Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Leviticus by Samuel E. Balentine (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Westminster John Knox Press) focuses on the history of Israel during this time when Israel's life was marked by the various ritual sacrifices and observances commanded by God for the ordering of the nation's life.

How should an introduction to Leviticus proceed? Will the challenge of inviting the audience for this series into a reading and thinking relationship with this book be addressed by confirming that the Hebrew text of Leviticus has been very well preserved? That the variations in the versions, for example, the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch, and in the fragments preserved from Qumran (4QLev and 11QLev), are interesting but mostly insignificant? Will the incentive for recognizing the authority of the commandments in Leviticus be enhanced by making a case, along the lines so vigorously argued by J. Milgrom, that the Priestly tradents of this book should be located in the pre-exilic period (Leviticus 1-16, pp. 3-35)? That Well­hausen's conventional and largely negative assessment of the Priestly tradition as representative of Judaism's deterioration into a ritualistic religion that is no more than a lingering "ghost of a life which is closed"—for more than a century so dominant in biblical studies—must now be turned on its head (Wellhausen, p. 405)? If readers are shown from a survey of the history of interpretation that Leviticus has remained a staple for both Jewish and Christian commentators, albeit for different reasons, from the second century B.C.E. to the twenty-first century, will they be persuaded not to abandon the book soon after they wade into its first chapters? Judging by the clerk's report and the responses to my work from friends and col-leagues, I am inclined to believe the answer to these questions is "No, probably not."

Balentine singles out three broad matters that provide a beginning point for reading this commentary. It is important to acknowledge at the outset that these issues are not offered as a substi­tute for the important and still instructive introductory information found in other commentaries. Indeed, what is highlighted here is in many respects not only dependent on but also culled from the disci­plined and creative scholarship of those who have been my teachers in reading Leviticus. In the wake of their work, what follows may be described with the analogy of simply rearranging the furniture in a house already long occupied. Even so, as every potential home owner knows, envisioning how to rearrange what you see to make it more hos­pitable for your own dwelling is often an important part of deciding whether to make the purchase or not…

Deuteronomy understands Moses to have summoned forth a new community. On the other side of the plains of Moab, this new community will set its compass by the Torah's vision of the new and ever-renewing covenant that binds together God, humankind, and the cosmos (Deut. 27:1-30:20). Just as in the primeval days, so forever after the community of faith must decide whether to live in harmony with this vision or in opposition to it. And just as it was "in the beginning,' the choice remains a critical one. It is the choice between "life an( death, blessings and curses." Then as now, the Torah's vision hangs or God's abiding hope that the decision will be to "choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:19).

The importance of Leviticus for the Torah's vision may be conceptualized by charting the pride of place accorded the Sinai pericope in the Pentateuch's final form.

According to the Pentateuch's own chronology, the time span for the events recorded between the creation of the world and the death of Moses in the plains of Moab is 2,706 years. Within this time framework, the events that transpire at Sinai comprise less than one year of the total. By any reasonable defin­ition of a proportional account of Israel's story, the year at Sinai might have been given little more than the space of a footnote. And yet, in what must be judged to be one of the most important theological anom­alies of the Pentateuch's composite account, Israel's story allots fifty-eight chapters, Exodus 19–Numbers 10—more than 40 percent of the space—to the Sinai pericope. According to the Torah's vision, the year at Sinai is the constitutive experience in the formation of Israel as a "priestly kingdom and holy nation" (Exod. 19:6).

The Sinai pericope records two revelations to Israel. The first is God's revelation from the mountain of Sinai (Exo­dus 19—40); the second, God's revelation from the tabernacle (Leviti­cus 1—27). From the Torah's perspective, the revelation from the mountain is foundational and anchors Israel's past; the revelation from the tabernacle belongs to the present and future, and as such it is deci­sive for the ongoing life of Israel (cf. Knierim, p. 405). In the Penta­teuch's final arrangement into five books, therefore, it is the third book, Leviticus, that centers the community of faith on the most important part of God's revelation. That revelation, conveyed through Moses to all Israel, announces that the worship of God, with its unyielding sum­mons to righteousness and justice "on earth as it is in heaven," is the ultimate goal of creation.

A final introductory, and perhaps inviting, observation may be in order. The first words of Leviticus in Hebrew, wayyigra', may be literally translated as "and God continued calling." That call reached first from God to Moses, then through Moses to the people of Israel, priests and laypersons alike. Although Leviticus records no direct response, no specific verbal reply, to God from either Moses or Israel, its abiding assumption is that God's commands will be heard, heeded, and obeyed. To be sure, even in Leviticus there is a place for narratives that are mindful of the potential for disobedience (10:1—20; 24:10—23), narra­tives reinforced by the accounts of Israel's flawed efforts that appear so frequently and so candidly in the story that precedes and follows this one. Nevertheless, within this one pregnant pause in the larger story, it is not Israel's potential for failure but God's unabashed confidence in its capacity for fidelity that takes center stage. As God continues calling, and as Israel continues listening, the future remains open, full, and incalculably promising. Perhaps it is just here, in these seemingly tedious, often peculiar instructions about worship and justice, that a community of faith, even a contemporary one, may find its bearings. Who among us does not yearn for that one place, however small and difficult to find, that invites us to believe the "very good" world God cre­ated and the world in which we scratch out our frail existence are in fact one and the same? To all of us who hear our names in this question, the book of Leviticus offers these words:
These are the commandments that the LORD gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. (27:34)

