Who Shall Ascend?

Who Shall Ascend? August 11, 2016

L. Michael Morales’s 2015 Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? is a “biblical theology of the book of Leviticus,” but Morales doesn’t turn his full attention to Leviticus until he is one-third of the way through the book. That’s as it should be. Building on his earlier The Tabernacle Pre-Figured, Morales demonstrates that readers of Leviticus need to have Genesis and Exodus well under their belts before they begin. The cult doesn’t make sense without the cosmology; rites of holiness cannot be isolated from prior history.

It works in reverse too: Israel’s cosmology is itself cultic. From the beginning, “sacred space was poetically conceived as a world-mountain surrounded by the primeval waters. At the cloud-covered summit of the mountain is the temple, the dwelling of God, and at the base are the chaos waters, underneath which lies Sheol, the place of the dead. Representing God’s life-giving Presence, the waters of life flow from the summit of the mountain” (49). This is the cosmology given architectural symbolism in the tabernacle and ritually expressed in the Leviticus system.

Morales begins with a lengthy discussion of the structure of the Pentateuch and Leviticus’s place in it. Drawing on numerous scholars, he argues that Leviticus is structurally central. At the very least: it is bracketed by exodus-wilderness-arrival at Sinai on the one side and exit from Sinai-wilderness-settlement in Moab on the other (36). The tabernacle is the center of the Pentateuch, and the day of atonement rite (Leviticus 16) is the center of Leviticus (27-34). All of the Pentateuch moves toward Aaron’s authorized entry into the Most Holy Place.

One of his most arresting structural points has to do with space and time. Six of Israel’s stopping places are mentioned between Exodus 12-17; six more are found in the narratives of Sinai and Numbers, Numbers 10-22 (35). Chronology likewise centers on Sinai. Quoting M. Smith, Morales writes that the time markers in Exodus “suggest a year arranged primarily according to the first two of three main pilgrimage feasts. Passover begins the series with the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites arrive at Sinai on the feast of weeks, and the tabernacle (mishkan) is completed around the New Year” (35). On the other side, Israel celebrates a second Passover as they leave Sinai. Time slows at Sinai: “while Genesis 1 to Exodus 12 and Numbers 10 to Deuteronomy 34 are reckoned by years, Exodus 12 to Numbers 10 is counted by months, evoking the liturgical year through the feasts of Passover, Weeks, and Booths” (35-6).

This cultic cosmology and its related literary structure support Morales’s effort to read Genesis and Exodus through a cultic lens. The flood is punishment, but also purgation. Ararat is a new Eden, and so the movement of the men of Babel “to the east” replicates Cain’s eastward movement from Eden, which is movement from the presence of God in His sanctuary. Morales finds hints of this orientation in the Abrahamic narratives, not normally read as cultic texts. Like the men who founded Babel, Lot “journeyed east” (Genesis 13:11), a choice that “took him outside the bounds not merely of the Promised Land but of the Promised Presence of God.” Abram meanwhile sets up an altar on a mountain between Bethel (west) and Ai (east). Morales comments, “These untypically precise details are not gratuitous, but serve rather to continue the east-west motif, and the cultic theology of the divine presence” (71). In Genesis, we see a sequence of west-east connections: “Eden-Cain’s city at the primordial beginning of the world; Noah’s ark-Babylon at the beginning of the new world after the deluge; Abram’s altar-Sodom at the beginnings of Israel after the scattering of the nations” (72). All this is linked to the east-west orientation of the garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and the tabernacle.

Exodus provides more obvious background to Leviticus, with lengthy descriptions of the tabernacle and its furniture. More specifically, in Morales’s view, Exodus ends with a crisis. Yahweh descends to occupy His house (Exodus 40). It becomes His dwelling, His mishkan. But no one else enters. Even Moses flees the fiery presence. It’s not yet a tent of meeting, an ohel mo’ed (Morales justifies his use of this terminological distinction at length, 195-200.) The tabernacle is a new Eden, but as Leviticus opens, there’s no Adam there (117). Leviticus is about how Yahweh places Israel as new Adam in the garden. The book describes Yahweh’s gracious provision of a way into His dwelling (cf. 204). It answers the question of Morales’s title, Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? And it explains How. Genesis and Exodus serve as a long introduction to Leviticus (113), describing humanity’s alienation from God and leading up to the moment when Israel is reconciled.

The dilemma of Moses’ exclusion is resolved in Leviticus 9, when Aaron is installed as the new Adamic priest in the garden and mediator between Yahweh and Israel. That reconciliation is immediately spoiled by the sin of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10). A new movement begins, culminating in the Sabbath-saturated latter half of the book.

This movement replicates what Morales sees as the dramatic trajectory of the creation account. Day 1 introduces light, Day 4 gives us lamps in the heaven to mark appointed times, and creation all culminates in the holy Sabbath (44). Just as creation moves toward consummation in the appointed time of Sabbath, Leviticus shows how the tent becomes a ohel mo’ed where the ‘eda (assembly) gathers for mo’adim (appointed feasts; 199). Leviticus 24:1-9, which describes the Sabbath consumption of the showbread, provides a symbolic portrait of this conummation: “it portrays the ideal of Israel’s basking in the light of YHWH’s Sabbath Presence. . . Whereas the book of Exodus ended with Israel’s mediator being unable to enter the ohel mo’ed, the book of Leviticus ends with a lengthy and festal portrayal of Israel’s sacred assemblies at the sanctuary to community and fellowship with God – it ends, in other words, with a fully functioning ohel mo’ed in the life of Israel” (207). Leviticus ends with Eden restored.

Such are the impressive broad strokes of Morales’s approach. Morales is usually reliable on details. Unlike many commentators, he gets the terminology of Leviticus right: Not “burnt offering” but “ascension.” Not “grain offering” but “tribute. He recognizes that sacrificial rites are means of approach and communion, ascensions to the fiery presence of God. He rightly contests the separation of the book into cultic and ethical sections, arguing that chapters 17-27 continue to be occupied with cultic concerns, arguing that “the holiness of Israel (chs. 17-27) is in fact the goal and programmed consequence of the cultus of Israel (chs. 1-16)” (214). He devotes the final chapters to tracing Levitical themes through later portions of the Old Testament and into the New.

Morales argues throughout that atonement and holiness are means to end of fellowship with God. The goal is joy in His presence. I would formulate the goal of atonement slightly differently. Israel has joy in the Lord’s presence when they bring the work of their hands, their oxen and sheep, their grain and oil and strong drink. Thus, it’s preferable to say that Leviticus restores the rhythm of entry and exit, labor and liturgy, Sabbath and week, that was interrupted by Adam’s sin. Israel lives and works to worship, and they worship to live and work. I don’t think Morales would disagree. He recognizes that there is a “reciprocal relationship between cult . . . and community” (214) but that reciprocity could be given more stress and developed more thoroughly.

There are many excellent books on Leviticus, which has been something of a cottage industry of late. Few studies, though, place Leviticus in so rich a biblical context, and few point so clearly to Christian uses of the book. Aspiring students of Leviticus would do well to begin here.

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