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Holiness, Ethics, Ritual

Leigh M. Trevaskis’s 2011 monograph, Holiness, Ethics and Ritual in Leviticus, is an outstanding contribution to the study of Leviticus. His main thesis is directed at the world of Old Testament scholarship, in which there is a consensus that the ritual laws of Leviticus 1-16 come from a school and time period different from Leviticus 17-27. The earlier section is the priestly document, P, while the latter is a holiness code, H. One of the key differences is that P isn’t interested in ethics, while H is. (When ethical concerns show up in P, it’s a sign that H has interpolated something. This is a position that, shall we say, is resistant to contrary evidence.)

Trevaskis points out that “diachronic studies have not identi fied an historical context which would account for a concept of holiness that is unrelated to ethics,” and, positively, he shows that P is also interested in ethics. Though he knows that his monograph doesn’t undermine the whole P/H paradigm, his study destabilizes one big chunk of the edifice.

Why have commentators missed the ethical concerns of P? Trevaskis says that they have misunderstood the kind of literature they are reading in Leviticus 1-16. Specifically, they have failed to grasp the symbolic import of the rites of sacrifice and rules of purity. Read symbolically, the texts show an intense concern with urging Israel to maintain the commands of God received at Sinai. Symbolic readings of Leviticus are hardly new. Trevaskis is aware of Samuel Kellogg’s Studies in Leviticus: Tabernacle Worship and the Law of the Daily Life, John Kurtz’s Offerings Sacrifices and Worship in the Old Testament, and other nineteenth-century studies. But he rightly argues that these older writers don’t operate with a systematic understanding of symbolism.

To remedy that, and to make his own symbolic interpretations plausible, he devotes a lot of space to a very illuminating treatment of how texts give off secondary symbolic meanings. A key element of this discussion is his distinction between “crystallization” of meaning and “post-crystallization” reflection: “When we encounter a piece of language in the course of normal communication, there is an instant of comprehension, a kind of crystallization of the perception of meaning—we know what somebody has said (or written etc.). This is similar to our recognition of a familiar face, or when we realize that what we are seeing is a dog and so on. In the case of the face, we do not merely recognize whose face it is, but at the same instant we see perhaps that the person is tired, or worried, and the hair is windblown and so on. On further reflection, we might infer what the person has been doing, or what the cause of worry is. The processing can continue indefinitely, but there is nonetheless a prior moment of recognition. Something similar happens when we encounter a piece of language. We recognize in an instant what has been said, but we can go on working out consequences and further inferences indefinitely. It is what constitutes the focus of our attention at the moment of understanding that is referred to here as the interpretation of an expression. Phenomenologically, it is a fairly clearcut event. It will be useful to distinguish pre-crystallization processes, processes preceding and leading up to crystallization, and post-crystallization processes. In many approaches to meaning, there is a determinate starting point for the process of constructing an interpretation, but an indeterminate end point.” Words used literally can accumulate significance in the course of a text, so that later uses are richer than earlier.

When he gets down to the text, Trevaskis’s interpretations are very illuminating. By noting intertextual echoes between Leviticus and Genesis, he links the concept of “uncleanness” (tame) with the fall and Adam’s expulsion from the garden. Tame “represents a person’s punitive exclusion from Yahweh’s presence.” One such echo is the reference to “belly” in Leviticus 11:42; the only other use of the word in the Old Testament is in Genesis 3:14. Eight of the animals listed are “serpent-like” creatures that swarm on the ground. With the exodus and the Sinai covenant, Israel is getting a new start “in God’s immediate presence.” They are an Adamic people, and as such are given food laws, food laws that symbolically teach Israel to resist the serpent tempter who would seduce them from Yahweh.

Levitical uncleanness does, as Milgrom and others have argued, have death in view, but Trevaskis insists that without further elaboration we cannot account for the forms of uncleanness. That elaboration also comes from the early chapters of Genesis, where “The death in view is a life lived in exclusion from God’s immediate presence, a kind of living death, and includes the termination of life in which people return to the dust from which they are made.” If Israel wants to avoid this death, symbolized by uncleanness, they have to observe both cultic and ethical demands of the law. The laws of uncleanness warn “Israel against having themselves excluded from God’s immediate presence as Adam and Eve were before them.” Purity rules are symbolic warnings about rebellion against Yahweh.

“Be holy,” Leviticus 11:45 exhorts. This is not merely an exhortation to cultic holiness, but to a life consistent with being in the presence of God. Through his symbolic interpretation of the whole chapter, Trevaskis shows that this is not an interpolation in a non-ethical context. It’s a fitting climax to the symbolic exhortations contained in the rest of the chapter.

His interpretation of other purity laws builds on his conclusions from Leviticus 11. Leviticus 13:2 makes an unusual reference to an adam who contracts skin disease, a reference, Trevaskis argues, to the original adam in the garden. Again, we are dealing with “death” in the sense of exclusion from God’s presence. In the laws of skin disease, the focal point of uncleanness is the exposure of flesh. “Live flesh” is “explicitly identified as unclean” in 13:14-15, and when the underlying flesh is completely covered with skin disease, the person is clean. He notes that skin disease is often described with the word “stroke,” suggesting that Yahweh has smitten the person. Overall, the laws symbolically depict “human rebellion under divine judgment,” an exposure of flesh that God “strikes” with fire or wound. Skin disease incarnates God’s judgment on “flesh.” No wonder the skin diseased person has to engage in five practices that symbolize his entry into the realm of death, “exclusion from God’s immediate presence.”

He finds the same emphasis on flesh in the rules covering bodily issues in Leviticus 15. Exposure of flesh is like exposure of nakedness in God’s presence: “While ‘one flesh’ lives happily in God’s presence within the Garden of Eden, it is the object of divine punishment in Genesis 6–9. . . . we may speculate that God’s immediate presence is no longer accessible to ‘naked flesh’ in the way it was in the Garden.” At the chiastic center of Leviticus 15 is verse 18, which stipulates the even licit intercourse defiles. Trevaskis makes the suggestive point that even the purest of “one-flesh” relations are now unclean: “the ‘one flesh’ that walked with God in the Garden is now “excluded from God’s immediate presence.”

In a final chapter, he turns to the rite of the ascension offering, focusing in part on the question of why the animal must be tamim, without blemish. Literally, this means that the animal must have physical integrity, but he appeals to the parallel of holy priests and blemishless animals in Leviticus 21-22 that the term is intended to call to mind the human and ethical uses of the word. Abraham is blameless, and so is Noah. Whenever a worshiper offers a perfect animal to Yahweh, he is taught that what Yahweh values is integrity, including especially moral integrity.

I would suggest a couple of extensions of some of Trevaskis’s analyses. First, the emphasis on exposure of flesh in Leviticus 13 and 15 ties in with the treatment of sexual sins as “uncovering nakedness” in chapters 18 and 20. Not only does this further dissolve the boundary between “P” and “H,” but it also points to one of the primary themes of the Levitical code – flesh and its covering. And that, second, fits very neatly with the suggestion that atonement (kapharkippur) means “covering.” If naked flesh is excluded from Yahweh’s presence, then what Israel most needs is covering.

Trevaskis’s book is a revised doctoral dissertation. He is well versed in the current literature, not only Milgrom and Douglas but their growing numbers of successors. Much of the book is taken up with interaction with the current literature, and, as I noted, his overall thesis is addressed to Old Testament guild scholars. That makes the book difficult going, but the rewards are great. Trevaskis’s literary, symbolic approach to Leviticus is exactly right, and I look forward to further extensions in the future.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.