Problems in Reading the Priestly Books

Mary Douglas

in Jacob's Tears

Published in print November 2004 | ISBN: 9780199265237
Published online January 2005 | e-ISBN: 9780191602054 | DOI:
Problems in Reading the Priestly Books

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The introduction to this chapter highlights the high culture of the priestly editors of Leviticus and Numbers and the fact that they were writing for each other in a once fashionable style that used structural devices such as verbal and thematic parallelism and ambiguity, but was fast becoming esoteric, obscure, and archaic; in other words, there was a vast gulf between the editor‐priests and their congregations. The author's interpretation of Leviticus and Numbers has been attacked as improbable on the grounds that if it was correct it would have been anticipated before: structural clues would have been noticed. The argument advanced here is that the two books have not before been searched for clues to their structure – such a search was not the approach of the early rabbis, nor was it possible in the period after the priestly editors had gone by the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, for the Levites who had succeeded to their role were less learned. The various sections of the chapter first look at the characteristics of the Levite interpretation of the Pentateuch, Bishop Lowth's eighteenth‐century discovery of biblical parallelism, parallelism as a typical convention of Semitic literature, and Mishnaic parallelism. The remaining sections present a detailed analysis of the structure of the Book of Leviticus: the prominent role of impurity in relation to the protection of the tabernacle from contamination but the concomitant inclusion of the poor and the stranger; the altar as focus of religion in the form, represented in Leviticus by the use of the desert tabernacle as an architectural model of the Book itself; and features of the style of Leviticus – the two violent events in Chs 10 and 24 (which divide the Book into three parts), the designation of the Book as one of three parts with three centres (Chs 8–10, 18–20 and 25–27), and its mid‐turn, which is centred at Ch. 19.

Keywords: architectural models; biblical parallelism; interpretation; Levite interpretation; Leviticus; Bishop Lowth; Mishnaic parallelism; Numbers; parallelism in Semitic literature; parallelism; Pentateuch; rabbinical interpretation; structure; tabernacle

Chapter.  9343 words. 

Subjects: Biblical Studies

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