Ritual in Deuteronomy: The Performance of Doom

Melissa D. Ramos, Ritual in Deuteronomy: The Performance of Doom (London: Routledge, 2021). 9781138570986.

Reviewed by Joseph Scales, independent scholar, josephdscales@gmail.com.

Ritual in Deuteronomy is a fascinating yet broad topic. Previous studies have examined various elements of Deuteronomy and ritual practice or theory. Ramos adds to this body of work through an examination of chapters 27–30 in this revised PhD thesis. These chapters, and comparative material in the Mesopotamian ritual texts Maqlû and Šurpu, form the basis of the study, which frames Deuteronomy 27–30 “as an idealised reproduction of the type of performance that was enacted at various times and in multiple historical contexts over centuries” (p. 10). 

Ramos first introduces the reader to ritual studies and the contribution that orality studies can make to our understanding of Deuteronomy.[1] For the purposes of this study, ritual can be understood as a social strategy, which aims to shore up the community’s existence against perceived cultural and cosmic threats (p. 18). Ritual is repeated performance, enacted via gestures and words. In Deuteronomy 27–30 and in the comparative oath/curse texts, ritual helps us understand how such texts were used and why they were written as such. 

Chapter 2 turns to oaths and curses as ritual performances which are understood as social strategies. While oaths bind together parties, curses provide a cosmic threat, which provides incentive to keep their accompanying oaths. Curses and oaths are acted out via ritual performance; oaths are memorialised, while curses are made with visual cues (e.g., the melting of wax, the cutting of sacrificial animals) that are “a performance of doom” (p. 63). These performances are also monumentalised, which provides a touchstone for the remembrance of these ritual acts. The impression created by such monumentalisation is lasting, and Deuteronomy 27 commands that a material memento of the covenant ceremony be created after the community has crossed the Jordan.

The third chapter discusses the parallels between Deuteronomy 27–30 and curse incantations. Ramos notes that, while there are differences between Deuteronomy and the comparative material in MaqlûŠurpu, and the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, these texts contain common thematic material and order the material in similar ways. These texts, whether they seek to enjoin parties to an agreement or break a curse (on occasion brought on by the breaking of oaths), request divine assistance in asserting a new cosmic order. This is often deliberately located in a significant place, which collapses mundane and divine spheres. As such, deities are often treated as witnesses to oath-making. Ramos suggests that the discourse of oath- or curse-making and curse-breaking was often closely linked, and that this may indicate that Deuteronomy was not directly influenced by such treaties, but perhaps through other texts which propagated curse language.

Chapter 4 argues for the literary unity of Deuteronomy 27–28. While some scholars have considered chapter 27 to perhaps be an interpolation, Ramos argues for the unity of these chapters by comparing Deuteronomy to tablets, stelae, and inscribed cave walls from Iron II period Judah. She suggests that Deuteronomy 27 performs a similar function vis-à-vis Deuteronomy 12–26 to elements known from these inscriptions, that is, as a ratification of the prior material. Thus, Ramos writes that both the Succession Treaty of Esharhaddon and the Sefire Treaty share the following elements with Deuteronomy: “legal stipulations (Deut 11–28), an oath ratification ceremony (Deut 27:1–14), a performance of the curses by ritual practitioners (Deut 27–28), and the erection of inscribed stele for public display (Deut 27:1–8)” (p. 111).

Chapter 5 then turns to broader instances of ritual in Deuteronomy: the law of centralisation in Deuteronomy 12 and the Shema in Deuteronomy 6. Ramos argues that each of these texts innovates a change in ritual practice. The Shema appears to adapt both the language and physicality of amulet inscriptions. This adaptation includes language more closely integrated with the other material in Deuteronomy, raising the level of protection from individuals and households to the community. Deuteronomy 12 is suggested to have adapted the covenant code in Exodus 20, but where Exodus 20 seems to envision various cultic places, Deuteronomy 12 only presents one. Thus, Deuteronomy 12 covertly introduces a schema of cult centralisation but uses the language of ritual to hide the author’s intentions. The importance of these examples is to highlight how ritual is connected to social formation. These passages, which present adaptations of rituals, each drive at creating a particular form of communal expression.

The work is appended by a short summary conclusion, bibliography and general index.

When beginning the book, I had one key question: how might we overcome the disjoint between a text that purports to describe ritual and ritual studies, which developed via anthropological studies of observed rituals? Ritual might have been enacted exactly as a text describes, but we cannot be certain of what the text might omit: for example, the sounds, smells, unrecorded gestures, and how such actions were understood. Yet rituals are often employed by texts to lend legitimacy to narrated events. The use of rituals in texts functions slightly differently to the performance of rituals. As such, I was most glad to read Ramos’ introduction to the importance of orality studies. She argues that curse language and its oral performance may account for the parallel elements between Deuteronomy 27–30 and counterpart Ancient Near East curse formulae (as found in MaqlûŠurpu, the Succession Treaty of Esharhaddon, and the Sefire Treaty). This elegantly places ritual behind the framing of Deuteronomy, rather than reading forwards. This then further leads into Ramos’s final main chapter on ritual innovation, which argues that Deuteronomy 6 and 12 introduce changes to ritual practice towards cult centralisation. The claim is that for ritual innovation to be successful it must disguise changes in coded language, preserving familiar forms known from apotropaic inscriptions while altering key terms to project the ideology of the author. 

