The book by James Watts reveals an in-depth analysis of one of the six biblical books, Leviticus. Watts tries to find rhetorical meaning of the rituals depicted in this biblical book. The major concern of the present study is to answer the following question: “Who was trying to persuade whom of what by writing these texts?” (Watts xv).
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It is possible to divide the book into three parts. The first part is Chapter 1 which is Introduction where Watts outlines the scope of his research and provides his major claim. The next part consists of chapters 2-6 where thorough analysis is revealed. Here Watts provides explanation and justification of his theory. The third part includes chapters 7-9 where the author focuses on the rhetorical meaning of the text and its impact on sacrificial rituals and priesthood.
In the first Chapter of his book Watts introduces the major of the research. He defines the importance of rituals which are depicted in Leviticus. Watts provides analysis of the literature on Leviticus concentrating on the works by Mary Douglas and Jacob Milgrom. For instance, Watts points out that Milgrom has demonstrated that “biblical ritual can be interpreted rationally and realistically” (Watts 10). Watts provides major theories as for the role of rituals and their meaning.
However, the author also states that there is still no substantial and precise analysis of the symbolic value of the rituals. He stresses that when analyzing these texts it is essential to pay much attention or rather focus on their rhetoric. Besides, in this chapter Watts answers the question he pt earlier and notes that rituals are usually described to persuade people to perform them, or to perform them in this particular way, or to accept the text and/or its author’s authority to mandate the rituals and, perhaps, to officiate over it. (34)
In the following chapters 2-6 Watts provides definite explanations and evidence for his claim about the importance of rhetoric analysis of the text and its major ides. Thus, Watts provides in-depth analysis of the text. It is important to note that the author stresses that Leviticus was “shaped not only to instruct” people how to carry out rituals, but to “persuade them to do exactly as these texts stipulate” and “to accept these texts as the ultimate authority for such ritual performances” (Watts 38).
To illustrate and prove the text major of persuasion Watts analyzes genre, content, style. For instance, the use of second person in the text emphasizes the idea of instruction. The texts are addressed to people reading it (or listening to it). The specific style of the text transforms mere instruction into a persuasive writing which motivates people to carry out rituals in the appropriate way and to accept the authority of those who conduct the rituals.
In Chapter 2 Watts points out that the recurrence of such words as “as YHWH commanded” and phrases which have the same meaning reveals persuasive character of the text (103). People are taught that priest will save them from many misfortunes by carrying out rituals in the appropriate way.
The third chapter is concerned with the “rhetoric of burnt offerings” (Watts 63). The author states that the major idea of the “burnt offerings” depicted in Leviticus is to promote selflessness of sacrifice. This kind of rituals, according to Watts, is also aimed at distracting attention from other types of sacrifice which were usually used by priests.
In Chapter 4 Watts is concentrated on the rhetoric of “sin, guilt, and ritual offerings” (79). The author claims that the use of jargon and specific terms emphasizes the idea that rituals are saving remedy for all believers (Watts 86). According to Watts, the texts of Leviticus promote this idea explicitly via specific vocabulary.
In Chapter 5 Watts considers the rhetoric of “ritual narrative” (97). He also comes to the conclusion that Leviticus narrative promotes the idea that rituals depicted are based on customs, whereas Nadab and Abihu made many mistakes and wrongful rituals since they did “what had not been commanded” (Watts 106).
The sixth chapter dwells upon the meaning of the term “kipper” (Watts 130). Watts considers existing theories concerning the term and draws a conclusion that the term is used to emphasize the idea of purification and achieve the major of the text, i.e. to persuade people.
In Chapter 7 Watts is concerned with rhetoric of ritual writings and the way it was perceived from ancient times up to modernity. The eighth chapter deals with the essence of sacrifice and its meaning in Leviticus and other ritual texts. Finally, Chapter 9 is concerned with the role of ritual text for establishment of priests’ authority.
In one of his works Watts pointed out that “Western culture has traditionally drawn a dichotomy between rituals and texts, usually favoring texts over rituals” (“Ritual Legitimacy” 401). His book Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture provides a thorough analysis of rituals one th ebasis of Leviticus, and successfully draws a link between the two parts of the “dichotomy”.
It is necessary to point out that the author explicitly formulates hs statement and provides a detailed explanation of his theory. Watts does not only present his assumptions, but proves that his theory is truthful illustating his ideas by passages from Leviticus. For instance, the entire Chapter 6 is concerned with a single word analysis. Interestingly, this single word enables the author illustrate his major claim that ritual texts are aimed at persuasion rather than mere instruction.
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Notably, Watts considers existing theories in the field and points out their strenghths and weaknesses. He does not only claims that the theories are based on insufficiant analysis, but provides precise examples of his arguments. It is also important to state that though the author is concentrated on Leviticus he pays much attention to other ritual writings. For instance, in the seventh chapter of his book he considers the whole scope of ritual writing from antiquity up to modern times. This enables the reader to have more complete picture.
Thus, the books is a valuable source of data for those interested in rhetoric analysis of ritual texts since it is based on profound research, many serious works were included in the book to support or refute this or that argument. Apart from precision of the author’s analysis it is necessary to point out that the book is written in simple language.
Therefore, it can be useful for a wide range of readers. Watts’ specific approach enables the reader to consider the rhetoric meaning of ritual texts. This leads to better understanding of the meaning and role of rituals which are regarded as significant part of any religion.
Watts, James Washington. Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
“Ritual Legitimacy and Scriptural Authority.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124.3 (2005): 401-417.