Evidence for the Conflict Myth in Joshua 6-7 (Part II)

This is Part II of a series about the presence of the conflict myth in Joshua 6-7. If you have not read the introductory post, click here to read.

Joshua 6-7 contains a few passages that seem to employ similar tactics to the conflict, albeit in a unique fashion. Unlike many of the texts which Debra Ballentine analyzes, texts which legitimize certain ideologies directly via allusion to conflict myth for primary or secondary application, the book of Joshua utilizes the conflict myth through two methods. First of all, there is an assumption that God is greater than the land, an idea clear throughout Joshua 1:2-9. Verses 1:2-3 and 1:5-9 assume God will give the land to Israel under the conditions that Israel obeys Torah. Such an assumption, though without use of the conflict myth, assumes that God is greater than the other nation’s deities. Hence Israel is presented with far more political prowess and power than nations across the Jordan.

The book of Joshua, rather, past actions to speak the deeds of God. Within the words of the foreigner, namely Rahab, the conflict myth is present. In Joshua 2:10, Rahab is the first to note a specific and unique element of the Exodus account:

For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt (Joshua 2:10, NASB).

Importantly, Rahab did not mention the death of Pharaoh’s army, although it is being alluded to. Her focus, rather, is on the act of God drying the sea. Exodus 14:21 says the strong east wind “turned the sea into dry land”. The interesting thing about Exodus 14:21 is that it does not relate the drying of the sea directly to God’s actions. And the Song of Moses, while referencing God as a divine warrior (15:3), an important part of the conflict myth, does show God acting against the waters. Yet Rahab directly connects the sea to God’s actions. This may be explained by Psalms 106:7-12, an example of the conflict myth within the exodus motif (Ballentine 2015, 94):

    7            Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders;

They did not remember

Your abundant kindnesses,

But rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.

8            Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name,

That He might make His power known.

9            Thus He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up,

And He led them through the deeps, as through the wilderness.

10            So He saved them from the hand of the one who hated them,

And redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.

11            The waters covered their adversaries;

Not one of them was left.

12            Then they believed His words;

They sang His praise.

(Psalm 106:7-12, NASB)

As Ballentine notes, “the way in which Yahweh rebukes and dries the sea indicates an adversarial manipulation and command of the sea/deep/waters. Such an adversarial relationship is consistent with instances of the conflict motif” (2015, 94). Because Exodus is not directly illustrating God’s power through the lens of the conflict motif, but Psalm 106:7-12 does so, Rahab’s reference, from a literary aspect, is more akin the exodus tradition as redacted through the Psalms than the book of Exodus. In effect, Rahab’s words conjure images of God as the divine warrior who defeats the sea. Rhetorically this establishes God as superior to the gods of her own people. Such a point is reinforced as well through Psalm 77:16, a Psalm placed in context of the exodus:

The waters saw You, O God;

The waters saw You, they writhed;

The deeps also trembled.

(Psalm 77:16)

Again the exodus motif in Psalm 77:16 is synchronized with the conflict motif to legitimize God’s rule (Ballentine 2015, 93). This is another example of the traditions of which Rahab, as a literary character, speaks. Both Psalm 77:16 and 106:7-12 illustrate the conflict motif. And Rahab’s reference to God drying up the water of the Red Sea indicates that the author is utilizing the conflict tradition to legitimize God’s ability and power to lead Israel to capture Jericho as a greater nation, an example of the secondary application of the conflict myth in Joshua.

The secondary application is the second method utilized by the author of the book of Joshua and will be explored further in Part III.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Why Priests?

Within ancient Israel, Priests held extremely important roles. Priestly significance is demonstrated even more so by the entire ancient Near East. Unlike the 21st century western world, ancient civilizations in the Near East placed high value on the “sacred space”, often designating them as temples. The sacred space was essential to the survival of an ancient civilization because “it was considered the center of power, control, and order from which deity [brought] order to the human world” (Walton, 127). In effect, the temple, sacred space, was a sort of “government” for the ancient world in that provided life, prosperity, and justice. The sacred temple was also considered a microcosm of the cosmos, the center of the cosmos. With this context, it is evident why priests in Leviticus are so dignified and viewed with prestige.

The value of priesthood depended not upon the tribe or lineage. In its purest sense, priesthoods attained value because they acted as the ones who ensured the sanctity of the sancta (the sacred space). Consequently the priesthoods allowed (1) the gods to continues maintaining order and (2) permitted human involvement in retaining cosmic order (Walton, 130). Unfortunately, because the temple was simeltaneously a political entity and religious expression, priesthoods could easily evolve into political powerhouses rather than sanctifying/sancitified powerhouses. And due to our own context which dichotomizes religious practice and politics, we easily pick up on the political struggles but miss the high cultural value of priests within a cultic context. In this context, then, it is evident why the priests were so important to ancient Israel. Without priests, order could not be maintained and life could fall into non-order/disorder as the world was left without Yahweh’s presence.

References

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

By William Brown

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

 

Leviticus One: Burnt Offerings and the Poor

Too often people immediately skip over Leviticus because the first chapter is about burnt offerings. Realistically it is logical to skip it due to the fact that sacrifice of animals in no longer a practiced act for most in the 21st century. However, Leviticus one’s threefold nature offers a beautiful image of the God whom the author presents. After the introduction of what Moses should speak to the children of Israel (vs. 1-2), there are three types of burnt offerings: herd, flock, and birds. These three represent “a gradation in value” corresponding with the “donor’s ability and resources” (Rooker 2000). This alone is magnificent and displays Yahweh’s character as a one who includes the richest and poorest into His people. Though it was often not practiced, the desire for inclusion is apparent throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible.

But what else does Leviticus 1 speak to the reader?

As mentioned earlier, there are three sections, each for the different type of offering. The end of each section is always the same: “a burnt-offering, a fire-offering, a satisfying aroma to Yahweh” (עֹלָ֛ה אִשֵּׁ֥ה רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיהוָֽה). However, each section begins differently. The first section, which discusses burnt-offerings from herds, speaks solely of what to do if the offering is from a herd. The second section, which discusses  burnt-offerings from flocks, speaks solely of what to do if the offering is from a flock. And the third section, which discusses burnt-offerings of birds for the lower class, is unique in its introduction. Rather than simply expressing what is required for a burnt offering, it includes the phrase “offering to Yahweh” (קָרְבָּנֹ֖ו לַֽיהוָ֑ה). In consideration that Leviticus is centered around the theme of holiness, primarily due to God’s character, the author seems to intentionally connect the poor and lower class people of Israel to closer proximity to the holiness of God. While the wealthy, those who offer herds and flocks, are not far from God due to their social status, there exists in Leviticus 1:14 a special place for the poor and impoverished. Leviticus pronounces God’s care for the poor by exalting them to a special status.

In conclusion, one must never skip over Leviticus and deem it unimportant biblical sacrifice ritual. For within the ritual lies great depth of what the God of Israel envisioned his people to be. In Leviticus 1, the threefold division of the types of burnt-offerings offers insight not only to ancient Israel, but to the heart of God. By specifically connecting the offerings of the poor to the god whom they offer towards, Leviticus implicitly exalts the poor as they attain closer proximity to Yahweh, textually and perhaps historically. By attaining such proximity, the poor and disfranchised are the holy ones in spite of the monetary value of their sacrifice. Those with the least possessions best accomplished the will of God. In the words of Jesus, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (NIV, Matthew 19:21).

Works Cited

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2000. Print.

“Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by Jon Levenson

Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).

After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).

Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.

Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.

In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.