Introduction to Leviticus:
Leviticus stands at the center of the five books Torah; and it all takes place at Sinai, so while there is much modern people find difficult about the book, we must admit that its place in Judaism must be central. Schocken editors see Leviticus as the “Book of Separations, the book in which are set forth distinctions between a whole range of aspects of ancient Israelite experience and practice: holy and profane; ritual purity and pollution; permitted and forbidden in sexuality and diet; Israelites and others. . .This near-obsession with drawing lines. . .may in some sense reflect the position of Israel in the ancient Near East as a small, beleaguered newcomer in a region of hoary empires,. . .[or] It may also be an echo of the larger Bronze Age and Iron Age process of change from the former, well-nigh universal worship of the Mother Goddess, to the later patriarchal societies with which the Western world still deals through its three monotheistic religions and their cultural outgrowths” (499). The overarching concept is that of “order vs. disorder” “life and death.”
There is disagreement about when the “priestly” redaction of the Torah was done—it is widely thought that it may have occurred during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile (6th-5th c. BC). Genesis 1 is part of it and it begins by God’s ordering the universe, by separating the “light” from the “darkness” the heavenly waters from the earthly ones and then by bringing all the “things” of the creation into an overall order; and it ends with the “separation” of the seventh day as holy to God.
“In the priestly view, the world is to be an echo of the divine order that is portrayed in the Creation story” (501). In Leviticus, “the human body become symbolic of the cosmos: its life/death boundary is marked and troublesome flows from it are carefully regulated. The land of Israel becomes symbolic of the cosmos; too much evildoing pollutes it, to the point where it can do naught else but ‘vomit out’ its settlers (as it vomited out the previous one” (502).
I would simply add to this the observation I have found so interesting that when Quakers looked at the Old Testament story, they took its trajectory to be “archetypal” in many ways; Fox saw the Torah section as the “ministration of Moses.” It was the purpose of Moses’ ministration to lead the faithful people through a moral wilderness where they learned to set aside the temptations of the world and to hear clearly “the voice of God” directing them in all things. Every believer goes through this ministration where we must learn to separate—to discern—to set aside the spirit in us that is comfortable with ‘death’ and ‘slavery,’ that would actually prefer it, and instead to go the way of the cross which separates us from the world and brings us into the life Christ offers us.
Also interesting are points Schocken makes about the intermixing of narrative and cultic practices (narratives issue forth into cultic practices and reinforce them) and the centrality of “priestly” practices in the Torah generally (the widening of priestly laws to the people says something about the growing concept of priesthood of all believers). Later on the shift of learning and interpretation from the priestly class to the people will use this concept as its inspiration (504).
He suggests this—I am saying it in a way that goes somewhat beyond what he strictly says. Priests in ancient cultures were set aside as a class to “mediate between the divine and human realms” (505). There were strict rules about whom they could marry, and what activities they were barred from. There was “a conscious parallel between priests as part of a select circle and sacrificial animals—as well as the people of Israel. That is, all three stood at the center of concentric circles dedicated to God; and as one moved out (toward Levite and commoner, animals permitted for eating and those forbidden, and neighbors and foreigners), one got further and further away from the divine” (506).
There are many theories about how animal sacrifice came to be integral with worship—a gift, a way of entering into communion with the divine, with one’s community and the divine, as a way of achieving atonement or expiation where “the gods receive life as a substitute for the sinner’s own” (507). In the Bible sacrifice for atonement is almost always for “unintentional sins, whereas deliberate wrongdoing may not be atoned for through this system” (508). In Leviticus, sacrifice is designed “primarily to maintain or repair the relationship between God and Israel,” to support the maintenance of the covenant relationship.
Leviticus 1 – There are several kinds of ritual sacrifices described in the first chapters. The first is the “holocaust” or wholly burnt offering. If an “animal” it must be “a male with no defects” (1:3, 1:10), from the herd or flock (no ass or camel, no wild animal). Anyone can bring the offering, place his hand on its head and slaughter it; “the Lord will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him” (1:4). The priests shall sprinkle its blood on the altar at the entrance to the Meeting tent. If it is a bird it shall be a turtledove or young pigeon. Again the precise method is detailed.
Leviticus 2 – The next type of offering is the grain or cereal offering. It shall be of fine flour with olive oil on it and frankincense. Part of it is offered and part of is kept by the priest as an offering. The offering may also be presented in baked (unleavened) form, fried on a griddle or deep-fried. The only things not allowed in the cake are leaven [yeast] and honey. Yeast and honey may be added to an “offering of the first crops of your harvest, but these must never be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (2:12).
All grain offerings must contain salt – “Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering” (2:13). The New Living Translation of this line is “Season all your grain offerings with salt to remind you of God’s eternal covenant.” Schocken notes points out that in Middle Eastern cultures even to the present, salt is used in sealing agreements—salt was considered indestructible.
Leviticus 3 – The peace (shalom) offering: the animal offerings may be male or female (but without blemish). The animal is to be slaughtered at the entrance to the Tabernacle and its blood spattered on all sides of the altar. Only the fatty portion and inner organs are offered up to the Lord. It proceeds otherwise in the same manner. It does not specify here what happens to the rest; but the rest could be just eaten by anyone ‘unpolluted’.
“You must never eat any fat or blood. This is a permanent law for you, and it must be observed from generation to generation, wherever you live” (3:17).
Early Christian Writers
Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) – First Apology
29 – It is the ethic of Christians when they marry, to marry for the purpose of bringing up children, and if they don’t marry the “live continently.” “[P]romiscuous intercourse” is so outside the realm of Christian life that a member of the community petitioned the Roman Governor in Alexandria for permission to have a surgeon “make him a eunuch.” It was not lawful for surgeons to do this without such permission. And the Governor refused the petition. So the young man “remained single, and was satisfied with his own approving conscience, and the approval of those who thought as he did.”
And the writer mentions also Antinous, a Bithynian youth who was a sexual partner of Emperor Hadrian’s, so beloved that when he drowned in the Nile in 130 AD, he was “deified” by the emperor. Some speculate that his death was actually a sacrifice by him or Hadrian to the gods. It isn’t completely clear to me why this is brought into the conversation here but probably to emphasize the difference between what the Roman authorities “esteemed” and what Christians “esteem” as holy in sexual matter.
30 – So how would a Christian distinguish the miraculous deeds Jesus did from those who practice magic in one form or another. The writer says he will offer proof, and a good bit of the proof Justin Martyr will rely on is the prophesies of Christ that came from the Jewish prophets. That “things that have happened and are happening [are] just as they were predicted.”
Of the Hebrew Prophets
31 – Now we get to the part of the story, which was very personal to Justin Martyr – the story of the Jewish prophets whose prophecies seemed so fulfilled in the Jesus story.
Justin Martyr’s account of how the Jewish prophetic writings were preserved and assembled is hard to verify. I do not know if what he says here is accurate, but he believed that the writings were sent to Alexandria – to the library there – by Herod the Great at the request of one of the Ptolemies of Egypt.
These prophetic writings became part of the Septuagint and were disseminated all over the world. And in these books of the prophets “we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man’s estate, and healing every disease and every sickness, and raising the dead, and being hated, and unrecognized, and crucified, and dying, and rising again, and ascending into heaven, and being, and being called, the Son of God. We find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by Him into every nation to publish these things, and that rather among the Gentiles [than among the Jews] men should believe on Him. And He was predicted before He appeared, first 5000 years before, and again 3000, then 2000, then 1000, and yet again 800; for in the succession of generations prophets after prophets arose.”