Why 70 Bulls?

Why 70 Bulls?

Yoel Halevi No Comments

The Torah in Numbers 29:12-34 requires the Israelite priests to sacrifice 70 bulls during the great feast of Sukkot-Asif. The question standing before most people who read this text is why 70?

In traditional interpretation found in rabbinic sources, we find the argument that 70 represents the 70 nations mentioned in Genesis 4. The concept revolves around the universality of YHWH in the mind of 2nd temple Judaism and the idea of the universal responsibility of Israel.

“Rabbi Elazar said: These seventy bulls to what do they correspond? They correspond to the seventy nations. Why a single bull? It corresponds to the singular nation!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55: b)

However, Israel in the pre-exile state did not show signs of universality, and Israel resembled more the local cults which were common in other cultures (By cult we mean the system of religion as reflected in temple service and the meaning of sacrifices in the scope of the ancient near east). The cutlers of the bronze and iron ages were local, and though they did have diplomatic ties with many other cultures, religion was localized to the territory of the ethnic group and their gods. Israel, though unique in many ways, was not different in this aspect. YHWH is presented first and foremost as a family/ancestral God who provides to his people in the land they live in. This idea starts with Avraham and continues throughout the generations all the way to the bitter end of the 1st temple. Only when Israel is faced with international threats do we start seeing the idea of a God who expands outside the boundaries of the land given to his people (Smith, 2002, pp.182-194). 

This does not mean Israelites did not perceive their God as all-powerful with domain over the world, but it does limit the scope of what they thought about the nations and the relation of the nations with their God. Only very few non-Israelites had come to recognize YHWH, and this idea is echoed in Pharaoh’s response “I do not know YHWH” (Exodus 5:2). It is only in the future of the world that all nations will know YHWH and worship him as Zephaniah (3:9) says:

כִּי אָז אֶהְפֹּךְ אֶל עַמִּים שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה לִקְרֹא כֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה לְעָבְדוֹ שְׁכֶם אֶחָד

For then I will change the peoples, so that they will have pure lips,
to call on the name of YHWH, all of them, and serve him with one accord.

but until then only part of the few know Him.

Ancient Near East Context

In Ugaritic cultic texts, we find a great feast done on a two-month festival of wine which was done during the 7th and 8thmonths of the year as a new year’s feast done at the end of summer-beginning of winter. Though we cannot prove that there is a real connection between Sukkot and the feast of wine, it does give insight into the magnitude of feats at the end of the harvest season. In Ugaritic texts 15.RS 1.003 and RS 18.056, we find a great feast with many sacrifices and even little leaf huts (line B.51) as part of a royal service done by the king who offers up animals to all the different gods of Ugarit. The resemblance to Sukkot is interesting, but it is not the same, and the huts have a very different function which was probably an abode to the gods (Pardee, 2002, pp.56-65). 

However, this feat with its many sacrifices does give us insight into how peoples of the ancient world saw the end of the harvest. It was a great celebration where the people thanked their gods for a bountiful harvest, and offer up thanks to the gods. The sacrifices also function as a way to ask the gods to continue the blessings for the upcoming year.

The Israelite Context

Unlike the above text, Israel did not offer up sacrifices to gods but only to YHWH. This was done as part of the feast sacrifices offered up by the entire nation. It seems the text of the Torah sees the idea of the end of harvest in the same light as many nations did. Even today, in our non-agricultural systems we still understand the effect of a bad harvest and can see its effect on the food market. Because we need food from the lands we live on, it is very difficult to live without it. Sukkot is a symbolic end of one cycle and the beginning of another cycle, a cycle that hopefully will not end.

The land of Israel and the food from it are an integral part of the covenant between the patriarchs and YHWH, and this covenant extends to the descendants of these men. Having a blessed year and praying for a new good agricultural year are natural things for the covenant people of YHWH and farm life. This is why the feast is celebrated with huts made of plants that represent the harvest, and this is why the 70 bulls are offered. The bulls have a two-fold function:

  1. To be a great feast celebration with many offerings given to YHWH to thank him and give to him of the great harvest which animals are a part of. Animals are considered part of the great blessing of the land, and appear together with other agricultural elements.
  2. 70 represents the whole nation of Israel. This can be understood from the idea of 70 men who were chosen in the desert to represent all of Israel:

“14 I can’t carry this entire people by myself alone — it’s too much for me! 15 If you are going to treat me this way, then just kill me outright! — please, if you have any mercy toward me! — and don’t let me go on being this miserable!” 16 YHWH said to Moshe, “Bring me seventy of the leaders of Isra’el, people you recognize as leaders of the people and officers of theirs. Bring them to The Tent of Meeting, and have them stand there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the Spirit which rest on you and put it on them. Then they will carry the burden of the people along with you so that you won’t carry it yourself alone.”(Numbers 11:14-17). 

Though an equal number from all of Israel would be 72, 70 represents a topological number of 7X10 which has significance in the numerology of the ancient world. The 70 elders are given the responsibility of governing the people to keep YHWH’s law, and in the same token, the 70 bulls represent the thanks of all of Israel. 

Sukkot-The Great Feast

As stated, Sukkot is a symbolic end of the harvest. It is symbolic because summer fruit is still on trees, and we also have winter fruit harvest later on. However, because things are a cycle, we have to designate a time of the year to symbolize the beginning and end of harvest. These two times are the waving of the sheaf of barley and the feast of Sukkot-Asif. However, it seems from the biblical accounts of the feasts that Sukkot was the biggest of all the feasts and had much higher importance when it came to public celebrations.

We find the following ideas in the different texts:

  1. It is called החג/בחג “The Feast” with a definite indicator several times in the biblical texts: 1Kings 8:2,65, Ezekiel 45:23,35, Nehemiah 8:14, 2Chron 5: 3, 7:8, 14.
  2. It has a higher number of sacrifices compared to any other feast Num 29.
  3. Solomon used it as a platform for the dedication of the temple because he knew most of the people would show for the feast 1Kings 8:2,65.
  4. There is a command to be extra happy at this time. Though it says in Numbers 10 to be happy during the feasts, Sukkot receives an emphatic אך in Duet 16:15 to indicate extra celebration. 

We see that the idea standing behind the sacrifices of Sukkot was to thank YHWH for the blessings of the land through the covenant by serving Him many bulls which are offered by all of Israel. The priests stand before YHWH as representatives of all of Israel during the great feast of thanks when all of Israel is present. In this way do Israel shows their gratitude and loyalty to YHWH as His people. 

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