Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: Rara!

Rara: Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora

Elizabeth McAlister

Unviersity of California Press, 2002


by Sara Bruya
(c) 2006

Elizabeth McAlister began her research into the historical roots of Rara after her encounter with a related festival in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. What she discovered, and what the reader discovers in reverse throughout her book, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and its Diaspora, is that the manifestation of Rara elements in the Haitian immigrant population in NYC is another phenomenon entirely—one that draws on nostalgic elements of immigrants’ home culture to assert a national and ethnic identity in a foreign land.

McAlister explains that “Rara in New York has come to express a point of view about the Haitian immigrant predicament,” (185) and is not a genuine reproduction of Haitian Rara with its religious and contractual obligations to the lwa and relationships with zonbi, which McAlister describes throughout most of the book. Rara has rather been adopted by an emerging razin (roots) movement in the U.S. to forge a particular diasporic identity rooted in the culture of the homeland, with proud reference to traditional African culture. “In the New York setting,” McAlister writes, “Rara gatherings create an in-between world that is not the Haitian countryside but is also not typical of metropolitan New York.” (196) The manifestations of elements of Rara in America display many characterizations of ‘invented tradition:’ “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” (196)

It is this “past” that McAlister set out to uncover through several years of research into the practices of Haitian Rara bands in the early 1990s, during very turbulent political times. This short paper will provide an overview of McAlister’s research and an attempt to define and summarize the many functions of the Rara festival performance. In the simplest of terms, Rara is a moving community festival that invites the observer to become a participant. It is a performance of music, singing and dance in which the distinction between audience and performer is blurred. (6) “Rara members come together in a group with the sense that they are bound in a common adventure, a common mission,” McAlister writes. “Part of the mission is for the group to build its spiritual and physical stamina.” (40)

Rara performances serve many other purposes and function on multiple levels at once. On the political level, Rara functions as a subversive tool for political commentary where no other opportunity for dissent exists. On the religious level, Rara rituals fulfill mystical contracts, salute sacred places, and pay tribute to the recently dead. (7) On the local, societal level, Rara “can be seen as a traditionally sanctioned negotiation of power and status between classes… Rara groups align themselves with local notables through a performance of loyalty and homage but at the same time make a monetary demand, asserting the ideal of responsibility on the part of the more powerful.” (52) McAlister asserts that “in a country with low ‘professional’ employment and a low literacy rate, [association with a Rara band] is a major form of social capital.” (34) In addition, Raras serve as a forum for male empowerment, according to McAlister, in a society in which life is organized in terms of gendered spheres where women control the household. (89)

In all of its various forms and levels of meaning, Rara constitutes the religion and expressive politics of the poor. (13) As such, Rara performances, festivals, parades are characterized by the ability to innovate quickly in the style and content of their songs and to move from one to another of these levels of meaning subtly and suddenly in response to ever-changing social and political circumstances. According to McAlister, “The conditions in Haiti during the twentieth century have occasioned multiple insecurities resulting from many causes: land erosion, massive migration, unemployment, poverty, famine, dictatorships, coups d’etat, and foreign invasions. It is on a shifting and violent stage that Rara bands leave their compounds and enter public space.” (161) Living with such impermanent political structures, financial institutions and unstable social ties, the content, meanings and styles of Rara performances can shift quickly and unpredictably.

Lyrics which critique national politics, for example, can be quickly disguised as a local anecdote through the clever use of metaphor and double entendre. “Voye pwen is a Hatian Kreyol technique used in Vodou, in all levels of politics, and in Rara. It involves speaking about something in metaphor, using great innuendo.” (42) Using this method, Rara bands make musical points about the national situation, sexual mores, and politics within the local community. (43) For example, ‘whores’ can represent undesirable exploiters—politicians, lawyers, thieves, or con-men. A Rara song about whores can be read as a critique of politicians, coup leaders, and corrupt nationalists who would keep the government from majority rule. (67)

