On the Mahābhārata: Similar Material

kurukshetraIf you have been following recent posts, you’ll know that many of my recent posts have considered the Mahābhārata and the Hebrew Bible in light of each other. Here, I will explore a similar thing, namely parallel material. Although each parallel is by no means developed, I hope these comparisons will eventually shed light on the uniqueness of each idea/story and the similarities between the stories.

First, the Mahābhārata contains much material considering the idea of what is, in Judaism, called the Levirate marriage. In the Mahābhārata, there are various accounts of a brother (a) impregnating the wife of his brother (b). They do this because the brother (b) dies. His family lineage, though, must live on. In the Hebrew Bible, Levirate marriage is also a major issue. In Ruth, we see a very clear case of Levirate marriage, or something like it. We also see it in the narrative of Zelophad’s daughters. While I don’t think the texts are in anyway historically related, they do address similar issues in similar ways. I’d like to explore the nuances of each text and how they conceptualize the idea of a levirate marriage.

Second, as I wrote previously, there is a tale in the Mahābhārata that is similar to Moses, Cyrus, and Sargon. A child is placed on the water or given to another person. In turn, they are raised outside of their “assigned” class. Although outside of their assigned class, they tend to acquire some sort of great wisdom, knowledge, or capability. Generally, at least in my little amount of research, scholars mention the similarity to Moses. There is an absence, though, of comparative analysis concerning all the figures: Karna (Mahābhārata), Moses, Cyrus (Persian King), and Sargon (Akkadian King). I’d like to explore the nuances and similarities between each of these accounts.

I have no idea what study of these things could yield; yet, it may be fruitful for both Biblical Studies and the History of Religions.

UPDATE (January 12, 2017): Some work has been done to compare the origin stories; however, there is still very little work done. In particular, there is little work done which explores the question of historical developments. Available work focuses on the origins as myths. How, though, do these myths fit into a historical context? That is my question.

On the Mahābhārata

One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.

First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.

Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.

Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.

In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Artapanus

PharaohIntroduction to the Text:

Artpanus deals with Abraham, Joseph and Moses, each presented as founders of culture in Egypt. Three fragments of his work are present in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica. J. J. Collins offers a tentative date of composition at the end of the 3rd century BCE. More broadly, he proposes any possible date from 250-100 BCE.

Artapanus expands on three biblical stories: Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 37-50, and Exodus 1-16. He expands each of these texts significantly and re-appropriates it as apologetic literature for late 3rd century Judaism, which Collins calls “competitive historiography”. Competitive historiography sought to establish the primacy of cultural traditions in antiquity. Especially in a predominately Greek culture which tended to critique the Judean ethnos (Manetho, Apion, etc.), his work applied Greek concepts to Abraham, Joseph, and Moses in order to make them more favorable to Greeks. For example, Artapanus considers Moses a “divine man” (theios aner). Moses is also called Hermes by priests and is auspicious in warfare.   These sorts of elements made Moses in antiquity, along with Abraham and Joseph, more favorable to Greeks.

Magic in Artapanus

Artapanus displays an interesting religious synchronizing tendencies; however, perhaps it is too much to say his use of magic of synchronic. The multiple references to magic in Fragment 3 include ibises [1], burning fire without wood or kindling [2], the name of Yahweh [3], and the plagues [4]. These occurrences of magic may not be due to synchronizing various religious traditions. As has been noted by many scholars, ancient Israel practiced magic, albeit not in the modern sense of Harry Potter (Perhaps closer to Lord of the Rings?). Jeremy Smoak, for example, argues that the Aaronic Benediction (Numbers 6:23-27) was part of a wider apotropaic magic blessing formula, evidenced by archaeology and the Hebrew Bible [5]. Likewise, the Urim and Thummin have been associated with divination [6]. These two examples demonstrate that, perhaps, Moses’ magic in Artapanus was not heretical or abnormal in any sense; rather, it merely represented magic through Greek ideas rather than ancient Mesopotamian ideas. In short, magic was an important part of the ancient world, and modern sensibilities should not attempt to sever the important role it played in a variety of traditions, as each tradition appropriates magic according to their culture [7].

[1] Ibises have an apotropaic function in 3.27.4, 3.27.9. See also Donna Runnals, “Moses’ Ethiopian Campaign”, in Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period, 14 no 2 (Dec 1983), 135-156.

