Leuchter-the Persian period

I am forging ahead with my reading of Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.

There are three options about the history of the Levites after the Babylonian exile. The first is to take at face value the reports of the Bible in Nehemiah, Ezra, and 2 Chronicles.

However, most recognize that these works give us the points of view from later priest and scribes, not historical reality. Many scholars have taken the second option that only the elite Jerusalem priesthood would have been taken into exile. The Levites would have been left behind. The history after the exile would have involved conflict between the Zadokites and the (now) apostate Levites.

Leuchter’s pointed out that Jeremiah seemed to communicate with Levites who had gone into exile. So a division within the Levites is a third option. Perhaps there was already a split in the Levites during the late monarchy as hinted at by the animosity of the “men of Anathoth” toward Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:21).

So one party of Levites was associated with the Shaphanide scribes in Jerusalem. They went into exile. But other Levites remained in mostly northern, rural parts of Judah/Benjamin. These left-behind Levites developed their own theology reflected, according to Leuchter, in the prayer in Nehemiah 9.

Meanwhile the exilic Levites participated in the switch from Hebrew as the scribal language to the more esoteric Aramaic. This corresponded to the Levites becoming more attached to a post-exilic establishment where Persian authorities supported a Zaddokite-led priesthood in Jerusalem.

The problem of intermarriage with women outside the developing priestly tradition touched both kinds of Levites and some Zadokites. So Ezra enforced a mass divorce on the priesthood according to Ezra 9.  Leuchter seems to think this may reflect a later mass divorce built upon a memory of something smaller that happened in Ezra’s lifetime.

So the story of Ezra introducing and reading aloud the Torah in Nehemiah 8 may also draw on an old story about Ezra, but it has been shaped to authorize the Levites to perform and interpret the Pentateuch. It also gives a new “mythic potency” (p.238) to the Pentateuch.

Ezra himself returned from Babylon exercising Persian authority. But the book of Nehemiah sees the Torah and Levite interpretation of it as divine wisdom above the authority of the state.

Also in the Persian period Levites edited the Book of the Twelve—that is, the minor prophets—as a reflection on Israel’s history and the future arrival of the “day of YHWH” when Israel would rule itself more wisely.

So the Levites moved from a role as scribes and performers of texts to a role that included being sages who drew wisdom from the history of Israel and the words of the prophets.

Leuchter’s discussion is very learned. It is beyond my ability to criticize this part of it in detail. He is interpreting religious texts through the lens of sociology and politics. Israel believed its religion to come from the self-disclosure of God. So to see the texts as reactions to human events is to see them quite differently than religious Jews (and now Christians) see them. Nevertheless, I am learning much from Leuchter’s work.

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Leuchter-the penknife and the sunken book

I apologize for interrupting the series on Leuchter’s book in the middle of a discussion of Jeremiah. The election last Tuesday had been my focus. When it was over, I woke up to the fact that I had places to go, because I had tickets to a rock concert and a ballgame. But today it is time to get on with this project.

Mark Leuchter, in The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity, holds that there is a parallel between Jeremiah and Moses as writers of books. Deuteronomy claims Moses as base author and yet allows for further editing and oral explicating by Levite scribes.

So in Jeremiah 36 the prophet writes a scroll and then places it in the hands of Baruch. Baruch takes up the Levite role described in Deuteronomy 33:10a. Moreover, Baruch passes the scroll on to royal officials who seem also to include Levite scribes. They bring the words of the scroll to the king.

For Leuchter this chapter intermingled historical events with a theological—even mythological—depiction of the scribal role. Just as Jerusalem will burn because of royal policy, the scroll burns at the hands of the king. Just as Jerusalem will rise again, the scroll gets replaced.

Leuchter interprets Jeremiah 36:23, where the king uses a scribe’s knife to cut up the scroll and feed it into the fire, as an attempt not merely to demolish the scroll, but to “dismantle the redactional arrangement of those oracles wrought through the scribal process” (p. 205, his emphasis). Apparently he means that Jehoiakim was as upset about the order of the oracles as about the content of individual oracles. So he used the penknife to disrupt the order, but ended up causing the fire to consume the whole thing.

Leuchter says that the use of the penknife makes a subtle point.

Yes, perhaps too subtle!

Like Leuchter, I want some reason the text goes into this detail. Yet, it seems to me he is reaching too far when he sees the slaying of the prophet Uriah by Jehoiakim with a sword (Jeremiah 26:23) as parallel to the same king’s destruction of the scroll with a knife. Maybe these things got reported because they happened, not because they make a point about the scribal process.

