Review of Calum Carmichael, Illuminating Leviticus
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Calum Carmichael, Illuminating Leviticus: A Study of Its Laws and Institutions in the Light of Biblical Narratives (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).  Pp. x + 212.  Cloth, US$55.00.  ISBN 0-8018-8500-0.


In this new work, Calum Carmichael continues the project of most of his previous books, seeking to demonstrate that biblical law collections were composed in reflection on Israel’s national narratives.  Here he deals with Leviticus 10-17 and 21-25, having treated Leviticus 18-20 in an earlier study, Law, Legend, and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18-20 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

As the title indicates, Carmichael’s goal is to shed light on the meaning of various laws in Leviticus.  According to Carmichael, the entirety of Israel’s national narrative, from Genesis to 2 Kings, existed in more-or-less its present form, prior to the composition of the legal materials that now appear at various points in the Pentateuch.  Reflection on this narrative by the scribe who composed the legal materials that make up most of Leviticus (whom Carmichael regularly refers to as “the lawgiver”) determined the contents and organization of the laws.  The laws of Leviticus are fictive constructions, exercises in producing laws, stimulated by engagement with narratives and their key themes.  As rhetorical exercises, they are not connected with practical legal concerns.

Like many of the reviewers of Carmichael’s earlier works, my main questions and concerns relate to issues of hermeneutics.  While some reviewers of his previous works have suggested that Carmichael is attempting to revive the allegorical approach to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, in my judgment his approach is more correctly related to classic rabbinic midrash in its creative intertextuality, the meaning-generating juxtapositions of texts such that the new intertextual product is more than the sum of its parts (to use Daniel Boyarin’s language).  Like the Sages, Carmichael takes rough patches in the textual texture as clues to authorial intention to say something more significant than the obvious, literal sense of the text might suggest.  The perceived irregularities invite a search for an intertextual solution.  Carmichael searches for means of linking texts, identifying shared themes and especially common language.  His basic approach depends heavily on applying a form of gezera shava (linking texts through common vocabulary) to juxtapose laws with narratives.  For example, Carmichael links the ritual instructions for the “Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 16 with the stories of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37, 39-50) by noting that a goat figures in both texts, that both texts involve concern with sin, repentance, and reconciliation, and that both texts share the noun פשע (Lev 16:16, 21 and Gen 50:17).

Were Carmichael explicit about attempting such a midrashic exercise in a modern and non-rabbinic context, one might be more willing to appreciate and even celebrate these creative intertextual products.  However, since Carmichael in fact asserts that he has uncovered the original ancient Israelite authorial intention, one must wonder about his historical claims.  Has Carmichael effectively demonstrated that a biblical “lawgiver” created the legal materials as they now appear in Leviticus in direct engagement with biblical narratives?  Are the intertextual relationships Carmichael identifies really a product of deliberate authorial activity, or are they a function of one modern reader’s creativity?  The Rabbis presented their own intertextual activity as the actualization of Divine Intentionality, and claimed special authority for discerning such intentionality.  Carmichael’s own authority claims are more modest, but for that reason more inviting of critique.  Scholars have long understood that a later reader’s ability to form intertextual links is not evidence that such links were known or intended by the author.  Carmichael, in my judgment, makes historical claims without having reliable criteria for testing them.

Moreover, many of Carmichael’s textual linkages appear quite forced.  For example, he argues that the laws on skin diseases in Leviticus 13-14 were composed in relation to the account of the Ark afflicting the Philistines with “tumors” (1 Sam 5:9; עפלים).  He asserts that these “tumors” can be equated with a skin disease on the basis of Deut 28:27 (the only other place where the noun occurs), ignoring the strong evidence that the term is correctly understood either as “hemorrhoids” (see, e.g., the NJPS Tanakh) or as the swellings of bubonic plague, neither of which properly fall within the framework of biblical צרעת.  Most problematically, he fails to explain why the term עפלים fails to appear within the lengthy and highly technical treatment of skin diseases and analogous infections of clothing and houses in Levitical 13-14.

To paraphrase a classic statement about Rabbi Akiva’s halakhic midrashim, Carmichael has established mounds and mounds of meaning on very small textual linkages.  Indeed, in this respect, all of the standard criticisms of midrashic activity, and of gezera shava as a hermeneutical method, come fully into play.  As the school of Rabbi Ishmael argued in its controversy with the school of Rabbi Akiva, gezera shava is a method of linking texts that allows for almost limitless association, with no means of control.  Carmichael is an Akivan in his approach!  Moreover, a modern Ibn Ezra or Rashbam would note that Carmichael has blurred an important distinction between derash and peshat, and ends up presenting his midrashic readings as if they are the plain sense of the text.

A comparison with the work of Gershon Hepner (see, for example, “The Separation Between Abram and Lot Reflects the Deuteronomic Law Prohibiting Ammonites and Moabites,” ZAW 117 [2005]: 36-52) indicates how easy it is to construct intertextual patterns once one has abandoned any notion of methodological controls to such textual juxtaposition.  Hepner, however, advances a thesis that is the polar opposite of Carmichael’s, arguing that narratives were composed on the basis of legal codes, to illustrate their application and meaning.  Why should one accept Carmichael’s theory of the intertextual relationship over Hepner’s?  Why must we assume that the narratives came prior to the laws?

A further difficulty with Carmichael’s approach is the lack of cross-cultural evidence for his basic claim that legal compositions reflect narratives.  Other legal collections in the ancient Near East, such as the Code of Hammurapi, give evidence of being deliberate, rhetorical constructions.  But where is the evidence that they were constructed through reflection on narratives?  If the biblical “lawgiver” did indeed compose laws as reflections on narratives, should we not expect to find some similar phenomenon in ancient Israel’s cultural world?

Carmichael is certainly correct to urge that biblical law be read for its rhetorical power, and to caution against assuming that laws inevitably address immediate practical concerns, points that have also been made quite cogently by James Watts.  However, Carmichael’s extreme insistence that all biblical law depends on pre-existing narrative seems destined to win few adherents, depending as it does on problematic hermeneutical assumptions.

William Gilders,
Emory University