- Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power
A number of texts in the Hebrew Bible provide legislation regarding the cultic and domestic handling of blood. But as William K. Gilders notes, this blood ritual corpus provides no comprehensive or coherent explanation for why blood must be manipulated in the manners stipulated, with the exception of Lev 17:11. Though select texts do rationalize correct blood ritual with the puzzling assertion that "the life is in the blood," Lev 17:11 alone provides "the only biblical text that specifically interprets blood manipulation by referring to the identification of blood with life" (p. 185). Due to this dearth of textual articulation, it is not surprising that the potent text of Lev 17:11 is often exploited by scholars as the conceptual key for explaining how the "blood as life" notion drives the various stipulations which regulate blood handling (tossing, sprinkling, daubing, or pouring). This exploitation produces creative interpretations, perhaps the most common being that since blood is life, and life [End Page 189] comes from God, blood must be returned back to God (i.e., applied to God's altar). However, such interpretations, are not "native" to the Hebrew Bible, and through a close examination of Lev 17:11 at all stages of his work, Gilders concludes that this popular text is not the key scholars claim it to be.
In Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible, Gilders confronts head on the methodological weakness of employing the "blood as life" axiom as the interpretive paradigm for understanding blood ritual. Instead, Gilders takes a cautious, what he calls "agnostic" approach to interpreting the meaning of blood manipulation in the ritual corpus, noting that the texts themselves are not primarily concerned with providing interpretive or explanatory statements regarding the symbolic meaning of ritual acts, but rather with identifying the key actors and outlining the procedural details involved in the execution of patterned rites of praxis. With his approach, Gilders does not approve of innovative explanations about "native" interpretations of ritual acts when articulated evidence is not present, a scholarly practice he regularly refers to as "gap filling." Moreover, he strongly opposes "analogical reasoning," whereby scholars apply speculative interpretations from one context (commonly Lev 17:11) to fill the gap of another context. In Gilders' view, these relaxed methodologies have left the academic field of blood ritual study saturated with a myriad of constructed assumptions, and in need of an alternative approach.
In his novel and sophisticated analysis to the blood ritual corpus, Gilders provides a course correction, suggesting that scholars turn from the quest to find the meaning of blood manipulation in the conceptual connection of blood with life, to a consideration of blood's "latent" functionality as an indexical sign that symbolically marks (and perhaps defines) structured relationships between humans, Yahweh, and sacred space in the socio-cultic setting of the textual corpus. Building on the socio-cultic work of his Brown University mentor, Saul M. Olyan, and his own doctoral dissertation (2001) conducted under Olyan, Representation and Interpretation: Blood Manipulation in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism (though Gilders makes no mention of his dissertation in his current work), as well as a comprehensive review of recent theories regarding ritual practice, Gilders provides a bold and sophisticated elucidation of blood manipulation, arguing that blood handling functions to index social structure and holy space within the cultic sphere.
Gilders notes that in the world of the text there are various "cultic actors" functioning in the ritual practices. Only the ritual specialists (initially Moses and the elders, but eventually the Aaronoid priesthood) perform the "elite activity," the handling and manipulation of the blood. The "subordinate activity" (the bringing, slaughtering and dividing of the offering) is performed by subordinate cultic actors. The elite activity is marked, or "indexed" by the handling [End Page 190] of the blood. Gilders notes that blood manipulation even reinforces cultic distinction among the priesthood, as Aaron is indexed superior to his sons, who merely have an intermediate status: the sons bring...