Review of James W. Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

James W. Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pp. xviii + 257. Hardback, US$85.00. ISBN 978-0-521-87193-8.


In this volume, James Watts analyzes the rituals of Leviticus seeking to understand the rhetorical intent of these texts: who was trying to persuade whom of what? Beyond an introduction to the scope of the task (Chapter 1), the chapters of the first portion of the book (2 through 6) analyze specific texts in Leviticus. The remaining chapters (7 through 9) turn to define the impact of the rhetorical design of these texts upon the functions of the priesthood, the sacrificial cult and scripture.

In defining his task (Chapter One), Watts reviews the work of various scholars (mostly that of Jacob Milgrom and Mary Douglas), and concludes that no coherent description of the symbolic value and the meaning of the rituals in Leviticus is sustainable due to the sparsity of explanatory data within these texts. The essential weakness in these studies, according to Watts, is the failure to recognize that the search for the meaning in a text about a ritual is distinct from the quest for the meaning in a performance of that same ritual. For Watts, the rhetorical tendencies of the texts reveal a concern for buttressing the authenticity and prestige of the sacrificial cult, its priestly guardians and functionaries, and the authority of the scriptures that safeguard the prestige of the institution and its personnel. Detailed explanation for the rituals is beyond the scope of the texts.

The following chapters up through Chapter Six provide data from texts supporting the aforementioned claims. The recurrence of stock phrases and clauses such as “a fire-offering of soothing scent for YHWH” and “the priest will make atonement for them and they will be forgiven” in Leviticus 1-7 promote a sense of the effectiveness of such procedures (Chapter Two). Also, a sustained second-person address of the reader renders prominent the immediacy of such prescriptions for orthodox practice. Chapter Three argues that the priority of the ‘burnt offering’ in the order of the presentation of rituals throughout Leviticus 1-7 elevates the selfless quality of Israelite sacrifice. The promotion of this ideal ameliorates the portrayal of the sacrificial cult, and ensures (perhaps by diverting attention from) provision for priests through cultic prebends derived from other offerings. The increasing frequency of terms derived from חטא and אשׁם in Leviticus 4-5, the argument of Chapter Four, expresses the urgent need for remedy through sacrificial offering. Once again, the efficacy of the sacrificial cult that stems from correct practice and the facilitation of the appropriate personnel is at the forefront. A survey of the semantic range in the verb כפר (in Chapter Six), from the provision of compensation to purification, reveals a similar rhetorical purpose behind the use of that term. The impact of Leviticus 8-10, according to Watts in Chapter Five, is the conviction that the inaugural sacrifices are performed in accordance with custom (כמשׁפט). In contrast, Nadab and Abihu’s actions (Lev 10:1-3) are an aberration. The mysterious nature of Aaron’s departure from established procedure in Lev 10:16-20, and Moses’ satisfaction with his explanation, only serves to underscore Aaron’s authority (and by extension, that of the Aaronide priesthood) in the interpretation of cultic procedure.

A second part to the book, Chapter Seven through Chapter Nine, turns to consider the larger literary setting and the historical location for the rhetorical import of the ritual texts. Chapter Seven’s survey of early Jewish and Christian writings, as well as many from later periods, finds a general lack of recognition of the strong support for the Aaronide priesthood in the ritual texts of Leviticus. Other texts (Elephantine papyri, Ben Sira, etc.), however, suggest that a thriving community under priestly leadership in the Second Temple period was the object and location for the rhetorical agenda of Leviticus. A similarly displaced focus infects the understanding of the sacrificial offerings of Leviticus in biblical and extra-biblical material (from late antiquity to the modern period). Chapter Eight reveals, in these interpretations, an inappropriate reliance upon stories about ‘sacrifice’ which fail to attend to the rhetorical thrusts of the ritual texts themselves. Chapter Nine brings an end to the volume with the suggestion that the zealous defense of priestly authority and procedure forms the primary argument leading to an authoritative status for the Pentateuch; the authority of other legal content is a secondary development, a consequence, of this initial thrust.

The attention this study brings to the rhetorical design of ritual texts in Leviticus complements the wealth of material of an historical and comparative nature available to biblical scholars. Its concise and focused approach (defining the overt communicative content of the text) allows readers to hear the unadulterated message of Leviticus, prior to its inclusion within the chorus of interpretation for ritual within the Hebrew Bible. Commendable is the ability of Watts to incorporate ambiguities within the texts into his descriptions of their design. Much attention, for example, has fallen on defining the exact nature of Aaron’s explanation for the departure from cultic procedure in Lev 10:16-20. Watts, however, finds a simple but triumphant expression of approval for Aaron as interpreter of ritual in these verses. The obscurity of the rationale of Aaron’s explanation serves to underscore his ability to make sense of the complexities of the sacrificial cult. The greater the degree of confusion for the reader regarding the details of the explanation, the greater becomes the admiration for Aaron and, by extension, the priesthood. The point of the passage is not an explanation for the exception to established practice, but rather that Aaron did explain the anomaly to the satisfaction of Moses. This reading fits well with the exhortation to adhere to established procedure, including recognition for the authority of selected agents and officials, the precise import of Leviticus 8-10. The methods Watts brings to the discussion over ritual in the Pentateuch will prove an enduring contribution for years to come. 

Bernon P. Lee
Grace College and Seminary
Winona Lake, Indiana