EXPLORING THE JEWISH CONCEPT OF RITUAL CLEANSING FROM A BULSA PERSPECTIVE
Stephen Azundem, for 14 years Minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, was born in Sandema-Balansa in 1980. His qualifications: Dip. in study of religion, University of Ghana. Bachelor of theology at the Trinity Theological Seminary Legon. Master of theology (African Christianity) at Akrofi Christaller Institute Akropong. Master of sacred theology, McGill university, Montreal, Canada.
What constitutes impurity among the Jews?
In the Jewish cultural setting, as it is with many cultures of the world including Africa, there are a variety of acts and things considered as unclean. For instance, a person can contract ritual uncleanness when one comes into contact with ritually unclean things and acts. Some of the ways of contracting uncleanness include: skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead, eating unclean foods, childbirth, menstruation, emission of semen, contamination by a carcass etc. According to Roland de Vaux, in the minds of the ancients there is a close connection between what is considered to be ritually impure and the notion of being consecrated to God (de Vaux 1961: 460).
The things that are considered clean and unclean are embedded with mysterious powers and forces. These powers and forces control them, thus placing every person who comes into contact with them under a kind of interdict (ibd.). An unclean person in general has to avoid what is holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness places a person in a dangerous condition under threat of divine retribution, even death (Leviticus 15:3), again one state of uncleanness can lead to the expulsion from the land’s inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25).
The rites of cleansing among the Jews
In the Jewish cultural setting, when one contracts uncleanness, steps are taken to reinstate the person. Roland Vaux mentioned two rites of cleansing in his book, namely (a) sacrifice and ablutions (b) the ashes of a heifer (ibd).
Sacrifice and ablutions
Sacrifice plays a very important role in the performance of ritual cleansing. For instance when a woman gives birth, she has to offer a sacrifice for sin (Leviticus 12:1-8); Lepers are required to offer sacrifice of reparation and (Leviticus 14:10-32) on their ritual cleansing.
When men and women contract sexual uncleanness through sexual intercourse, they are required to offer a holocaust (the complete burning of an animal) and sin sacrifice (Leviticus 15:14-15, 29-30). Again when a Nazarene becomes unclean through the contact with a corpse, he is required to offer a sacrifice for sin, a holocaust and a sacrifice of reparation (Number 6:9-12). When the period covered by his vow is ended, he again offers a holocaust, a sacrifice for sin, and a sacrifice of reparation (Number 6:13-20, de Vaux 1961:460).
Apart from the above, there are other rites of cleansing that may or may not be combined with sacrifice. The laws of ritual cleansing require that vessels, clothes or persons who have been contaminated through contact with things that are unclean are washed in water (Leviticus 11:24-15, 28, 32, 40; 15 passim 22:6., le Vaux 1961:461). For instance, the following are to be washed in water to attain the desired cleanness; metal vessels used to boil the sacrificial meat and the high priest who performed the rite of atonement had to change his clothes and wash his entire body. Similarly, both the man who leads the scape-goat to the desert and the man who burns the victims offer as sacrifice for sin, had to change their clothes and wash their bodies (ibd.). The fighting men who participate in a holy war and the booty attained must be cleansed before they could return to cleanness. The prescribed period for this rite is seven days (ibd.).
The ashes of the heifer
In this rite, a red heifer, one without blemish, is slaughtered in the desert. The slaughtering is done by a lay person in the presence of a priest; the whole carcass is burnt and while the carcass is burning the priest throws into the fire cedar-wood, hyssop and red cochineal. The ashes are collected and kept at a ritually pure place (ibd.). Lustral water is prepared by putting some of the ashes into a vessel and pouring running water into it. The belief here is that red is a protective colour which averts every evil and causes demons to flee. The ashes are used for lustrations while the running water is used to take away uncleanness.
What constitutes impurity among the Bulsa?
In the Bulsa cultural setting, there are many things and acts that are considered to be unclean (daungta). According to Franz Kröger, the Bulsa word for unclean is used to refer to moral or religious offence (Kröger 1992: 102). People are strongly urged to avoid such abominable acts or even not to go closer to them. Involving oneself in an act considered to be abominable attracts serious punishment even to the extent of death.