In this way, the Rara festival provides an important forum for political commentary, representing a kind of subversive outspokenness in a society in which direct political commentary can be treasonous. (61) However, as McAlister explains, “As large groups of lower class people going down the roads making noise, Raras convey a message of sheer physicality, a reminder that the peasants are in the majority in Haiti. A crowd of hundreds of peasant-class or urban-poor bodies ‘unsupervised’ by the ruling class, Rara is inherently threatening to dominant class sensibilities.” (178)

Another threat to the status quo of the Haitian elite is the use of betiz songs and vulgarity in general in Rara peformance. As McAlister explains, these open a philosophical space for opposition and a rejection of the suffering of the world through laughter. She also wants to link such vulgarity with power, suggesting with M. M. Bakhtin that “…popular displays of vulgarity are parodies that undermine dominant culture by exposing its absurdity.” (78) The use of vulgarity and the suggestion of amoral behavior can be seen as a metaphorical revolt against law and order; an undermining of consensual standards of decency. (64) In particular, “lyrics dealing with women, money and sexuality may reflect a discursive revolt on the part of this disenfranchised, relatively powerless male against the classed and gendered structure of Haitian society.” (67) In addition, such vulgarity in Rara festivals can be viewed as a parody of the Church and a rebellion against the bourgeois Catholic construction of the body, sexuality and decorum.

In line with this “anti-Christian” sentiment is the adoption of the identity of “the Jew” as it has been constructed long ago by medieval Europe. McAlister claims that many of the negative images of Vodou and Rara held by the Haitian elite and the ‘West’ in general are drawn from Europe’s demonization of the Jews. (113) “As figures to be manipulated, demonized, or embraced, the Jews were marked as the original ‘Other’ of Europe, the very first object of projection, marginalization, and demonization of Christendom.” (114) The Rara tradition has internalized and adopted this characterization of itself as anti-Christian, and many Rara members actually believe that their tradition was originally a Jewish one. (126)

On its most fundamental level, McAlister argues, Rara performance and the identity of its members is based in religious ritual. Rara bands are initially formed in one of two ways. A band is formed either by the specific request of a lwa (the band’s guiding deity or spirit) or is reclaimed by a lwa, and is under contract to such spirit for a period of seven years. (35-36) As such, “the Rara leadership has a very serious agenda that consists of attending to the spiritual work of the band…[it deals with] the important matters of fulfilling spiritual contracts, performing rituals for the lwa along the route of the band, waging war on other Raras, and last but not least, collecting money.” (33)

For the spiritual work of the Rara, the cemetery is the most important and central site. It is considered to be the dwelling place of the spirits of the recent dead, “as well as the higher-ranking spirits who ‘own,’ guard, and direct the dead.” (91) Rara rituals focus on the act of capturing zonbi, or the spirits of the recently dead who are subsequently owned by a ‘master’—in this case, the Rara band—and obliged to work. According to McAlister, the figure of the zonbi is an allegory for the condition of slavery and servitude that has characterized the history and present-day life of the majority of Haitians. (103) “This time, it is the descendants of the former slaves who control slavery by themselves enslaving sprits as mystical helpers.” (109) Rara bands visit cemeteries to conduct mystical negotiations and make contracts with these entities in order to infuse the band with magical force. McAlister explains that “this principle of infusing a group with supernatural energy is common to many African-based religions, where practitioners bring spiritual power from outside the boundaries of society to use for their benefit.” (87)

Despite, or in addition to, its religious dimension, “Rara’s symbols and social organization reveal it to be one of the most militarized arenas of popular religious culture.” (139) Rara bands participate in ongoing spiritual and sometimes physical warfare or competition with each other. They set magical traps for other bands, sabotage each other through kidnapping or stealing of instruments or the other band’s flag. The ultimate victory is to stop the music and dancing of the other band and to attract the defeated band’s followers and audience. This can sometimes lead to physical violence and death, but is most often carried out on a mystical level in attempts to spiritually weaken opponents. The bòkò (secret society leaders) or the oungan of each band are responsible for preparing magical powders (poud), toxins and antidotes for inflicting magic on opposing bands and for treating the spiritual or physical wounds received from enemies.

