My front-to-back journey through the Christian Bible continues this week with Leviticus, nobody’s favorite book of the Bible. Indeed, Kugler and Hartin opened their chapter on it by stating that it is “routine” to begin discussions of Leviticus with an apology to the reader because of the dull and esoteric nature of the book; then they pulled the football away by saying they would offer no such apology because Leviticus should be interesting to anyone reading the Bible.
Well, I disagree. I want my retroactive apology.
Anyways, Leviticus is usually brought up nowadays because of its proscription of same-sex relations between men; some Biblical fundamentalists use it to argue against same-sex marriage. This argument has been refuted to death, and even many homophobic Christians won’t use Leviticus (they have Paul to fall back on, which is more complicated), but it bears repeating that it would be hilarious to ask Christians who do use Leviticus their opinions on wearing garments made of mixed materials (Lev. 19:19).
The most fascinating things about Leviticus are not its actual contents, by and large; rather, what interested me most was the composition. All you’d need is a basic description of the documentary hypothesis and a cursory glance at the topics Leviticus deals with to know that it is the product of the Priestly tradition (or you’d just have to know that the priests of ancient Israel were all supposed to be of the tribe of Levi), and in it we begin to see very clearly that the Bible is the product of human beings with distinct agendas. Leviticus grants incredible power, authority, and honor to the priests and an equally incredible level of responsibility, and the dishonor and punishment that comes with failing to live up to that responsibility, to the laity.
Because given the extent of these laws, it is literally impossible to completely avoid uncleanness. Much more than dietary restrictions, things like bodily discharges and handling the dead made people unclean, and often a sacrifice at the temple was required to overcome this uncleanness. So uncleanliness and “sin” were never things to be completely avoided; they were to be “made up for” as part of Israel’s fidelity to God.
I expect this tendency will continue through Numbers at least, although if I remember correctly Numbers is not the composition of a single writer like Leviticus is.
Leviticus also strengthens the sense I’m getting that P’s material is post-Exilic, i.e. dates from after the end of the Babylonian Captivity, when the Temple was being rebuilt and the Jews were putting their society back together. With the possible exception of the Holiness Code (17-26), which shows heavy strains of Deuteronomic theology (especially chapter 26) and may be an older collection that was added later to “correct” the forgiving nature of Leviticus’s prescriptions for offerings, the third book of the Pentateuch shows signs of a writer concerned with maintaining a Jewish identity in the face of a troubled past and uncertain future.
Sorry for the lack of witticisms or unique insights on this one. Leviticus is just…Leviticus.
Next week: Numbers!