Studying Leviticus in Sudan
Reflections by Ellen F. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School
“I admit it: I know nothing about animal sacrifice,” I said to my class on Torah’s Vision of Worship at Renk Theological College (July/August 2007). After a week on Exodus, we had reached the beginning of Leviticus. Looking at those first seven chapters, a detailed account of Israelite sacrifice, I realized that the teacher was the only person in the room—and there were 35 or 40 of us—for whom the biblical text was opaque. “So,” I said, “you tell me how animal sacrifice has been practiced in your tribe, and what it means to your people.” Many hands flew into the air for the first time; for the rest of that day and on into the next we heard accounts, as detailed as those in Leviticus, of sacrificial practices among the Dinka, Moru, Shilluk, Zande, and Nuer. In some cases these were based on first-hand experience; many Southern Sudanese Christians grew up in families and villages that practiced African traditional religions. In other cases the students were recounting rituals they themselves had never witnessed. The Moru, for instance, have been Christians for a century, yet Mama Ludia, a diminutive priest with wrinkled face and sparkling eyes, could speak at length about the sacrificial practices of her ancestors. This, I realized, is the power of the oral tradition in a culture that has treasured it over centuries, maybe millennia.
Even more striking to me than their detailed knowledge was the speakers’ excitement. They were drawing upon the common memories of their people, recalling ancient cultural habits that had been first transformed by European missionaries and indigenous evangelists, and then shattered entirely by the genocidal war and exile perpetrated by the Government of Sudan, with its program of militant Islamization of Southern Sudan. If the Sudanese were eager to remedy my ignorance, maybe it was because they sensed that a cultural heritage that had been despised could now be valued among us, though all of us are Christians, and none of us is interested in restoring animal sacrifice! The students spoke sensitively about elements of continuity and discontinuity between African traditional religions and Christianity, acknowledging that some practices (e.g., the use of drums) can enhance Christian worship, that some traditional notions of reverence before divinity can be useful, as long as the focus is held firmly on the true God. Listening, I realized that their process of recollection and discriminating appropriation of elements of indigenous religion might resemble the process that underlies biblical religion. For the early Israelites, many of whom likely came from Canaanite families and towns, radically separated their worship of one God from the worship of Canaanite gods, while at the same time they brought some “traditional” elements into their new faith.
Our discussion deepened my appreciation of a remark made years ago by Daniel Deng Bul, Bishop of Renk Diocese and newly elected Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. “We live in the Old Testament,” he said of his people, explaining why he wanted me to come and teach in Renk. “Our people need to know their story.” And listening as they engage their story instructs me. Parts of the Bible that are of merely “academic” interest (if that) to my North American students become riveting when read with Sudanese students and colleagues—the lengthy descriptions of sacrifice in Leviticus being an outstanding though not isolated example.
But does this experience of studying Leviticus in Sudan have any significance beyond the interest and edification of those of us in the room? To put the question boldly: Does the 21st-century church stand to gain anything from it? Perhaps. For it challenges the assumption long established and widespread in the Western church that it is our task to teach Africans how to read the Bible with understanding and critical insight. When British missionaries began translating the Old Testament into tribal languages, they omitted Leviticus altogether—fearing that the new converts would find too much similarity between African traditional religion and biblical faith! Yet ironically, the Western church itself has produced little theological insight into that book. So I suggested at the end of our week of study that maybe it is time for Christians in Sudan to write a commentary on Leviticus, and on other books—Isaiah, Psalms—that have guided and sustained their faith through much suffering. It is time for us to begin reading the Bible through Sudanese eyes.