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SBL e-journal

Noga Ayali-Darshan

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2016

)

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Sukkot's Seventy Bulls

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/sukkots-seventy-bulls

APA e-journal

Noga Ayali-Darshan

,

,

,

"

Sukkot's Seventy Bulls

"

TheTorah.com

(

2016

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/sukkots-seventy-bulls

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Sukkot's Seventy Bulls

The Torah’s adaptation of a polytheistic ancient West-Semitic custom of sacrificing to seventy gods.[1]

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Sukkot's Seventy Bulls

‘Bull’ is a suite of eleven lithographs by Pablo Picasso, that have become a master class in how to develop an artwork from a realistic image to an abstract form.

The Striking Quantity of Sukkot Sacrifices

In describing the offerings for Sukkot, the holiday offering section in Parashat Pinchas stipulates the sacrifice of a total of seventy bulls as burnt offerings spread over the seven-day autumn pilgrimage festival (Numbers 29:12-34), in addition to the other sacrifices of the day. This huge number of offerings is striking, especially in comparison with other Pentateuchal festivals, none of which requires more than two bulls per day.

For illustration, see the chart below compares the offerings of Sukkot, and Matzot, the spring New Year festival:

  Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Sukkot
(Num
29:12-34)
13 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
12 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
11 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
10 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
9 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
8 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
7 bulls
2 rams
14 lambs
1 goat
Matzot
(Num
28:16-25)
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat
2 bulls
1 ram
7 lambs
1 goat

Scholars have suggested that the double number of rams and lambs on Sukkot relative to Matzot, and the unparalleled seventy bulls sacrificed during the seven-day autumnal festival, highlight its importance in the Israelite calendar.[2] It is, indeed, referred to as “the Festival” (החג)—without any further identification in the description of Solomon’s dedication of the temple (1Kings 8:65), in the law of Ezekiel (45:25), and Tannaitic texts (cf. m. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

Moreover, several verses imply that the autumnal festival falls at the completion of the yearly cycle, namely from this date onward, a new year begins:

Exod 23:16

וחג האסף בצאת השנה
The Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year

Exod 34:22

וחג האסיף תקופת השנה
The Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year…

Deut 31:10

מקץ שבע שנים … בחג הסכות
At the end of (every) seven years … in the Feast of Booths…

These texts, according to many scholars, suggest the existence of an alternative Israelite calendar that commenced in the autumn. It corresponds with the ancient Canaanite Gezer calendar fragment, which starts in the harvest months—the time of Sukkot—and ends with the month of the summer fruit.[3] A similar Jewish calendrical tradition is known from the Second Temple period onwards.

Why Seventy Bulls?

While the suggestion that Sukkot was the autumnal New Year festival may explain the double number of rams and lambs offered in relation to other festivals, it does not explain the additional sacrificing of seventy bulls.

The rabbinic tradition, the first to note explicitly that the number of offerings was seventy, links the seventy offerings offered at Sukkot with the seventy nations (b. Sukkah 55b):

אמר רבי [אלעזר] הני שבעים פרים כנגד מי – כנגד שבעים אומות…
R. [Elazar] stated: “To what do those seventy bullocks [that were offered during the seven days of the Festival] correspond? To the seventy nations…”

Modern scholars have offered additional explanations; here are some of them:

The Number SevenGeorge Gray and Christophe Nihan contend that it reflects the significance of the number seven: seventy bulls are offered on the seven days of the festival, which is celebrated during the seventh month.[4] This explanation, however, fits the law as described in Ezekiel, which commands the sacrifice of seven bulls each day of the spring and autumnal festivals, but does not fit the decreasing number of bulls each day (13, 12, 11, etc.).

Needed for RainJacob Licht suggested that the largess expressed in the number of offerings is a function of the significance of the people’s entreaty for rain, which is made during the festival (see Zechariah 14 and m. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).[5] He supports this suggestion with Mal 3:10, which intimates that great numbers of tithes are necessary to induce God to give rain. Nevertheless, the verse in Malachi refers neither to burnt offerings nor the number seventy.

Seventy Nations – Jacob Milgrom turns to the midrashic tradition cited above, relating the seventy bulls to the seventy nations of the world who appeal for a good harvest.[6] A critical explanation for this linkage is missing, however.

None of these suggestions are persuasive, and I would like to suggest a new explanation based on a ritual text from the ancient city of Emar.

The Zukru Festival in Emar

The city of Emar from the Late Bronze age, was located on the wide bend of the Euphrates River in north-eastern modern Syria. Populated by Hurrian and Semitic peoples under the hegemony of Hittite rulers, its cultic texts preserved age-old local West Semitic cultural traditions.[7] Among the tablets found in Emar, is a description of the zukru-festival (Emar 6, 373),[8] a festival that is also attested in the ancient Syrian city of Mari (destroyed mid-18th century BCE), thus testifying its prevalence among the ancient West Semitic cultures.[9]

Two different versions of the Zukru festival are attested at Emar: an annual festival and one in the seventh year of a seven-year cycle, reminiscent of the biblical shemitah cycle (Lev 25:8; Deut 15:1, 31:10). On both occasions, the Zukru was celebrated over seven days on the first month of the year, called SAG.MU namely, ראש השנה, “the head of the year.”[10] (Here the “head of the year” refers to the month rather than the day.)