Thus, in addition to performing their own spiritual work, “Rara bands are organized local groups with formal ranks, costumes, and rituals, and they conceive of themselves as armies connected to imaginary states that move through territory, carry out armed maneuvers, and conduct diplomatic relations with other groups in the process of their musical celebrations.” (147-8)

In conclusion, Rara has been characterized as a ritual enactment of life itself and an affirmation of life’s difficulties. In particular, it seems to be a direct response to the oppressive realities experienced by the popular classes. As McAlister writes, “ …the history of oppression in Haiti has produced a sense of alienation and mistrust expressed in Vodou songs through the tension of ‘us against them.’” (171) This “us/them” dynamic is palpable on all levels on which the Rara performance functions in society—whether political, social, or religious—and is even apparent in its more recent manifestations among the NYC immigrant population. McAlister’s survey of the Rara tradition is a very thorough and enlightening introduction to this performative element of Vodou culture and the complex levels of meaning it embodies and expresses.


Farming in Hawai'i















Happy 2007, friends!
I've just returned to Boston from a month in the Puna district
of the big island of Hawaii--working on an organic farm.
Although I'm
sure I would have envied anyone spending a month in Hawaii before this adventure, I'm sorry to report that it was not at all what we had hoped for.
Kiki and I went o
n this adventure to learn more about tropical agriculture and the economic dimension of processing, marketing and distributing tropical crops. Despite the best possible communication and planning, we landed in an unfortunate situation--a farm that once had a glowing reputation, now run by a very disorganized, alcoholic couple. Though we did learn to harvest galangal and turmeric from another volunteer, we received absolutely no instruction from our hosts and instead found ourselves unwittingly in a very bizarre community of people wealthy enough to escape society and live a kind of lawless, drug-induced existence, which they call "spiritual".
Having academic duties to fulfill, (I had four term papers to write and an exam to prepare for and take) it was very difficult to pick up and leave to find a better situation, so we stuck it out the best we could. We had chosen Josanna's Garden based on its previous reputation as Andy's Organics and also by the fact that we would have our own cabin with electricity and internet access (essential for our studies). It turned out that we had about one hour of light each night and had to use internet in a mosquito-infested swamp under a mango tree. The outdoor shower and composting toilet were in plain view of the garden and kitchen, respectively, with very little privacy until Kiki insisted that new woven palm mats be installed. Oh, and we couldn't drink the water. Oh, and we weren't allowed to pee in the toilet--we were supposed to "water the trees."
You know, I feel a little strange about complaining so much. After
all, I'm part of the "tough-it" family, as my dad always reminded us as kids. We learned to pee in the woods and to respect bugs. To some degree I pride myself on being able to adjust to different cultural situations--I was a Peace Corps volunteer after all! How could I be defeated by a bunch of hippies?! But I think this situation was more challenging because of the judgment and hypocrisy of those around us. It was a very stressful environment for us. What we ate and the way we ate it was under scrutiny (sandwiches, god forbid. How unnatural!), our dependence on electricity, internet, even soap (!) was questioned. We didn't conform to the "open", "natural", "spiritual", "energy" of the place. It was remarkable to me how judgmental and conformist these people were who thought of themselves as open and spiritual. They all spoke the same new-age language like zombies.
The worst of our j
udges was named "Olucean," a name he had chosen for himself because he disliked the name John given by his family. Olucean was connected to mother earth, a self-proclaimed permaculture specialist (meaning he does nothing to the trees--what kind of specialization is that?), and moves like a dry banana leaf in a mild breeze. He was the self-proclaimed fruit manager at Josanna's Garden. Olucean was full of judgment and contradiction. He admonished our use of peanut butter, but then I caught him spreading some on his baked bananas. He sneered when I asked if he ever made jams from the star fruit or mangoes..."fruit is meant to be eaten off the trees--fresh!" but he would bake a cake of Ulu and Plantains every night. It was Olucean who explained that the trees needed our urine for their well-being. For him, everything should be as "natural" as possible. The next morning, we saw Olucean walking around with an iPod and big headphones pulling back his long blond curls. "What's with the technology?" I asked. "Oh, the local birds have been killed off by humans and imported predators, so in their absence, I need some music to listen to." When my computer was repeatedly unable to connect to the internet "hotspot" under the mosquito tree, Olucean said the problem was my "old computer." "I never have a problem with my new Mac," he said. I felt comforted by the fact that none of the other volunteers were on Olucean's good side either. He apparently affirmed his identity by proving to himself that he possessed superior spirituality and openness compared to those around him.
It was really funny for me to go from Cambridge, MA--where I g
enerally find myself feeling like the unsophisticated country bumpkin at Harvard--to being the complicated, uptight, demanding representative of "the Man" to the self-called "Puna-tics" of the Big Island. It's so interesting to be such different things to different people--without changing anything about myself but my physical location!
The whole experience was a good lesson in conflict for me--something I generally like to avoid. It was helpful for me to come up against an environment I couldn't adapt to. It helped me to define a boundary, my limit. I am many things, perhaps, but not that. I'm only learning these things in hindsight. I wish I had been more agressive, actually, in standing up for myself as Kiki did. Not taking any shit from Olucean or bending to his will. I was more deferent, as we were already dislikable strangers in their midst. My tactic was not to make things worse than they already were.
Finally I finished my work and we were able to spend a few days touring the Island before having to return to our respective c
ampuses. We visited Hilo, Captain Cook, Kona and the Kohala coast. My favorite part was seeing sea turtles and touring coffee farms. Here are a few more photos from our trip...the best four days of the whole month!



