Review of M. Hundley, Keeping Heaven on Earth

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Hundley, Michael B., Keeping Heaven on Earth: Safeguarding the Divine Presence in the Priestly Tabernacle (FAT II, 50; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). Pp. xvi + 250. Cloth. €59.00; ISBN 978-3-16-150697-0.

In this study, Michael B. Hundley argues scholars have given insufficient attention to the question of how the Priestly writers sought to obtain and preserve the divine presence on earth in the midst of human imperfection and impurity. The book, a revision of his dissertation, addresses that situation through an analysis of the Priestly texts in Exod 25–Lev 16 and a comparison of them with relevant ancient Near Eastern texts. He concludes the Priestly writers seek to create a suitable earthly environment for a transcendent deity, YHWH, by means of their ritual system, which they portray as a divinely authored, effective, and integrated system inclusive of both individuals and the sanctuary. Only through strict, careful observance of this system could Israel hope to keep the deity, and therefore heaven, on earth.

The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, bibliography, and three indices (sources, authors, and subjects). Hundley addresses several preliminary matters in the Introduction, including his textual focus, previous scholarship on P, interpretive issues involved in reading ritual texts, the challenge of speaking of the ineffable, and the importance of comparisons with other ancient Near Eastern materials. The seven chapters of his argument address theoretical and linguistic matters (Chapters One and Two), obtaining and attending to the divine presence on earth (Chapters Three and Four), and mitigating human imperfection (Chapters Five, Six, and Seven). The Conclusion summarizes Hundley's major arguments and findings. As this brief outline suggests, Hundley takes a comprehensive approach to the materials.

Chapter One begins with a discussion of competing ways ritual theory is conceptualized and used in religious and biblical studies. After acknowledging certain problems and limitations with the use of ritual theory (ranging from definitional concerns to their theoretical underpinnings), Hundley reviews prominent theories of ritual in religious and biblical scholarship, including those of Catherine Bell, Jonathan Klawans, William Gilders, Martin Modéus, and Roy Gane. This review permits him to articulate his own “cumulative approach,” which is a combination of all these theories. Hundley argues, in two brief paragraphs (34–35), that such a combination overcomes the shortcomings of each, but given his concerns about them, a fuller justification of his approach is needed.

The second chapter discusses the circumspect language used by the Priestly writers to describe the divine presence in the tabernacle. This is achieved primarily by P's use of “glory,” kābôd, to describe that presence. Paradoxically, this terminology simultaneously clarifies and obscures understandings of the deity. It clarifies because P sharpens the distinction between the deity and the ark, the object most closely associated with the deity in the tabernacle, by removing any possibility that the deity is embodied in it. That association is unnecessary since the glory is an unmistakable sign of YHWH's presence. At the same time, it obscures because the Priestly writers are vague about what stands behind that “glory” and refuse to define it. Hundley argues this rhetorical paradox results in the exaltation of YHWH over other ancient Near Eastern deities. YHWH is beyond description, whereas ancient Near Eastern gods are represented visually by images and idols.

Having addressed these theoretical and linguistic matters, Hundley turns to the initiation of the cult (Chapters Three and Four) and mitigating human imperfection so as to keep the divine presence on earth (Chapters Five, Six, and Seven). Hundley uses his ritual theory here to provide organization and consistency in his interpretations, examining structure (what relationships are established in the ritual between persons, places, and actions), use (the textually verifiable interpretation of the participant's view of why actions are taken), and ideology (the theoretical logic and rhetorical effects of the actions for the text's author).

The dedication and inauguration of the tabernacle is the focus of Chapter Three. Hundley briefly discusses the dedication of Solomon's temple (1 Kgs 8) and analogous ancient Near Eastern ceremonies before taking up P's account of the tabernacle. Comparison of these different accounts makes it clear that, unlike other divine dwellings, the dedication of the tabernacle is combined by P with that of its personnel, the priests (Exod 29). This combination creates an integrated system of space and people. During the tabernacle dedication and inauguration ceremony (Lev 8), ritual actions are repeated in order to ensure the tabernacle and priests attain the maximal level of purity necessary for service of the transcendent deity. In the Priestly texts, however, the deity inhabits the tabernacle (Exod 40) before this ceremony occurs. Hundley explains this textual sequence as signifying that, for P, ritual consecration and purification of the divine dwelling cannot be effective without the deity already being present in the tabernacle since the deity alone “can suitably consecrate his house” (92). Entry of the divine glory into the tabernacle (Exod 40) provides the primary consecration and prepares it for the formal dedication to come (Lev 8).

