Following Moses’ receipt of the Law and his descent from Mount Sinai, Exodus 24 contains a description of a unique ritual which ratifies the covenant between God and Israel:
The blood of the slaughtered bull is divided into two portions. Half is thrown against the altar, which represents God; the other half is presumably thrown against the twelve pillars, which represent the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is thus sealed by means of both parties’ symbols being bathed in the bull’s blood. In the case of a standard sacrifice, the blood of an animal is drained and thrown against the altar. People are forbidden to eat this blood because it symbolizes life (see Gen 9:4). By ritually throwing the blood against the altar, the animal’s life-force (nefesh) is restored to God (Lev 17:11). The ratification ritual here in Exodus 24 is more complex than a typical sacrifice because it involves a restoration of the animal’s life to both the Creator and to humankind. This two-fold restoration of life serves as a visceral testimony which solidifies the relationship between the two parties.
But what really interests me in this passage is one particular word. The word translated here as “basins” is אגנות (aganot) in the original Hebrew, a rare word in the Bible. Normally when the priestly sections of the Torah refer to a basin for gathering blood the word used is מזרק (mizrak), literally "thrower", because it was used to dash the blood against the altar (e.g., Num 7 passim). Another common vessel found in Numbers 7 is a קערה (ke'ara) a bowl, dish or platter, from the Semitic root meaning to hollow out, make deep. The Mishnah uses the word בזיך (bazikh) to refer to a round vessel to gather the blood or entrails of sacrificed animals (m. Pes. 5.5; m. Tam. 4.3). With so many more common terms, why does the author of Exodus choose to use the rare word אגן here?
Let’s have a look at the etymology of the word and where else it appears in the Bible. The origin of the word is the Akkadian agannu, which means a bowl or cauldron. From Akkadian it made its way into several Semitic languages including: Hebrew (אגן) Aramaic (אגנא), Syriac (ܐܓܢܐ) and Arabic (إجانه).
Apart from our verse the word appears twice in the Bible: Isa 22:24 and Song 7:3. In the first example, Isaiah, having denounced Shebna, the corrupt royal steward (i.e., vizier or prime minister) to King Hezekiah, prophecies that a new steward named Eliakim the son of Hilkiah will be appointed:
It should be noted, by the way, that in 1870 the famous archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered a lavishly decorated 8th century BCE rock-cut tomb in the in the village of Silwan across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. It bears an inscription which reads “This is … yahu who is the Master over the Household” (זאת... יהו אשר על הבית). See picture below. Many archaeologists believe that the missing part of the inscription contained the words “the grave of Sheban,” making this a reference to the same individual denounced in Isaiah 22:15-19. In verse 15 Shebna is referred to as “master of the household” and verse 16 castigates him for “hewing your grave on the height and chiseling your resting place in the rock”.
The only other verse in the Bible that uses the word אגן (agan) is found in the erotically charged description of the female lover’s body (from the feet up to the head) in chapter 7 of the Song of Songs:
Each part of the woman’s body is compared to an object found in nature. The woman’s navel is compared to a round bowl used for mixing wine. The term used here for the bowl is not just אגן - but אגן הסהר (agan ha-sahar), literally the “full moon basin”. The word סהר (sahar) which means crescent in post-biblical Hebrew, is another example of a word that comes from Akkadian: sa’ru which means ring. This verse is the only instance of the word סהר in the entire Bible. The point is that this is a two-step analogy: the woman’s navel is compared to a round bowl which is in turn compared to the full moon.
Thus far it is not clear what is driving the author of Exodus 24:6 to use the word אגן. In the Septuagint, our verse from Exodus is translated as follows:
The Hebrew word אגן becomes κρατήρ in Greek. A krater is a large bowl used to mix wine and water, as seen in the image below. This is quite different from the small bowl alluded to in Isaiah 22:24. Interestingly, the only other use of the word κρατήρ in the LXX is to translate the flower shaped cups (גביעים) of the menorah, described in the following chapter of Exodus (25:31-40).
The reason that the word used in Exodus 24:6 is אגן is to distinguish the blood dashed against the altar from that that which is thrown upon the people. For the former, a "dashing-bowl" (מזרק) is sufficient; but for the latter a different vessel, something far larger is necessary. It would be inappropriate to equate the portion of blood given to God with that which is given to the people. Whereas God’s altar is bathed in pure blood, the portion reserved for the people is perhaps diluted in water in a mixing vessel used to blend wine (as seen in Songs 7:3).
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.