CAN A CHRISTIAN POUR LIBATION?
Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu
Bishop of Konongo-Mampong
Libation is a simple rite in which one takes some liquid and pours it on the ground or sometimes on an object while pronouncing some words. The liquid may be palm wine, schnapps, whisky, gin, akpeteshe, or even water. The liquid used for the ceremony must actually be poured out. The idea of pouring out symbolizes destruction, which is found in all forms of sacrifice. The accompanying prayer is most often improvised or inspired by the occasion. But sometimes stereotyped formulae are used, especially on formal and official occasions. These include festival days and the funeral obsequies of some dead person. But whether the prayer is improvised or whether it is a stereotyped formula, the way it is said follows a more or less defined pattern. In general it is enough to mention the name of the person to whom the libation is being poured and then the liquid. Thus one may say, “Ancestor Kwadwo, wine”. This is the shortest form. A slightly longer form is, “Ancestor Kwadwo, receive this wine and drink it”. Sometimes also the addressees are mentioned in the plural, e.g., “All you gods of Ashanti, receive this wine and drink”. The names are mentioned one after the other and a bit of the drink is poured on the ground each time one of them is mentioned.
When all the names have been mentioned, the person pouring the libation continues with his petition. Thus during a child-naming ceremony, one may say, “You have blessed us with this child; do not allow any misfortune to befall him”.
Libation may also take the following form. With water or alcoholic drink in hand, the person pouring the libation raises the drink to God Almighty as he/she says words like these: “We show you drink, we do not offer you drink.” Some then go on to invoke God’s blessing on the drink by saying: “We show this drink to you so that you may touch it and remove from it all evil, so that as we pour it, whatever we say or implore for ourselves may be efficacious unto our good”. Next we have the invocation of the gods and the ancestors and the declaration to them of the purpose of the prayer. Some go on to invoke a curse on all those who out of hatred would wish that nothing good resulted from the gathering.
Libation is poured at the important moments of life, especial¬ly at birth, puberty, marriage and death. It is also poured when members of the family are about to undertake certain ventures, e.g., travel, trade, etc. The pouring of libation is usually the responsibility of the head of family, or tribe, or the linguist or priest; but ordinary individuals can also pour libation. It can be poured at home, at the stoolhouse, in private, or in public. Again among the Akan, the chief every forty-two days observes the Awukudae festival when he pours libation in the stoolhouse to the ancestors. At every tribal festival, such as the Odwira of the Akwapim or the Afahye of the people of Cape Coast, libation is poured.
When we examine the prayers that accompany libations we discover that the supernatural beings who feature in libation include the Supreme Being, the ancestral spirits, the abosom (spirit powers) and the earth goddess (Asaase Yaa among the Asante).
With regard to the significance of libation for those who pour it, at least three points can be made. First, those who pour libation express the wish for blessings and earthly benefits on themselves and on those on whose behalf they pour it. Secondly, through libation they seek to honour the particular group of spiritual beings whom they address in the libation. Thirdly, libation creates an atmosphere of solidarity among members of a community. From time to time the people of a given community come together to find solutions to their common problems through libation.
Can a Christian pour libation with its mention of gods and the invoking of a curse on enemies? Must the Christian refrain altogether from the pouring of libation, or is it possible to adapt the traditional rite in the light of Christian concepts and principles?
The attitude of Christians to libation varies. For some it is unbiblical and unchristian. For some Christians with a Pentecostal/Charismatic orientation it is not only unbiblical, it is demonic. Many of the mainline Churches have not officially pronounced on libation. One may justifiably have some reservations about certain aspects of libation as it is practised in Ghana today. But to condemn libation outright and maintain that it is incompatible in any form with Christianity, as some Christians do, seems to me to be taking a rather extreme position.
Libation and the Bible
In order to be able to express any view on libation, we must examine the biblical evidence regarding the practice. We should note that in the Old Testament the term “libation” renders the Hebrew noun nesek, which can also mean “drink offering”. The verb used in such contexts is nasak meaning “make a libation”.
It should also be observed that the references to “libation” and “drink offering” in the bible are numerous. In the Revised Standard Version (which I cite here) the term “liba¬tion” occurs five times in the whole bible. The plural form “liba-tions” occurs ten times. The term “drink offering” occurs 30 times, while the plural form “drink offerings” occurs 22 times. Here we can only draw attention to a few of these passages.
