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Starting Leviticus

Starting Leviticus

I mentioned in my post about completing the study of Romans that our next book was Leviticus. This was by choice of the group, but it is surely driven somewhat by the number of references I have made to Leviticus.

While I experienced Leviticus as a child, going to a Christian school where we read—really read—the entire Bible, and memorized a great deal, it never really caught my attention.

Two factors combined to catch my attention:

  1. I changed my view of biblical inspiration
  2. I studied through Leviticus using the three volume commentary on it in the Anchor Bible series by Jacob Milgrom.

Studying with Milgrom

Here’s a key Milgrom quote, and this from a man who does not tend to speak in one-liners!

Theology is what Leviticus is all about. It pervades every chapter and almost every verse. It is not expressed in pronouncements but embedded in rituals.

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Vol. 1, Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 42. (Link is to my review.)

One of the key lessons I learned in that book is that ritual matters. The way we worship both reflects and creates theology. When we go to church and listen to one person from the front do all the talking, that has an impact on how we see the Christian life, learning, discipleship.

I recall that I was once asked to speak at a church where, unknown to me, people felt they could delegate that task of prayer to the prayer warriors. The pastor who invited me knew I’d say something different.

I would like to say something similar about study to the church as a whole: You can’t leave your study to pastors or scholars. You need to get involved.

Bottom line here is that our ritual matters in many ways.

I asked a question in a previous post:

If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?

Henry’s Threads, “A Morbid and Boring Christianity

I think it’s a good question. In terms of Leviticus, would it be a “pleasing odor?”

What’s God Really Like?

Inspiration in the Production of Scripture

The other element is my change was my view of inspiration. There is a single element that is critical. I came to regard the process of inspiration and transmission of scripture as a critical element in our understanding. I see scripture as a compendium of the experience of people with God. It is important to recognize both the divine and human element.

Out of that divine-human story, I see God working with people through scripture. In Leviticus, we see God as educator. Yes, we see the human report of what happened. I’m not trying here to debate details on how human and how divine scripture is; in fact, I think that’s the wrong question. What we’re looking for is the process behind what we have. We want to see God in action.

Is that perhaps arrogant? I don’t believe so. I believe God has left God’s imprint all over creation, and very much in the way in which God’s chosen people were developed and prepared. Looking at this process is even more critical than connecting dots between specific scriptures.

Things I Won’t Be Doing

In focusing on the way ritual expresses theology and develops worshipers, there are two things I will not be emphasizing.

First, I will not be looking for the minor ties between specific scripture prophecies and New Testament events. While I accept predictive prophecy in principle, in practice I find that the detailed interpretation of a prediction/fulfillment is rarely necessary to learn the lessons expressed.

Second, I will not be doing a detailed symbolic connection between elements of the ritual. Those sorts of things (and the resulting debates) are available elsewhere.

I will be focusing on the expression of theology through ritual and the relationship of that ritual to forming God’s people. I hope to learn something about discipleship and instruction/nurture through this book.

(Featured image credit: Adobe Stock #158382143. Licensed, not public domain.)

Finished Romans Class

Finished Romans Class

Earlier this evening I finished my Wednesday night class on the book of Romans. For the study of Romans 16, I used a sermon by Dr. Fred Craddock off of YouTube. Here it is:

I have never found anything that is quite like this as a presentation on Romans 16. Dr. Fred Craddock was indeed an exceptional preacher.

In an unpredictable result, the class has chosen to continue immediately and they want me to begin a study of Leviticus. With the number of references I have made to Leviticus in teaching, this is not as surprising as one might think, yet I didn’t expect it.

It will be interesting to see what I can post here regarding the class.

Read my review of Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus, my primary study related to the book.

How and Why Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus Shaped My Theology (Briefly!)

How and Why Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus Shaped My Theology (Briefly!)

In a comment, Steve Kindle asks:

… in regards to your formative books, Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus, is it because you see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement that springs from Leviticus? And Ezekiel foresees a renewed covenant that Hebrews embellishes? Just wondering.

The briefest answer would be “no.” But leaving it at that would be rude, or at least would appear rude to me.

My view of the atonement does not center on the substitutionary view, nor on the even more specific penal substitutionary view. This annoys one set of my friends, and perhaps an enemy or two. To annoy the rest, I must emphasize that I do not deny substitutionary atonement. I believe it is one way in which Scripture talks about atonement, though I don’t see the strong courtroom sense of the modern PSA in Scripture. What I actually believe is that there are many metaphors in in Scripture for God saving us from sin and death, and that each of these enlightens us in some way. Each of them, however, if made the sole metaphor, will also tend to lead us into various forms of imbalance.