Jeremiah portrays Jehoiakim as a terrible ruler and as bearing much responsibility for the fall of Jerusalem. Look at the biting verbal attack in Jeremiah 22:13-19. His killing prophets and burning books were real. But the way the story gets told in Jeremiah does tell us something about the Levite view of books.

Leuchter claims that the idea that original works gain additional meaning through scribal expansion and ordering comes from Neo-Assyrian thought. .

Besides Jeremiah 36, Leuchter also sees Jeremiah 51:59-64 as revealing the Levite scribal process. Just as Jeremiah had written a book and given it to Baruch, so now Jeremiah writes a book and gives it to Seraiah, who bears a commission to go to the exiles in Babylon. He is to read the book and then sink it in the Euphrates river

This act picks up meaning from Mesopotamian traditions about foundation inscriptions at temples. According to Leuchter, the depositing of the book in the river was meant to move the cosmic center of mythological meaning from Jerusalem to Babylon. Ezekiel picked this up with his ministry on the Chebar canal along the Euphrates.

Leuchter sees the positioning of this story near the end of Jeremiah as the work of Shaphanide (from the school or family of Shaphan) scribes. They have used the order of Jeremiah to make scribal texts themselves a substitute sanctuary for the exiles. The book at the bottom of the river anchors, so to speak, the presence of God and the identity of the people. It is the Levite scribes and their books that now link the people in an alien territory to their God and their history.

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On losing an election

I will probably not blog again until next week.

Looking at the rest of this week I just see too much travel and activity: a birthday celebration, a baseball game and the State Fair..

I am replacing my desktop CPU. I need to spend some time backing everything up.

Also, I am emotionally wrung out.

Yesterday was the primary election here in Missouri.

I was politically active this year for the first time since I was a very young man. When I was an active pastor, I never did anything political outside the privacy of the voting booth. I had to marry, bury, pray with, and teach people of all political persuasions.

Since I have retired I have pretty much continued that practice, although I have expressed an opinion about policies and elections a few times here. In retirement I do not feel as constrained as I once did..

This year I actively supported a candidate (in the U.S. senate race) for four reasons.

First, I knew him. Tony Monetti and I used to get our hair cut by the same barber. This was back in the ’90’s before I started shaving my head. Also, his wife is a local mental health counselor and I have been professionally aware of her work.

Second, he has a great story. His parents were first-generation immigrants from Italy. Through their sacrifice and his own determination he was able to go to the Air Force Academy and fulfill his dream of serving his country.

Third, Monetti, is a retired bomber pilot and a supporter of the veteran’s mental health cause. He advocates for vets struggling with PTSD and gives real dignity to the families of suicide victims by recognizing them as Gold Star families and treating their loss the same way you would treat a combat death.

Finally, I really hate the party establishment in Missouri.

Tony was always a long shot. Even though it was a primary, all the resources of the Republican National Committee went to one candidate. So Tony lost big last night.

But I learned something about how campaigns work nowadays. Name recognition is a big deal in politics and you have to spend a lot of money to get your name known. Tony Monetti ran an old-fashioned, grass-roots campaign augmented by intensive use of social media. He traveled to all 114 counties and met thousands of people. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Tony isn’t super rich. He couldn’t self-finance.

I had hopes for him because an outsider, Mike Braun, upset the establishment and took the Senate nomination in Indiana. Then, just last week, Bill Lee shocked the powers that be in Tennessee by coming from nowhere to win the GOP governor’s nomination. Voters are ready to reject establishment candidates. But it looks like both Braun and Lee had enough money of their own to go on TV and get their name and story out there.

Money and name-recognition are not everything. Ask Jeb Bush. But, in order to beat the establishment, you need enough resources to connect with a lot of voters.

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Leuchter-the punctuation mark that isn’t there

One of the things I try to keep in mind when reading the Bible in English translation is that it will include much that is not there in the Hebrew or Greek. This includes punctuation. And yet I had long missed something in Jeremiah 8:8:

How do you say, “We are wise, and Yahweh’s law is with us?”
But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has worked falsely (WEB).

I have assumed Jeremiah was attacking the scribes. This depends on the quotation marks falling after the first half of the verse. However, there are no quotation marks in Hebrew. So what if the quote goes through the end of the verse?

Mark Leuchter, in The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity argues that in the context of Jeremiah it is likely that the prophet’s opponents were attacking the scribes. The scribes were the Levites who had produced Deuteronomy. The sages in Jerusalem claim that their own wisdom constitutes the true Torah of Yahweh. According to them, the Levite scribes and their scroll have distorted it. Far from attacking the scribes, Jeremiah comes to their defense.