In Exod. 25:23 30 God gives directions to Moses and the Israel¬ites about the making of a golden table on which the Bread of the Presence would be put. In connection with this table God says, “You shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which you are to pour libations” (Exod. 25:29; cf. Exod. 37:16). These vessels are to be made of “pure gold” (Exod. 25:29b). This shows the high regard accorded to this ritual act. It is clear from the passage that the vessels are an essential part of the golden table and share in its service.
Exod. 29.38 43 talks about the regular daily offerings that the Jews were required to make to Yahweh, or God. Along with the lamb that should be offered in the morning, they were to offer “a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation” (Exod. 29.40). Along with the lamb that was to be sacrificed in the evening, the Jews were to offer “a cereal offering and its libation” (Exod. 29.41).
When the period of his or her consecration ended, the Nazirite had to perform an elaborate sacrificial ritual which would enable him or her to enjoy normal life. The offerings that had to be made included libation or drink offering (Num. 6.15, 17). Libation was thus seen as ritually necessary for the release of the Nazirite from his or her dedication to God.
In connection with Jewish sacrifices we should observe that the vegetable offerings (Hebrew minha) were generally offered along with a holocaust or with a communion sacrifice, and was accompa¬nied by a libation of wine (Exod. 29.40; Lev. 23.13, and especial¬ly Num. 15.1 12).
In Ecclesiasticus 50.14 15 the author describes with apparent spiritual elation the offering of libation:
Finishing the service at the altars and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty, he (the High Priest) reached out his hand to the cup and poured a libation of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the King of all.
We should note that during the feast of Tabernacles, which was still celebrated at the time of Jesus (cf. John 7.2), a libation of water was poured. The water libation ceremony was the first common rite for each day of the feast. On each of the seven mornings a procession of priests went down to the pool of Siloam. There, a priest filled a golden pitcher with water as the choir repeated Isa. 12.3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Then the procession went up to the Temple through the Water Gate. The accompanying crowds sang the Hallel psalms (Pss. 113 118). When they reached the altar of burnt offering they went around the altar waving the twigs of myrtle and willow tied with palms that they had been carrying. As they did this they sang Ps. 118.5, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.” The water which was drawn from the pool of Siloam was used, together with wine, for libation on the altar of burnt offering. On the seventh day the worshippers went round the altar seven times.
To conclude our discussion of the Old Testament evidence regarding libation, we should note that most of the references to libation or drink offering in the Old Testament are favourable. There are only a few passages in which God says that he is not happy with the libations of the Jews. But in these passages it is not that libation per se is evil, but it is because the Jews on those occasions had reverted to idolatry and had poured libation to other gods instead of pouring it to Yahweh, or God. Examples of such passages are Psalm 16:4, “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their libations of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips,”; Jer. 7:18, “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven (i.e., the gentile goddess Astarte); and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.” The other passages relevant in this connection are Deut. 32:36-39; Jer. 19:13; 32:29; 44:17, 25; Hos. 9:4.
In the New Testament there are two passages in which the word “libation” is found; it seems to be alluded to in a third. In Phil. 2.17 Paul speaks of “being poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith”; likewise, in 2 Tim. 4.6 Paul says, “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation.” With the imagery of the Jewish practice of libation, Paul in these two passages demonstrates his readiness and willing¬ness to pour out his life as a clear sign of his unstinted fidelity and commitment to God. The Greek verb used in these contexts is spendomai, “to make or pour libation”. However, we must note that in these instances spendomai is not used in the technical sense of the Hebrew nasak, but is clearly used in a metaphorical or spiritualized sense, since Paul merely compares the pouring out of his life to the pouring of libation.
The third passage is John 7:37, which speaks of the rivers of living water that the believer will receive. It has been suggested that the rivers of living water may be an allusion to the libation rite of the feast of Tabernacles. But in what sense is this allusion to be understood? Bultmann seems to give the most plausible answer,
the eschatological event which takes place in Jesus has set an end to the Jewish cult. The libation of water, typically of the feast of Tabernacles, was seen as a symbolic representation of the blessing of water in the final age, and as anticipation of the reception of the Spirit in the end time; now its place is taken by Jesus, who comes as the giver of the water of life, the giver of the Spirit. The promise is fulfilled; the age of salvation is present in Jesus (R. Bultmann, Gospel of John, p. 304f).
