Review of Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements, 1; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007).  Pp. xiv + 304.  Hardcover, US$39.50.  ISBN 978-1-57506-801-5.


Gerald Klingbeil is Dean of the Theological Seminary and Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines.  Since completing his dissertation in 1995 on the ordination rituals in Leviticus 8 and Emar 369, he has sought an introduction to ritual and the Bible that could serve at once as an introductory textbook for undergraduate and graduate students and as an interface with the broader field of ritual studies.  Having found no success in his search, he has written this work to meet that need (p. 1).  He publishes it as the inaugurating volume of Eisenbraun’s new series, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements.

After a brief introductory chapter, in which he considers the value of his own professional life for his work on ritual, Klingbeil develops his ideas in ten subsequent chapters.   In Chapters 2-5 he selectively treats key terms for (Chapter 2), prior research in (Chapters 3-4) and the history of interpretation on (Chapter 5) ritual.  In Chapter 2 he defines and traces the interplay of cult, ritual, (sub)rite and symbol vis-Ó-vis the cultural and religious universes in which they function.  In Chapter 3 he reviews social scientific approaches to ritual in three chronological phases: 1870-1960, in which he gives attention to key figures in the myth and ritual (Frazer), social-function-of-religion (Durkheim), psychoanalytical (Freud) and phenomenology of religion (de la Saussaye, Otto, van der Leeuw, Eliade, Smith, Waardenburg) schools; 1960-1980, in which he considers the contributions of LÚvi-Strauss, Douglas, Leach, Tambiah and especially Turner; and recent decades, wherein he includes Bourdieu, Bell and Rappaport.  In Chapter 4 Klingbeil reviews major contributors to the study of ritual in the Bible over the past twenty-five years (along with several factors that have facilitated their interest), then poses “some additional challenges that need to be considered before one gets into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of actual ritual interpretation” (p. 52): that biblical ritual is brokered through texts, for instance; that the dating of those texts is ineluctably open to debate; that biblical texts are typically reductive in their descriptions and prescriptions.  And in Chapter 5 Klingbeil traces some of the ways in which “biblical ritual” (particularly, ritual in the Hebrew Bible/LXX) has been interpreted—and at points ways in which ritual, itself, was conceived—through several periods of history: the Hebrew prophets, “Intertestamental Judaism” [sic], the first seven centuries of Christianity, Medieval Christianity, Protestant Reformation Christianity, the Enlightenment and the Modern and Post-Modern Age, concentrating here on contemporary Evangelicalism.

Klingbeil then presents his own approach to engaging biblical ritual in Chapters 6-9.  He adopts a linguistic metaphor as his framework for conceiving ritual dynamics (p. 127): the smallest units of a ritual make up its morphology; the interaction of those units, its syntax; the sum of those units and their interaction yields that ritual’s semantics; and the cultural, historical and religious context in which it is performed furnishes its pragmatics, by which Klingbeil means “the overall function of the ritual in the religious system.”  Klingbeil takes Chapters 6-8 to outline his conception of ritual morphology; and Chapter 9 to do the same with his conception of ritual pragmatics.  It seems he regards ritual syntax and semantics to emerge naturally from ritual morphology (pp. 131-33), and so to need little or no treatment in and of themselves.  With regard to morphology, Klingbeil breaks ritual down into nine items and discusses each in turn as a first step “when attempting a comprehensive interpretation of any ritual” (p. 127): (1) Required Situation and Context, (2) Structure, (3) Form, Order and Sequence, (4) Ritual Space, (5) Ritual Time, (6) Ritual Objects, (7) Ritual Actions, (8) Ritual Participants and Roles and (9) Ritual Sound and Language.  As for ritual pragmatics, after briefly refuting several methods of defining ritual’s communicative function (espoused by Frank Gorman, Ronald Grimes and Catharine Bell), Klingbeil outlines instead a classification of ten “dimensions” of ritual, condensed from thirteen dimensions suggested by Jan Platvoet: (1) Interactive: “Ritual as Social Facilitator,” (2) Collective: “Ritual as Community Builder,” (3) Traditionalizing Innovation: Ritual as “Creating Something New without Discarding the Old,” (4) Communicative: Ritual “Transmitting Messages,” (5) Symbolic: Ritual and “The Power of Symbols,” (6) Multimedia: Ritual as “Total Communication,” (7) Performance: Ritual as “Customary Rules, Play-Acting and Conventions,” (8) Esthetic: Ritual as “Ordering One’s World Neatly,” (9) Strategic: Ritual as “Determining Power Structures” and (10) Integrative: Ritual “Creating Community.”

