I apologize for my rather long absence. It’s been a difficult time. But let us see if we can get back on track and finish up with the contradictions in Leviticus, and move into Numbers and Deuteronomy.
In earlier posts, I discussed the sacrificial cult of the Aaronid priesthood as detailed throughout the book of Leviticus (#137-138, #148-149, #151, #152, #155, #174, #175, #178). In sum, sacrifices were necessitated (divinely decreed in this corpus of literature) to restore purity and holiness to (potentially) impure persons, communities, and even the land. Since according to the theological tenets of the Aaronid priestly guild Yahweh dwelt among the people (#151, #164-165), strict measures had to be enforced to safeguard the holiness and purity of not only Yahweh’s sacred space, his Tabernacle, but of the whole congregation as well. “You shall be holy because I, Yahweh your god, am holy” is the refrain used by the priestly writers throughout the book of Leviticus. Failure to maintain this holiness puts the deity and all the community’s sacred space at risk since impurity or uncleanliness was deemed contagious.
This worldview and belief system, constructed on ideas of sacred space, holiness, pure and impure realms, people, and acts, were needless to say challenged and even eradicated (or interpreted away as the case may prove) by later biblical writers—especially the New Testament writers who lived under a radically different worldview and belief system (see also #31, #118, #146). More importantly for our purposes, both of these contradictory worldviews or belief systems (impure/unclean/profane space, things, and people vs pure/clean/holy space and things AND the abolition of such ideas and space, or the reduction of them to just one building) were legitimated and authorized through the production of literature which, in both cases, presented each author’s god advocating and endorsing these two radically different belief systems by having the deity become the spokesperson for these very belief systems. But before we go there, let’s look more closely at the Aaronid system as envisioned in the book of Leviticus.
Throughout the book of Leviticus, and especially in those chapters devoted to its laws and commandments (Lev 11-22), the role of the priests is repeatedly expressed by the phrase “to distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure.” The priestly law code, in fact, is presented as the very instruction (torah) for doing this. The priestly law code’s torahs, therefore, are “to distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure” in matters of:
- diet (Lev 11)
- women, i.e., menstruation, childbirth (Lev 12)
- skin diseases and afflictions (Lev 13-14)
- emissions of the flesh (Lev 15)
- sex (Lev 18)
- miscellaneous matters (Lev 19-20)
- the Aaronid priesthood (Lev 21-22)
To be able to distinguish between the holy and the profane, the pure and the impure is the most crucial and significant element of the Priestly literature. In other words, the whole priestly worldview boils down to seeing the world in terms of what is sacred and what is profane, what is pure and what is impure. It is at root a worldview built on the sole perspective that the cosmos is divided up into sacred space and sacred time (e.g., the Sabbath and other appointed festivals). In this regard, our modern economic worldview is, literally, world’s apart from the worldview, belief system, and values of the Aaronid priestly guild that wrote these texts. The demarcation of sacred space and the maintaining of that sacred space were the only things that mattered in living life. And furthermore, the community of people, among which Yahweh dwelt in its center, was sacred. The whole camp was sacred space. Can you imagine living in that world? A world defined by sacred space, and which placed you in that sacred space? Imagine what that would entail!
Another important difference to notice is the world as envisioned by the priests is not one plagued by good versus evil. That narrative is absent in the priestly corpus. There is no Satan, nor demonic forces that stand apart from Yahweh and who tempt men to err. There is only the pure and the impure, the holy and the profane. In other words, questions of morality or ethics are subordinated to issues of purity and impurity. A sin in the priestly literature can be one of two things: either an individual has inadvertently (#173) come into contact with something/someone impure and has therefore become impure himself—and thus this impurity/sin must be expunged from the individual via a sacrifice (#174). Or he has consciously violated one of Yahweh’s commandments “distinguishing between what is pure and impure” and in this case is “cut off” from the community (#175)—i.e., the holy people, whose sole space is defined as pure. Thus he is banished to the realm of impurity, i.e., outside the community!