[2] Although this is a reference to the burning bush in Exodus, the brevity and historical context of Artapanus’ statement indicates a possible explanation of magic as the origin for the fire in 3.27.2. The text does not explicitly or implicitly imply that God’s presence was in the fire; rather, the fire was primarily a miracle in nature. See Collins, “Artapanus”, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2 (Peabody: 1983), 901, n. g2.

[3] “But he [Moses] bent forward and pronounced it in his ear. When the king heard it, he fell down speechless but revived when taken hold of by Moses” 3.27.25, translation by J. J. Collins. The name of God holds power to stun the king, indicating that the name held a sort of magical function.

[4] Like the burning bush, the series of plagues in Artapanus come across as a series of magic tricks when compared to Exodus. Unlike Exodus, Artapanus does not attribute the plagues and miracles directly to God. Furthermore, the plagues do not follow the same order and also include additions ones, such as an earthquake.

[5] Jeremy D. Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[6] Victor Horwitz, “Urim and Thummim in Light of a Psephomancy Ritual from Assur (LKA 137)”, in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 21 (1992), 95-115, esp. 114.

[7] Horowitz, “Urim and Thummim”, 115, notes that “in Mesopotamia, psephomancy was assimilated to rpevailing religious practices, “Shamashzing” it, while in Israelite religion it was “Yahwehized”.


Collins, J. J.. “Artapanus,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983). 889-903.

Horwitz, Victor. “Urim and Thummim in Light of a Psephomancy Ritual from Assur (LKA 137),” in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 21 (1992). 95-115. Click here to view online.

Smoak, Jeremy D. The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).


Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Testament of Moses

*I apologize for the delay in Pseudepigrapha Saturday. With Christmas, I was too busy. For those who actively read, please comment and let me know if you would appreciate and/or find it interesting if I expanded Pseudepigrapha Saturday to some more like Source Saturday. Source Saturday would draw from the Pseudepigrapha and other ancient literature.

The Testament of Moses:

The Testament of Moses (henceforth TMos) was composed during the Herodian period, most likely within a Palestinian locale. In short, it is a farewell address by Moses to Israel. Chapter Eleven narrates Joshua’s response, who claims that the Israel’s enemies will likely attack now when Moses is dead. Moses replies with confidence that God will allow Israel to succeed in accordance with his covenant promises. Unfortunately the only extant text is cut off in the middle of Chapter Twelve.

History, Literature, and Imagery:

In an article on TMos, part of Kenneth Atkinson’s argument is that it was composed in the Herodian period. Consequently TMos is a valuable source for understanding the cognitive environment in which people understood characters like Jesus and Moses. At the end of his article, he writes that “the Testament of Moses, once dated to the Herodian period, provides a valuable, yet largely neglected, source for understanding these NT doctrines as well as the roles of other intermediary figures during the Second Temple period” (476).

For New Testament studies, one valuable contribution of Atkinson’s analysis is that it places within Jesus’ life, and outside of New Testament literature, “that many Jews during the Second Temple period believed that a righteous figure must be completely pure and without sin in order to fulfill God’s eschatological plan”. In other words, it elucidates the ideas which authors of the New Testament and early Christianity may have held.


Atkinson, Kenneth. 2006. “Taxo’s Martyrdom and the Role of the Nuntius in the “testament of Moses”: Implications for Understanding the Role of Other Intermediary Figures”. Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (3). The Society of Biblical Literature: 453–76.

Priest, J. “Testament of Moses”. J. H. Charlesworth, editor. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume I. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Exodus and Leviticus: A Parallel Reading (Part II)

The following is part of series exploring the narrative of P material and its explanation of why Nadab and Abihu are killed in Leviticus 10. Such a study is important because theology often misuses verse like Leviticus 10:1-3 to demonstrate the un-malleability and impossibility of keeping Torah, resulting in antinomianism. In order to demonstrate the true focus of Nadab and Abihu’s death, I will compare two passages of P material, Leviticus 8:1 – 10:3 and Exodus 29 – 30:10. These pericopes, with a close reading, provide a reasonable explanation for the death of Aaron’s son.