Friday, January 19, 2007

Old Testament Sacrifice

An Investigation into the Significance of Blood in Old Testament Sacrifice

Text: Leviticus 17:10-16

By Sara Bruya (c) 2007


Note: This paper was written as the final exam for "Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures" at Harvard Divinity School, Fall 2006 - Prof. Michael Coogan

The text of Leviticus 17:10-16 concerns the appropriate relationship of the human being to blood—its substance, meaning and uses in the sacrificial and mundane killing of animals. While the first half of the chapter essentially concerns the priestly perspective on the appropriate and inappropriate ways and places in which rituals of blood sacrifice should be carried out (Lev 17:1-9), it is the second part which is especially interesting for reflection on the possible meanings of blood rituals in ancient Israel. In this essay, we will examine first the general anthropological understanding of the meanings of sacrifice, and then focus primarily on the significance of blood in Old Testament sacrificial practices as illuminated by the second part of Leviticus 17.

As people throughout the ages have come to acknowledge that they depend upon forces greater than themselves, “ritual, including sacrificial ritual, [has] provide[d] a means of influencing, or rather of hoping to influence, these forces.”[1] People have also been aware that these larger forces are responsible not only for life and blessing, but for misfortune, difficulty, and even evil. As the human being has encountered both beneficent and malevolent forces, ritual has essentially developed as a system for controlling the unpredictable element in human experience. It can also be “the means whereby the body corporate preserves its integrity and health. The rite is felt to be effective in some mystic way in bringing about the desired result, and giving collective expression to the most fundamental of all instincts, that of the preservation of life.”[2] Thus, “sacrifice is thought of as a way of eliminating evil. And to feel purged of malignant forces in oneself is, in some measure at least, to be purged of them.”[3]

Scholars have made numerous attempts to “isolate or abstract the essential idea common to all sacrifice.”[4] De Vaux and many others suggest that there are three key motivations for the practice of sacrifice: communion, gift, and expiation.[5] In addition, other scholars have suggested homage of the subject to the Lord, renewal of covenant vows with the deity, and life released from the victim, transmitted to the deity, and conferred upon the worshippers as possible meanings of the sacrificial act.[6] In all cases, it is “essential to the concept that the human offerer remove something from his own disposal and transfer it to a supernatural recipient.”[7]

