Sunday, January 18, 2015

Atonement simplified (and other Old Testament stuff)

I've been slowly reading a book written in 1963 by a Swedish Biblical scholar, Helmer Ringgren called Israelite Religion.    (It was at a second hand book market at Kelvin Grove, and I bought it because I thought it might fill in some lack of knowledge about Jewish temple practices.)  Helmer only died in 2012, I see, at the ripe old age of 94.

It is quite a good read, actually, and although only half way through, there are a few curious points I consider "blogworthy":

*  tent sanctuaries, such as that originally described for the Ark of the Covenant, are clearly known to have been used by pre-Islamic Arabs, and by modern Bedouins,   Seems little reason to doubt, then, that Jews had one.   In fact, I see now that there is a book called The Kregal Pictorial Guide to the Tabernacle which goes into much detail about these.  Interesting.  I just didn't realise that they were likely many of these wandering the deserts of the ancient Middle East.

*  there is the curious story of Jephthah in the book of Judges which is a little like the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son, except in this case the daughter does actually get it.   I don't think I had heard of this before, although it is probably a favourite of the "New Atheists", as it is clearly not, shall we say, Sunday School friendly.  (It certainly didn't pay for kids in that part of the world  to rush out of the house to great their Dad after a hard day on the battlefield.)

 The Wikipedia article about it notes the various ways its meaning has been guessed, although Ringgren himself seems to think it may be an echo of human sacrifice undertaken by the Canaanites.  He thinks, however, that there are other parts of the Old Testament that more clearly indicate some Israelites at some times may have "borrowed" other Middle Eastern ideas of the sacrifice of children.

Update:  Wikipedia has a quite detailed entry about the controversy over child sacrifice to Moloch

*  As far as the matter of sacrifice and atonement in the Temple is concerned, Ringgren makes brief mention of a Babylonian atonement ceremony which involved putting dough on a person and washing it off.   Seems a lot simpler than killing a bull, goat or pigeon and sprinking its blood on the altar.  (I wonder if the size of the sin had to be reflected in the size of the animal?)

The chapter about sacrifice and its meaning is one of the most interesting in the book, but I haven't finished it yet.

Update:  the book has also reminded me about the "showbread" or "Bread of the Presence" which was left in the Temple.  I only had the vaguest recollection of this, but once again, there's a decent enough summary of this practice in Wikipedia.

As you may guess from this post, the Catholic Church has not, in my lifetime, shown much interest in teaching people about the Jewish precedents for Christian practices.   Catholics to tend to only know about a fairly narrow range of the OT through the first readings at Sunday Mass.   I guess the Catholic Church has more or less been motivated to distance itself from Judaism over most of history, and I presume that's the explanation...

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