#191. Who are deemed holy: all the Israelites OR only the Aaronid priests? (Lev 19:2 vs Lev 8; Num 3)


The book of Leviticus is a tough one to get through — my apologies again.

I list this contradiction because it is often noted in the scholarly literature. As mentioned briefly in previous entries (#175, #185), critics have noticed two main layers of priestly material in the book of Leviticus, both of which were written by the Aaronid priestly guild. There is the literature that is P proper, Leviticus 1-16, and then there is what has come to be labeled as the Holiness code or H, Leviticus 17-25. The latter, H, exhibits some minor differences when compared to its parent tradition P.

In P, there is a heightened emphasis on the holiness of the Aaronid priests, and only the Aaronid priests (Ex 40:12-16; Lev 8:13, etc.; see #148-149, #153-154). Only the Aaronid priests may minister before Yahweh, enter the Tent of Meeting, and touch the holy sancta. In other words, in this strand of the P source, even the Levites, who minister to the Aaronids, are not allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting nor touch any of the Tabernacle’s sacred objects (see particularly Num 3; #152).

In H, however, the term holy (qodesh) is extended in its use to include all the people. This best comes through in the repeated refrain throughout H: “You should be holy, because I, Yahweh, your god, am holy.” This declarative statement is the heading of H’s moral legislation, i.e., the Holiness code. In other words, all the moral or ethical legislation in this strand of the Priestly source stress that any violation of Yahweh’s commandments is in reality a breach from their, the people’s, state of holiness. This is interesting to dwell upon because it hits at the larger issue or worldview in which both P and H wrote—namely, what we might understand and classify as crimes, or moral breaches, the author of H would have more appropriately understood as an act which defamed and profaned the sacred space—Tabernacle, people, land—within which the Israelites, and their deity (see #151) lived.

Thus, not observing the Sabbath; eating sacrificial meals more than 3 days old; reaping the corner of you land’s harvest and its fallen fruit; stealing; lying; swearing falsely in Yahweh’s name; exploiting your neighbor; cursing the deaf; hating your brethren; mating two kinds of animals or seeds; eating blood; sacrificing a child; adultery; homosexuality; and having sex with a menstruating woman are all “crimes” of unholiness!

I will argue when we get to the letters of Paul that Paul envisions the exact same type of ethical system: so-called sins are more properly acts that profane one’s consecrated and holy state, a consecrated and holy state that came about in exactly the same terms and manner that the Aaronid priests would have understood—via sacrifice!

5 thoughts on “#191. Who are deemed holy: all the Israelites OR only the Aaronid priests? (Lev 19:2 vs Lev 8; Num 3)

  1. Milgrom says that Leviticus 11:43-45 is “[a]n interpolation from H” (The Harper Collins Study Bible, page 169), and John H. Hayes, professor of Old Testament at Emory University, says the following: “These verses sound an emphasis found in the Holiness Code…and are probably an interpolation here” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, page 162). Other sources that I consulted, Peake’s Commentary on the Bible; The Jewish Study Bible; The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible; The Jerome Biblical Commentary; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; and The Interpreter’s Bible (a 12-volume commentary), say nothing about an interpolation.

    1. John. well you’re certainly doing a much better job at this than I am. Honestly, I’m a bit suspicious about pleas of interpolations, especially when they so nicely suit that particular scholar’s agenda. I’m not sure if seeing Lev 11 as P threatens the whole H hypothesis; for there are things in the Holiness code that are not emphasized in P proper, such as the pollution of the land due to uncleanliness and sexual profanities (e.g., Lev 18). But I have been just following my colleagues here. In fact, I don’t see too much of a difference between P and H with respect to Holiness. Admittedly, there is a hierarchy here: Yahweh is camped in the middle of the community and is the Holy of holies as it were, symbolized by the inner most shrine of the Tabernacle. Then the components of the Tent of Meeting and the Aaronid priesthood are consecrated (Ex 40; Lev 8). These sancta and the Aaronids are the only things consecrated, i.e., made holy. Next, the Levites may be added, but they are not consecrated; they do get the privilege of carrying the holy sancta once it has been wrapped in cloth by the Aaronid priests however. And lastly the people… and the land, which is really only emphasized in H.

  2. …Holiness code or H, Leviticus 17-25.

    I think that you mean 17-26. ;-) At any rate, doesn’t Leviticus 11:44-45 (P), addressed to the Israelites at large, command the same holiness that Leviticus 19:2 (H) does?

    Leviticus 11:44-45
    44For I am Yahweh your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth. 45For I am Yahweh who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.

    1. Good John. I would agree with you here, and do not know why I let myself be pursued by Milgrom (Leviticus, Anchor Bible Series). I’ve looked at his arguments before and was not pursued, particularly since he tries, in vain I think, to argue for a pre-exilic date for P.

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