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Simply Brilliant, but Flawed
on December 20, 2005
This book gets four stars because Margaret Barker manages to provide, in one place, some illuminating material related to the first (the Solomonic) temple, its ritual worship, and the theology informing it. We should be grateful to her for her hard work in seeking out and publishing this material!
However, although I agree with much (not all) of what she writes, and though she retrieves some things that are far more than helpful to have retrieved, she makes first-temple high-priestly rituals (or rather, her attempted _reconstruction_ of them - that's the key) absolute, and she interrogates the Deuteronomic redaction from that absolute, along with everything else that comes after the Babylonian Exile in the history of Jewish/Christian thought. Everything else that follows in history after the first temple is merely, to Barker, a crater from its impact on the minds of the ancient Israelites.
OVERALL, IN SUM it is as if both the present form of the Christian and Jewish liturgies and the traditions (spiritually and historically) of each are treated as both derivative and void of value (or at least interest) if they do not consciously lay hold of, and allow themselves to be informed by, Barker's retrieval. I felt dislodged from authentic time as a result. One must live in the present, with the existential options available now. Margaret Barker does not do this.
However, she must be read, because despite her errors, she does pave the way for Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholarship to really retrieve what was going on in the temple (it was not really magic, and it was not appeasing an angry God), because temple worship is where almost _all_ HB/OT theology emerges from -- maybe all of it (if you disagree, read Fletcher-Louis' article, below, first). I would read at least three essays to help move past this book.
First, I would read another article by Barker (available online) called "Atonement: the Rite of Healing." It's much better than this book. You can find it for free on the internet. I read this article before this book, and it's why I bought the book to begin with. The book may be lacking, but the article is quite good, even if it could be summarized in 5 or 6 pages.
Second, an _amazing_ text, a scriptural analysis of these themes, available for free on the internet, is provided by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis (from the University of Nottingham) in an article called "The Cosmology of P and Theological Anthropology in the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira," where he goes through Genesis 1-3 and Exodus 25-40, as well as Proverbs and Job, and shows how they're all related to the worship of Israel in the temple rites. This is the best article in biblical studies that I've read in years, and it might be the _best_ place to start. (In connection to Fletcher-Louis' work, I would strongly recommend reading at least the appendices to Alexander Schmemann's work, "For the Life of the World," which deal with liturgical worship and the epiphanic nature of symbols.) The section in Fletcher-Louis where he mentions the temple's theophanic cloud of incense is wonderful, and reading Schmemann's comments about symbols and sacraments in connection to this and many other points of temple practice (and others, such as the sprinkling of the blood/life of the lamb as the giving of YHWH's blood/life because of the Tetragrammation placed on the goat, which Barker brings up -- see Lev.17:11) is very helpful.
Third, I would read Jon Levenson's book "Sinai and Zion," and if you have the time, his book "Creation and the Persistence of Evil."
After tackling these, the reader can begin to cover early liturgical texts and better place them in context.
A FINAL NOTE, lest these "correctives" give the impression that Barker is not worth reading -- there are less than ten authors whom I have been so impressed by on the first read that afterwards, I went out and bought almost everything they wrote in English. Margaret Barker is one of them, and she is worthy of a good stretch of my bookshelves, and more.