Ritual in the Bible

I was thinking of doing a study of ritual in the Bible and was surprised when a keyword search turned up only one reference:

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6-10 ESV)

Curious don’t you think? Leviticus is brimming with ritual isn’t it? Why no references? Delving deeper it is apparent that there are many more references to “ceremonies”, to “festivals”, to “traditions”, and most especially, to “laws”. Clearly the ancient Israelites engaged in symbolic actions, both in routine and crisis situations, but clearly they did not speak of it this way. What does this suggest about worldview?

3 Comments

  1. I checked the Greek on this one, and the word is LATREIAS, which is often rendered “services.” Perhaps finding no real references to rituals proves your point even better than finding only one!
    To really do this justice, you might have to also ask about the worldview of the translators. Some will systematically avoid any word that doesn’t fit their outlook. So English translations won’t answer everything.
    But I think your question is a great one. The word “ritual” might only be able to be used at a point when most people no longer believe that such things work. Looking back, we call them rituals. Those who participate would not. Where we think something is really happening, we find another word to describe it.

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  2. Rick, thanks for the Greek input. Very helpful. Actually it is worth noting that even amongst the English translations the word is not consistently translated as ritual. I’m thinking, it might be worth exploring if the language of “ritual” actually reflects a post-Enlightenment mindset, akin to how post-Enlightenment scholars speak of “myth” and “religion”. No one in ancient times spoke of different “religions”, they just spoke of different loyalties to different “gods”.

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  3. A few thoughts on ritual, in general…
    Robert Fulghum wrote a book “From Beginning to End – The Rituals of Our Lives”, which I found very valuable in exploring the concept of “rituals”.
    Following are some ideas of mine fused with some of the aspects of ritual discussed in that book.
    When we participate in rituals, there is a sense of wanting to experience something special… like doing something out of the ordinary to give our ordinary lives meaning… something akin to the idea of wanting to discover where the sacred/holy has place in our ordinary lives. We want to take something that we experience in the ritual back to “ordinary” life. Sometimes, we can feel caught or trapped in the mundaneness/sameness/repetition/apparent futility
    of much in contemporary life. Usually this is more noticeable in an urban setting. Country life is more connected to the earth and its natural seasons, cycles and systems.
    Rituals can be somewhat of an agency of revival or re-creation which affirm and confirm human dignity. Fundamental actions of Confession, Repentance, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation help to unite what has been divided, keeping relationships intact, bringing the things experienced and observed through meaningful ritual into the fabric of ordinary daily life… The holy/sacred in relationship with the mundane – shining through it, perhaps… ritual can be ONE-OFF or repetitive to celebrate/clarify/connect with the meaning involved in all such things.
    It’s a “coming into” an experience, and a “going out” of it… either once or many times over…
    Life is a series of “liminal” experiences, crossing of thresholds (from the Latin “limin” – centreline of a doorway).
    I think ritual becomes “dry” and “lifeless” when meaning is stripped from it and when there is no congruity and healthy connection with our individual and community lives.
    In a more Hebrew way of understanding ritual, “religion” or the “reconnection of that which has been divided by binding together”, it is easier to see that the rights and practises are meant to bring back wisdom and understanding about who we are as human beings in relationship with God who created and sustains us, and each other in community. It was far less individualistic and self-deterministic than most of us experience life today.

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