Acts that are considered unclean include stealing, murder, adultery, witchcraft, eating food sacrificed to the idols, killing or eating an animal forbidden by one’s clan. In the Bulsa cultural setting, there are animals that are associated with the various clans. Members of one’s clan are forbidden to kill or eat a particular animal that is associated with their clan. For instance, most clans in Buluk have monkey (waaung) as their clan animal. People who have monkey as their clan totem will not eat its meat. Monkey (waaung) is the taboo animal for the Atuga-bisa, the descendants of Atuga, the founder of the Bulsa state. The Atuga-bisa are one of the Bulsa clans (Kröger, 1992: 380). Members of this clan also have snake to be their clan totem. Killing or eating a family totem may lead to a lorry accident or serious sickness like chicken pox, skin rashes or even death if not determined early. When it is detected earlier, necessary rituals are performed to avert the calamity. Classifying these animals as taboo beasts makes coming into contact with them more dangerous. Ernestina Afriyie in her work on taboos asserted that breaking taboos has negative supernatural consequences for individuals or a community (Afriye 2006: 159). The penalty for transgressing a clan taboo varies from one offence to the other among the Bulsa people. Since I cannot discuss all the acts considered unclean in detail and the various rites performed to reinstate the person who has contracted uncleanliness to cleanliness here because of time and space, I will limit myself to kabonsa fubka i.e. the ritual cleansing performed by two people who have engaged themselves in adultery.
Kabong is nowadays often translated as adultery (Kröger 1992: 160). In the past it was only a particular form of adultery. It was only used for a woman having sex with a male member of her husband’s clan (lineage), because by such an act the solidarity of the men of a section was endangered (which was very dangerous in times of war). According to Franz Kröger, kabong means sexual intercourse between a married or unmarried man and a woman who is or was married to a member of the adulterer’s lineage. Kabong is a grave offence in the Bulsa country (kabong ka wa-biak kpiong Bulsa tengka po, Kröger 1992: 160).
Kröger referred to kabong as a grave offence in the Bulsa cultural milieu that they don’t countenance at all because of its potency of wiping out a whole clan or family. This seriousness attached to the offence can also be linked to the seriousness the Jews attached to similar offence. That was why the Jewish men nearly lynched the woman caught committing adultery in the gospel of John (8: 1-11). The seriousness the Jewish community attached to the offence of adultery could surpass that of the Bulsa context; for the Jews, a person caught in such situation should be stoned to death. This notion might have also influenced Joseph’s earlier decision to secretly leave Mary because, should it be made public, Mary might have suffered the fate of being stoned to death. Matthew captures Joseph’s reaction as :
Joseph was a man who always did what was right, but he did not want to disgrace Mary in public; so he planned to break the engagement privately (Matthew 1: 19).
The Jews’ uncompromising stand against adultery was shown by their leaders, when they came to Christ in the temple with a woman caught in the act of adultery: Jesus’ statement to the adulterous woman was: “Has anyone condemned you? (“no sir”, she said) Then I do not condemn you either” (John 8: 10b-11). should not be mistaken to mean that Jesus Christ approved the adulterous nature of the woman. Actually he was condemning the Jewish act of stoning the woman to death which leaves the woman no chance of repentance. He was advocating for an opportunity of redeeming the woman back to the Jewish community. The heart of religious cleansing is reconciling the unclean or guilty person with his people and his God.
Performance of the rite
When an act of adultery is determined in the family, normally the determination of the act is done through consultation of a diviner or soothsayer. There are also occasions when the head of the compound (yeri-nyono), after realizing some strange happening in the clan or the family (such as common diseases like chicken pox), assembles all the women and inquires from them if anyone of them has committed adultery. He explains to them the consequence of not confessing such acts to him.
When the guilty person is established as result of the consultation with the diviner or the woman herself confessed the act, a day is set for the cleansing rites.
The guilty wife and her lover have to meet in front of the compound (in olden times completely naked) and the bodies of the guilty couple are rubbed or beaten with a small white chicken. The chicken is killed by knocking it on the ground without shedding blood and it is thrown into the bush or into a tree. Nobody is allowed to eat it, because it is a scape-chicken. The believe here is that the uncleanness of the guilty couple has been transferred to the chicken. If it is eaten, the eater would consume all guilt as well (Interview with Dr. Kröger, who lived and worked among the Bulsa).