While the substitutionary view of atonement does occur in Hebrews, substitution itself is not in focus. Similarly, I do not get such views of substitution as I do have from Leviticus. The most famous quote on this is Leviticus 17:11, quoted at Hebrews 9:22, but if this is made to carry the weight Christians often make it carry, it will actually produce a contradiction in Leviticus, and the ransom theory/metaphor, one which fits the text of Leviticus more closely, works quite well in Hebrews.

So having eliminated substitution as the formative view, what exactly did lead me to take these three books so seriously. I must admit that the key reason is simply that I chose to study them. I had no idea what I was getting into, but elements of the books fascinated me. But in fact some common themes became very much formative for me.

Once I got started on Ezekiel, however, the key issue because the presence of the glory of God. There are interesting movements of God’s glory throughout the book, and they produce some quite interesting ideas. My first question was why we have a vision of God’s glory in Babylon in the first chapter, then we see the glory leaving the temple in Jerusalem in the 8th and 9th chapters, and finally it returns to Jerusalem in the 43rd chapter. The illogic on the surface of the first chapter led one commentator, whose name I forget though Eichrodt comes to mind, to suggest that the first chapter was moved by a later editor. Obviously God’s glory couldn’t appear in Babylon before it left Jerusalem.

But on thinking a bit further I came to believe that was precisely the point. God’s glory was not restricted to the land of Israel. God was able to act anywhere. At the same time as God was able to act anywhere God has not rejected Israel either, so we see the glory return to the temple and life flow from the temple later in the book. In its very structure, Ezekiel looks forward to the blessing of the entire world in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. Chapters 8 & 9 also make clear, however, that one cannot behave however one wishes and still expect God’s glory to remain and bless. So we see the withdrawal of God’s glory in those chapters along with the condemnation of all who do not sigh and cry for the abominations in the land (9:4).

External to the three books I would point out that this “presence/absence of God” idea stuck with me. You’ll see it in Torah in wilderness, and you see that the presence of God is not necessarily safe, but is much to be desired. But the whole ceremonial system, as I was taught to call it, didn’t seem to make sense. In fact, the problem was that I heard about it almost exclusively as substitutionary sacrifice for sin. What I, as a Christian, was supposed to know was that lambs (little, cute, wooly lambs in Sunday School terms) were killed because of how awful people’s sins were, and this had pointed to Jesus dying as the lamb of God. Now I in no way want to diminish the view of Jesus as the lamb of God, and especially the application of that we see with the lion/lamb metaphor in Revelation 4-5. But why is there this huge body of literature starting in the latter portion of Exodus and going through numbers, with a few points in Deuteronomy? So from there I started my study of Leviticus.

I began to see a much broader sense of the ceremonial law, how many of the things taught by the prophets were foreshadowed in liturgical form. These include a priestly teaching of the doctrine of repentance, a repeated turn away from ritual as powerful in itself, and a drive to learn to distinguish holy and unholy, not to simply avoid the unholy, but to become holy, to increase the bounds of the holy. God told the Israelites to be holy because he is holy. A simple yet extremely daunting command.

My wife said that during this study I would come away from my personal devotion time detached, as though I had been in an extraordinary time of spiritual experience. All I can say is that I would love to write a study guide for Leviticus with the intention of drawing more Christians into that story, but that I feel utterly inadequate to the task. In my study I would read the text in Hebrew, then in the LXX, and finally in an English translation before going to Milgrom’s commentary. It takes hard work to get even a good start on this material, but I consider it well worthwhile, in fact, the most worthwhile year of personal devotions I have engaged in.

And that turns me back to Hebrews, where I see Hebrews 6 as the center of the book’s message, but if you step back right before, one of the characteristics of mature Christianity is having one’s faculties trained by practice to discern good from evil, a close parallel to Leviticus. I think it is also closely aligned in goal, i.e., this training of the faculties is part of the endurance, staying on the track. And note that I don’t think this contradicts it being a gift from God. The Torah is also a gift from God, and it was instruction. It’s purpose was to train.

If I could summarize, I get from this that my faith is to be an active faith, an active seeking of the presence of God, a life of practice. We are changed and transformed by looking, by finding, by discerning (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is the key element of theology that I get from Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, and I think it shapes all else.


The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

The Priestly Trajectory in Scripture

Many people regard the idea of trajectories in scripture as largely a method of avoiding “what the Bible clearly teaches.” I believe that there are clear trajectories in the teaching of scripture, and that in those cases one must be careful that one applies the correct principle to modern times.

One such trajectory deals with priesthood and access to the sacred. I was taught that the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were symbols of God’s presence. And in a sense they were. But they were also filled with symbolism of humanity’s separation from God. Notice how you progress from “outside the camp” to “the camp” to the place where the Levites were encamped closer to the tabernacle itself, then to the courtyard, then the outer room (often called just “the holy place”) and finally to the inner room (“the most holy place”) where we find the Ark of the Covenant and there, between the cherubim, we have the symbol of God’s presence. It’s not filled with an idol, as it might have been in other near eastern temples. God cannot be represented. But there is a sense of separation.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my reading took me to Numbers 18 and 19. If you read both, I think you’ll see the sense of separation. Even the Levites were not permitted to approach certain sacred objects. Those were reserved for the priests alone. In Numbers 19, with the ritual of the red heifer, you have references to “outside the camp.”

Now this is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament trajectory. Exodus 19:6 makes the goal clear: a priestly kingdom. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the application to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (NRSV, from Bible Gateway).

So why all the separation between? The answer lies in Exodus 20, I think. It is there that the people respond to God’s voice.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (NRSV, again via Bible Gateway).

Now our tendency as Christians is to see this as a failing of Israel, corrected in the church. But I think it is a mistake to read it that way. One of my principles of application (not necessarily of exegesis) is to point the text at yourself first. Whether we admit it or not, we behave this way every day. Let the pastor pray, study, listen to God, and proclaim. Let us sit passively on Sunday morning and hear what God has told the pastor. I visited a United Church of Christ recently. They have a motto, “God is still speaking.” It’s a good one, I think. But the real question is this: Are we still listening? All of us?

Our tendency is to say in good southern style, “God is still speaking. Isn’t that special?” The point being that we want to distance ourselves from anything that gets us too close to the edge, too likely to make people question our sanity. We want God to say comfortable things. It’s easier to only hear comfortable things if you let the pastor do all the listening, and get them properly filtered and shaped into a good sermon.

This week’s Lectionary Psalm is Psalm 99:

YHWH reigns
let peoples shudder
he sits on the cherubim
let the earth be displaced. (Translation from Seeing the Psalter, p. 312)

We don’t admit the fear of hearing from God. We like the idea that God might still speak. What we don’t want is for God to displace the earth. We don’t want him to say anything that would make us shudder. We live in Exodus 20, standing at a distance, appointing our pastors and church staff members as “Moses.”

We’re supposed to be living in John 4, worshiping in spirit and truth, or in 2 Corinthians 6:16, as the “temple of the living God.”

I learned about this in studying Leviticus using Jacob Milgrom’s 2200 page, 3 volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series. He maintains (summarizing from a sweep of many passages in his book) that the call to distinguish sacred from profane was part of training, a teaching function of the ritual system, and that the call to be holy (Leviticus 19:2) points to the sacred overcoming the profane. More, not less, comes to belong to the sacred sphere. I really should write a post on this subject in particular at some point and bring some material from that commentary to bear, but that will take more time. Condensing 2200 pages, none of them wasted in my view, is not easy!

But what I saw in Numbers 18 & 19 was that separation them, the one that comes after Exodus 20. It’s not God pulling back from humanity, but rather God accommodating our fear, our unwillingness to get too close to the sacred. To paraphrase another expression, not everyone who says they’re happy to hear from God actually is.

And I do think there is a role for pastors and for priests in the modern church and world, though that role is primarily in terms of outreach. The church should be carrying out a priestly role to the world, mediating the sacred to those around, being Jesus in living, physical, present form. That is the priesthood of all believers, individually and collectively. We do not require a priest to get to God. Prayers by the pastor are not better than prayers by individual members. We should all at various times be receivers and conveyors or God’s Word.

I want to note, in addition, that I’m not speaking solely of those who believe that people in the congregation receive prophetic words. I’m speaking of those who hear God speak through scripture as well as those who hear in their minds, see visions, or catch God’s voice coming through the natural world.

A royal priesthood. Do we really want it? Can we stand it? Will we give up our individual superiority (and inferiority!) so it can happen?

PS: As I was writing this, notice came in of a post by Bob Cornwall, author of Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, dealing with ordination (book extract). Note his conclusion:

Although our churches may use a variety of structural forms, it’s important to recognize that the church isn’t a democracy, ruled by majority vote. It’s also not a clerical autocracy where elite groups of clergy hold sway. In a gift based ecclesiology, there’s the assumption the Spirit rules, and we are tasked with discerning where the Spirit is leading. This is true no matter what structure we happen to be a part of.

“Discerning where the Spirit is leading” is not easy!

Notes on Leviticus Commentaries

Notes on Leviticus Commentaries

A few weeks ago I compared two commentaries on Leviticus.  One of these was Samuel E. Balentine’s volume in the Interpretation commentary series.  In that review I noted that I was only half-way through my read of Balentine, but thought I could still make some valid comments.

I have now finished my read, and I still stand by what I wrote earlier.  This is a very strong theological commentary with a very useful emphasis on liturgy.  While I have learned more nuts and bolts elsewhere, I got some of the best ideas on how one might teach and apply Leviticus by reading Balentine.  This is, of course, the intention of the interpretation series, so it’s nice to know that they do it well in this case.

I have read through several commentaries on Leviticus over the last few years, and they vary greatly in purpose and approach.  I thought I’d include some very brief comparison notes.

My all-time favorite commentary on Leviticus is Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary in the Anchor Bible series (my review).  While it’s my favorite, it has a number of drawbacks for the average preacher or for a lay person.  It makes extensive use of both Biblical languages and other ancient near eastern materials, and one may be quite confused if one doesn’t already have some understanding.  The material is translated, however, which alleviates the problem a bit.

The sheer volume of material, which is very attractive, also makes it a bit difficult to use for any sort of quick reference.  You really have to dig in to get the benefit.  When I studied, for example, I would read the chapter first in Hebrew, then go through the commentary text, after which I would read the Hebrew text again checking my notes.  This is not a sign of great diligence on my part; Milgrom does enough work with word definitions to make one feel that one didn’t really get it on first read!  Nonetheless, the experience is very rewarding.

The commentary to which I compared the Interpretation volume earlier is David W. Baker’s portion of the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.  I’m now about half-way through Numbers in this volume, and the quality remains quite even despite different authors.  It may seem a bit unfair to compare one book out of a volume that covers three books to a single volume commentary, but I think the Cornerstone volume comes out rather well considering its purpose.

I think Christians may not pay enough attention to Baruch Levine’s commentary on Leviticus in the JPS Commentary on the Torah series. Actually, I am really referring to this entire series, which provides substantial information on how the text is read in Judaism (admittedly not from an Orthodox perspective), but does so clearly and simply.  I enjoyed the entire set.

If you can still lay hold of it, which you probably can in a decent university library, there’s always Martin Noth’s commentary in the Old Testament Library series.  It may, however, be one to avoid.  Doubtless Noth was a great scholar, and I enjoyed his commentary thoroughly, but if you’re looking for material to preach or teach from to a lay audience, it’s not going to be nearly as much help.  Noth is quite thoroughly occupied with critical issues and much less so with theology and application.

On my immediate future reading list is Gordon J. Wenham’s Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). I’ll have to wait for it to arrive via inter-library loan. I’ll post on it after I’ve had a chance to read it.

Introduction to Numbers – Cornerstone Biblical Commentary

Introduction to Numbers – Cornerstone Biblical Commentary

I’m trying to return to my pattern of posting short notes from my morning reading.  My schedule has been disrupted recently to the extent that my “morning” reading sometimes has taken place in the evening.  But today I moved from Leviticus to Numbers in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary), and I read the introduction.

I have my standard complaint about most commentaries on books in which there are substantial critical issues, which certainly includes any book in the Pentateuch, which is that whatever the author’s approach, the introduction and notes rarely take the time to get to the nuts and bolts.  I have to assume that this is audience driven.  Not that many people will take the time to hear the arguments of why an author accepts or rejects sources; they just want to hear the view proclaimed in a scholarly tone.

As a result, many non-specialists who nonetheless do considerable reading on biblical topics simply assume that whatever their community and church culture accepts is pretty much established.  This applies, in my experience, to both conservatives and liberals.  Any of these scholars could address these issues, I’m sure, but they don’t do it all that often.  This even reflects my experience in undergraduate Bible classes in which, for example, I learned what the two and four source hypotheses were for the gospels, but didn’t learn just how one would go about demonstrating the validity of those views.

Thus Dale Brueggemann dismisses JEDP in the course of two paragraphs (admittedly substantial ones), while establishing a relatively moderate position that claims substantial rooting in historical sources and even eyewitness accounts, but allows for added material and redactional effort.  I can’t really call this a criticism of his work, however, because those two paragraphs are better done, in my opinion, than the average for such material in a commentary not addressed primarily to experts.

He goes on with an excellent introduction to the structure of the book, literary style, and major themes, and provides a welcome presentation of the large numbers in the book, which covers a wide variety of arguments and solutions, occupying six pages overall.  It’s interesting to see the difference in the amount of space dedicated to this issue as opposed to source and redaction criticism, but again I would say this is audience driven.  In my experience people want a yes/no answer on Pentateuchal sources.  They want to hear more about those big numbers.

While I like the discussion, I would object to one part of the solution.  On page 226, Brueggemann states:

… Any solution shold work for the high numbers elsewhere in the Bible, especially analogous numbers (e.g. military counts), …

The problem I have with this is that it is quite possible that words like ‘elep might be used differently at different periods in Israel’s history.  I think it would be foolish to assume that the language remained the same over the several hundred years between this census (if one assumes it derives from a source near the time of the exodus itself, as Brueggemann seems to do) and the census in the time of David, or various military reports during the divided kingdom.  I am nowhere near clear enough on this to assert that the solution must be different; I simply don’t see sufficient reason to require that the same solution fit all.

I’m being fairly nitpicky here, as I enjoy interacting with commentaries as I read, but despite my picky comments, I regard this as an excellent introduction to Numbers, especially for the pastor or teacher at the popular level.  You’ll get the material that your congregation or class members are most likely to be looking for.

Three Commentaries on Leviticus

Three Commentaries on Leviticus

I just compared two commentaries on Leviticus on my Participatory Bible Study blog. In addition, I’d like to link to my older review of Jacob Milgrom’s three volume commentary on the same book. From that review:

The only possible adjective for this commentary is “incredible.” It is not just long (2,468 pages of text), but it is packed with useful information, well organized, with the details of the process used in coming to understand the text laid out for examination. A book can be long but not informative. This one uses its space effectively to contain useful information.

All three of these commentaries have been useful to me. Check them out!

Leviticus – Two Commentaries Compared

Leviticus – Two Commentaries Compared

The first is by David W. Baker, one of three in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary), which is based on the NLT text.  The second is Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching).

Yes, I have been reading both of these commentaries simultaneously, though in different portions of Leviticus. At the moment, I’ve completed David Baker’s commentary and am about to go on into Numbers by Dale A. Brueggemann in the same volume. I’m about half-way through Balentine’s commentary, but I think I have seen enough to make this comparison useful.

Briefly, most of the comments I will make on the two commentaries are implied in the purpose of each series. There are really no surprises. First, let’s look at the total amount of commentary each provides. The portion of the Cornerstone volume on Leviticus is 208 pages excluding front and back matter. The Interpretation volume has 213 pages, but each page has about 25% less text. The total is changed, however, by the fact that the Interpretation volume does not include the Biblical text, whereas the Cornerstone volume does (NLT).

It is rare that I read two books together that both exceed my expectations, but these did. Having started with Milgrom’s three volume commentary a few years back, I have been continually looking for commentaries that will help me express some of the things I found in this much neglected book of the Bible. While I still regard that study of Leviticus as a high point in my personal study of the Bible, I found that both of these commentaries helped me with thinking of ways to express what I have both learned and felt.

It is not surprising, considering the breadth and high quality of Milgrom’s work, that both commentaries cite his views extensively and favorably, frequently choosing Milgrom’s interpretation in controversial cases.

The critical difference between the two commentaries is one of focus.  I would say that if you want to get pointers toward specific doctrinal issues or ethical positions, Baker’s is more likely to satisfy you. If you’re more interested in theological themes and the broader sweep, then choose Balentine.  Both cover the basics and both are, not surprisingly, well referenced.

One might even say that Balentine tends to get a bit more poetry out of Leviticus than does Baker, while Baker gets more prose.  If I were preparing a sermon, I think Balentine would get me to material I could use more quickly.  I would also note that you’ll probably be happier with Balentine if you are more concerned with liturgy.  Baker tends to learn non-liturgical things from the liturgy; Balentine tends to learn about liturgy and ritual.  Neither of them completely neglects other topics.  I’m speaking hear of emphasis, not exclusivity.

That is one of the joys of using these two commentaries.  I can generally recommend them for a range of uses.  The only caveat would be that neither deals extensively with issues of source and redaction criticism that often take up space in a commentary on the Pentateuch.  If you want to study those areas, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  They are mentioned, but not dealt with extensively.

I’m very glad to have read both of these commentaries.  For me their primary contribution was in application and in communication, but they would provide an excellent grounding for someone who was just beginning a study of the book of Leviticus.