Lev, Numbers and Deut – questions and recording
Here’s the audio recording for the Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy call. Listen online or download the mp3 file and listento it as a podcast on your ipod.
Below are the questions we discussed.
1. Why these books? Why all the rules?
Reading these books necessarily forces to ask why – why these books? why these rules? why the sacrifices? Most readers are offended by the sacrifices, by the seeming randomness of the rules, of the density of these books. so why read them?
2. Leviticus 18 is the chapter that fundamentalists can use to point to the prohibition against homosexuality. Interestingly, it only prohibits male homosexuality. There is no mention of female homosexuality. Leviticus 19.17, however, prohibits hatred against any “kin” …”you shall love your neighbors as yourself”…while Leviticus 19.14 asks Israelits to respect the deaf and blind. Reading further on, we see that Leviticus 19.19 says “nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” Next time a fundamentalist quotes Leviticus 18.22 about homosexuality, check their collar and if they are wearing a garment of two or more different materials then throw Leviticus 19.19 back at them 😉
3. What of the role of women in Leviticus?
4. Numbers – Number is recognized as the most complex of the five books of the Torah. It’s name in Hebrew literally means “In the Wilderness” – Numbers is primarily concerned with “events during the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness.” It contains a wide variety of literature and it also has some wild stuff: talking donkeys (22:28) serpents (221:6), earth swallowing people (16:32).
5. Numbers deals much with the two generations: the old who had left Egypt and come to rebel against God and are prohibited to enter the promised land (14:30) and the new who would be able to enter the promised land. The narrative of the Exodus from Egypt thus continues in Number even as we get much else – especially a lot of “census lists.”
6. Even Moses and Aaron mistrust God and are prohibited to enter the promised land. Moses can’t go? What do we think of this part of the story? (20:12)
7. Deuteronomy – the name in Hebrew is “words” – the English name comes from a mistake made by the Greek translators – the “LXX translators” – who mistook a passage. D is the fifth and last book of the Torah – it ends with the death of Moses and “indicates the end of the era of divine legislation for Israel.”
8. D written by Moses? Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan” said D had been written by Moses. This is no longer believed to be the case.
9. The editors of our edition argue that “D directly addresses the problem of the historical distance between past and present, between tradition and the needs of the contemporary generation….it makes paradox central to its structure….[t]he editors of D opted against closure: They preserved…different schools of thought in their full integrity.” What did you think of D? Did you find it as paradoxical and post-modern as the editors imply?
10. With finishing D, we complete the reading of The Torah. Looking back at Genesis and our discussions through D – what comments, questions, reflections do you have?
1. Thoughts on why these books? why these rules?
First, while it is easy to dismiss these rules, the sacrifices as outdated or irrelvant, it is important – as the Oxford Commentary points out – to remember that “many Jews still observe the regulations concerning ritual purity, in some form or other, even though the sacrificial regulations can no longer be applied in the absence of a functioning temple” (page 93 of The Commentary). See below for more about the Temple.
Second, again as the Commentary says the sacrificial ritual “was extremely meaningful to the participants even if we do not understand it from our time and culture millenia later.”
– idea of sacrifice is universal among human societies
– central are “notions of expiation, cleaning and re-stablishment of cosmic – or at least microcosmic – harmony. If evil cannot be removed, sin wiped away, pollution purified, and harmony restored, there would be little point in sacrifice.”
– ritual purity is misunderstood – nothing to do with hygiene or cleanliness in a physical sense (excrement was not included in the category of “unclean”)
– “the regulations can be seen as a language…communicating….’correct’ attitudes towards relations between the sexes, marriage, kinship, and intercourse with outsiders.”
Mary Douglas in 1966 wrote a classic “Puity and Danger” that said among other things:
– “system of permitted and forbidden animals was a microcosm of the world…many forbidden animals repesented the surrounding nations; the few clean animals the Israelites; and the sacrificial animals, the priests.”
– “dietary regulations had both a practical and symbolic function; symbolically they stood for the fact that Israel was to keep itself free from intercourse with non-Israelites; practically, inability to eat certain animals meant that Jews could not socialize with those who ate these animals.”
key conclusion: “…the message of the rules which, on the surface, might seem arcane ritual turn out to be a rich symbolic system with significant meaning for understanding the concerns of ancient Israel.”
3. More thoughts on the role of women?
Women are mentioned specifically in only two places in Leviticus: concerning child-birth (which made them ritually “unclean”) and menstruation. Interestingly, they were not specifically excluded from entering the altar area…though that later became a rule in the “second Temple” period.