BMCR 2022.01.24

Ritual in Deuteronomy: the performance of doom

, Ritual in Deuteronomy: the performance of doom. The ancient word. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. xiv, 170. ISBN 9781138570986 $160.00.

In Ritual in Deuteronomy: The Performance of Doom, Melissa Ramos looks at Deuteronomy 27–30 through the lenses of ritual study and rhetorical criticism. She explores the rituals of Deut 27 through the lens of similar ancient Near Eastern (ANE) practices to examine the symbolic and social world behind the use of rituals in the making of oaths and treaties. The performance of these rituals is of special importance as she believes that paying attention to the orality and theatricality of the ritual practices enhances an understanding of why rituals were useful in oath-making, as well as how such practices would influence social identity and compliance. She argues that the rituals were included among the legal segments in Deuteronomy because their action (and likely later their reading) would cause the people to internalize the covenant as a divinely and cosmically justified way of living. Because the rituals of Deut 27–30 play an important role in the ratification of the covenant––and the identity of the community that follows it, the connection between the rituals and the legal material in these chapters is more solid than many scholarly approaches have understood to date.

She argues that, in most current Deuteronomy scholarship, the focus is on the legal material and the approaches tend to be diachronic, as they attempt to discern how different strands fit into the narrative framework provided by the Deuteronomistic School. While effective at analyzing the layers of text, these approaches minimize the role of ritual and therefore miss the important way that the ritual material contributes to the overall narrative shape of the book of Deuteronomy. A comparison with incantation texts from the ANE reveals that Deut 27 contains some of the same kinds of curses, thereby showing a shared domain between ritual practice and oath making in the ANE and the ratification of the covenant in Deuteronomy 27–30.  The book contains many important and insightful avenues of thought––from focusing on ritual in a new way in Deuteronomy to expanding the comparative material valuable to a study of Deuteronomy––but the most important achievement in my opinion is the demonstration of how to read Deut 27–30 responsibly in a synchronic way. Ramos’ ability to read the text in a synchronic way, while also understanding how the social milieu effects its compositional layers, marks an advancement in the study of these chapters.

In order to reach her conclusions, Ramos starts in chapter one, “Ritual Studies and Deuteronomy,” with an overview of ritual studies and also of the connections that she sees between ritual, legal texts, orality, and communal identity. She understands ritual to have a social function, meaning that ritual enactments influence community behavior, are used in liminal spaces to cajole or remind a community of its identity, and are used in political ways as a means of rhetorical persuasion. After establishing how she understands ritual, she offers an overview of prior ritual studies of Deuteronomy to situate her work in the wider conversation.

Despite the fact that scholars have shown less interest in the role of ritual in Deuteronomy than in other texts, Ramos lists three rationales for viewing Deut 27–30 through the lens of ritual performance. She argues that there is evidence of a connection between ritual and political actions in other Hebrew Bible texts like Josh 8, 2 Kings 22-23, and Neh 8. These narratives highlight covenant renewal events and feature ritual performances, so Deuteronomy could be viewed in a similar way. Second, there is evidence at Qumran of a similar liturgical enactment of a community ritual, and Deuteronomy is one of the most frequently found texts at Qumran. Finally, Deut 27-30 shares interesting parallels with ANE oath texts like the Sefire treaty and the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon (STE) both of which feature ritual performance in their ratification. These factors altogether argue for a cultural milieu that understood covenant enactment as a type of ritual performance important to the establishment of social and religious identity. These rationales are critical for her argument because, despite the lack of focus on ritual in Deuteronomy, she makes a case for a wider focus in the Hebrew Bible. Because Deuteronomy has some similarities (of setting and purpose) with these other areas, she shows how such a focus could enhance the study of Deuteronomy as well.

Chapter Two, “Ritual Performance of Oaths,” argues that in the ANE an oath required ritual to ratify it. Understanding these rituals to be a kind of performance, Ramos explores where the performance of these rituals connected to oaths might have originated, and she believes the intersection lies in incantations. Maqlû and Šurpu are ritual incantations organized into a series and performed to reverse the effects of curses or to guard against curses, and she suggests that the prevalence of these examples makes them a likely source. These incantations and accompanying rituals offer therapeutic aid to alleviate negative effects of curses or otherwise unhappy deities. The performance of these rituals could have carried over into the realm of oaths in order to offer the oath a more binding quality because the ritual would link the oath to the realm of the divine and underscore the seriousness of breaking the oath. Broadening the comparative material that might lie behind the text in Deuteronomy is critical for her argument. In showing how incantations are reflected in rituals that are then linked to ratification of oaths, Ramos starts a conversation about orality and performance that builds towards her next chapter where she argues that performance and orality lie behind the ritual importance of Deut 27.

