Toward a Grammar of Sacrifice: Hierarchic Patterns in the Israelite Sacrificial System


The idea that ritual systems are governed by “grammars” analogous to those of natural languages has been pursued in recent anthropological studies, yet no single comprehensive “grammar” of any ritual system has yet been composed. The present work, which focuses on a particular “grammatical” property operative in biblical sacrificial texts, constitutes part of a larger endeavor to demonstrate that the composition of a ritual “grammar” is possible.

It is commonly held that terms designating sacrificial types such as [inline-graphic 01],[inline-graphic 02], and [inline-graphic 03] are mutually exclusive—that is, that an individual animal cannot function as more than one sacrifice at the same time. However, a careful analysis of several biblical and postbiblical passages reveals that a single animal can in fact be offered as one type of sacrifice with regard to the procedure of ritual acts and as another type in a sense pertaining to the ritual’s desired effect. More generally, sacrificial elements fit into branching schemes whose nodes are labeled as different sacrificial types. Rules governing these schemes are formalized through the close examination of biblical and postbiblical passages.

Recognition of this hierarchic property may assist in solving a number of long-standing cruxes in biblical sacrificial passages; since the phenomenon extends to postbiblical texts as well, it may also provide a better understanding of the Israelite sacrificial system in general. Additionally, postulating such hierarchic rules contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between formal structure and “meaning” in sacrificial rituals.