The seventh-year festival is elaborated in much more detail: On the first day of the festival, when the moon is full (i.e. the fifteenth),[11] the god Dagan—the supreme god of Syria—and all the other gods in the pantheon were taken outside the temple and city in the presence of the citizens to a shrine of stones called sikkānu. This cultic object— also known in other cities with West Semitic population, such as Ugarit and Mari—is best described as a “betyl” stele, i.e., a standing stone anointed with oil and blood,[12] likely the equivalent of the biblical מצבה. At the culmination of the ceremony, the gods were returned to the city. On the seventh and final day (a kind of Chag Sheni), Dagan and all the gods of Emar were brought out again to the sikkānu, where a similar ceremony was performed.

The Sacrifices of the Zukru-festival

Over the course of the seven days of the festival, numerous offerings—more than any other documented festivals—were given to all the gods, attesting to the significance of this feast in the city’s religious calendar.[13] The first offerings of the zukru-festival were sacrificed a day before, on the fourteenth of the month of “the head of the year”, as is documented (ll. 36-38):

On the month of “head of the year”, on the fourteenth day, they offer seventy pure lambs provided by the king … for all the seventy gods [of the city of] Emar.

The seventy lambs are clearly said to be sacrificed to each of the seventy gods of Emar, yet we know from the following lines of the tablet (76-162) that there were much more than seventy gods at Emar.[14] That the number seventy is not an error is clear from another Emarite cultic text (Emar 6, 463:6) that orders seventy doves to be distributed between the gods.[15] It seems, therefore, that the reference to the number seventy reflects the idealized expression “seventy gods” prevalent in West Semitic literature, rather than the accurate number of the Emarite gods. This suggestion is confirmed by the following occurrences:

  • In Ugaritic literature the expression “seventy children of Aṯirat”[16] (the Ugarit name for the goddess Asherah) signifies all the gods who were born to El and Aṯirat, the ancestors of the gods.
  • In a Hurro-Hittite work (the Song of Ullikummi) that contains typical West-Semitic motifs,[17] the same expression, “seventy gods”[18] occurs in parallel with “all the gods”.
  • In another Emarite text which deals with the kissu-festival (Emar 6, 385:34), seventy portions of bread and meat are ordered to be set “before them”—presumably the same seventy gods.[19]

It is commonly suggested that the 77 // 88 sons of Ashertu in the West Semitic Elkunirsamyth written in Hittite and the 77//88 siblings of Baal referred to in a Ugaritic text (KTU31.12:48-49) are variant forms of the “seventy gods” theme, stylized in a graded numerical pattern.[20]

For obvious reasons, the seventy gods do not appear in the Bible, but this concept continued to be developed, appearing again in a monotheistic form in the Second Temple Pseudepigraphal literature, as seventy angels. A clear expression of this notion appears in the animal allegory (2nd cent.) of 1 Enoch (89:59, cf. 90:22-25):

“And he called seventy shepherds and cast off those sheep that they might pasture them, and he said to the shepherds and to their companions: ‘Each one of you from now on is to pasture the sheep and do whatever I command you…'” (Brand trans., Outside the Bible).

These examples indicate that not only the expression “seventy gods” was well known in the West Semitic cultures from at least the Late-Bronze age onwards, but also that the number seventy in fact expressed the concept of totality, namely – the whole pantheon. This meaning of seventy appears not only in the heavenly world, but in other literary fields. Here are two examples among many:

a. Political Coups

Descriptions of political coups often describe seventy of the usurper’s opponents having been killed, in order to indicate that they were all eliminated.

  • The Aramaean inscription of Bir-Rakib from Zinjirly notes that a usurper killed his father Panamuwa and his seventy brothers (KAI 215:3).
  • The Tel-Dan Inscription (line 6) notes that King Hazael slew seventy kings.
  • In Judges, Abimelech slaughters Gideon’s seventy sons (Judg 9:5-6).
  • In Kings, Yehu slaughtered Ahab’s seventy sons (2Kings 10:6-7).

In all these instances, the number seventy is symbolic of complete destruction, without anyone escaping.[21]

b. Families and Nations

The number seventy plays a similar role in the biblical descriptions of families.