This priestly worldview, and the literature that endorsed and legitimated it, is not only at odds with our own 21st century worldview, beliefs, and values—quite obviously, but this needs to be repeatedly emphasized against those who would suggest otherwise—but it is also world’s apart from the worldview, beliefs, and values of the authors of what became the New Testament. We should not be alarmed by this; after all we’re talking about the world as viewed—as created!—by an elite priestly guild of the 6th-5th c. BCE and the world as seen through the eyes of secular writers living centuries later and in a radically different geopolitical and religious world, the 1st c. CE.
So similar to the Aaronid priests who wrote texts to legitimate and sanctify their own worldview and beliefs by presenting their deity, Yahweh, as a spokesperson for those very beliefs—in this case the prohibition of eating so-called unclean foods—so too the New Testament writers legitimated their own culturally defined beliefs and worldview by presenting Jesus as the spokesperson for these very beliefs, one of which was that all foods were clean.
And he said to them—“Are you thus also without understanding? Do you not know that everything that enters into a man from the outside is unable to profane him, that it does not enter into his heart but into his stomach, and leaves him as waste”—declaring all foods clean. (Mk 7:18-19, my translation)
Whoever uttered these words, for they may not have been Jesus’ but those of the author of this text—just like the words of Yahweh in the book of Leviticus are those of the author—clearly is without understanding when it comes to the whole priestly worldview of the sacred as depicted in the book of Leviticus. Indeed, this author not only does not live in a world defined by sacred space and time as our Aaronid priests did, but such a worldview is utterly inconceivable to this author, and/or Jesus. Ideas of sacred space, people, and things, of Yahweh dwelling in their midst, etc. are all foreign to this author, and/or Jesus. It is not their world nor their belief system—indeed how could it be? We’re talking about a difference of 7 centuries in a vastly changed geopolitical and religious world! The passage above completely misses the point of the Aaronid priests who wrote Leviticus and fails to grapple with the sacred as defined by this elite priestly guild, and why it was constructed in the first place. It reduces the conversation about sacred space, people, and things to bodily parts: the heart and the stomach. Not only are the beliefs expressed above contradictory to the beliefs of the Aaronids but also to the Yahweh of the Aaronids’ text!
The specific literary or textual phenomenon that we’re discussing, yet again, is the violence of interpretation. Imagine: cultures change, geopolitical worlds and attitudes change, values change, knowledge changes, and indeed beliefs change. But imagine again that you live in a culture were a text has, for whatever reasons, become authoritative, and its god has now become—through an elaborate process of transference, metamorphosis, and reinterpretation—God. To legitimate these changing ideas, beliefs, worldviews, values—indeed ideas now associated with an ethnic multicultural world, as was the case in the 1st century CE—the present culture had to engage in a process, a subversive and abusive process, of reinterpretation in order to make these ancient authoritative texts now legitimate and endorse present policy, ideas, and beliefs. This re-interpretive process, which in the end is neglectful and disingenuous towards these ancient texts, their authors and audiences, may have been understandable and permissible from the cultural perspective and biases of the 1st century CE, but we in the 21st century CE, a more knowledgeable, intellectual, and objectively conscious society—one can only wish!—should know better, or at least possess the intellectual and spiritual (!) maturity to perceive the subjectivity, subversiveness, and violence inherent in these re-interpretive maneuvers. This is largely what I studied as a graduate student and wrote my PhD dissertation on. Such practices are blatant misrepresentations sought to legitimate ever-changing attitudes, beliefs, and values on ancient texts that have for better or worse become authoritative to and for its readers. We are still doing the same thing today.
I end with this question, or more so plea: Will the human species ever be intellectually and, yes, spiritually mature enough to be honest to these ancient texts and see and understand them for what they are, products of the past—belief systems shaped by a long-gone ancient past, and carved from specific historical crisis and worldviews that are as foreign to us as the claim that the earth is the center of the cosmos!—and, on the other hand be honest to ourselves when we as a culture and for whatever reason create new values, beliefs, and yes gods, and see them and this process for what it is—we create, legitimate, sanctify our own ideas and beliefs—rather than abusively asserting that these are the words of an archaic deity, who, if being honest, no one actually understands, knows, nor even wants as their deity. Yahweh too is an historical creation, carved from the historical circumstances, real or perceived, that plagued the ancient Canaanite world and their peoples. Studying the Bible’s texts objectively on their own terms and in their own historical and literary contexts bears this out. This is what we’re doing here.