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William Morrow

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2024

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Are Torah Rituals Just Literary Compositions? A Comparison with Namburbis

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https://thetorah.com/article/are-torah-rituals-just-literary-compositions-a-comparison-with-namburbis

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William Morrow

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Are Torah Rituals Just Literary Compositions? A Comparison with Namburbis

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2024

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https://thetorah.com/article/are-torah-rituals-just-literary-compositions-a-comparison-with-namburbis

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Are Torah Rituals Just Literary Compositions? A Comparison with Namburbis

Both namburbi anti-omen rituals (1st millennium B.C.E.) and priestly Torah rituals were preserved in collections in multiple versions that show evidence of intertextuality and innovation. Were these rituals meant to be performed?

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Are Torah Rituals Just Literary Compositions? A Comparison with Namburbis

A tablet from Assur, perhaps dating to the Hellenistic period, containing the only known commentary on a namburbi, posing questions about a ritual against the “evil signs that are seen against a man and his house.” LKA 115. British Museum, BM 38271.

Archives from ancient Near Eastern cultures—found in palaces and temples as well as in the homes of important scribes—included prescriptive ritual texts, which instruct practitioners how to perform a specific rite.[1] Prominent examples from the 2nd millennium B.C.E. include Hittite purification procedures[2] and rituals for sacrifices from Ugarit.[3]

Closer in time to the biblical period is the Mesopotamian namburbi—from the Sumerian phrase, nam.búr.bi, meaning “its undoing”—a well-attested type of ritual from the first millennium B.C.E. that was used to avert a portended evil.[4]

Namburbi Rituals

Ancient Mesopotamian religion included the belief that omens and mantic practices such as liver divination could indicate what menaces lay in the future of individuals and, in some cases, whole communities.[5] Evil omens were considered to presage the punitive will of a deity, often one’s personal god and goddess, considered as a kind of judgment for wrong-doing, whether the misdeed was known or unknown.[6]

Nevertheless, the future was not fixed in stone, as the evil fate that one’s personal gods decreed could be undone by the use of a namburbi ritual.[7] Thus, for example, a snake omen that portended someone’s death could be averted as follows:

If in the beginning of the year on the first day of Nisan, or on the first day of Ayar, a snake is seen either in daytime or at night, that man (who saw it) will die during that year. If that man is desirous of life, he gashes(?) (his) head (and) shaves his cheeks. For those three months he will be sore beset, but he will get well.[8]

Many namburbi procedures were complex, requiring the specialist who performed the ritual, called an ashipu, to complete a variety of ritual actions including:

  • Purification of the ashipu or the person affected by the omen.
  • Preparing the place for the ritual, either the locale in which the omen was perceived (e.g., a house or a field) or a secluded place such as a riverbank.
  • Offerings to the gods, usually foodstuffs, but sometimes the flesh of a slaughtered animal.
  • Prayers to the gods.[9]
  • Symbolic elimination of the threat by removing or destroying objects that represented the evil.[10]

The Composition and Editing of Namburbis

Several scribal techniques that shed light on ritual texts in the Bible are attested in the namburbi texts.

Collections. A large collection of namburbis, comprising at least 135 tablets, was found in the library of the neo-Assyrian king, Assurbanipal (r. 668–630 B.C.E.). As Stefan Maul observes, “With this gargantuan series, [Assurbanipal] probably wanted to have an effective weapon against every omen imaginable.”[11] Namburbis could also be transmitted in collections of texts from other genres, including within collections of omens that the namburbis were meant to undo.[12]

Full and abbreviated versions. We find namburbis for which both a long, detailed ritual text and an abbreviated version of the ritual have been preserved. For example, an abbreviated version of a namburbi against astral phenomena identifies the deities to be invoked and requires several offerings—incense, fine flour, an axe, and a saw—the sacrifice of a kid, and recitation of an incantation.[13] A longer version requires the sacrifice of a sheep for Ea and a kid for Ishtar and contains additional food and drink offerings for the deities, including dates, bread made with oil and honey, beer, and wine.[14]

Intertextual. Some Namburbis show evidence that the scribe wrote the ritual in conversation with another text. So, for example, we find overlaps between the composition of namburbis and the bit rimki (“house of the bath”) ritual, which also has to do with averting portended evil: Both the “Namburbi against all evil” and the bit rimki ritual include the prayer, “Ea, Shamash (and) Asalluhi, great gods.”[15]

Ritual Innovation. Although most namburbis were written for a specific omen, there are a few “universal” namburbis that were composed to undo the presence of any kind of evil omen. In one universal namburbi in Assurbanipal’s collection, material adapted from the substitute king ritual, in which evil portended for the king is transferred to a surrogate, has been combined with the namburbi to make a complex cultic rite.[16]

A Comparison to Biblical Ritual Texts

Both the namburbi genre and biblical prescriptive ritual texts show significant interest in dealing with conditions of impurity. For example, one practice common to both was the importance placed on ritual washing.[17] In the biblical cult, ritual impurity was imagined as a kind of contagious condition that could affect the sanctuary.[18] For that reason, it was important to have rites for removing conditions that could render a person or the altar itself impure (e.g., Leviticus 4–5, 12–16).[19] In the case of namburbis, the effect of the evil omen was to place the victim in a condition of impurity that had to be ritually removed.[20] Therefore, purification was an important concern for both types of ritual.[21]

The types of scribal activity discussed earlier for the namburbis are also found in biblical prescriptive ritual texts.