Once operational, the tabernacle and cult require daily maintenance and service in order to keep the deity on earth. Chapter Four reviews the various elements of the tabernacle's daily service (the Bread of the Presence, light, incense, and the burnt, grain, and drink offerings), comparing each to ancient Near Eastern practices and elements. That comparison makes clear YHWH is more transcendent and elusive than other ancient Near Eastern gods—one of the rhetorical effects of the texts, which seek to persuade the audience of YHWH's superiority.

Hundley next turns his attention to how an imperfect people maintain the divine presence in their midst. Human failings, sins, and imperfections threaten that divine presence, and thus must be removed. Chapter Five reviews ancient Near Eastern mitigation and removal practices. Chapter Six examines the Priestly system, articulated in Lev 4–5, 12–15, and 16. Just as the tabernacle and priests are part of an integrated system, so too is removal of individual and corporate pollution integrated with removal of sanctuary pollution. Leviticus 4–5 and 12–15 describe the removal of individual and communal sins and impurities. Because those sins also pollute the sanctuary, Lev 16 describes how to remove them annually on “Clearing Day” (the Day of Atonement). Hundley evaluates this removal system (Chapter Seven) in terms of its rhetorical effect, key terms, and comparisons with ancient Near Eastern practices. The complexities of keeping the divine presence on earth are resolved through the ritual system if Israel follows its precepts carefully. The Conclusion then summarizes Hundley's arguments.

Hundley's comprehensive approach to the Priestly ritual system is ambitious. He attempts to examine the entire system and compare it with the systems of surrounding cultures in their entirety. This approach is a strength and a weakness. Hundley rightly reminds scholars of the larger socio-cultural system within which offerings, sacrifices, and other ritual practices are performed and have their meaning. Yet trying to describe ritual practice in a comprehensive way is difficult if not impossible. Hundley himself cannot manage it, conceding (10) he must be selective in his presentation of ancient Near Eastern material (he suggests “an extensive analysis of each [ancient Near Eastern] system in its own right and context” [10] is a project currently in preparation). Additionally, given the dynamic nature of rituals, any attempt to examine an entire system, Israelite or otherwise, presumably will do so for one moment in time, in one location. Hundley's focus on the Priestly texts is a step in this direction, but he does not take a firm position on their date. He reviews arguments about their compositional history, but chooses to base his arguments on their “final” redacted form, the date of which he does not specify. While I understand why he avoids engaging all the compositional issues, his arguments would be strengthened by taking a clear position on the date and location of the redacted texts.

The ambitious nature of the book has other consequences. Because he is dealing with so much information, arguments tend to to be underdeveloped. For example, Hundley argues (92; cf. 44) the divine glory consecrates the tabernacle when it enters it (Exod 40), but does not explain how this occurs. The text only says the glory of YHWH fills the tabernacle (Exod 40:34–35), so a fuller explanation of how the tabernacle is consecrated by the glory is warranted. Later, when discussing the reasons why Clearing Day is required (159–72), he states that human sins and impurities affect the sanctuary, but again does not sufficiently explain how this happens, beyond suggesting a relationship is established because the sacrifices expunging human sins and impurities take place in the tabernacle (160). This is a point in the argument where ritual theory could help. If Hundley used his ritual theory for more than categorical purposes (structure, use, ideology), answers might be forthcoming, both in these examples and throughout the book. Despite devoting a chapter to ritual theory and his own theoretical approach (which is supposed to help “ensure fuller and more balanced results” [5] than those provided by other scholars), Hundley underutilizes ritual theory. This is unfortunate since ritual theory and other theoretical frameworks could help him gain more critical distance on the texts, clarify the parameters of his argument, engage in more robust analysis, and thus make stronger arguments about his source materials.

Although its ambitious goals hamper its arguments in various ways, Keeping Heaven on Earth contributes to research on Priestly rituals by underscoring their systematic nature, the ways in which the Priestly writers created an integrated ritual system, and the differences in that system from those of surrounding cultures.

Mark K. George, Iliff School of Theology