In the previous post, after posing two basic assumption, I traced the parallel nature of Leviticus 8:1-13 and Exodus 29:1-9. I will now continue in tracing how they parallel each in Leviticus 8:14-30 and Exodus 29:10-30. The following chart summarizes the parallel nature of these portions of text:

Lev Leviticus Ex Exodus
8:14 Bull for sin offering before tent of meeting, Aaron and sons lay hands upon head of bull. 29:10 Bull before tent of meeting, Aaron and sons lay hands on head of bull.
8:15 Moses slaughters bull, puts blood on horns of altar and purifies altar, pours blood out at base of altar to consecrate and atone for it. 29:11-12 Slaughter bull before the LORD at tent of meeting, blood onto the horns of the altar with finger, and pour blood at base of altar.
8:16-17 Fat on the entrails, lobe of liver, two kidneys, and kidney fat are offered as smoke offering. Bull, hide, and flesh is burned outside camp, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:13-14 Fat that covers entrails, lobe of liver, two kidneys, and fat on kidneys offered up in smoke on altar. Bull’s flesh and hide burned outside the camp as a sin offering.
8:18-19 Ram of burn offering presented, Aaron and his sons lay hands on head of ram. Moses slaughters ram and sprinkles blood around altar. 29:15-16 A certain ram is taken, and Aaron and his sons lay hand on head of read. Moses slaughters ram and sprinkles blood around on the altar.
8:20-21 Ram cut into pieces and head/pieces/suet offered in smoke. Entrails and legs washed and offered in smoke. Burnt offering is a soothing Aroma and offering by fire to the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:17-18 Ram cut into pieces and head/pieces/legs/entrails washed. Offer up the whole ram on altar, a burnt offering to the LORD, a soothing aroma, an offering by fire.
8:22 Second ram of ordination, and Aaron and sons lay hands on head of ram. 29:19 Another ram, and Aaron and sons lay hands of head of ram.
8:23-24 Moses slaughters ram, puts some blood on lobe of Aaron’s right ear, thumb of right hand, and big toe of right foot. Moses puts blood on Aaron’s sons: lobe of right ear, thumb of right hand, and big toe of right foot. Sprinkle remaining blood around on altar. 29:20 Moses slaughters ram, takes blood and puts it on lobe of Aaron’s right ear and his sons’ right ears, thumbs of their right hands, and big toes of right feet. Sprinkle remaining blood around on altar.
29:21 Take blood and altar and anointing oil, sprinkle on Aaron and his garments, on sons and sons’ garments, so Aaron, his sons, and the garments are consecrated.
8:25-26 Moses takes fat, fat tail, and entrails fat, lobe of liver, two kidneys, fat on kidneys, right thigh, and places one unleavened cake and one cake of bread, mixed with oil and wafer, places them on portions of fat and the right thigh. 29:22-23 Moses takes fat from ram, fat tail, fat that covers entrails, lobe of the liver, two kidneys, kidney fat, and right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination). Also, one cake of bread, one cake of bread with oil, one wafer.
8:27 Moses places previous items in hands of Aaron and his sons as wave offering before the LORD. 29:24 Moses places previous items in hands of Aaron and his sons to wave as a wave offering before the LORD.
8:28 Moses takes wave offerings and offers them as smoke, an ordination offering and soothing aroma, and offering by fire to the LORD. 29:25 Moses takes wave offerings and offers them as smoke on the altar, a burnt offering and soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD.
8:29 Moses takes breast of ram and presents it as wave offering, Moses’ portion of the ram ordination, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 29:26 Moses takes breast of Aaron’s ram of ordination, waves it as wave offering before the LORD as his portion.
8:30 Moses takes anointing oil and blood from altar, sprinkles on Aaron, his garments, his sons, their garments, and consecrates Aaron, his garments, his sons, and his sons’ garments.
29:27 It is made clear that Moses consecrated the breast of wave offering, thigh of heave offering, which was offered from ram of ordination, one for Aaron and the other for his sons. This verse is a description of what happened in 29:26.
29:28-30 This portion describes the future of the Aaronic priesthood and will be discussed in a latter blog post.

*In making this chart, I did consider the fact that , in Exodus, Moses is being commanded. In Leviticus, the narrative is actually occurring. That said, when reading this chart, please assume that the Exodus side of the chart, the right side, recognizes that God was commanding Moses.