  • The biblical author describes Jacob’s seventy sons—i.e., all the Israelites—that went down to Egypt, leaving no one behind in Canaan (Gen 46:8-27; Exod 1:1-5).[22]
  • The biblical compositor of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 states that seventy nations descended from Noah’s three sons, thereby indicating that the total population of the world came from Noah’s seed.[23] Later Jewish sources use the same concept in their description of the gentile world as “the seventy nations.”[24]

Shared West Semitic Traditions

In light of this, it is suggested that the original meaning of the offering of seventy bulls on Sukkot echoed the old West Semitic custom of offering seventy sacrifices to the seventy gods – i.e., the whole pantheon – at the grand festival celebrating the New Year. Over time, the polytheistic traces of this ancient custom disappeared, the decreasing number of bulls each day helped to blur this precise number, which is not referenced in the biblical text.[25]

In addition, the autumnal New Year festival lost its significance with the Priestly Torah’s adoption of the spring New Year. Yet, the seventy sacrifices were preserved in the text, the sole remnant of the ancient local tradition of sacrificing seventy offerings to the seventy gods at the New Year festival.

Were the Seventy Gods Replaced by Seventy Nations?

As was mentioned above, the rabbinic texts were the first to note explicitly that the number of offerings was seventy. While the correspondence between bulls and nations has no earlier antecedent, it might be understood in light of the fact that several biblical passages turn gods into nations.

The idea that each nation has its own high god or patron deity was common in the Ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Thus, it is found in Jephthah’s speech to the king of Ammon (Judg 11:23-24):

וְעַתָּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הוֹרִישׁ אֶת הָאֱמֹרִי מִפְּנֵי עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאַתָּה תִּירָשֶׁנּוּ. הֲלֹא אֵת אֲשֶׁר יוֹרִישְׁךָ כְּמוֹשׁ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אוֹתוֹ תִירָשׁ וְאֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִישׁ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִפָּנֵינוּ אוֹתוֹ נִירָשׁ.
Now, then, YHWH, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites before His people Israel; and should you possess their land? Do you not hold what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that YHWH our God has given us to possess.

Over time, when the gods have been reduced to the rank of angels, leaving YHWH as the sole god, each nation received its own guardian angel (instead of god). In addition to Enoch cited above, this concept appears in the apocalyptic section of Daniel (2nd cent. BCE), in which the man Daniel sees in his vision explains that he has been delayed because Persia’s guardian angel (=the prince of Persia) was protecting his people by trying to stop him from delivering his message to Daniel (Dan 10:13):

וְשַׂר מַלְכוּת פָּרַס עֹמֵד לְנֶגְדִּי עֶשְׂרִים וְאֶחָד יוֹם וְהִנֵּה מִיכָאֵל אַחַד הַשָּׂרִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים בָּא לְעָזְרֵנִי…
But the prince (=angel) of the Persian kingdom opposed me for twenty-one days; now Michael, a prince (=angel) of the first rank, has come to my aid…

Perhaps the most explicit expression of nations having guardian angels comes from Jubilees (2nd cent. BCE), in the explanation for God’s commanding the Israelites to circumcise (15:31-32):

And He sanctified them and gathered them from all of the sons of man because (there are) many nations and many people, and they all belong to Him, but over all of them He caused spirits to rule so that they might lead them astray from following Him. But over Israel He did not cause any angel or spirit to rule because He alone is their ruler… (Outside the Bible, Kugel trans.).

The connection between a god and a nation, each of the former are worshipped by the latter – thus both are seventy in number – may have inspired later biblical scribes to replace the gods with the nations themselves due to theological reasons.[26] For example:

  • The “sons of gods” (בני אלים) who are invited to revere God in Ps 29:1 are called the “families of the peoples” (משפחות עמים) in Ps 96:7 (cf. 1 Chr 16:28).[27]
  • The heavenly beings (called שמים) who rejoice with God in Deut 32:43, according to 4QDeutq and the Septuagint (cf. Jer 14:22; Ps. 89:6) become the nations (גוים) at the hands of the Masoretic scribe.[28]

In addition to gods, other groups of seventy were used to correct henotheistic references in the Hebrew Bible.[29] Thus, certain LXX manuscripts as well as in a Qumran (4QDeutj) version of Haazinu (Deut 32:8) state:

בהנחל עליון גוים בהפרידו בני אדם יצב גבלת עמים למספר בני אלהים.
When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of man, he fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to the numbers of gods.

The idea here is that the Most High God divides the amount of nations according to the number of gods so that each nation has a god – the same idea that is expressed in Judg 11, Dan 10, 1 Enoch 89, 90 and Jub 15, cited above. In this case, however, the Masoretic Text (MT) adjusted the term “sons of god” (בני אלהים) to “sons of Israel” (בני ישראל), implying the MT’s tradition of Jacob’s seventy sons (cf. above: Gen 46:8-27; Exod 1:1-5).

In light of these theological corrections, it might be suggested that like their scribal predecessors, the Rabbinic Sages also replaced the non-monotheistic concept of seventy gods with the seventy nations who worshiped them; in other words, R. Elazar is recalling the idea that the seventy bulls reflect the seventy deities of these nations. The rabbinic tradition may thus in fact represent another echo of the ancient West Semitic custom of sacrificing to the seventy gods.

Published

October 14, 2016

|

Last Updated

November 6, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Noga Ayali-Darshan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and is the author of Treading on the Back of the Sea: The Combat between the Storm-god and the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Literature.