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.

 

 

Leviticus as a Window to Ancient Israel

Too often Leviticus is overlooked because 21st century interpreters are generally unable to connect with the cognitive environment of Leviticus. Unfortunately, this results in a skewed and simplistic view of Leviticus and the entire sacrificial system. In reality, the sacrificial system offers insight to the societal organization and cognitive environment. While the ethical standards of Leviticus are most clear in displaying ancient Israel to the modern reader (cf. Lev 18-19), the environment can also be grasped through the sacrificial system.

Take, for example, the arrangement of sin offerings (Lev 4). In it, the sin offerings are grouped in two categories, communal and individual. Each of these categories break into two more sub-categories, for a total of four sub-categories.

  • Communal – Anointed Priest
  • Communal – Community as a whole
  • Individual – Ruler
  • Individual – Common Israelite

In Leviticus 4:3-12, the sin of an anointed priest is described as “bringing guilt on the people” (Lev 4:3, NRSV), hence its categorization as communal. Also communal, Leviticus 4:13-21 discusses the process of a sin offering “if the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (Lev 4:13, NRSV). Both communal sacrifices require a bull to be brought before the Lord and involve the sprinkling of blood seven times before the curtain.

The second category, individual, involves the actions for a ruler, or judge, who sins or the ordinary person. The individual category simply requires a male goat for the judge and female goat, or sheep, for the ordinary person. Additionally, the blood is not sprinkled seven times before the curtain. The individual category does not imply any need for communal cleansing in response to the actions of an individual, whether ruler or ordinary person.

Distinction by the text of the communal and individual illustrates the cognitive environment and  society of ancient Israel. Additionally, it provides an essential key to interpreting biblical texts, especially texts of more Priestly oriented tradition. Leviticus 4 demonstrates that ancient Israel, while fully aware of the individual, placed much more significance upon the community. First, the communal sin offerings required far greater sacrifice, a bull. In contrast, the individual sin offerings only requires a goat or sheep. Secondly, unlike the individual sin offerings, the communal sin offerings required the priest to spring blood seven times before the curtain. The curtain was the closest that one could move towards the center of the sanctified space because it was the Holy of Holies. So, by the priest sprinkling blood for atonement before the curtain in order to attain atonement for communal sin offerings, Leviticus suggests that sanctification of the entire community is more important than the individual sanctification. While the text clearly suggests that the individual is important, the community take precedence.

In conclusion, this brief examination of Leviticus 4 and ancient Israel’s sin offerings exemplifies how Leviticus holds essential keys to understanding the world and mind of ancient Israel. While such observations in Leviticus are not always immediately noticed by the modern reader, they are present if one is willing to set aside his/her presupposed ideas about Leviticus. By doing so, they will avoid abrogating the meaning and intention of the text and provide it autonomy from the 21st century cognitive environment (cf. John Walton 2015, 15-23). After all, a proper reading of Leviticus results in far richer results of the Bible than are generally expected.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.