I’ve been thinking about an ancient desert party that was like Burning Man, except not – the only similarity is that both involved a large gathering in a desert setting.

Both involve a lot of sweaty and smelly people, but the ancients bathed much more often while attending an annual festival at Qumran.

The idea of Qumran as a pilgrimage site gets a shot in the arm from a recent article in which Daniel Vainstub of Ben Gurion University offers a well-reasoned explanation for a number of conundrums associated with our understanding of Qumran, the ancient site associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Religions 12:8[2021], 578).

The excavation of Qumran was led by the French Dominican priest Roland DeVaux, who identified it as a settlement associated with the Essenes, a Jewish sect similar to Pharisees and Sadducees, except much stricter.

Essenes rejected the established priesthood in Jerusalem as well as the temple worship they controlled. They had their own class of priests and leaders who identified with the Zadokite priesthood, all men who were sworn to celibacy as well as poverty.

Other Essenes, who were also considered part of the yahad (“community”), lived in “camps” scattered through the land and followed slightly different rules. They were allowed to marry, but still foreswore personal possessions, leading an ascetic existence in which community members held all things in common.

Seeking sustained ritual purity, Essenes typically immersed themselves at least daily in a miqveh (plural miqva’ōt), or ritual bath, before their community meals.

While many scholars have long considered Qumran to be the center of the Essene community, the archaeological remains are so unusual that others have argued it was more likely to have been an agricultural villa or possibly a small community of potters.

More than 1,000 bowls, plates, jars, and serving platters were found in this room at Qumran, all neatly stacked before an earthquake caused a wall to knock them over. (Photo: Tony W. Cartledge)

The primary enigma is that Qumran has a number of well-built public buildings, oversized miqva’ōt that could accommodate hundreds of people, and kitchen/serving facilities that could serve large crowds – but not many houses.

The few domestic buildings and caves available for lodging probably housed less than a hundred people on a regular basis – so why would they need a pantry stocked with hundreds of bowls and outsized makva’ōt set up for mass immersions?

And why would they not develop the large open area just south of the main complex, where it would have been easy to build more houses?

Vainstub argues that a small contingent of priests, scribes, and support staff lived at Qumran year-round, but once each year the place was overrun by hundreds or even thousands of pilgrims.

Evidence from a careful study of Essenic documents such as “The Community Rule” and “The Damascus Document” indicate that all male members of the community were expected to come together once each year during the Feast of Shavuot (just before Pentecost) and join in a covenant renewal ceremony.

The ceremony appears to have been based on instructions from Deuteronomy 27-28 that called for the invading Israelites to hold a covenant renewal ceremony on the slopes of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim after they had taken control of the land. Joshua 8:30-35 claims that Joshua led them in just such a ceremony.

Qumran, located on a narrow ridge by the Dead Sea, is a long way from the hill country locations of Ebal and Gerizim, but the sect’s leaders apparently felt free to adapt the one-time renewal of Joshua 8 to an annual event in which members reaffirmed their commitment both to God and to the community through a pilgrimage to the cultic center.

The annual festival would have been a lot more sedate than Burning Man, but don’t worry – tickets were hard to get. You would have been denied admission without selling everything you own and pledging to keep every ritual commandment while living within an ascetic community where everybody shared.

And some people think getting vaccinated or wearing a mask for the sake of others is too much to ask.

Lord help us.

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