In Chapter 10, Klingbeil follows his main discussion by considering the implications of ritual studies for wider areas of biblical and theological research; e.g., biblical and systematic theology, ethics and spirituality, liturgical renewal, missions.  And, in his final chapter, “Ritual Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, or: Some Type of a Conclusion for a Christian Theology,” he closes with a brief meditation on the value of ritual studies for contemporary life: they are a path to self knowledge, a medium for communication, a conduit to the ancient world and a (yet underappreciated?) asset for the 21st century church.  Klingbeil concludes the book with an appendix, in which he lists all Pentateuchal ritual texts “as a pilot project for a more complete list covering all of the Hebrew Bible as well as the NT” (p. 4).  He then offers a bibliography and indices for Authors, Scripture and Other Ancient Sources.  Twenty-one figures and one table illustrate his discussion at various points throughout.

            Klingbeil’s sheer investment in biblical and ritual studies ensures his work will be valuable for exegetes interested in this subfield.  He focused his doctoral work on this issue; in the decade or so since, he has read, reflected and written more widely on it; his bibliography is, alone, worth the price of the book; and, along with that bibliography, he employs both scholarly integrity and exegetical erudition in introducing these new bedfellows to a wider readership.  His effort impresses less than it might have, however, due to his two aims, which operate at cross purposes and thereby breed as much confusion as they do clarity.  His intention to write at once an introductory textbook for undergraduate and graduate students and an interdisciplinary monograph for theological scholars is a tightrope hard to walk; and it’s not long before his attempt at the former (his Forschungsberichte on ritual in social scientific, biblical and historical-theological studies, Chapters 3-5) is eclipsed by his efforts toward the latter (his own conception of how biblical ritual should be broached, Chapters 6-9).  An index to this negation is the role played in Klingbeil’s discussion by Ithamar Gruenwald’s Rituals and Ritual Theory in Ancient Israel—by Klingbeil’s own admission an “important landmark in this field” (p. 47) published in 2003 (Brill).  Gruenwald’s pivotal assumption in that work is that a ritual’s theory is embedded in itself and not, therefore, to be fundamentally found in symbols later attached to it.  As the subject of an introduction to this subfield, such a premise might be expected to be given several pages of discussion on how it might further be applied and on what the benefits and liabilities might be of doing so.  But, while Klingbeil does recount and raise some doubts about it (pp. 17-18, 47-48; cf. p. 14)—and while he does interact with Gruenwald on more minor matters throughout the work (pp. 1, 56, 178-79, 207, 209, 237)—he quickly leaves Gruenwald’s idea behind in favor of his own (arguably opposing) theory that “the actions that constitute a ritual do not have inherent meanings” (p. 55), which then governs the rest of the volume.  By more or less circumventing Gruenwald’s premise for his own, Klingbeil fails to “introduce” this important voice in the field to students who ought to know more about it; and by simply recounting that premise without extensive argument against it, he fails to “establish” a basis for his own theory to the contrary.

Such patchwork does not disqualify Klingbeil’s book from being a starting point for further work on ritual and biblical studies.  It does, however, suggest that it will fulfill that role more as a catalyst to further thinking than as a template for it.

Michael Allen Daise
College of William and Mary