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.

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Exodus and Leviticus: A Parallel Reading (Part IV)

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.

The follow compares Exodus 29:31-37 and Leviticus 8:31-36. All translations are from the NASB.

Exodus 29:31-32 31 “And you shall take the ram of ordination and boil its flesh in a holy place.

32 “And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram, and the bread that is in the basket, at the doorway of the tent of meeting.

 

Leviticus 8:31 31 Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, “Boil the flesh at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and eat it there together with the bread which is in the basket of the ordination offering, just as I commanded, saying, ‘Aaron and his sons shall eat it.’

 

Exodus 29:33 33 “Thus they shall eat those things by which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration; but a layman shall not eat them, because they are holy.

 

N/A N/A
Exodus 29:34 34 “And if any of the flesh of ordination or any of the bread remains until morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire; it shall not be eaten, because it is holy.

 

Leviticus 8:32 32 “And the remainder of the flesh and of the bread you shall burn in the fire.

 

Exodus 29:35 35 “And thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded you; you shall ordain them through seven days.

 

Leviticus 8:33 33 “And you shall not go outside the doorway of the tent of meeting for seven days, until the day that the period of your ordination is fulfilled; for he will ordain you through seven days.

 

N/A N/A Leviticus 8:34 34 “The LORD has commanded to do as has been done this day, to make atonement on your behalf.

 

Exodus 29:36 36 “And each day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement, and you shall purify the altar when you make atonement for it; and you shall anoint it to consecrate it.

 

N/A N/A
Exodus 29:37 37 “For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy, and whatever touches the altar shall be holy.

 

 

 

 

Leviticus 8:35 35 “At the doorway of the tent of meeting, moreover, you shall remain day and night for seven days, and keep the charge of the LORD, that you may not die, for so I have been commanded.”

 

N/A N/A Leviticus 8:36 36 Thus Aaron and his sons did all the things which the LORD had commanded through Moses.

 

 

As this brief chart displays, these two passages are similar, although they do have distinct focuses. Exodus, first of all, is far more focused on issues of holiness. Verses 31, 33, 36, and 37 demonstrate a focus on the holiness, purity, and consecration of the altar. Unlike Leviticus, Exodus explicitly notes that non-Priests, laymen, are not to eat of the sacrifices. Leviticus is seemingly simpler and more focused on ensuring that Aaron and his sons did exactly what the LORD had commanded through Moses. In only 6 verses, there are two references confirming their obedience to commandments of the past, verse 34 and 36.

The parallels between the narrative and commands are intriguing for a variety of reasons. For the sake of this post’s length, I will focus on one, namely the rearrangement of Leviticus by the redactor. The difference between Leviticus and Exodus 29:36, especially with regard to the issue of holiness and consecration, may be due, in part, to the final editors movement of sacrificial terminology and practice to one which fit his own socio-historical context. Regardless of that, Yitzhaq Feder suggests that consecration of the altar in Leviticus 8:15 may have been originally more in line with Exodus 29:36 (See Yitzhaq Feder, 2011, pg. 50-51). With this is mind, these two portions of Leviticus and Exodus are even more similar than they seem to be within the redactors rearrangement.

The next post will take into consideration Yitzhaq Feder’s argument regarding the strata of Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8.

 

 

Evidence for the Intertextuality of Genesis 15 and Leviticus

A few months ago I argued for the intertextual nature of Genesis 15 and Leviticus based off of the sacrifices God orders Abraham to sacrifice. In search for further evidence of their connections, I came across Jubilees, which elucidates the intertextuality of the cultic practices of Leviticus and sacrifices of Abraham. Being a retelling of several biblical episodes from Genesis, the book of Jubilees (2nd Century B.C.) inserts unique elements to the account originally found in Genesis 15, namely a focus on obedience to God through cult. These elements provide insight as to how a 2nd Century B.C. Jew may have understood Leviticus and Genesis.

The following demonstrates the  textual differences.

  • Genesis 15:10 – He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
  • Jubilees 14:10-11 – And he took all of these [animals] in the middle of the month. And he was dwelling by the oak of Mamre, which is near Hebron. And he built an altar there. And he slaughtered all of these, and he poured out their blood upon the altar. And he divided them in the middle. And he placed them facing on another, but the birds he did not cut up.

Genesis focuses more on the belief of Abraham in God’s promises. In contrast to Genesis, the centrality of Jubilees is on sacrifice and blood offering as the core for covenant and promise. Additionally, Jubilees notes the time of sacrifice, an indication of cultic ritual. Even though all of Jubilees reflects similar shifts to greater focus on obedience to the Torah, its redaction of Genesis 15 supports the idea that Genesis 15 and Leviticus have strands of intertextual connections.

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.

Re-Understanding the Leviticus Sacrificial System

Popular Christian tradition often defines and interprets ancient Israel’s cultic rituals and offerings in Leviticus through the narrow lens with which the New Testament discusses the issue of the sacrificial system. Passages like Matt 5:17-19, Rom 7:6, and Heb 10:1 leave an impression that the Levitical offering system was solely intended to prepare for Jesus and him alone. While this is undeniable in a sense, it is important to note the theological thrusts of these texts. Matthew, Romans, and Hebrews each work to demonstrate how Jesus fits into the grand scope of the Torah, not to provide a comprehensive discussion about the sacrificial system of Leviticus. Thus, in order to properly understand a book such as Leviticus, especially for a Christian, people must begin by recognizing that the New Testament is not definitive for Leviticus. If anything, Leviticus defines the New Testament and the New Testament operates within those parameters. Although it adjusts various understandings and interpretations (cf. Thomas Kazen 2002), it does not ever comprehensively discuss how the entirety of the system was abolished by Jesus.

In light of this brief discussion, what is required of biblical readers? Two basic ideas sum up how readers should approach Leviticus:

1) Recognize the layers of tradition within the offering system. Leviticus was not written over one year and left as the original copy 3,000 years later. Rather, it has been redacted through various editors who lived in their own time with distinct influences than others may not have had (cf. Yitzhaq Feder 2011). What readers read now is the results of centuries of redaction. As a final comment, that is not to imply that Leviticus in unreliable. On the contrary, it is reliable, except one must recognize the variation within it.

2) Leviticus should be read with recognition that the cultic ritual was central to lives in the ancient world. To ignore or place a glaze over Leviticus is to ignore the centrality of ancient Israel’s culture and life.

Although these are only two of many essential hermeneutic approaches to Leviticus, they are a good starting place. By observing these two ideas, it may actually be possible to read Leviticus. This begins with expanding beyond the narrow view of the New Testament’s understandings of sacrifice and atonement and moving towards a more comprehensive understanding of Leviticus that takes into account the textual redaction and centrality of sacrifice to the ancient world.