Myth and Ritual

Like some of you, I’ve been reading a book or two on the Old Testament, this year’s Sunday School course of study. Most recently I read Susan Niditch’s Ancient Israelite Religion (OUP, 1997), described in the jacket blurb as “a perceptive, accessible account of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites.” Too often our approach to the Old Testament is essentially cherrypicking — highlighting passages that affirm our own beliefs and understanding while skimming over or simply ignoring everything else. We can do better.

Niditch takes a worldview approach, suggesting we ought to strive to see how the Israelites saw the world as a way to understand Israelite religion. Myth and ritual are two aspects of this “worldview analysis,” which, along with experience and ethics, form the template Niditch uses to examine the Israelite worldview revealed by the texts of the Hebrew Bible and by surviving archeological artifacts. I’ll touch on a few of the points Niditch makes under each category, then do a quick comparison with LDS religion.

The Experiential. “The experiential dimension has to do with direct experiences of the numinous — visions, trances, messages from God, and more subtle indications of a divine presence” (p. 5). Examples are many and varied, such as Abraham’s vision in Genesis 15:

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. … When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces [of sacrificial animals laid out by Abraham]. (NIV Gen. 15:12, 17)

Other examples include Moses’ encounter with the burning bush (Ex. 3), Saul’s meeting with the spirit of Samuel brought forth by a female medium (1 Sam. 28), Elijah’s test on the mountain revealing the natural and the divine (1 Kings 19), Isaiah’s description of his vision in the temple (Isa. 6), and Ezekiel’s bizarre vision by the Kebar River in Babylon of four divine creatures and their wheeled vehicles (Ezek. 1). Plainly, some of the most striking passages in the Hebrew Bible relate direct experiences.

Mythic Patterns. “The mythic dimension refers to the rich and varied narrative traditions that capture and encapsulate a group’s values and beliefs, their fear of chaos and their hope for order, their notions of the ways in which the world truly works” (p. 5). The creation account in Genesis 1 is a good example, although other references to creation are scattered through later books, such as Psalms 89:9-10:

Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them. Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou has scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.

Rahab is comparable to the sea dragon Tiamat from Babylonian mythology, symbol of the watery abyss subdued by God at creation. The Priestly account in Genesis 1 uses the Hebrew term tehom rather than a name like Rahab to refer to the watery deep.

The Ritual Dimension. “The ritual dimension of a religious tradition expresses some of the same sets of symbols found in a group’s myth, only in dramatic form” (p. 5). They help a community preserve its “sense of social and cosmic order” and “resolve tensions that have arisen” (p. 6). Blood sacrifice plays an uncomfortably prominent role here, memorialized in Bible texts recounting the centralized priestly sacrificial activities performed at the temple as well as at other sites. An example of a symbol taking dramatic, ritual form is the Passover sacrifice, a year-old lamb without blemish.

To really grasp how foreign Israelite ritual can be to the modern reader, go read Numbers 5:11-31, which relates the procedures for how a man suspecting his wife of infidelity should bring his wife to the priest and make a “jealousy offering.” At some point, the priest makes the woman drink “the bitter water that causeth the curse,” after which she either suffers a severe physical reaction (and will thereater be “a curse among her people”) or she doesn’t. Modernly, ritual isn’t the vehicle generally used to deal with questions of jealousy and transgression.

The Legal and Ethical Dimension. This refers to “a group’s ‘moral action guides.’ What is preceived by a community to be appropriate treatment of one’s fellows? How is one to relate to outsiders? What are the boundaries of proper behavior?” (p. 6). There is obviously a lot of material in the Old Testament that covers law and ethics. Modernly we tend to separate discussion of the two topics, but they were more integrated in former times. The concept of covenant falls under this heading, and the biblical texts instituting covenants between God and man (such as Exodus 20) show affinities with treaties between lords and vassals.