In many places, the wording is different, yet the concepts remains consistent: consecration of Aaron and his sons. Aside from Exodus 29:28-30, a passage absent in Leviticus for good reason (this will be the subject of a later blog post), the only significant difference is the placement of Aaron and his son’s actual consecration. Leviticus places their consecration in 8:30, while Exodus does so in 29:21, the middle of the consecration ritual.

There are a few possible explanations for the differing locations of Aaron and his sons’ consecrations. First, it may simply be an issue of redaction. Perhaps the redactor failed to fully synchronize the P source and any contradictions within it. Second, it may be an intentional result to suggest that Moses intentionally consecrated them at a different time than God commanded. Third, perhaps the different is not significant because the consecration ritual was not as set in stone and people make it out to be. In other words, the ritual has a certain amount of flexibility to it because they are not directly interacting with God’s kabod.

The next post will discuss this difference further and explore why Exodus 29:28-30 is not included in Leviticus’ narrative.

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“A Prophet Like Moses” by Jeffrey Stackert

A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion by Jeffrey Stackert. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014, viii + 243 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of A Prophet Like Moses by Jeffrey Stackert.

An emerging and ground-breaking biblical scholar, Jeffrey Stackert’s first book, Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Mohr Siebeck, 2007), resulted in bestowment upon him of the 2010 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Currently teaching at the University of Chicago Divinity School, his second publication will significantly further his already established authority in biblical studies.

Chapter One discusses Wellhausen’s impact the relationship between law and prophecy in the Torah, especially critiquing his coincidental correspondence between law and prophecy (15) and choice not to distinguish J and E. Additionally, rooting his analysis of the Torah in various concrete, historical settings, Stackert emphasizes that “the Torah sources engage in historical discourse for precisely… their conceptualizations of prophecy’s attenuation and demise” (31). Chapter Two turns to the literary characterization of Moses’ prophetic character, initially presenting four reason why he is not denoted a prophet. Following,  he demonstrates that Moses’ greater literary context, the ancient Near East, indicate his legitimate status as a prophet. He then narrows his focus to briefly analyze a variety of textual traditions, especially J, E, and D, to demonstrate that the Torah does portray Moses as a prophet.

Chapter Three, through tracing E’s narrative trajectory, analyzes five major passages: “Exod 3*-4*, 19-20*, and 33:6b-11; Num 11*-12*; and Deut 34:10-12” (71). In short, Stackert concludes “that E’s Moses stands as a singular prophet” (125), acting with in an extreme anti-prophetic sense and promoting law over prophecy. Chapter Four examines D’s unique appropriation and approbation of E, its literary fund. After analyzing Deut 1:9-18, 5:1-31, 13:2-6, and 18:9-22, he concludes that D expects some sort of prophetic action with its historical context. In response, D authorizes prophecy under the auspice that the prophet is derivative of Mosaic authority. D’s extension of prophetic authority “is one in which law and prophecy exist in a hierarchical relationship rather than being mutually exclusive options” (166), as E presents. Because there is far less direct reference or allusion to prophecy, Stackert discusses both P and J in Chapter Five. P, he concludes, is unique in that it simply views Moses as sole prophet of Israelite religion because of “the divine law mediated by Moses” (174). With P, H advocates for a priestly mediatory figure. And as Stackert succinctly notes P’s claims, “There once was a prophet who instituted a religious system in which there is no place for prophecy” (172), concluding that P holds an antiprophetic stance. Chapter Six, after initially reviewing the breadth of perspectives on ancient Israelite religion, discusses how Wellhausen, even in his attempt to distinguish the theological from historical, was unknowingly driven by his own perspective on religion. As a conclusion, he argues that biblical studies should be studied within the realm of humanities, such as ancient Near Eastern studies, rather than the realm of theology, noting his own study as one which provides “a richer and more nuanced appreciation of some distinctive views of prophecy and law in the history of Israelite religious thought” (208).

Stackert accomplishes his goal of demonstrating the breadth of theological tradition in the history of Israelite religion. Most praiseworthy is his ability to locate and draw out the nuances between the various sources. As he notes, many scholars overlook certain aspect of the sources and generalize based on the work of Wellhausen. Yet, by providing reason to doubt certain aspects of Wellhausen’s work, he illustrates the importance of each sources trajectory regarding prophecy and law, providing analysis essential to any future study of prophecy in the Torah and Moses’ literary character.