Purity and Holiness: The Heritage of Leviticus edited by Marcel Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz (Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series, Vol 2: Brill) Purity has long been a central factor that determines humankind's relationship with the holy. This volume deals with the purity injunctions as written in Leviticus, studingthe 'pure' and `holy' from Christian and Jewish  perspectives, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, and proceeding on to the New Testament:  Bringing in how Leviticus laws affected  even medieval and modern attitudes. A wide array of disciplines are used including exegesis, archaeology, liturgy, feminist studies and anthropology, all coming together to study the complex phenomena of purity within its religious and social framework.


Many modern scholars and even more so laymen look upon Leviticus with some degree of suspicion. Leviticus is regarded as a book that depreciates bodily functions and treats sexuality as taboo. Yet, on closer scrutiny it becomes clear that this may not be the case. In modern secular experience, the concepts of `religion' and `the body' tend to drift apart. Bodily functions such as eating and drinking, and bodily states such as sickness, sexuality and even birth and death are no longer integrated in a religious framework, but arc considered to be part of an autonomous realm outside of religion.

Without denying the reasons for this development or advocating some type of nostalgia in favor of an irretrievable past, it is possible to see Leviticus in a new light. Purity and impurity appear as the possible states of man's bodily existence oriented toward God and creation, toward holiness and everyday life. Purity and impurity are not to be studied in isolation but may reflect rules of conduct within a given society. This awareness may stimulate reflections upon the relation between perceptions of the body and of society at large, upon gender relations and power structures, upon man's attitude to the environment and upon the intertwined relations between sickness, moral behavior and subsequent healing rituals. There is no doubt that many modern problems within religion such as the relationship between gender and power, ministry and attitudes toward sexuality, cannot be separated from traditional notions of purity and impurity. Moreover, the relationship of humanity toward the animals‑who are our fellow creatures‑can be rediscovered as ultimately a religious question that should be allowed access to the religious consciousness.

A classical example is the hattat sacrifice. Hattat traditionally translated as `sin offering', might denote a state of impurity that is not actually to be equated with sin. Both the purification of woman after childbirth (Lev 12) and the completion of the Nazirite vow (Num 4) require a hattat sacrifice. Now some subsequent rabbinic interpretations explain this sacrifice in moral terms as the removal of guilt, shifting the stress from purity to morality. "The hattat is brought on account of sin" (MZeb 1:1). Yet, if Jacob Milgrom is right in suggesting another translation for hattat, namely `purification offering', then the association of these rituals with sin may reflect only later understandings." The cultic purity required to approach God would have been shifted to a state of moral blamelessness.

On the one hand this shift may indicate a more rational interpretation of certain purity rules, but on the other hand the state of' impurity is hereby internalized into remorse and guilt. Impurity is no longer an objective state of the body that can be dealt with by conforming to the required rituals, but becomes more spiritual and also more threatening to one's conscience. It seems that this confusion between purity and morality has never ended in religious history. To cite just one example: often Christian women felt guilty when fulfilling the Christian ritual of churching and apparently more so, when the purifying meaning of it was obscured by moralizing recommendations.

Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible, Vol. 3: Doubleday)

Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible, Vol. 3A: Doubleday

Leviticus served as the liturgical handbook of the Levitical Priesthood of the Israelites. From a professor of Religion and the Bible at the University of California at Berkeley comes a comprehensive commentary on Leviticus, now available with a new translation that is sure to set the standard for years to come. Jacob Milgrom, a Conservative rabbi and modern Bible scholar, is a, if not the, leading authority on Leviticus. Milgrom's painstakingly thorough commentary on the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus has revolutionized the modern understanding of the rituals and practices described in the book.

Drawing upon classical (and some obscure) Jewish interpreters, modern scholarship, and his own brilliant insights, Milgrom argues that Leviticus' seemingly dry recounting of rituals and practices expresses a profound theology of Israel, a theology based upon life and death, good and evil, with the G*d of Israel supreme. Milgrom argues that Leviticus banishes demons from its theology and posits man's choices as the cause of evil. Analogizing the sacrificial system to "The Portrait of Dorian Grey", Milgrom argues that sin creates impurity on the Tabernacle and the more serious the sin, the more severe the pollution. Pollution unchecked can drive the divine presence from the people's midst. Sacrifice (chiefly the hattat/purification offering) served to remove the impurity but only if the sinner was motivated by asham/guilt.

In addition to explaining the differing types of sacrifices, Milgrom also explains the dietary laws (kashrut) as a reflection of the priestly theology. To twist a phrase, taxonomy recapitulates theology. Milgrom argues that the dietary laws reflected and fostered a profound respect for life, both animal and human.

