L.M. Trevaskis, Holiness, Ethics and Ritual in Leviticus

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Trevaskis, Leigh M., Holiness, Ethics and Ritual in Leviticus (HBM, 29; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). Pp. 300. Hardcover. US$120.00. ISBN 978-1-906-05598-1.

In his monograph, Holiness, Ethics and Ritual in Leviticus, Leigh Trevaskis challenges the view that holiness in the so-called “priestly” (P) segment of Leviticus (chs. 1–16) lacks the kind of ethical dimension that characterizes the concept in the “holiness” (H) portions of the book (mainly chs. 17–26). He contends that P and H agree that holiness must include ethics; the difference is that in P the requirement is implicit, but in H it becomes explicit. This proposal carries profound implications for the worldview and compositional history of Leviticus. For instance, if he is right, the ethical dimension of holiness did not originate with H as the response of a priestly circle to a prophetic critique of P (contra Israel Knohl).[1]

Prior scholarship demonstrated ethical concern in Lev 1–16, and Jacob Milgrom has suggested that in the dietary laws of chapter 11 holiness includes an ethical aspect of reverence for life.[2] The essential task of Trevaskis is to ascertain whether at least some ritual laws of Lev 1–16 imply a broader ethical component of holiness on a secondary, symbolic level of meaning. To accomplish this he carries out detailed exegesis of selected laws, including thorough semantic, cognitive linguistic, and rhetorical analysis, in order to identify subsurface meanings and allusions to other pentateuchal passages.

Following his overall Introduction (chapter 1), in chapter 2 Trevaskis outlines methodological controls for uncovering symbolic meanings in ritual texts. First, he identifies primary meanings of key terms in their contexts by examining their paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. Then he employs cognitive linguistics to explore the possibility that the audience would access secondary domains of meaning, some of which may involve symbolism. Literary features, such as rhetorical progression, can also enhance comprehension of meaning.

Chapter 3 applies the approach just described to Lev 11, where dietary regulations in vv. 1–42, regarded as P, are followed by an explicit call to personal holiness in vv. 43–45, which scholars now attribute to H.[3] In vv. 1–42, Trevaskis finds a rhetorical progression from food prohibitions to the consequence of eating unclean food: incurring impurity that temporarily excludes one from God's immediate presence at the sanctuary. This directs the audience to the corresponding progression in Gen 1–3 from the divine command regarding forbidden fruit to the mortal punishment of exclusion from God's presence for rebellious disobedience. Through this allusion, exclusion in Lev 11 assumes more serious underlying significance by symbolizing exile as punishment for rebellion against God's will, which is concerned with personal cultic and ethical integrity, in harmony with H's view of holiness. So vv. 43–45 are not just “tacked on,” but draw out the implicit meaning of vv. 1–42.

Chapter 4 reinforces the idea that a person's impurity symbolizes banishment from the Lord's immediate presence to the realm of death. Impurities in Lev 12–15 are connected to negative associations of “flesh,” which symbolizes rebellious humanity (cf. Gen 6–9). In Lev 13, skin disease involves exposure of flesh, resulting in impurity that excludes one from the holy domain. In terms of primary meaning, this consequence is not punishment for specific sin or sinfulness. Nevertheless, by accessing the secondary, symbolic meaning of “flesh,” Israel is taught that the outcome of impurity symbolizes divine judgment on sinful humanity, which then can only re-enter the Lord's presence through sacrificial “atonement” (ch. 14). As in Lev 11, the legislation has the effect of persuading Israel to avoid the negative consequence symbolized by impurity (i.e., exile) by complying with his will in regard to cultic and ethical matters.

In chapter 5, Trevaskis examines the prescription for the burnt offering (Lev 1), which implicitly belongs to the “most holy” category, to see whether the text implies that its lay offerer should be holy. He finds that behind the primary meaning of the requirement that the victim be “without defect” (תָּמִים) there is a symbolic reference to human “integrity” (תָּמִים) shown in the life of Noah (Gen 6) and commanded of Abraham (Gen 17), both of whom offered burnt offerings. Because the offerer of a burnt offering is human, his appearance in God's presence requires ransom from divine wrath through an animal that represents a life of integrity, implying that human integrity is part of holiness. Chapter 6 strengthens this connection by pointing out that in the parallel lists of priestly and animal defects in Lev 21–22 (part of H, but using cultic terminology like P), priests are “holy” and sacrificial victims are “without defect.” Their physical appearance represents God's holiness, which the people are to emulate, including the area of ethics.

Following his conclusion (chapter 7), Trevaskis includes two appendices. The first explores the rationale for selection of clean and unclean animals in Lev 11, proposing that the former are associated with life and the latter with death. The second presents evidence that the burnt offering belongs to the most holy category. The book ends with a bibliography and indexes of biblical references, authors, and subjects.

Trevaskis's work is instructive, especially with regard to identification of possible secondary meanings in ritual prescriptions. He is sensitive to details of the biblical text, draws on rich knowledge of the Israelite cult, and engages in penetrating and often convincing critiques of many scholarly interpretations. The trajectory of his argumentation is complex, but he constructs and presents it in a logical and effective manner, with clear writing, transitions, and summaries.