As for points of disagreement, there was only one place in which his argumentation needed more support. Chapter Five notes that “two specific omissions from P emphasize its antiprophetic stance… because P addresses the question of the performance of religious practices that YHWH did not sanction” (171). Stackert then draws of Nadab and Abihu’s death (Lev 10:1-2) and Korah’s death (Num 16), both P material, as evidence that “religious innovation provokes a fatal divine response” (172), his reason that post-Mosaic prophecy is not permitted in P. Yet to compare these two passages is inadequate evidence for such a claim. Leviticus 10:16-20 specifically notes Aaron’s error, perhaps intentional, in failing to eat the goat in the sanctuary, as Moses commanded. If God is against religious innovation, or differences in what he commands, Aaron should have died as well. He did not, and was in fact justified in his religious innovation. Thus, Stackert’s use of the beginning of the narrative in Leviticus 10 fails to take into account the greater complexities of the passage. In summary, his argument that P opposes religious innovation is weak in that he fails to explore or note the complexities of Leviticus 10’s narrative, leaving him with only one argument for P’s stance against religious innovation.

Even so, A Prophet Like Moses is valuable for research relating to the prophetic nature of the Torah and Moses, as it presents a ground-breaking and unique perspectives on how to understand the relationship between prophecy, law, and Moses. Stackert’s nuanced approach, additionally, demonstrates a focused approach on the history of Israelite religion and may be used as a guide for future research due to how it understands the complex dynamics of law and prophecy. And because his focus draws on the historical dynamics of law and prophecy, it opens doors for much future research regarding each source’s unique time period. In conclusion, Stackert’s nuanced analysis of the Hebrew Bible and willingness to look beyond generalized dynamics between law, prophecy, and Moses allow his work to potentially become a launch pad for future studies exploring the nature of the multi-faceted, historically rooted, theological traditions of ancient Israel.

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The Strange Fire of Leviticus 10

Following the appearance of the presence of God to assembly of Israel (Lev. 9), God appears more intimately to Nadab and Abihu. Unfortunately, this appearance of the presence of Yahweh resulted in their deaths. Their deaths were a result of offering incense and strange fire which Yahweh had not commanded. But what was the nature of the incense and strange fire? Mark Rooker offers four common possibilities:

(1) penetrating too far into the sanctuary
(2) offering unauthorized coals from outside the temple area
(3) offering incense that did not contain the proper ingredients
(4) offering incense at the wrong time of the day” (Rooker 2000, 157).

While each of option can be supported, I propose a more contextualized interpretation of what “strange fire” represents. Although there are clearly connections to Leviticus 16:1-2, option 1, and disobedience to the cult regulations, option 3, Leviticus 10 suggests another possibility. I suggest that strange fire, rather than being disobedience to cult regulations, is an issue of foreign worship.

1. Altars in the Ancient World

The first piece of evidence is the nature of altars in the ancient world. Unlike Yahweh’s altars, ancient Near Eastern texts hold evidence that single altars could be used for multiple gods. In The Zurku Festival, repeated ritual upon one altar is used for many gods such as Ea, the Moon and Sun, and Nergal. Within it, one altar and sacrifice are utilized as “sacrificial homage for all the gods with a ewe” (William W. Hallo 1997, 433).

Especially in consideration that the Priesthood took part in the worship of the golden calf, it is not unlikely that within the Priesthood were still people dedicated to worship for “strange” gods. The term “strange” is significant and will be explored more thoroughly in section four.

2. “Breaking the Regulations” in Leviticus 10

Leviticus 10 is written so that Nadab and Abihu’s sin regarding ritual is reflected by their father Aaron in Leviticus 10:19-20. In Leviticus 10:17, Moses critiques Aaron for not eating the sin offering in the holy place. Yet, Aaron’s reason for doing so is good to Moses. Regardless of Aaron’s reason, Aaron broke the cultic regulations. To do so did not result in his death. Why would it result in the death of his sons? If his sons were merely offering incense to Yahweh out of regulation, would not have Yahweh accepted the offering graciously?

