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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 55, 2007

JAY SKLAR, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions (Hebrew Bible Monographs 2; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005). Pp. xii + 212. 50.00.

This study tackles the question, why, according to the priestly writings (for convenience: Exodus 25 to Numbers), atoning sacrifice was required both for sin and for impurity. Part of the purpose of the study is to define the key Hebrew terms, kipper (piel, verb) and kofer (noun). It is impossible to atone for deliberate sin, whose consequence is death or at least premature death. But it is possible to atone for inadvertent sin. Provisionally, kipper is accepted as a denominative of kofer in the sense of “ransom” in contexts of sin. The ransom is a “mitigated penalty” for a life; it is paid at the discretion of the offended party; and it effects reconciliation with the offended party. Both “ransom” and “appeasement” are essential to the meaning of kofer. (Sklar would therefore have preferred the technical, but uncommon, legal term “composition,” the settling of differences by payment of an agreed form of compensation.)

In some contexts kipper does refer to an act of kofer, but possibly to more than that. For even inadvertent sins may indirectly defile the sanctuary (Lev 4–5). In particular cases the offended party (the LORD) specifies the kofer-arrangement: purification offering, scapegoat, golden plate. In contexts of impurity, kofer refers only to purification by blood (not water). This links kofer especially to blood sacrifice. And, in contexts of consecration, kipper always appears in conjunction with sacrifice (not with anointing etc.). Moreover, since major impurities both pollute and endanger, the kipper-rite must both cleanse and rescue (kofer). The verb kipper expresses the double function of “composition” and purgation both for major impurities (non-moral) and for inadvertent sins (moral).

The kipper-rite performs this double function through the blood of sacrifice. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I myself have bestowed it to you upon the altar to ransom your lives, for it is the blood that ransoms by means of/as the life” (Lev 17:11; so translated, 173, 181). With most interpreters, Sklar applies the verse to all sacrifice (not just the peace offering). Conversely, “there is only one legitimate use for blood, namely, for the making of atonement” (178).

Although the author often uses dictionary definitions of Hebrew and English words, there are only a few passing references, without further explication, to “sin” as the breaking of the law of the LORD (1, 83) or as an “affront” to the LORD (42). There is no indication of the wide range of Hebrew terms for sin, but only incidental mention of a few such terms in quotations from J. Milgrom (22, 34). Since the basic question of the study is why “both sin and impurity require sacrifice for atonement” (183; original emphasis), the author might have considered the concept of taboo, allowing the possibility that sin and impurity are not far apart in ancient Jewish thought. Cf. M. Douglas, In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (JSOTSup 158; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993) 22. Although the issue of purity and danger is significant for Sklar, he does not use Douglas’ Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) nor her Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

The last stage of the study is concerned with the achievement of “composition” or ransom for offending human beings by means of the blood of sacrificial animals. As a mitigated penalty, this ritual action operates on the principle of a life for a life. In his exposition Sklar stays within the boundaries of the thought world of the priestly writings. He does not question the validity of this mode of thought. On the other hand, he does not consider the ancient Jewish criticism of sacrificial cult (as in Isa 1:11 and elsewhere), nor does he inquire what relevance a modern Jew or Christian might find in the practice. Throughout the book, the author’s procedure consists largely of the presentation and assessment of the views of other modern scholars. In the process, his own view of the relevant texts becomes clear enough. Extensive summaries at the end of sections and chapters make the book longer that it needs to be. But within its limits the study offers a reasonable treatment of its theme. The book is a revision of a doctoral thesis supervised by Gordon Wenham at the University of Gloucestershire.

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010