Musings on Critical Approaches to Leviticus

Historically the food laws of Leviticus 11 have no parallels in the Ancient Near East. And while there are proposted explanations for the theological intentions of the Kashruth in Leviticus 11, external evidence for the division of clean/unclean animals during the historical context of the book of Leviticus lacks.

In a lecture regarding the Philistines at Tell Gath, Aren Maeir notes the following:

For many years it was thought that if you have a site with pig bones, it’s Philistine. If you have a site without, it’s Israelite. Seemingly very nice, but it’s much more complicated. And one of the things that we’ve started noticing in Philistia, is that in Urban sites you have pig bones, in rural sites you don’t have pig bones. And when you go to the Israelites, in Judah you don’t have pig bones, in Israel you do have pig bones. So things are a little more complicated than we assume. And like always things are not black and white. They’re grey.

What may something like this indicate about Leviticus? From his statement, there are three indications.

  1. Leviticus contains several strata of text.
  2. Leviticus is political on some level.
  3. Leviticus must be read diachronically

1. Leviticus Contains Several Strata of Text

While this is commonly accepted in various forms after the ground-breaking work of Julius Wellhausen, the excavations at Tell Gath indicate even more so that the strata of the bible should be recognized. The excavations demonstrate this in that there are pig bones in Judah and not in Israel in the 8th-6th centuries B.C. There are, of course, older layers of text which clearly demonstrate the ancient context of Leviticus. A simplistic explanation simply explains it away as being due to the sins of the North. In contrast, an explanation honest to the text, history, and archaeology must recognize that the food laws may have been a late development in Israelite religion that were edited into older texts.

2. Leviticus is Political on some Level

In continuity with my previous point, the excavations have sociological and, more important, political indications. After all, within the presentation of the Bible, the Southern Kingdom was generally more faithful to God than the Northern Kingdom. It also, in contrast to the North, stayed united. Either way, it is clear that the South, if in control of the redaction of biblical texts, may likely have been willing to establish certain restrictions that may have helped them to become more powerful than the North. They would do so by centering holiness and purity upon their own diet and geographic region. Thus, it is possible that the food laws of Leviticus were redacted to set themselves apart from the North as “superior” in some way. Hence, it Leviticus may be political.

3. Leviticus must be read diachronically

Again similar to point 1, due to the nature of Leviticus, it should be read diachronically. While there are clearly and most definitely benefits to a synchronic reading, a diachronic reading practically takes into account the various strata of the text. The nature of pig bones in Israel demonstrates just this point. Perhaps the food laws were a later development within ancient Israelite religion. Perhaps they were politically driven. No matter the case, the strata of Leviticus must be recognizes and taken into account as one reads Leviticus by reading it diachronically.

Conclusion

These three points provide reasonable basic guidelines by which I may read Leviticus critically. More than reading it critically, a proper reading will assist in understanding the various intertextual connections within the Pentateuch and entire Bible.

 

 

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