Chapter Three, “Deuteronomy 27–30 and Incantation Rituals,” goes more deeply into similarities between incantation rituals (Maqlû and Šurpu), STE, and Deut 27–30. These incantatory texts share “conspicuous commonalities” (pg. 73) with Deut 27–30, namely shared symbolic and referential systems, parallel curse combinations and themes, and a ritual system where particular actions result in ratification or reversal. While not all of them have parallels with each other, there are common features shared between Maqlû and Šurpu and Deuteronomy, and STE and Deuteronomy even though the various commonalities are not always the same. The two things that all have in common are the use of the different words for ‘oath’, and the fact that all of the oaths are ratified by a divine power (all mention heaven and earth as witnesses). STE and Deuteronomy have shared prohibitions against breaking an oath, while Maqlû and Šurpu employ curse combinations that parallel those of Deuteronomy. These congruent curse themes among the texts argue for thematic connections stemming from a common stock of calamities shared within incantation and treaty curse genres.

The connections between these various texts raise questions about influences, but Ramos changes the conversation among various theories about the method of transmission with her focus on orality. Suggesting that scribes could have been performers and focusing on the performance of rituals and incantations, she provides a channel of influence through a kind of theatre performance, the formation of a canon in a way that does not require textuality. This oral canonicity accounts for similarities that emerge when these texts are all written down––and are promulgated more prolifically––in the late Iron Age.

Chapter Four, “Ritual and Literary Unity of Deuteronomy 27–28,” Ramos makes her argument for seeing Deut 27 as serving a specific purpose within the overall narrative of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 27 has been the subject of much debate because it exhibits unevenness that hints at layers in the text. In particular, its focus on ritual is assumed to be a bit out of place in the midst of the legal material around it. Using rhetorical criticism, a method that, as she emphasizes, does not exclude the combining of differently dated material into a cohesive whole, she focuses on the value of a bigger-picture approach to the narrative. When combined with the comparative work just completed in her previous chapters, she makes a compelling case that a reexamination viewing Deut 27–28 as a literary unity is necessary to fully understand what is happening in these chapters.

In chapter four she brings her points together, arguing that the connections between the incantation texts, STE, and other evidence makes the late Iron Age the likely date of the background setting of Deut 27–30. While many view the ritual material in Deuteronomy as a late addition that disrupts the narrative, Ramos’ study shows Deut 27 as an integral part of the surrounding legal material. Many of her stated conclusions are tied together in this section. Ritual was applied to the realm of political oaths in the period portrayed by Deut 27–30; ritual always had a performative element, so the actions described in Deut 27 are not distinct in their performance of the rituals listed; the performance of the curses was a means of showing what might befall oath breakers; and ritual was a critical aspect of community because it served as both warning and comfort during liminal times.  The narrative of Deut 27–30 focuses on a shift in leadership from Moses to Joshua, as well as a shift in location from desert to Promised Land, and it focuses on a political agreement between YHWH and his people. Based on what she shows about ritual, the rituals of Deut 27 serve the important purpose of reminding the people of their identity, but also of warning of the doom that will befall the community if they break the oath (covenant) between themselves and YHWH. Therefore, despite the layers of the text, the supposed lateness of all things ritual, and the unevenness in various aspects of Deut 27, seeing this chapter as connected to the legal material around it shows how ritual enhances the making of this oath.

The final chapter before the conclusion is chapter five, “Ritual Innovation in Deuteronomy,” and it focuses on Deut 6 and 12 to show various innovations made by the author(s) of the book. Generally speaking, ritual innovation receives a negative evaluation in the Hebrew Bible, but Deut 6 and 12 portray certain innovations as positive. Ramos shows how the author(s) of these chapters couches the innovation in the guise of the familiar in ways that call upon acceptable practices and cultural norms, and then shifts them so that, while they are different, they appear as progressive change rather than as something completely new. While very interesting and insightful, it was not entirely clear to me how this chapter connected to the work that came before or advanced the primary arguments of the book up to this point.

In conclusion, the style of the book and its use of comparative material underscores that it is a resource geared toward specialist readers rather than a general audience. Ramos does a good job of presenting the evidence for understanding Deut 27–30 in the wider narrative and reading the ritual material as an enhancement to the legal texts around it. Her focus on ritual, and in particular the performance of ritual in conjunction with ratification of oaths/covenants, shifts the conversation of Deut 27 in profound and helpful ways.