Nowhere else in Jeremiah does he pit himself against scribes. His opponents are named as sages, priests, and prophets in 18:18, for instance. In fact, Leuchter argues that Jeremiah saw himself as a scribe. Because he used Baruch to reproduce a scroll in chapter 36, some have thought Jeremiah did not write. However, circumstances may have made it impossible for Jeremiah to write in this one case. In many verses in the book, Jeremiah himself seems to produce written work. One example is Jeremiah 30:2:

 Thus speaks Yahweh, the God of Israel, saying, Write all the words that I have spoken to you in a book (WEB).

So Jeremiah, according to Leuchter, was a Levite from a Mushite line at Anathoth, who, like the other deuteronomistic Levites, had picked up the role of being Yahweh’s scribe.

Jeremiah was associated with Shaphan, King Josiah’s secretary—so a scribe (Interestingly we have an archeological relic that affirms Shaphan’s existence. See here.)

I blogged a few months ago about Brian Peterson’s theory that the priests of Anathoth passed down ancient memories that became central to our Bible. His view is that these traditions got passed down between the times of David’s priest, Abiathar and Jeremiah. Jeremiah was near the end of this process. Leuchter turns this around.

For Leuchter, Jeremiah is closer to the beginning of the process. He sees the Shaphanide faction– descendents and followers of Shaphan–as active after Jeremiah, during the Babylonian exile.  They produce some of the material Peterson would put much earlier in Anathoth.  Remember that Leuchter’s contention is that the original book of Deuteronomy came about because Levites took up the task of defending King Josiah’s reforms after the fact.

There are some things that I find unconvincing in Leuchter. I am rooting for him.  He says in the preface that, like me, he is a fan of the rock group, Rush.  So I want to confirm his good judgment in other areas.  But I am finding it a mixed bag.  I have problems with his position mythological language in poetry cancels out historical reference, with his use of anthropology to draw historical conclusions, and with his dating of most  scribal activity as late.

However, I am happy to find this notion of Jeremiah as spokesman for a school of scribes convincing and kind of revolutionary.

Since I am interested in the development and factions within Israel’s priesthood, a question for further investigation would be the relationship between the scribes of the D documents and the scribes of the P documents. I used to entertain the idea that the “lying scribes” of Jeremiah 8:8 might apply to the priestly writers. I think this is Richard Friedman’s idea. But Leuchter’s idea that “lying scribe” was an accusation leveled at Jeremiah and his associates makes more sense.

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Leuchter-Levites at the gate

In The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity Mark Leuchter deals with Deuteronomy as a text composed retrospectively in about -622.

The story about the discovery of the scroll in the Temple is fiction. What really happened is that after Josiah put an end to the priests offering incense at shrines around Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:5), his action proved highly unpopular. Josiah engaged Levite scribes to write Deuteronomy as a justification for what he had done.

All I will say about this is that it seems to me unnecessary and overly dismissive of signs that point to an older origin for a form of Deuteronomy.

In spite of that, there is much that is thought-provoking in Leuchter’s discussion.

He makes a very interesting case that, before Deuteronomy, books were the property of priests and exclusively held at temples as esoteric holy items. In Exodus 32:31-33 Moses asks God to either forgive the people or to erase Moses from “your book which you have written”.  We can presume that this book was on Sinai and that for the Priestly scribes Sinai is parallel to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. So the Temple was the home of the book which God had written. This book was a cosmic, mythological book.

I wonder about the nature of such a book. There were probably books that contained prayers or spells similar to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Maybe your name needed to be in the book in order for the priests to pray for your soul.

Anyway, Leuchter’s idea is that Deuteronomy was the first book that gave cosmic access to those who were not elite priests like the Zadokites. So it has a different world-view than P or Ezekiel.

In Deuteronomy Levites sit in the gates of the cities, and Leuchter sees them as claiming that the Torah itself is a gateway. So when Deuteronomy 27:9 says “Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel”, it is stating the principle that Torah is not the property of some priests in Jerusalem, but comes to all Israel by way of the Levites. There is access to God for all through the scribal and teaching activity of the Levites.

There is also a new meaning to the old function of the Levites as the bearers of the Ark. The scroll of the Torah now resides in the Ark, so the old function of the Levites has now made them bearers of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31:24-26).

The above passage also portrays Moses as the model for the scribal activity of the Levites. Before depositing the scroll in the Ark, Moses has become a scribe rendering his oral address into a complete, written Torah. This Torah, through the teaching of the Levites, gave all Israel access to Moses. This overturned the usual situation where common people got marginalized by “elite and exclusive priesthoods” (p. 187).