According to Daly, the most basic or central idea in ancient Israel’s practice of sacrifice as presented in the Old Testament is the gift idea.[8] “Sacrifices conceived as gifts can involve open exchange, in which the deity is expected to confer general protection and favor; or the sacrificial gift may involve closed exchange, in which the gift is offered in order that the deity may confer a defined benefit, such as health or a safe journey…”[9] However, contrary to Daly’s assertion, the priestly writers of Leviticus may have believed that Yahweh’s protection of Israel was already secured through the Sinai Covenant if the people committed to and observed Yahweh’s laws. According to Rogerson, “…When the Old Testament is taken as a whole, the context for understanding the sacrifices is the occasion when God set out the law that his people should obey in response to their delivery from Egypt.”[10]

As obedience to God seemed to be a perpetual obstacle for the people of ancient Israel, as described by the Old Testament narrative, it might be more accurate, if we are to identify the central theme for the priestly writers of Leviticus, to view their understanding of sacrifice as primarily expiatory. “In the narrow sense, expiatory sacrifices presuppose consciousness of a moral fault that can be punished by a higher being who must therefore be placated by suitable acts on the part of the human beings involved.”[11]

Although there are some forms of offering to a deity which do not require the death of an animal—such as first fruits of a harvest or other offerings of non-living objects—Leviticus 17 explicitly discusses the sacrifices that involve the slaughter of an animal and the manipulation of its blood. According to Leviticus 17:11, atonement for sin is (exclusively?) achieved through blood sacrifice, “for it is the blood that makes atonement...” As Ringgren explains, “…blood plays a significant part in the ritual of expiatory offerings. But we are still left in ignorance of the reason why this is so, and of the way in which expiation or atonement is brought about by means of the blood.”[12]

In Leviticus 17:10, we see a prohibition against the eating of blood, both for the people of Israel, “and the strangers that sojourn among them.” The explanation given in 17:11 is that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” and in 17:14 that, “the life of every creature is the blood of it…the life of every creature is its blood.” Thus, life is in the blood, life is blood. The prohibition against eating blood may imply a couple of things: As Bourdillon suggests, perhaps there may be “…some kind of power to be released or removed in sacrifice,”[13] and the blood may be seen to be the substance, the representation of the mysterious power that generates or contains life.

“In every sacrifice an object passes from the common into the religious domain; it is consecrated.”[14] It could be said that blood, as a substance, was seen by the people of ancient Israel to exist in both realms—the common/material and the mysterious/spiritual. It is a physical and yet symbolic substance representing the life of beings, existing in both domains, or passing from one to the other. Since the origin of life is not only mysterious but seen to be the property or domain of Yahweh (i.e. powers beyond the control of the human being), blood is seen as belonging to his realm, the realm of the mysterious forces of life. Thus, blood is a mystical substance existing in the common realm of human beings, but belonging to the realm of God.

It is not explained in 17:10 why eating blood will “cut one off from among his people,” as the priestly writers of Leviticus adamantly assert. But, as with other prohibitions, we might suppose that it points to some kind of antisocial or subversive practice or behavior that the priestly writers were trying to condemn. As Beattie explains, sacrifice is almost always seen as “being, mostly about power or powers.[15] Perhaps a belief in the life-power contained in blood led to unsanctioned rituals of eating or drinking blood to gain a kind of vitality. Perhaps this verse is even a sanction against eating human blood (Leviticus 17:10 does not specify), as human sacrifices were known to have taken place in certain ancient civilizations, and perhaps even among the Israelites. As de Vaux explains, “some writers hold that apostate Israelites offered human sacrifices to foreign deities, that some of them even offered such sacrifices to Yahweh…and even that at some distant era, Yahwism gave official recognition to, and actually prescribed human sacrifice.”[16] The passage does explain that the power of the blood is “given for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls,” and implies that it should not be used for any other purpose. Even blood not offered in a sacrificial rite is to be treated ritually, either poured out and covered with dust, or treated as unclean, for which ritual cleansing is necessary (17:13-16).