Milgrom also investigates in detail the purity laws regulating childbirth, menstruation, sex, certain diseases and similar physical causes of impurities. He argues that the laws governing physical impurities reflected the priestly life/death theology but that physical causes of impurity were understood differently than moral causes of impurity.

Milgrom proceeds verse-by-verse and fascinating essays in which he sets out in a more orderly fashion his interpretation follow each chapter. Leading scholars regularly cites his work but the work is accessible to non-experts, though it is not an "easy read" by any means. Be prepared to read and reread this work in order to grasp all that Milgrom is saying. Milgrom's interpretation opens up not only Leviticus but virtually every other page of the Bible to new interpretations.

Milgrom includes a huge bibliography and detailed indices. One complaint - the Anchor Bible series does not set out the Hebrew text so be prepared to try to decode the transliteration system employed by Milgrom.

I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to grapple with the meaning of Leviticus. Christian and Jews, modern scholars and lay persons all can benefit from reading Milgrom's penetrating analysis.

 His use of rabbinic sources and commentary makes this work both profoundly traditional and richly evocative of the best commentary from the years to come.

Just as Leviticus 17-22 builds and expands upon the themes contained in Leviticus 1-16, so too Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus 17-22 continues to build upon many of the themes and insights he laid out in his earlier commentary on Lev. 1-16. Milgrom's translation and commentary on the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus (Anchor Bible vol. 3) is perhaps the finest modern commentary on those chapters and this work deserves it place alongside Milgrom's initial volume. No doubt Bible scholars will find his work fascinating but even if you are not a scholar but simply a person like myself who wants to understand Leviticus better, Milgrom's commentary can shed new light on what is for many modern readers a very difficult book.

Some cautions before proceeding with the review: if you reject the modern theory that the first books of the Bible are composed from several sources commonly labeled "J", "E", "P", "H", and "D", then you likely will find Milgrom's work objectionable because one of the main theses of Milgrom's work is that chapters 17-27 reflect chiefly the source referred to as "H" for the "Holiness" source while chapters 1-16 are composed chiefly of writings from "P", the "Priestly" source. Secondly, although Milgrom's translation of the entire book of Leviticus is set out at the beginning of his commentary in this volume and his discussion of each chapter is preceded by his translation of that chapter, nevertheless, in the commentary portion, isolated Hebrew words and phrases are transliterated into English letters which occasionally Milgrom does not immediately translate into English. Unfortunately, Anchor does not set out the transliteration system so unless you are already familiar with it, you have to noodle it out yourself or look up the passage. Moreover, Milgrom frequently employs specialized grammatical terms that will baffle the average reader. Nevertheless, if you are willing to work hard trying to understand the work, you will reap huge benefits even if you are not a modern Bible scholar.

In his first volume, Milgrom argued that Leviticus transforms the ancient sacrificial system by banishing demons and identifying man's choices as the major source of impurity. Sin generates impurity that pollutes the Tabernacle and the more serious the sin, the more polluted the Tabernacle. Sacrifices, chiefly the chattat or purification offering (erroneously translated as "sin offering" by others), would purge the Tabernacle of impurity but only if motivated by the offeror's sincere remorse. If the pollution goes unchecked, God will abandon the Tabernacle and the people.

In this volume, Milgrom argues that the impurity system in chapters 1-16 has been expanded. Whereas in chapters 1-16, holiness centered on the Tabernacle and the priesthood, in these chapters, the concept of holiness is expanded to encompass the land and the "lay" Israelite. The land of Canaan now functions like the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Sin pollutes the land and pollution unchecked results in exile. Just as the Canaanites were vomited from the land because of their immorality, so too Israel risks expulsion from the land if the people do not heed God's commands. Similarly, in these chapters, not only are the priests required to maintain their holiness, the average Israelite as well is called to strive toward it. The means of maintaining or achieving holiness are the same - obedience to the commandments. Holiness is wedded to "life" and the commandments are the means to obtaining holiness and life. The core of Milgrom's argument is found in chapter 19, in which ritual and ethical laws are fused so that through obedience to the commandments Israel can transform itself into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6) The commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself, Milgrom argues, is the literary apex of the structure of Leviticus while the following command to love the stranger as oneself is the ethical summit of the Torah.

Just as in his first volume, Milgrom painstakingly comments on every verse, drawing upon and discussing extensively ancient, medieval and modern writers. His verse by verse commentary on each chapter is followed by essays that explain in more detail his thoughts. Milgrom writes extensively on such topics as the meaning of "holiness", the significance of the "resident alien", Leviticus' battle with ancestor worship and gods of the underworld and even such modern topics as homosexuality.

No review can capture the breadth and depth of Milgrom's work but even if you cannot afford this book, you should try to borrow it if only to read some of his essays. One disclaimer: although much to my surprise Milgrom cites me twice in this volume, my admiration for his work long predated the citations as my review of his earlier volume makes clear. Therefore, whatever bias I may have favoring Milgrom cannot be attributed to the citations. Good luck reading a challenging and thought provoking book!


Headline 3

insert content here

WT Main | About WT | Review Links | Contact | Review Sources | Search

Copyright © 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Headline 3

insert content here