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Leuchter-chieftains and El worship

I decided to come back to something in Mark Leuchter’s approach to Israelite history that has become more important the further I get into The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.

The important idea is that before the monarchy Israel was not so much a confederation of tribes, as scholars once thought, as a  chiefdom.

Leuchter is drawing on the work of Robert Miller, who wrote a book called the Chieftains of the Highland Clans: A History of Israel in the 12th and 11th Centuries BC. Miller’s thesis is that the anthropological concept of chiefdom fits Israel of this period. Most of the characteristics of leaders like Deborah, Barack, Gideon, and Jepthah fit the notion of a chieftain.

Chiefdoms have become a part of how anthropologists see the pathway to monarchies and empires . Once upon a time (actually still today in some places in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) primitive people had a system of organization we call “the big man” polity. Clans and villages structured themselves and made decisions based on the influence of charismatic people who were not formally chiefs or kings.

But then some of these “big men” declared themselves chiefs. They often claimed connection with a deity. On the one hand, they centralized power in themselves. But on the other hand, they often posed as the protectors of the weak and the upholders of order and justice.

Archeology can give us clues about how certain societies were structured, especially if we find texts like law codes. However, the most clear understanding of chiefdoms comes from observation. Chiefdoms have survived into modern times among certain groups like the Zulu, and especially, the Polynesians.

So Leuchter finds that the best description for Israel, probably including not only the Judges but the early realms of Saul and David, is chiefdom. The pattern was that elite warriors became chiefs.

However, as I read back –I missed some of this at first because was focused on the exegesis of Exodus 15—I see that he goes beyond Miller. Leuchter connects the myths at Ugarit with the ideology of early Israelite chiefdoms. Israel worshiped El who was also a sort of the head of the household for the Canaanite gods.

But Ugarit was a royal city-state, not a chiefdom.  So Leuchter proposes that Israel rather drastically “abstracted and reapplied” (p. 53) Canaanite mythology to change the relationship between the gods.

Thus El takes on for Israel the role that Baal played at Ugarit. The chief assumed aspects of El, the divine warrior.  But, at Ugarit it was Baal who reflected the alpha-male character of the king.

So, based on the fact that El plays a role in the literature of both Ugarit and Israel, Leuchter seems to make a big assumption about how Emergent Israel did mythology. He has to assume because the actual texts we have from Israel already assert that YHWH and El are the same.

There also seems to me to be a gap between this and the idea that  veneration of the dead was a major aspect of how the El theology got practiced.

Moreover, it seems to me that the relevance of Egyptian myth gets overlooked. If the early purveyors of Yahwism were Egyptians as Leuchter accepts, then the elohim as spirits of the dead, might relate to the Egyptian cult of the dead.  Is there a relation to the Egyptian idea of akh, the spirit of the worthy dead which gets transfigured so that it can mingle with the gods?

To those of us who believe in the God of Israel, even if we are not biblical literalists, academic discussions of the “concept” of God and the evolution of theologies sometimes seem cynical.  We cling to the belief that God actually communicated with some of those old Israelites.

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Leuchter-rewriting myth as political protest

I continue to read through Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.

Leuchter sees the Exodus as a myth that has its only historical roots in the settlement of the central highlands, which freed Israel from Egyptian overlords and caused some clans to turn the sparse highlands into a productive and livable home. The Exodus myth uses the ideas of the sea and the wilderness in a cosmic, not a geographical, sense.

He sees this confirmed in texts that reflect protest by the Levites against the reversion to pre-Yahwist themes in the state religion of Jeroboam I and subsequent kings. Leuchter has detailed and learned discussions of three texts.

The first is the golden-calf story in Exodus 32. The northern monarchy had a charter myth of the Exodus. But the Levites changed it to condemn the calf and ancestor worship it supported.

The Levite perspective reflected in the Golden Calf tradition argues that the state cult is not an experiencing of the Exodus but a step into the mythic wasteland where YHWH’s enemies ventured forth to corrupt the sacred landscape. By extension, the sanctuaries that housed Jeroboam’s bull icons were identified with the underworld whence cosmic foes originated (p. 136).

As I understand it, in Leuchter’s theory, neither Jeroboam’s charter myth nor the Levite’s counter myth were about actual events. They were about the cosmic significance of Israel’s existence.

The same could be said of a second text, the so-called Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. He understands this as a liturgical poem recited at Levite-led assemblies. It views God, rather than the royal house, as the entity that has allotted land to the clans.

The poem ends in a violent and bloody image of divine vengeance. His interpretation of 32:43 is key. The Greek text of this verse has the phrase “bow down to him all gods” