterns, she links the two goats to the pairs of brothers in Genesis: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, one the designated heir and the other destined to exercise rough-and-ready lordship in the wilderness (Ishmael is explicitly identified with the wilderness). ‘If we accept the teaching that guilt transferred is guilt expunged,’ Douglas concludes, ‘the scapegoat is guiltless, as were Ishmael and Esau.’ This is the sort of commentary that invites us to contemplate familiar texts in a fresh way without forcing the evidence. But the additional historical step Douglas takes, to claim that the ritual of the two goats is an allegory of the fraternity between Israel and Judah, seems unnecessary and unpersuasive, especially since these ritual regulations were probably written a couple of centuries earlier, and there is very little in their literary formulation to suggest any national symbolism (the wilderness is a poor fit for populated Samaria).

What is most stimulating, if still within the realm of debate, in Jacob’s Tears is Douglas’s bold restatement of the interpretation of Leviticus she first put forward in her 1999 study, here coupled with valuable discussions of taboo and the turning away from ancestor worship. Leviticus, she contends, is not, despite appearances to the contrary, ‘a handbook of the cult’, nor is it chiefly concerned with impurity, as she had suggested in Purity and Danger. She notes a substantive difference between the pollution rules in Leviticus and those that have been studied in many other cultures: the general tendency of pollution regulations is to be used ‘as an instrument for keeping apart different classes of the same population. They tend to be applied in favour of a category that deems itself superior but threatened by the claims of lower elements.’ In the biblical text, on the other hand, there is scant indication of the function of impurity laws as a social marker: ‘Uncleanness in Leviticus is about protecting the tabernacle from contamination, it is not primarily about mundane things.’ But if Douglas excoriates the interpretations of Leviticus from the late biblical period onward for ‘primitivising’ the book, might not this idea of preserving the absolute purity of a physically demarcated sacred space itself reflect a primitive way of thinking? She anticipates such objections by arguing that the integrity of the sanctuary is crucially important because the sanctuary, with its sharply divided zones, constitutes a model of the sacred cosmos, and that this modelling is represented by Leviticus in intricate detail with extremely subtle literary sophistication.

What enables this whole process is a mode of ordering reality that Douglas characterises as ‘analogical thinking’; it is mentioned briefly here, but more elaborately in Leviticus as Literature. We are accustomed, she proposed in the earlier book, to analytic thinking, but many cultures construct the world through analogical thinking, which is different from our own mental procedures, but by no means more primitive. In analogical thinking, reality is seen as a complex system of correspondences in which given components may throw light on their counterparts or actually symbolise them.

Leviticus, then, in Douglas’s view, is not in its deepest concerns a series of regulations for butchering sacrificial animals, purifying contaminated persons and substances, and keeping unfit people away from the sanctuary. Rather, it is an articulation of the tripartite sacred architecture of creation. Its model is the arrangement of space in the Sinai epiphany as reported in Exodus: a large area at the foot of the mountain in which the teeming multitudes of the Israelites are assembled and from which they are forbidden to go out; the lower slopes of the mountain, to which Aaron and the seventy elders are permitted to ascend and where they share a sacred feast in God’s presence; and the summit of the mountain, where Moses alone may go. Douglas proposes three sets of correspondences to this paradigmatic tripartite structure. The first is the deployment of the sanctuary and the zones around it, in which the vertical scheme of Sinai is transposed to a horizontal plane: on the outside, the outer court, to which the people have access; then the smaller area of the sanctuary proper, restricted to the priests; and, within, the still smaller site of the Holy of Holies. The sacrificial offering, with the instructions for how it is to be butchered and its parts divided, is also modelled on this tripartite structure: a pyramid shape, with the head and the meat, the parts available to be eaten by the priests and the people, at the bottom; above that the midriff area with the fat covering the kidneys, which is to be burnt entirely on the altar; and on top, the entrails, the liver lobe and the genitals.

The third manifestation of the Sinai cosmic scheme is in the structure of Leviticus itself. Douglas argues that the book is divided into three parts of approximately diminishing size, with the boundaries between them marked by two brief narrative reports of lethally punitive acts: the death of Aaron’s two sons, who brought alien fire to the altar, in chapter 10, and the death by stoning of the blasphemer in chapter 24. The first nine chapters focus on sacrificial regulations and impurity, which would correspond to the outer court of the sanctuary; the middle section is chiefly concerned with the family duties and rituals of the priests, as would befit the sanctuary proper; and the last three chapters deal with justice and covenant, which Douglas relates to the Holy of Holies. The great formal achievement of Leviticus, she concludes, is that it is ‘a book planned as a projection of a building’.

This analysis reflects formidable ingenuity. The most convincing correspondence – one seen by a few medieval Hebrew commentators – is between the deployment at Sinai and the structure of the sanctuary. The idea of a tripartite arrangement of Leviticus is worth weighing, though one may wonder whether the claimed correspondences entirely work (the parts don’t really diminish in size, because the second unit is larger than the first). I have the most trouble seeing Sinai in the heaped up pieces of the sacrificial animal, but I am, admittedly, one of those people who feel a little squeamish in butcher’s shops among hanging sides of beef.

If this sacred architecture is so evident, why, Douglas asks, have interpreters of Leviticus before her failed to see it? She contends that, beginning with the separatist party of Ezra and Nehemiah, who became the conservators of the new scriptural canon, readers of the priestly literary achievement were able to see it only from the perspective of their own preoccupation with fencing themselves off from the surrounding peoples and preserving themselves from external contamination. ‘This generation,’ she tartly observes, ‘would not recognise a cosmogram if it was staring straight at them.’ She rather overstates her case in claiming that by the fourth century BCE even parallelism in poetry was ‘out of date’, so parallelisms in literary texts went unperceived, and that Hebrew verse ‘was beginning to be governed by metre’. In fact, Hebrew poetry continued to be composed with parallelism between the halves of the line through the Second Commonwealth period and down to the hodayot, or thanksgiving psalms, found at Qumran; and it’s hard to imagine what concept of ‘metre’ could be relevant to this body of poetry.

Nevertheless, Douglas’s general line of defence for her reading has some plausibility. In the case of biblical narrative, a set of subtle conventions governing the presentation of dialogue, the use of near-verbatim repetition, type-scenes and thematic keywords was lost sight of because theologically inclined readers over the centuries were not in the habit of regarding the Bible as sophisticated literary art, and only in recent decades have these shaping conventions been to some extent recovered through analysis. I’m not sure whether Douglas has conclusively made her case, but at the very least, she has challenged us to ponder whether these ancient regulations bearing on the conduct of the cult and the preservation of the sanctuary’s purity might have a larger metaphysical purpose. Too many modern readers, congratulating themselves on the lofty vantage point of modernity, have condescended to these ancient texts. Douglas, as an anthropologist for whom ‘primitive’ is often a fighting word, has performed a service by tackling the Bible where it seems most rebarbative, and by inviting us to consider whether even here it might manifest a complex intellectual project cast in a literary idiom that we have forgotten how to read.