Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Treatise of Shem (Belated Edition)

Generally I post Pseudepigrapha Saturday on Saturdays. Unfortunately, due to the business of #AARSBL15 and thanksgiving time, I have been unable to post it. Well, now I present you with the exclusive “Belated Edition” of Pseudepigrapha Saturday. The only difference is that I am posting on Sunday instead of Saturday.

Introduction to the Text:

The Treatise of Shem follows the zodiac counterclockwise and reverses the order the Aquarius and Pisces. The first zodiac sign, Aries, begins with gloomy imagery, while the final zodiac sign in regular the regular order, Pisces, reflects a far more positive outlook. Written in the late twenties B.C.E. in Egypt, Charlesworth suggests that it demonstrates Jewish astrological concerns during the first century B.C.E. and symbolically reflects Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 B.C.E.), a likely candidate for the battle which birthed the Roman Empire (See The Battle of Actium by Joshua J. Mark).


“The synagogue at Zippori (Sepphoris) provided the most recent of the zodiac mosaic discoveries, although unfortunately it is not very well preserved. In the center of the zodiac wheel, Helios once again drives his four-horse chariot, but rather than the figure of a man, the god is depicted as the sun itself.” – Source: Biblical Archaeology Society



The Treatise of Shem and the “Variegated Nature of Intertestamental Judaism”

In his introduction to the Treatise of Shem, Charlesworth notes that “Diasporic Judaism, and even Palestinian Judaism, was not guided by an established orthodoxy. The Treatise of Shem significantly improves our perception of the variegated nature of intertestamental Judaism” (OTP, vol. 1, 477). Dovetailing from this point, the Treatise of Shem also illustrates the breadth of theological convictions throughout history. Take, for example, Genesis 1:14 which notes that the sun and moon as things which give signs and seasons. This Priestly text, of course, assumes a culture with an agricultural locus; thus, to follow the signs of the sky would not seem odd. After all, the seasons, signs, times, and astrology all go hand-in-hand.

Two later texts oppose astrology. Deuteronomy 18:10-14 bans divination, something which encompasses astrology. And the book of Jubilees rejects astrology all together (OTP, vol. 1, 477). Clearly, the various traditions from biblical literature indicate that Jewish literature (however anachronistic those terms may seem) was multifaceted and inherited traditions, ideas, and religious practices from their own contexts.

Shifting to more contemporary significance, perhaps the multifaceted approach to communal religion and personal, lived religion should be embraced by religious communities of the 21st centuries. In a world of globalization, multi-religious dialogue is an absolute must. Note, though, that I am not calling for pluralism. Pluralism demands that multiple sources are all correct. I simply call for multi-religious dialogue, in which multiple sources can engage with each other to seek commonalities for moving forward and also agree to disagree about differences.

This is the sort of diversity which seems to be present in the Treatise of Shem, one of many examples of variegation in Second Temple Period Judaism. Maybe we should learn from our human predecessors and move forward with those convictions: difference within tradition is not detrimental, but good.

Note: I am aware that this post went off the main focus of my blog, but I think it is important. So I said it. I am also aware that I am not necessarily taking into account the historical relationship between the variegated forms of Second Temple Period Judaism. Even so, I believe that multi-faith dialogue is a necessity for constructing a more palatable and lively world.


Joshua J. Mark. “The Battle of Actium”. Ancient History Encyclopedia.  (accessed 11/29/2015).

J. H. Charlesworth. “Treatise of Shem”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Hendrickson Publishers, 1983: 473-486.

Walter Zanger. “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols”. Bible History Daily. (accessed 11/29/2015).

Observations Relevant to Interpretation of Leviticus 10

In a previous post, I discussed the nature of the “strange fire” offered by Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, in Leviticus 10 (click here to read). My purpose of doing so was to offer an alternative explanation to the event of the fire consuming Aaron’s sons. My observations within this post are also intended to shed greater light on the issues of the consuming fire and, even more so, overall nature of the entire drama surrounding Aaron and his sons.

Primarily the presence of Aaron’s sons must be observed. As far as I am aware, and please correct me if I am wrong, the placement of Aaron’s sons has not been observed within scholarship. The phrase “Sons of Aaron” occurs 20 times within Leviticus. Sixteen occurrences reference all of Aaron’s sons (1:5, 7, 8, and 11, 2:2, 3:2, 5, 8, and 13, 6:7, 7:10, 8:13, 24, 9:9, 12, and 18). At the turning point of chapter 10, two occurrences solely reference Nadab and Abihu (10:1, 16:1). Eleazer and Ithamar as a pair of Aaron’s sons are referenced twice, once in the same narrative as Nadab and Abihu and once in the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26).