Collections. The rites found in Numbers 5–6, for example, represent a collection of various rituals mainly touching on problems with vows—restitution for false oaths (5:5–10); and the oath given by the sotah (the woman accused of adultery; 5:11–31); and the Nazirite vows (ch. 6).[22]

Full and abbreviated versions. The lengthy treatment of purity concerns previously set out in Leviticus 13–14 is included in abbreviated form in Numbers:

במדבר ה:ב צַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וִישַׁלְּחוּ מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה כָּל צָרוּעַ וְכָל זָב וְכֹל טָמֵא לָנָפֶשׁ. ה:ג מִזָּכָר עַד נְקֵבָה תְּשַׁלֵּחוּ אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה תְּשַׁלְּחוּם וְלֹא יְטַמְּאוּ אֶת מַחֲנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹכָם.
Num 5:2 Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption or a discharge and anyone defiled by a corpse. 5:3 Remove male and female alike; put them outside the camp so that they do not defile the camp of those in whose midst I dwell.

Intertextual relationships are also prominent. Some scholars believe the laws for the sotah (Num 5) and the Nazarite (Num 6) draw on the cultic procedures in Leviticus 5. For example, Christian Frevel argues that the offering of grain without oil or frankincense in the sotah ritual (Num 5:15) relies on the purification offering for the poor in Leviticus, which also requires omitting these items (5:11).[23]

Ritual Innovation. Moreover, it is also apparent that the sotah-rite innovates, conflating two prior sources that test the ritual subject in different ways—via an oath to YHWH in which she curses herself (5:19–24) and via an ordeal of drinking a ritual solution of consecrated water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle floor (vv. 15–18, 25–28).[24]

Were These Rituals Performed?

Like the namburbi literature, therefore, biblical prescriptive rituals manifest sophisticated scribal techniques and intertextual relationships. Some scholars argue that these literary phenomena suggest that the rites described in such prescriptive ritual texts were not meant to be performed.[25] Recently, for example, Frevel has argued of the rituals in Numbers 5–6:

The performance of the rituals may have had a practical background, but they are now embedded in a textual world, which has an autonomous character and functions on the textual level.[26]

Yet the namburbis are also a product of complex scribal processes, and while there is no way of knowing whether all of the namburbis preserved in scribal archives were actually used, there is every reason to assume that they were meant to be implemented if the occasion arose. This is proven from the archives of the kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, which include letters from scribes recommending adding specific omens that had been observed to a new universal namburbi tablet to be compiled prior to its performance:

If it pleases the [King], the Namburbi should [be performed against] any calamity. As for the observation(s) of Jupiter?] (and) Mercury?, which occurs during a (.....] came out one after the other: [the relevant omen entries'] should [one] write in (the tablet to be written). (...) They (i.e. Jupiter and Mercury) [stay away] from each other (and ) do not approach (each other). The king, my lord, shall not be afraid because of this! It is written in the N[amburbi]. Whatever [.... .] is relevant, has been carried out (and) the disaster has been averted.[27]

In other words, their composition was not a theoretical exercise.

Similar conclusions are warranted for prescriptive rituals found in the Torah. The fact that they were generated by a variety of scribal techniques is not evidence of how they were intended to be used. As with their ancient Near Eastern parallels, the prescriptive ritual texts in the Torah were meant to be performed when the occasion arose.

Democratizing Ritual Knowledge

Like other Mesopotamian ritual texts, namburbis were preserved by scribes in personal archives, temple, and royal libraries. They were not available to the general public, but constituted a set of ritual practices that could only be accessed by specialists. This situation stands somewhat in contrast to the rituals in the Torah. For example, there are indications that while the rules in Leviticus 6:1–7:21 address the concerns of specialists, a description of the same ritual procedures was intended for the general public in Leviticus 1:3–5:26.[28] Indeed, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Torah is the information it gives readers about ritual procedures, including rites associated with:

  • priestly ordination (Exodus 29),
  • the sacrificial cult (Leviticus 1–7; 12; 13–16),
  • procedures for fraud and adultery (Numbers 5),
  • the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6), and
  • corpse contamination (Numbers 19).

At some point in the canonization of the Torah (perhaps during the exilic period) these ritual instructions no longer became the preserve of religious practitioners (i.e., priests) whose actions were removed from the scrutiny of public purview.

On the contrary, as Jeffrey Tigay points out, one of the purposes of including laws for priests in the Torah was to “democratize knowledge and create an educated laity.”[29] As a result, the inclusion of laws about priestly consecration and sacrifice prevented the priestly class from gaining a certain degree of authority by controlling knowledge that only they were privy to.[30]

It seems logical to assume that, if the purpose of the Torah was to inform its readership about priestly actions, its prescriptive ritual texts were meant to be understood as living components of the temple liturgy.

Published

February 15, 2024

|

Last Updated

April 4, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. William Morrow is Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Hebrew Scriptures, Queen’s Theological College and Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario, where he taught from 1987–2019. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Toronto. His books include Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix, 2006) and An Introduction to Biblical Law (Eerdmans, 2017). In general, his scholarship has focused on legal traditions in the Hebrew Bible in comparison with those found elsewhere in the ancient Near East.