Rites and Rank

Rites and Rank: Hierarchy in Biblical Representations of Cult

Saul M. Olyan
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 194
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    Rites and Rank
    Book Description:

    Good and evil, clean and unclean, rich and poor, self and other. The nature and function of such binary oppositions have long intrigued scholars in such fields as philosophy, linguistics, classics, and anthropology. From the opening chapters of Genesis, in which God separates day from night, and Adam and Eve partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dyadic pairs proliferate throughout the Hebrew Bible. In this groundbreaking work melding critical exegesis and contemporary theory, Saul M. Olyan considers the prevalence of polarities in biblical discourse and expounds their significance for the social and religious institutions of ancient Israel. Extant biblical narrative and legal texts reveal a set of socially constructed and culturally privileged binary oppositions, Olyan argues, which instigate and perpetuate hierarchical social relations in ritual settings such as the sanctuary.

    Focusing on four binary pairs--holy/common, Israelite/alien, clean/unclean, and whole/blemished--Olyan shows how these privileged oppositions were used to restrict access to cultic spaces, such as the temple or the Passover table. These ritual sites, therefore, became the primary contexts for creating and recreating unequal social relations. Olyan also uncovers a pattern of challenge to the established hierarchies by nonprivileged groups. Converging with contemporary issues of power, marginalization, and privileging, Olyan's painstaking yet lucid study abounds with implications for anthropology, classics, critical theory, and feminist studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2356-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Saul M. Olyan
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    Binary oppositions, or dyadic pairings of terms such as good/evil, clean/unclean, rich/poor, and self/other have long been of interest to philosophers, linguists, classicists, and social scientists, among others.¹ In recent decades, discussion of dyadic modes of thought and discourse among such scholars has affected theoretical work in other fields. In religious studies, for example, treatment of polarities has been notable especially in ritual theory and in analyses of ritual practice.² Yet, with few exceptions, those who study the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel’s literary legacy, have done little work with binary oppositions.³ This is somewhat puzzling, for the binary opposition is...

  6. 1 Foundational Discourse: The Opposition Holy/Common
    (pp. 15-37)

    Two related binary pairings are present in virtually all texts concerned with the cultic life of Israel: holy/common (qōdeš/hōl) and clean/unclean (tāhôr/tāmē’).¹ Though mainly implicit in biblical texts,² the Holiness Source and the Book of Ezekiel speak explicitly of both of these oppositions, and they speak of them often in tandem. An example is Lev 10:8–11, a text of the Holiness School concerned with the prohibition of alcohol to priests serving in the sanctuary. It states that the priests are obligated “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,”

    and teach Israel...

  7. 2 Admission or Exclusion: The Binary Pairing Unclean/Clean
    (pp. 38-62)

    The opposition of unclean and clean (tāmē’/tāhôr), like holy and common, is ubiquitous among biblical materials concerned with cultic matters.¹ Present both explicitly² and implicitly in texts of varying provenance and date, the contrast between what is clean and what is unclean determines who or what gains admission to the sanctuary. It determines who, among those who are privileged, may have contact with holy items or foods. It establishes who may participate in quasi-cultic rites such as those of the Passover. All persons who are classed as clean may enter holy precincts, and appropriate clean animals and items may be...

  8. 3 Generating “Self” and “Other”: The Polarity Israelite/Alien
    (pp. 63-102)

    There are few subjects in contemporary academic discourse as current as the problem of self and other. In one field after another, scholars have turned their attention increasingly to issues of self-definition and difference and an ever-burgeoning literature bears witness to this fact.¹ Self and other have emerged in contemporary discussion as inseparable, socially constructed categories subject continuously to challenge and revision.² Thus, self-definition and its counterpart, the constitution of the other, are continuous, interlinked “projects” without a terminus, “projects” that all groups pursue in an ongoing fashion.³ Through defining the other, a group determines what it is not; in...

  9. 4 The Qualified Body: The Dyad Whole/Blemished
    (pp. 103-114)

    The opposition whole/blemished (tāmîm/possessing a mûm) is the last of the privileged polarities that I will consider in this investigation. Though much less frequently attested in extant materials than the oppositions holy/common, unclean/clean, and Israelite/alien, it is significant nonetheless for its role in generating distinctions of hierarchical import in texts describing the workings of the cult. The contrast between what is constructed as whole and what is constructed as blemished is applied in biblical texts to the bodies of sacrificial animals, priests, and worshipers. A blemish (mûm) may be defined as one of a number of adulterating somatic alterations. It...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 115-120)

    Distinctions of status, whether significant or minor, are the building blocks of hierarchy. Among the several tools employed by biblical texts to establish status distinctions among groups and individuals, the binary opposition has proved to be especially effective. In textual representations of the cult and analogous ritual settings, a number of privileged oppositions establish and mark external boundaries. The holy/common dyad, for example, distinguishes the territory of the sanctuary, constructed as holy, from other, common space. The opposition unclean/clean divides the populace into those who may enter sanctified space or participate in nonsanctuary rites requiring purity and those who must...

  11. Appendix. The Idea of Holiness in the Holiness Source
    (pp. 121-122)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 123-174)
  13. Index of Authors
    (pp. 175-178)
  14. Index of Biblical Citations
    (pp. 179-190)