While these observation may carry implications for the overall structure and composition of Leviticus, they also carry implications as to what exactly Nadab and Abihu did incorrectly to be consumed by God’s fire. The text itself explains that “He had not commanded them”, a strong statement especially because the term for “command” is directly negated rather than the phrase as a whole. And when the actions of Aaron’s four sons are noted throughout the 1st part of Leviticus, a pattern becomes evidence: they are only to do as the cultic structure permits them.

Prior to the consuming fire, Aaron’s sons are commanded within the cultic system to act in three roles: to purify the altar by pouring the blood, to receive offerings as their livelihood, and to be consecrated. At the turn of events in chapter 10, the fire consumed the offerings and “the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people”. Based on roles of Aaron’s sons, the error of Nadab and Abihu becomes more clear with respect to each role.

First, they were responsible for handling the blood at the altar. Unclear to most readers from the 21st century, blood with ancient near eastern ritual systems played an essential role for the purification and expiatory natures of rituals. Yitzhaq Feder explores this extensively in his monograph “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” (2011). For Nadab and Abihu to step outside of their roles as priests who handled the blood at the altar, they potentially polluted themselves or simply disobeyed the order which God had established within the cultic system.

Second, they were responsible for receiving offerings as their livelihood. This command is clearly spoken towards Aaron and his sons. Because Aaron and his sons received the leftover grain offerings (Lev 2:3), it is possible that Nadab and Abihu were “recycling” the holy bread. Thus the offering was insincere and “strange”. This is supported by Leviticus 10:12, within the same narrative, in which Moses commands Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, to “eat [the grain offering] unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy”. Clearly there is an dimension of Leviticus 10:1 in which the issue with Nadab and Abihu was the selected food which they offered.

Third, Aaron’s sons, just as Aaron were responsible for becoming consecrated. Loosely connected to the first point, Nadab and Abihu’s actions following the presence of God in Leviticus 9:23-24 reflects that Nadab and Abihu may have approached God in a manner contrary to their previous consecration rituals. Though this point is quite shaky, it is a possibility that should be seriously considered.

As one observes the role of Aaron’s sons within the Leviticus narrative, the error of Nadab and Abihu may become more apparent. Exploration of the roles of Aaron’s sons may also contribute to a fuller understanding of the historical composition, theology or theologies, and “strange fire” occurrence of Leviticus.

The Old Testament and “Principles” of Theology

At the moment, I am reading through Catherine Bell’s (1953-2008) introduction to ritual theory, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997). In discussing ritual density, namely, why certain historical periods have more or less ritual activity, she comments on ancient Judaism and its orthopraxic nature. Her observation draws out a serious issue in how the Hebrew Bible tends to be approached, especially from within Christian circles.

“Although ancient Judaism distinguished itself from its neighbors by its avowal of monotheism, one God over and instead of many gods, this idea was not understood as a theological principle so much as a rule about who and what one could worship” (192).

In other words, ancient Judaism, and hence its remnants within the Hebrew Bible, cannot, and should not, be understood as abiding by timeless orthodoxical principles. While their principles may properly be understood as time timeless orthopractic principles for those in adherence to the Bible, reading the Hebrew Bible as orthodoxical principles is to do injustice to the text. A hermeneutic of orthodoxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of true beliefs, will result in different conclusions than a hermeneutic of orthopraxy, reading the Bible as an authoritative set of prescribed actions via the medium of text.

A hermeneutic of orthodoxy quickly and easily abandons issues of contradictory statements, statements likely present due to the diachronic composition of the Hebrew Bible. In response to such contradictions, or at least seeming contradictions, readers must maneuver around the “timeless orthodoxic principles” and find a way to unite them. Of course, this is not  a simple process because the Hebrew Bible isn’t full of orthodoxic principles needing to be formed into a synchronic theology. However, a hermeneutic of orthopraxy can help to solve issues found within the orthodoxic approach. Rather than synchronizing abstract concepts from various contexts, the orthopractic approach attempts to synchronize various practices via their timeless, dynamic, and intricate symbolic imagery.

Bell’s example of the monotheistic nature of ancient Judaism is a perfect example. Read as orthodoxy, the declaration of Yahweh as the only god simply declares a fact. Yet this must be read in context of verses like Exodus 20:3, which declare that one must not worship other gods. Hence, an orthodoxic hermeneutic must find a way to maintain continuity  between the existence of one god and the existence of multiple gods.