Like in the Jewish community, where the high priest performs the rites on behalf of the Jews, in the Bulsa community two people are qualified to perform the rite: an elder uncle of the guilty wife or a diviner or soothsayer, called Baano in the Buli language.
The Baano’s duty is likened to that of the high priest, he is consulted on many matters related to the spirituality of his people and gives detailed instructions about the performances of sacrifices.
Significance of the Bulsa Cleansing Rite
For this research work, I have discovered the following significance of ritual cleansing among the Bulsa:
• Uncleanness, especially if sexually related, breaks the solidarity of the men in the clan. This is very dangerous during war because the clan is likely to suffer a defeat.
• The rites of cleansing bring forgiveness and acceptance between husband and wife and the entire clan.
• It ensures high moral standards in the clan.
• Kinship and affinity relationships are reaffirmed in the clan or the lineage.
• Uncleanness has a great potency of wiping away a whole clan or lineage.
• The Bulsa concept of cleansing has much resemblance to the Jewish concept.
Similarity in the two concepts
Symbolism plays a major role in both concepts; the idea of the scape-chicken in the Bulsa concept is similar to the Jewish concept of the scape-goat used in the atonement. In some Bulsa communities a goat is used in the rite of cleansing. In the Jewish community, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest makes atonement on the scapegoat; in this ritual act he lays the sins of Israel on the scapegoat. The goat is sent to a mountain, which has a distance equivalent to the distance of a ten Sabbath days’ journey from Jerusalem. At the steep side of the mountain the goat is pushed down the slope of the mountain side. This is to ensure the sudden death of the goat upon reaching the foot of the mountain as a result of breaking its bones (Elwell 1997, Entry for “scapegoat”).
Likewise in the Bulsa concept, the Baano (diviner) rubs or beats the bodies of the guilty couple with a small white chicken. The chicken is killed by knocking it on the ground without shedding blood and it is thrown into the bush or into a tree. Nobody is allowed to eat it, because it is a scape-chicken. The belief here is that the uncleanness of the guilty couple has been transferred to the chicken. If it is eaten, the eater would consume all guilt as well.
Secondly, the main purpose of killing the scapegoat or the scape-chicken in both concepts at the outskirt of the community was to ensure that such unclean events would never return to the community. It was to prevent the recurrence of such sins and its consequence in both communities.
Besides the above similarity, there are common constituents of uncleanness in both cultures. Even though they may vary to a certain degree, their effects are exactly the same. Clean and unclean things have inherent mysterious powers and forces. These powers and forces control them, thus placing every person who comes into contact with them under a kind of interdict. For instance one person’s uncleanness can bring a disaster on the whole community.
Furthermore, the idea of a renewal of life is central to both cultures; the belief is that the person who goes through the rites of cleansing attains a new life and fresh beginning. In both concepts a person who has contracted uncleanness is restricted from going to certain places or going closer to certain objects considered to be holy. After the rite of cleansing, the restrictions are removed and the person is free now to go to those places and to have access to those holy objects.
Coupled with these, the rites of cleansing in both cultures ensure the sense of security and protection. As long as the person who has contracted uncleanness continues to live in the clan or the community, the whole clan is in danger of attacks and defeat from their enemies, sicknesses and untimely deaths.
Lastly the officiant of the rituals in both cultures is the Priest; the high Priest for the Jews and the Baano (diviner) in the case of the Bulsa.
… The similarity between the Jewish and Bulsa concept of cleansing is evident enough to show, especially to the missionaries who work among Africans, that no culture is superior to the other. Therefore they are to respect other cultures, for they themselves are products of one culture going to people who are the products of another (LOP, No.2: The Willowbank Report, p. 5).
In the centre of this whole idea of ritual cleansing is the understanding of the Holiness of God and the fallibility of human nature. Humans, by their nature, contract uncleanness in their daily dealings with fellow humans. For humans to approach this Holy God, they must cleanse themselves from uncleanness.
Afriyie, Ernestina, Taboos, in Tokunboh Adeyemo (eds.), Africa Bible Commentary, Nairobi: World Alive Publishers. 2006, p. 159.
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