Trevaskis recognizes that his proposal is to be tested. He credibly demonstrates that Leviticus 1–16 shares some elements with Genesis, but the question arises: If the author of Leviticus was intentionally alluding to the primeval narratives, what did he intend his audience to derive from this connection? Does this mean that “‘uncleanness’ should not be considered as the cause of a person's exclusion from Yahweh's immediate presence, but as the result of an action that symbolizes rebellion (e.g. the ingestion of unclean food)” (p. 109 n. 3)? This seems problematic for reasons that I state in the following paragraphs.

Trevaskis builds his case for a symbolic meaning of physical ritual impurity on a selected sample of passages, rather than the comprehensive corpus of purity legislation in Leviticus and Numbers. A broader view would have given more weight to the fact that some impurities are permitted or automatic and therefore unavoidable (e.g., menstruation, nocturnal emission). Incurring permitted impurities can be necessary and commendable. For example, sexual reproduction by married couples (involving impurities of intercourse and childbirth) continues the nation, in harmony with the divine blessing of Gen 1:28 (cf. Gen 9:1), and burying one's parents (resulting in corpse contamination) is part of the ethical obligation to honor them. It appears difficult to associate permitted or unavoidable cases, and therefore impurity in general, with rebellion on a symbolic level as closely as Trevaskis does. Granted that secondary symbolic meanings can go beyond primary meanings, is it likely that the two levels are out of sync to this extent?

Impure animals are born that way. Impure garments and dwellings belonging to humans lack volition, and their condition is not tied to moral faults of their owners. So it is hard to see how such impurities can be regarded as stemming from action that symbolizes rebellion, unless it is assumed that the “rebellion,” here, is the “sin” of Adam and Eve, which has resulted in an imperfect state of things.

An allusion is instructive, but it does not override other contextual factors. While exclusion of Adam and Eve was construed as the result of rebellious action, an allusion to this in Leviticus does not necessarily infer the same dynamic on a symbolic level. After the exclusion from Eden, humans are born into the consequent state of mortality, which is represented by the range of impurities that cause exclusion from the Lord's immediate presence.[4] This explains why impurities can be automatic or permitted. It is true that wilfully incurring a prohibited impurity is rebellious action, but this is because it violates a divine commandment, not because of the nature of the impurity. If symbolism in Leviticus were more tightly linked to Genesis, we would expect the penalty for breaking commandments in general to be exclusion from God's presence, but this is not the case. An allusion to Adam and Eve can serve to remind Israelites that their mortality and impurity result from rebellion by their original parents, implying the warning that this sin should not be repeated. But the exclusion associated with impurity now comes to humans even when they do not rebel. If the allusion uncovers ethical holiness in Lev 1–16, this implication is weaker than Trevaskis indicates.

Following are comments on some details. First, Trevaskis interprets the location of Lev 13:47–59 concerning fabrics—between sections concerned with skin disease in humans (vv. 1–46) and then their purification (14:1–32)—to support the idea that the fabrics likely symbolize humans, i.e., “flesh” (p. 157). But this literary position is better explained by the fact that the unit on fabrics contains little regarding purification. The section regarding houses (14:33–53), on the other hand, naturally follows instructions for purification of humans because it involves a similar ritual remedy utilizing birds.

Second, on Lev 12, Trevaskis downplays the importance of postpartum blood in order to highlight the “flesh” of a male infant (v. 3; pp. 162–166). But blood is central here: the mother's impurity is likened to that of menstruation (v. 2), she undergoes blood purification (vv. 4–5), and sacrificial expiation results in purification from her flow of blood (v. 7).

Third, Trevaskis speculates that in Lev 1 it is the acceptable “male without defect” aspect of a burnt offering victim, rather than the ritual itself as a whole, that ransoms the human who offers it (vv. 3–4; pp. 191, 203). But there are problems with limiting the instrument of atonement like this: acceptability also requires offering the animal at the proper location (v. 3); divine acceptance depends on proper performance of all ritual aspects and is not completed until the smoke ascends as a soothing aroma to the Lord (v. 9); and “without defect” also applies to purification offerings, which emphasize the role of blood as essential for atonement (Lev 4).

Fourth, Trevaskis suggests that Lev 21–22 refrains from referring to ethics of priests in order to restrict the attention of the audience to the significance of their physical appearance (pp. 215–216). But this omission could be due to the fact that priests simply do not have a higher ethical standard than laity, unless choice of a wife (21:7, 13–15) could be regarded as involving an ethical aspect. It was not ethics that distinguished priests from other Israelites.

Finally, there are only a few typos or infelicities in the book, e.g., “the violation of cultic violations” (p. 53, line 10) and “Gane, Cult and Conscience” (sic, actually Cult and Character; cf. p. 179 n. 39; 191 n. 96; also note that “Gane” is omitted from the Index of Authors on p. 283).

To conclude this review, while some of Trevaskis's conclusions transcend solid evidence and balanced assessment of the comprehensive range of relevant data, he has made an important contribution indicating that the respective emphases of “P” and “H” texts regarding holiness are more complementary than scholars have recognized.

Roy E. Gane, Andrews University

[1] Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995), especially 214–16. reference

[2] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16 (AB 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 729–33. reference

[3] See, e.g., Knohl, Sanctuary, 69, 105; Milgrom, Leviticus, 694, 679; idem, Leviticus 17–22 (AB, 3A; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1333, 1371. reference

[4] Hyam Maccoby, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and Its Place in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 31–32, 48–50, 207–208. reference