From an orthopractic hermeneutic, utilizing the same example, the reader need not synchronize to contrasting elements of the Hebrew Bible; rather, the reader needs only to recognize that the declaration of Yahweh as the only god is more or less a declaration of how one should live in practice. Thus, even with Yahweh as the only god, one is still able to recognize the existence of other gods. But this is only possible through a hermeneutic focused the orthopraxy of the Hebrew Bible.

This is an important and absolutely essential element of biblical interpretation that does justice to the biblical text, reading it within its own context.

Before the LORD in Leviticus 9:1-24

Sacrificial altar at Beersheba.

Sacrificial altar at Beersheba.

When examining the structure of Leviticus 9:1-24, the social and theological implications of the chapter must be examined carefully. In this post, I will argue that essentially the entire chapter is a chiasitic structure and offers insight into the societal structure of ancient Israel. The following is a small outline of the chapter.

  • 9:1-4 – Sets the time of the eighth and summarizes the commands of Moses for offerings to Yahweh.

  • A1: 9:5 – Describes the gathering of the whole community to stand before the Lord.
    • B1: 9:6 – Purpose is so that the glory of Yahweh may appear.
      • C1: 9:7 – Moses reiterates the command for sin offerings as Yahweh’s commands.
        • D1: 9:8-14 – The process of the sacrifices of the Priesthood.
        • D2: 9:15-21 – The process of the sacrifices of the common people. Verse 21 notes the sacrifices as Moses had commanded (21b is both D2 and C2).
      • C2: 9:22 – Aaron blesses the people after having made the offerings.
    • B2: 9:23 – The glory of Yahweh appears to the people.
  • A2: 9:24 – The people see the fire of Yahweh and fall on their faces.

From this outline, there are three strands which I will tug. First, the outline indicates the social structure as it relates to the Priesthood, common people, Moses, and Yahweh. Second, there is a theological indication of where all of the people stand in relation to Yahweh. Finally, one of the central themes of Leviticus is reiterated.

Social Structure

Moses is functionally tied to the role of God. Although he is below God in a theological sense, Leviticus 9 considers him to be at nearly equal status with God. Within the structure of Leviticus 9, verse 9:7 notes that Yahweh commanded. Following the completion of the sacrifices, verse 9:21b notes that Moses’ commands had been accomplished. The person who commands acts in the literature as the opening and closing parenthesis (God and Moses) to encircle the sacrificial actions. Implicitly implied is Moses’ status as the command giver, functionally equivalent to Yahweh. This is reinforced through Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses” (NASB Ex 14:31, italics added for emphasis). The nearness of Moses to God is also reminiscent of kingly rule within ancient Israel and Near East.

Because Moses and Yahweh circle the actions of the Priesthood sacrifices and common people sacrifices, it may further be deduced that the Priesthood and common people may be viewed as equal. While the Priesthood was responsible for maintaining the sacred space of Yahweh, Leviticus 9 places both under the command of Yahweh/Moses. In short, the importance of people within the social structure can be summarized by the following:

  1. Tier One
    1. Yahweh
    2. Moses
  2. Tier Two
    1. Priesthood
    2. Common People

Theological Implication

As mentioned previously, Leviticus 9 holds hefty theological implications. While society may be structured hierarchically, the entire chapter is focused on the glory of Yahweh. In fact, there is a striking contrast between the whole congregation standing before Yahweh (9:5, A1) and falling on their faces before Yahweh (9:24, A2). As a result of the purification rituals, the sacred space was extended as all the people saw the glory of Yahweh, glory only previously seen in relation to Moses on top of Sinai or the Priesthood within the tabernacle. Now all people are able to see the glory of Yahweh, implying a closeness which all peoples attained, no longer placing priority or special status to Moses or the Priesthood. Thus, Leviticus 9 indicates a desire for all people to enter the sacred space of God, not just the sacred few.

Central Theme

Last, but definitely not least, Leviticus 9 presents the goal and center of Leviticus: holiness. Although the chapter functionally operates with Moses/Yahweh —-> Priesthood/Common people, the theology of the chapter indicates that holiness was important for all people, not the select few. B1 introduces this as God’s will for the whole community (A1). B2 and A2 express this as the accomplishment of God’s will for the community following the description of the purification process. In reality, it was important for every person in the community to maintain holiness and purity. None were excluded. All  the people fell on their faces when they saw Yahweh’s fire and all the people were purified. The importance of holiness in Leviticus, and all of ancient Israel, is further demonstrated by the strange fire of Leviticus 10 and Achan’s sin.


Societal structure, theology, and the central theme operate together to present a unique picture of Yahweh. Although Yahweh operated within a clear social structure, his goal was oriented towards the entire community taking part in holiness, the central theme of Leviticus. In doing so, all people who are part of the community of God are able to be within close proximity of his presence, the sacred space of Yahweh. In effect, all people are provided with the potential to join with him in the establishment of Order in the cosmos.