With the coming of Christ who provides the living water or the Spirit, the rite of libation had been superseded. We should also note that, whereas in the Old Testament we find a lot of examples of the pouring of libation, in the New Testament we do not have a single clear instance in which libation is poured. What we have are allusions that are to be taken metaphorically, as we have seen.
If libation as practised in African Traditional Religion is meant to be a sacrifice, then there is a problem for us Christians. Heb. 9:11-14 in the context of chapters 9-10:18 clearly discusses the high priesthood of Jesus and the superiority of his sacrificial death over Jewish sacrifices which are devalued due to Jesus’ sacrificial death “once and for all”.
One objection that is usually brought against the pouring of libation is that it is sacrificial in nature. If libation as practised in African Traditional Religion is meant to be a sacrifice, then there is a problem for us Christians. Heb. 9:11-14 in the context of chapters 9-10:18 clearly discusses the high priesthood of Jesus and the superiority of his sacrificial death over Jewish sacrifices which are devalued due to Jesus’ “once and for all” sacrificial death.
However, in the Akan traditional religion while libation can be poured during a sacrifice, it is not so certain that it should be regarded as a sacrifice. It is a rite accompanying prayer to God through the ancestors. Libation pouring is always accompanied by a prayer in which people, for example, ask for certain favours on various occasions for themselves, for their families, countries, etc. There is no incompati¬bility between this and the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ.
In the light of the foregoing we have to attempt to answer these questions: (1) Should the Christian pour libation? (2) Can the Christian pour libation? With regard to the first question my own position is that there is no need for the Christian to do so. This is in view of the unique and salvific death of Christ on the cross, the celebration of the various sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the various prayers at the disposal of the Christian, which do not render it necessary for him/her to pour libation. Whatever can be said in the libatory prayers can be taken care of in one or the other Christian prayer.
Having said this, I must add that there are Christians whose position in the family, clan or community may make it necessary for them to pour libation on certain occasions. This is the case with those who are the heads of families, clans and chiefs. The performance of their office demands that on certain special occasions they pour libation. This is where we come to the second question, i.e. whether the Christian can pour libation. I think such people can do so, and for them may be possible to have a form of libation that is reconcilable with Christianity. In libation as practised in Ghana the addressees, as we have seen, include the Supreme Being, or God, the minor deities, ancestors, etc. Is it not possible for a Christian to pour a libation in which God is addressed and the good ancestors are invoked? The reference to the minor deities would be omitted. Those who may not be happy with the mention of the ancestors might go further and leave them out of the libatory prayers altogether, and concentrate only on God, as was done in the Old Testament.
In response to those who may contend that libation is a sacrifice, I would say that the way out will be to formulate the libatory prayer in such a way that the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ is stressed. It could take the following form: “Jesus Christ, you have given your life once and for all for all humankind (Heb. 9-10) that we might have life in its fullness (Jn 7:37; 10:10) [pouring of libation]. As we gather here today on the occasion of ….(e.g. child naming ceremony, marriage, funeral, etc), we give our life as thanksgiving to you (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6). We entrust all the family and clan to you. We seek your blessing and ask you to protect us from all harm, etc, etc.”
It should also be noted that the Christian Church has had a long tradition of christianizing non-Christian rituals. What may be done therefore in the interests of christianizing libation would be to reformulate the prayers which accompany the pouring so as to shift the emphasis from lesser deities and ancestors to the triune God who for the Christian is the centre of worship.
With regard to the curses that are invoked upon one’s enemies at the end of the libatory prayers, Archbishop Peter K. Sarpong (Libation, pp. 4647) points to the invocation of curses on one’s enemies in the Bible. He argues that this practice has biblical, especially Old Testament, antecedents. In spite of the arguments adduced by Archbishop Sarpong for the invocation of curses on one’s enemies during the pouring of libation, it is my conviction that the more Christian thing to do in these circumstances is not to curse one’s enemies but to pray for them. In the spirit of forgiveness as taught by Christ in the New Testament, the invocation of curses in the rite of libation can be changed into a prayer for a change of heart on the part of the enemies of the person or persons pouring the libation.