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.

References:

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

 

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.

“Jesus and Purity Halakhah” by Thomas Kazen

Thomas Kazen’s Jesus and Purity Halakhah explores the historical Jesus and how he related to the purity halakhah of his day. He thoroughly considers multiple approaches to the issues and utilizes a wide variety of primary sources. Divided into four parts, Jesus and Purity Halakhah begins with a demonstration of the necessity of his study and explanation of his historical approach. His brief, but detailed, summary of the history of the quest for the historical Jesus, especially as it relates to purity, provides a solid framework by which his arguments are shaped. By the end of part I, it is evident that his goal is to present a “conscious reconstruction of how Jesus related to concepts of impurity” (41), not necessarily how Markan or Lukan tradition understood Jesus.

Part II identifies Jesus’ adversaries, a basic introduction to that conflict, and the legal texts which assist in the study. After demonstrating his framework through a Sabbath case study, he repeats his approach through a case study of Mark 7 and Jesus’ hand-washing. Such case studies permit him to present the basic nature of the Second Temple Period: purity was a serious issue and debate within the period. Following, he identifies the major elements of defilement through contact: skin disease, bodily discharges, and the corpse. His discussion of each of these elements strengthen his argument with their thorough nature. Based on these categories, Kazen concludes that Jesus was indifferent to impurity halakhah of his day.

He then proceeds to explore, in Part III, three explanatory models for why Jesus was so indifferent to purity: morality, diversity, and demonic threat. For each model he clearly demonstrates how each contributes to a more holistic picture of Jesus’ character. Finally, in Part IV, he concludes and synthesizes his results into a succinct explanation of Jesus’ seemingly indifferent attitude to purity halakah, even briefly discussing practical applications for the Church.

Above all else, Kazen’s use of multiple sources was admirable. While he does utilize any and every possible source, he clearly explains how each fits into his explanatory model or discussion. In doing so, he is clear as to how certain texts, such as the Qumran scrolls, may or may not be significant. Such a clear approach permits the reader to more easily approach the text and yield new observations about the 2nd Temple Period and Jesus’ purity halakhah. Additionally, his writing style is quite story like. Although he is  not necessarily telling a story, his style often feels like a story due to the nature of it. Kazen even notes that the book builds based on previously explicated information. And he expects the reader to grasp a point explained from 100 pages earlier. Though it may, for some, be difficult, I found it to increase the readability as I knew what sort of writing to expect.

In conclusion, Kazen presents a fantastic and convincing argument for a proper view of Jesus’ historical nature and how he regarded purity halakhah. His work avoids strong bias towards theological endeavors and effectively focuses into the historical issues surrounding Jesus. Any desire for discussion, research, or general information regarding Jesus as he relates to purity halakhah of the first century must consider Jesus and Purity Halakhah to be their first secondary source.

Click here to purchase Jesus and Purity Halakhah by Thomas Kazen