3. Command in Leviticus 10

Leviticus 10:1 uniquely uses God’s command. As far as I am aware, it is the only place where a term of negation (לֹא) is directly paired with God’s command (צוה). The nearness of these terms indicates more than going against a command of ritual. Put plain and simple, God in no manner ordered the incense and strange fire because it was completely foreign and apart from God. Unlike Aaron, who erred in the ritual process, Nadab and Abihu opposed the ritual process by doing what God did not command. It was not of God. Thus, incorrect ritual is an unreasonable conclusion for their death and interpretation of what is strange fire.

4. Semantic Range of “Strange” (זָר)

In the Torah, זָר is used in contexts to describe laypersons (Exod 29:33, Lev 22:10, etc.), strange fire as related to Aaron’s sons (Num 3:4, Lev 10:1), and command not to offer strange incense (Exod 30:9). Deuteronomy 32:16 once uses “strange” to describe other gods. Throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, “stranger” references an adulteress (Prov 22:14) and foreigners (consistent throughout prophetic literature).

If “strange” is understood directly in the context of the Torah, it should be understood as a “layperson” fire. Within a cultic context, the laypersons fire would have perhaps been unsuitable and unholy for offering. While the assembly centered around holiness, the flowing out of holiness implies that laypersons were less holy than the priests. With this interpretation, the “strange fire” was an unholy offering. This is supportable outside of the Torah because the remainder of the Hebrew Bible uses “strange” is some sense of lack of holiness, whether it be an adulteress or foreigner.


As noted in section one, altars could be utilized for various purposes and gods. A holy place did not necessarily house only one deity or act as a gateway to a single deity. Thus, it is likely that some within the Priesthood had no issue with offering to another deity within Yahweh’s cult center. Consequently the strange fire would be an issue of worshiping a foreign deity. If the issue were primarily of ritual regulations, Nadab and Abihu would have been fine, just as their father was fine after breaking ritual regulation. Yet they were not.

The nearness of the term of negation and command in Leviticus 10:1 solves this issue. Nadab and Abihu were doing something not just outside of regulation, erring in their operation, but completely outside the holiness of God. This is why the negation is so strongly tied to God’s command. The best explanation is that the strange fire was an unholy offering in the sense that it totally outside of the will of God: God did not command it. Semantic range of זָר (strange) lends greater support to this conclusion. Every use of “strange” carries an implied sense of distance from the holiness of God. Thus, the sin of Nadab and Abihu rests not in crossing cultic regulations but in offering an altogether foreign substance to God that was not likely even directed towards him. Hence, it was unholy.

Importantly the text is ambiguous about details of the foreign substance. The emphasis, overall, is on maintaining the holiness of God. So the editor of Leviticus saw no reason to describe in details the nature of their sin. In short, through the nature of altars in the ancient Near East, it is possible that one altars could serve for many gods. Contextually, Aaron’s err regarding God’s ritual indicates that Nadab and Abihu did more than incorrect ritual. Rather, they performed a sacrifice that was unholy because it was foreign, not even within the scope of God’s will. At the end of the day, Nadab and Abihu crossed boundaries of holiness as they offered unholy offerings possibly to other gods, not boundaries of how the ritual should be done.





Works Cited

Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger. The Context of Scripture. Leiden;  New York: Brill, 1997–.

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


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


Belief in God and His Servant

Too often I’ve heard it expressed to me that our faith is to be in God alone. And because the New Testament consistently references people faith in Jesus, Jesus must divine. While this post isn’t intended to act as a polemical argument against Jesus’ divinity, it may be perceived as so. Either way, my point in this post is to draw out a possibility of “faith” and its implications for interpreting New Testament literature in light of the Hebrew Bible.

In exploring the “believing” of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, I realized that the same Hebrew root and Greek root in the LXX are used in 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). As far as I’m aware, no person would go as far to claim that Moses was a divine being. Moses was a human who humbly served God.

Yet because people are to have faith in Jesus, it is often argued that faith placed in Jesus to God designated him as divinity. By the same argument, faith in God and His servant Moses designates Moses divinity. Perhaps my thinking is off. After all, this is a brief post intended to provoke critical thought and encourage people to engage is dialogue regarding what, who, and why they believe. What are your thoughts?