Laws such as those enumerated in Deuteronomy reveal moral categories, lines that shouldn’t be crossed, that are embedded in the Israelite worldview. Niditch refers to Deuternonomy 22 for a few rather mundane examples: men’s clothing is for men and women’s for women, no mixing (v. 5); don’t yoke an ox and a donkey together (v. 10); don’t mix wool and linen in a garment (v. 11). There’s some black and white thinking going on here (Niditch calls it a “don’t let the peas touch the potatoes mentality”), perhaps reflecting the fact that it was pious priests who were responsible for the final form of the text. There are more elevated passages of law in the Torah that sound more like what we think of as ethics or moral precepts, of course. Food gets a lot of attention, too.

So What? Obviously, these four dimensions aren’t the last word on the Old Testament. But I do think they help give average readers like me a frame and a context for many Old Testament narratives and passages that we would otherwise slog through without much reflection. Every rule or law reflects an ethical view, one that, once recognized, we may agree with or not. Every account of a direct experience or encounter with God suddenly carries more weight, somewhat like red-letter editions of the New Testament that highlight the spoken words of Jesus. When we glimpse Israelite mythic thinking, we might ask, do we share that view? Is that how we see the world? Are their myths our myths, or have we fashioned new ones?

It’s hard not to relate these four dimensions to Mormonism, but I’ll keep it to one paragraph, this post being long enough already. Joseph Smith’s vision, an account of which is canonized in LDS scripture, is the prime exampe of the experiential for Mormons. And what we hear in fast and testimony meeting each month is a regular dose of ad hoc experiential narrative. Interestingly, for the mythic view we share both a creation account (expanded to the LDS Plan of Salvation) and an exodus (the Israelites from Egypt and across a desert, the Mormons from Illinois and across the Plains). Ritual is largely absent from LDS public life and worship, although it is quite evident in LDS temple activities, an odd contrast. Law and ethics, on the other hand, are very evident, from the regular lectures on commandments and obedience (law) to the rising emphasis on service and humanitarian projects (ethics).

The bottom line: we LDS stress the experiential and the legal/ethical while supressing the ritual.

2 comments for “Myth and Ritual

  1. Great post, and always good both to get a book review and to think more seriously about the OT.

    I’m not sure I’d say we suppress the ritual aspect (particularly if we were to make the temple the center of our religious experience as prophets have encouraged from JS to TMM), even in “public” life. Ritual plays less of a role in our Sunday services perhaps, and one might say it’s not rigidly regimented in daily life – but the normative ideal of a Mormon’s daily life will contain numerous recognized ritual elements.

    I think one of the most interesting aspects of a comparison like the one you offer is the way it helps us to think about how we relate to other dispensations. Our very notion of dispensation is part of the “mythic” element of Mormonism. Often we assume that the relation between our own and ancient Israelite dispensations is one of identity – but as your review of the book makes quite clear, the experiential, legal/ethical, mythical and ritualistic elements of what we all agree were true-blue dispensations were quite different than our own. We can deny this differences – but that amounts to burying our head in the sand. We can conclude that the difference means ancient Israel (including its prophets) was in apostasy, or that the scriptural record we have is apostate corruption – but that’s hard to square with our beliefs, particularly given the magnitude of apostasy one has to attribute and the OT-BofM similarities. One can decide that Mormonism’s dispensational continuity myth is just fabrication – but that means a rejection of what I think is one of the more powerful and important aspects of our religion; perhaps a rejection of Mormonism itself. None of these options are very satisfying. In my mind this leaves us with a reevaluation of what sort of continuity is involved between full-blown dispensations.

  2. One question I’ve always had with these approaches is highlighted by your use of the documentary hypothesis. If we talk about myth what era are we talking about? Especially since the most mythic texts are the ones probably most forming a compilation of multiple texts? Whose myths are they if the texts were edited together after the exile? I think this can be pretty problematic, especially given the inherent structuralism necessary for mythic analysis. Sometimes it can work if transformed from myth into a multilayered typological analysis. (See for instance Nephi’s use of Isaiah or Isaiah’s own use of myth) But myth proper always struck me as a deeply problematic approach to scriptural exegesis.

    Of course I recognize many disagree with me.

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