Holiness in Leviticus 5:1-4

As I frequently mention, it is unfortunate that people often overlook literature regarding cult practices because it does disservice to the text by ignoring the context. Hence it is essential to recognize the text’s context and proceed by translating the concepts into the 21st century. In agreement with Yizhaq Feder, “perhaps the nonverbal symbolism of the sin-offering, though relatively crude and unarticulate, was the seed from which all of these more elaborate theological discourses would emerge” (Feder, 260). In essence Feder suggests that the ancient sacrificial system of ancient Israel was the beginning of the major theological issues of the 1st and 2nd millennium, such as Jewish and Christian concepts of debt to a deity. Thus, in order to fully understand the major theological issues of this era, it is important to understand the seed of the theological discourse. One of such places is the first four verses of Leviticus 5’s discussion of guilt offerings.

Within Leviticus 5:1-4, the editor presents four basic things requiring a guilt offerings in a chiasm.

A1. Not bearing witness in court (5:1)
B1. Touching animal uncleanliness (5:2)
B2. Touching human uncleanliness (5:3)
A2. Making an oath thoughtlessly (5:4)

A1 is connected to A2 because both discuss the issue of public witness. B1 is connected to B2 because both discuss the issue of cleanliness. Rather than skimming over the miniature chiasm, one must seek out why the editor utilized a chiasm at this moment within the text. In order to do so, one must take seriously ancient Israel’s outlook and not dismiss the issue of cleanliness. The purpose is not to provide an explanation for laws about cleanliness; rather, it is simply to demonstrate why cleanliness was so important.

Throughout Leviticus cleanliness relates to animals (Lev 5:2), food (Lev 11), and humans (Lev 5:3, 13:11, Lev 15). Each law of cleanliness is directed related to ones ability to participate within Temple worship. Hence cleanliness also determines ones ability to approach the holy place of God. Because sin, tied to uncleanliness, was considered to be a sort of debt within the ancient world (Feder, 260), inability to participate in Temple or Tabernacle worship literally cut off people from God and His  representative, whether Moses or the anointed priests (cf. Lev 7:21). Consequently as the individual was cut off from the representative of Israel and God, he was also cut off from the people of Israel. Thus cleanliness was essential to maintaining proper standing within the community of God.

Returning to the chiasm of Leviticus 5:1-4, it is then clear why cleanliness is the center of the guilt offering. Through poetic form Leviticus 5:1-4 highlights the importance of maintaining connection to God. Unlike the common way of writing in the 21st century, which places the climax nearer to the end, Hebrew poetic devices, such as chiasms, often place the important statement in the center. Thus, for the author of Leviticus, the most important thing is maintaining a close proximity to the holiness of God.

The outer-brackets of Leviticus 5:1-4 (A1 and A2) relate to the public sphere of behavior and purity.  Leviticus 5:1 focuses on the legal system on the guilt of one who fails to testify even as a witness, while verse 4 attributes guilt to thoughtless oaths to other people or God. While A1 focuses on public courts and A2 focuses on personal interactions, both relate to ones interactions with man. Ones interactions with man are ultimately centered upon mans vertical connection to God. Thus there are two aspects to the editors chiasm: “… Purity expressed in what is sacred and responsibility in taking an oath… This twofold nature of biblical religion is reflected in the Ten Commandments, which begin with one’s personal relationship with God and then move to one’s relationship to others” (Rooker 2000, 118). However, these two aspects, personal relationship with God and relationship to others, are more intertwined than Robert puts forth. Relationship with God can only take place within a community in which one relates to others, hence the editors willingness to unite the issue of oaths and testimony to cleanliness for proximity to God’s holiness through an ancient poetic device.

In conclusion, Leviticus 5:1-4 expresses the absolute importance of people and God. Apart from maintaining purity, which has been interpreted differently throughout the centuries (cf. Kazen 2010), one is unable to truly be part of the people of God. In effect he is cut off from the people of God. At the same time, one must maintain honesty and integrity with his words and witness because it directly affects the public sphere and relations with others. Even within this day and age, the same thing should be sought after within churches and synagogues: purity with God must be maintained simultaneously with purity towards others. Only in doing so is one truly able to adhere to the commandments of God.


Feder, Yitzhaq. Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning. N.p.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Kazen, Thomas. Coniectanea Biblica. New Testament Series. Rev. ed. Vol. 38, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman &Holman Publishers, 2000.

Posted by William Brown