How is the sacrificial killing of an animal, and the use of its blood, understood to positively affect the life of the offerer or the community? Scholars have attempted to answer this question in various ways. James describes blood as a vital substance common to all living beings and as such, it is seen as having mystical properties. He writes, “…The possession of a common vitality establishes a mystic vital bond between all who share the same life-essence, and since this potency is capable of transmission from one person or object to another, renewed health and strength can be secured by a ritual transference of soul-substance…It is this fundamental principle which underlies blood ritual in its various manifestations…”[17] Thus, James might argue that the offerer is essentially cleansing and replacing his sinful life-essence with that of another, presumably purified, life-essence, because “…men and animals are animated by a common soul-substance [blood] which… is capable of projection from one species to another.”[18]

In contrast to the idea of transference of vitality, Ringgren and others describes blood ritual as a ransom—the sacrificial animal acting as a substitute for the human offerer. This theory develops the belief that some life must be given in exchange for human transgression. “Sin and its consequences are hostile to life; therefore, in order to ransom man from these consequences, life must be given. Now, life is in the blood, and therefore the blood of the sacrificial animal is exactly what is required to bring about atonement, i.e. the removal of sin and guilt.”[19] According to this understanding, the death of the animal represents the life of the offerer which was forfeit because of his sin against God.”[20] This theory of substitution is another possible explanation for the reason why the sacrificial killing of an animal is seen to atone for one’s transgressions. As Beattie explains, “One of the things that seems to happen in… the consecration of an animal for sacrifice is that the animal is made into a symbol…[which] stands for (probably among other things) the person or persons who are making the sacrifice or upon whose behalf the sacrifice is being made.”[21]

Another possible meaning of the blood in ritual sacrifice could be the re-establishment of a covenant between God and the individual. “When a man had sinned, he needed to find grace again, and he had to ask God to re-establish the covenant whose terms he had broken. This was the purpose of sacrifices for sin and of sacrifices of expiation…”[22] As Coogan points out, blood, and the killing of an animal was an integral part of the covenant-making process in ancient Near Eastern cultures. “Ceremonies that were part of ancient treaty and covenant making…involved cutting an animal as a symbolic acceptance of the consequences of breaking a covenant.”[23]

The question remains of how expiation or atonement is brought about by means of blood. How does the death of an animal bring about renewed life, or atonement for sins? Leviticus 17:11 states, mysteriously, that “blood makes atonement, by reason of the life.” Henninger suggests that “perhaps…originally what was sacrificed was either something living or an element or symbol of life; in other words, [what] was surrendered, [was] life itself.”[24] Life itself seems to be the appropriate expiatory offering, yet ironically, to offer life (blood) requires the taking, ending, killing of life.

As James explains, “In the ritual shedding of blood it is not the taking of life but the giving of life that is really fundamental, for blood is not death but life. The outpouring of the vital fluid in actuality, or by substitute, is the sacred act whereby life is given to promote and preserve life, and to establish thereby a bond of union with the supernatural order.”[25] It is certainly a strong implication in a wide range of sacrifices that a life is destroyed in an offering to a god in order that others, or another, be restored.[26] But Daly, de Vaux, and James contend that for the ancient Israelites, the death of the animal was not of primary importance, and was only the means necessary for obtaining the sacrificial blood. “In Old Testament animal sacrifice,” Daly writes, “the death of the animal is only a necessary prerequisite or condition for the sacrificial action. No significance is attached to the death of the animal. Its death, in itself, affects nothing.[27] Similarly, de Vaux states that it does not make sense to honor the creator of life with the destruction of life. Thus in his view also, the slaughter of the victim must only be an inevitable act in preparation for sacrificial ritual.[28] James also asserts that the destruction of the victim is insignificant “in comparison with the transmission of the soul-substance to the supernatural being to whom it is offered.”[29]

Leviticus 17:12 instructs that the blood of hunted animals must be poured out and covered with dust. We might ask why this blood is not also ritually offered to Yahweh, if it is also seen as containing life-power. What we find in the Old Testament is that only domestic animals are sacrificed. According to scholars, the primary importance of blood in ancient Israelite society may be derived from their semi-nomadic, tribal identity. It would have been evident to such herding peoples that their animals shared with them the same life-principle, or blood, and would have believed it to have been bestowed upon all of them by the deity.[30] “From the notion of blood as a kind of soul-substance responsible for the phenomenon of life, a sense of kinship doubtless developed at a very early period between man and the creatures upon whom he depended for his sustenance, and with whom he was united by the possession of a common vital principle.”[31]