Overall, this is a very nice volume that engages the reader on an interesting and important topic. Ramos handles a wide variety of material well and poses important questions for the future study of Deuteronomy and other analyses of ritual in ancient Israelite/Judahite/Jewish texts. The book includes tantalising details about the reasons behind the use of ritual in Deuteronomy, but without an attachment to specific crises or events. Ramos explains how a community could be created via ritual and ritual innovation, mediating between the use of established form and new content.

Table of Contents

Introduction (pp. 1–8)
1. Ritual studies and Deuteronomy (pp. 9–46)
2. The ritual performance of oaths (pp. 47–72)
3. Deuteronomy 27–30 and incantation rituals (pp. 73–104)
4. Ritual and the literary unity of Deuteronomy 27–28 (pp. 105–29)
5. Ritual innovation in Deuteronomy (pp. 130–50)
Conclusion (pp. 151–55)


[1] The introduction is not a numbered chapter. Chapter numberings in this review reflect the table of contents.


1. Is it important that Deuteronomy portrays much of the ritual material as something to take place in the undetermined future rather than a description of rituals enacted, like much of the comparative material used in the volume?

It does seem important that Deuteronomy portrays the ritual sequences as something about to take place at any moment, and yet in an indeterminate future. The literary effect is one of rhetorical urgency that impels an audience/reader toward completion of the covenant enactment. This matches with the book’s emphasis on “today” (6:6–7; 29:15; 30:19) as the moment for covenant ratification, a literary theme and feature that generates a sense of anticipatory movement and contemporary relevance for the ritual actions prescribed.

2. Are variations on the sequence of the four elements within your comparative material (law – ratification – curse performance – inscription) significant, insofar as Deuteronomy differs from the others, and would this be a problem for your arguments about the unity of Deuteronomy 27–28?

It seems to me that oath and treaty texts from ancient West Asia (such as the Sefire treaty, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, etc) furnish us with evidence for elements considered stock, standard, or even required for the effective enactment of a binding oath, while the order of the sequence may or may not be considered a matter of importance. For, while these elements can be found in most oath texts from ancient West Asia, local variations within extant recensions suggest this was common. This can be observed, for example, in the Tel Tayinat or Tyre recensions of the Succession Treaty. However, the standard formula of preamble – law – curse enactment – inscription is a sequence and pattern followed by Deuteronomy overall. The preamble is given in the opening chapters and framework of the book, the law portions are well-represented in Chapters 5–11 and 11–26, while the curse enactment in 27–28 calls for an inscription. Not every ancient West Asian treaty mentions the inscription directly in the manner of Deuteronomy 27 or Sefire, although obviously an inscription was made, as otherwise we would not have the oath enactment preserved. The stock elements and their sequence, in my view, bolster my argument about the unity of Deuteronomy 27–28 and perhaps the literary unity of Deuteronomy as a book overall.

3. Can we overcome what I understand as a gap between ritual and texts-which-present-ritual when discussing ritual innovation, or is ritual innovation entirely textual and therefore distinct from ritual itself?

There certainly is a gap between historical enactments of ritual and literature that depicts ritual action—it is unfortunately a gap that cannot be crossed. When we explore ancient literature depicting rituals, we will never know to what degree they accurately represent historical ritual enactment; however, it seems reasonable to assume that such literature, including the Hebrew Bible, provides us with a window of sorts into the ritual world, imagination, symbolism, and cultural realities of a particular society in a moment in time. Anthropological literature studying ritual in contemporary cultures suggests that innovations to ritual are constantly taking place in order to make them relevant to succeeding generations and that these are not dependent on textual depictions. Yet the dialectical tension of ritual action is the pull between stasis/conservation and innovation/contemporary implementation. Rituals with no contemporary meaning are generally discarded over time. It seems to me that the role played by literary depictions is one of interpretation and hermeneutic: the literature holds space in which to examine the interplay between the ritual enactment and cultural meaning. Literary depictions furnish an opportunity to employ words in order to legitimate ritual innovation, to explain the traditional language of enacted symbols and any adaptations made in order for them to continue to serve as cultural vehicles of community identity. In the Hebrew Bible, it certainly seems the case that ritual innovation is deliberately explained and framed as orthodox practice.

4. You touched on some of the subsequent reuses of Deuteronomy in places like 1QS (Serekh ha-Yahad). How much influence do you think that the ritual framing of Deuteronomy 27–30 had on subsequent literary uses of this text?

I think it’s difficult to say whether the ritual framing was an impetus for reuse of Deuteronomy in 1QS. Some of the later evidence suggests that curses seemed to carry a religious fascination on their own without the framing of Deuteronomy 27, as evidenced by Aramaic magic bowls and amulets that also employ snippets of curses and other language deriving from Deuteronomy. One might argue, however, that these are ritual or magic objects, and so the framing of ritual covenant enactment is explicitly tied together in the minds of ancient communities because of the narrative framing in Deuteronomy. The reuse of the curse language and elements from Deuteronomy in 1QS in a membership ceremony certainly makes a case for the significance of the ritual framing of the oral performance of curses as a framework carried forward in 1QS. This text from the Dead Sea Scrolls employs these ritual actions and sequences to make an adapted form of the covenant enactment in Deuteronomy 27–30, a required element for membership within the community in the same way that Deuteronomy does.

I thank Dr. Ramos for her rich responses and thoughts on my questions, and the team at Rhea Classical Reviews for their work in bringing together this review essay.

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