Review of Baruch J. Schwartz, et al (eds.). Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Baruch J. Schwartz, et al (eds.). Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible (LHBOTS 474; New York, NY and London; T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. x+118, Hardcover, US$115.00, ISBN 978 0 567 02832 7.

This book contains eight articles resulting from presentations at the SBL Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, 2005. Two overriding questions interest the authors: “whether the purity laws central to the priestly writings - constitute a systematically conceived corpus, and the question of the methods and perspectives that ought to be employed for assessing such a system.” Both issues are raised in response to the influential work of Jacob Milgrom. Using comparative data from the ancient Near East as well as the systematic approach of the Rabbis, Milgrom has posited a coherent system of ritual purity from the priestly laws of Leviticus and Numbers. But, does Milgrom's system match the original intention behind the text? Also at issue is the appropriate method(s) (e.g. textual, anthropological, symbolic, etc.) to interpret the data.

Underneath these overarching concerns, the contributors present their research. Gane and Sklar investigate the terms חַטָּאת and כִּפֶּר, respectively. Gane follows Milgrom's system and tries to fit the Nazirite's חַטָּאת into it. Unlike Milgrom, who regards this חַטָּאת as a desanctification ritual, Gane sees it as the “culminating point of the Naziritehood” marking the height of the Nazarite's purification (p. 15). Gane may be correct, however superogatory purification usually occurs in preparation for greater proximity to holiness. By contrast, the Nazirite has finished his sacred mission and is being released back into lay society. Sklar, furthering Milgrom√≠s investigation of כִּפֶּר, explains that the term is used both for the atonement of inadvertent sin and for the purification of major impurities because both endanger (requiring ransom) and both pollute (requiring purification) (p. 31).

Meshel and Kazen argue against current classifications for the impurity laws. Meshel finds anthropological classifications inadequate for interpreting the complexity of the dietary laws and argues that the priests have arbitrarily imposed a system rather than following nature's dictates. Kazen argues against Milgrom's life-death rationale for impurity claiming that all impurities have a common denominator - disgust. While some impurities support Kazen's theory, it seems that urine, excrement, rotten food and vomit too would have been considered impure.

Stewart claims that women are a greater source of impurity than men in Leviticus due to their greater power and involvement in the birth process, “a potential wild zone of spiritual action” (p. 73). He compares women to a Torah scroll which, according to the Mishnah, “pollutes the hands” (m. Yad 3:2, 5). However, unlike the Torah, the parturient is never considered a sanctum in Jewish literature.

Gilders and Klawans complain of over-speculation among scholars. Gilders finds Milgrom's gap-filling overextended and points out inconsistencies in his system (cf. p. 82). Klawans is annoyed by speculations regarding historical framework and cautiously refuses to assign dates to P, H and the prophets. Nevertheless, as the editors note, identifying the dependence of one text on another is still a valid way to establish connections and continua between them (p. 4).

Gorman rejects symbolic approaches to the priestly rituals so as not to devalue the enactment itself. Unlike Milgrom, Gorman regards these rituals as magically efficacious like elsewhere in the ancient world. He cites Lev 4:35b to assert that forgiveness comes by the enactment of the sacrifice (but cf. Num. 15:30-31, where sacrifices cannot automatically expiate defiant sin). Rather than the death-life symbolism Milgrom uses to explain the purity laws, Gorman suggests they may simply reflect a concern for body boundaries. However, if this were true, urination, defecation, and wounds would also cause impurity.

Gorman asks an important question: is it more methodologically sound to assume a system in the priestly laws or to assume that there was not a system? Given the literary and archaeological data that some type of cultic system was in place in ancient Judaism, it seems appropriate to assume that the audience of Leviticus was familiar with a working system. This does not mean that there are no inconsistencies or ambiguities in the text. To be sure, the data is not comprehensive, the nature of the text is composite, and these ideas/practices developed over considerable time. Nevertheless, the text contains its own systematic logic, for example, in the systematic presentation of the various sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7, the dynamics of contagion in Leviticus 11, and the chiastic arrangement of the sexual discharges of Leviticus 15.

This book provides several important contributions from a handful of active scholars which should be taken into consideration in further studies. Most contributors presume a system among the priestly laws even if they disagree on details. It would have been helpful for the authors to have included comments on each other's work, especially on the issues of system and method.

Hannah K. Harrington, Patten University