In addition, the sense of kinship among peoples would have been very strong in such a society, which recognizes a sharing of blood among relatives descended from the same ancestor. As such, according to Ambusch, “…blood sacrifice maintains a relationship of kinship between men by the emphasis on a tie of blood and would agree with the emphasis on blood in a clan context.”[32] As the livelihood of the Israelites would have depended on the flesh and blood of animals of the herd, and they would have been aware of their blood-bonds of kinship among themselves compared to the indigenous element of the population they were conquering, they may have “tried to maintain that separateness by means of blood rituals.”[33]

The Israelites may not have identified as closely with the vital life-force of undomesticated or wild animals, yet Leviticus 17:12 recognizes a kind of power inherent in (or divine dominion over) all types of blood and that it must not be misused, but rather poured out. This pouring out seems not to be in the form of ritual libation, but rather in a sense of diffusing (or refusing?) any inherent power in it by covering it with dust.

In Leviticus 17:15-16, we find reference to the belief system that divides the world into pure and impure, clean and unclean. In this case the text instructs that contact with certain types of blood requires ritual cleansing. These verses explain that blood poured out or sacrificed is clean if it accompanies the killing of an animal. If one comes into contact with blood that does not accompany the killing of the animal, it is unclean, and certain steps must be taken to ritually purify oneself.

Most scholars agree that Leviticus projects the theology and concerns of post-exilic Priestly writers from the fourth or fifth century BCE back to the time and the mouth of Moses.[34] According to Jenson, the central concern of the priestly writings is the creation, maintenance and restoration of an ordered world. “The concern with purity and impurity is in part a concern for maintaining boundaries which must not be transgressed. Otherwise, there will be a descent into chaos, disaster and death. From this perspective, sacrifice has a crucial role in maintaining order and restoring equilibrium when that order is disturbed.”[35] One might argue that this priestly concern for order arose out of the need to maintain and formalize traditional religious customs during the period of exile. De Vaux confirms that “from the beginning of the exile, new trends appeared, and among them was a passionate concern for ritual.”[36] This may be, as anthropologists explain, because ritual helps to maintain social values, provide security in dangerous situations, and support the structure of and order in a society.[37]

Ancient Israel conceived of holiness (purity and cleanliness) and unholiness (impurity and uncleanliness) in a highly material way.[38] As such, material contact with blood under the wrong circumstances could lead to a compromise in the spiritual order of an individual’s life. In their belief system, “…impurity is not an abstract or secondary concept, but a powerful…social and religious realit[y]. The maintenance of a stable society requires a careful limitation of impurity and regular purification…Impurity is incompatible with holiness, and holiness is a necessary requirement if God is to dwell [among the people] (Ex. 25:8).” [39] Thus, sacrifice becomes the vehicle for performing the essential task of restoring the correct order of things when it is compromised by fault of some kind. “As such, it preserves and enhances Israel’s life before God, which is constantly threatened by the disorder and death associated with impurity and sin.”[40]

As we have discussed, Leviticus 17:10-16 concerns ancient Israel’s proper relationship to the substance of blood, according to the priestly writers of the post-exilic period. From the implications of their writings, the expiatory purpose of sacrifice seems to have been very important, if not central, in ancient Israelite ritual. A sacrificial offering of blood was seen as “a God-given institution to provide for man’s right relationship to God, and for his redemption from the evil forces that threaten his normal existence.”[41] As such, the blood was seen as a substance with mystical properties, the material of life itself—and the atonement to be achieved through the blood was an essential element in the process of achieving and maintaining moral order in the society. Thus, the practice of blood sacrifice in ancient Israel, according to the priestly writers of Leviticus, can be seen as an expression of the society’s moral values[42] and of their understanding of their relationship to God.