- [Moses] got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, threw it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words. (Ex 24:4-8)
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:
- I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a seat of honor for the house of his father. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring (sprouts) and offshoots (leaves)—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls (כלי האגנות) to all the jars. (Isa 22:22-24)
- How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands. Your navel is a rounded goblet (אגן הסהר) that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
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:
- λαβὼν δὲ Μωυσῆς τὸ ἥμισυ τοῦ αἵματος ἐνέχεεν εἰς κρατῆρας τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ τοῦ αἵματος προσέχεεν πρὸς τὸ θυσιαστήριον.
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).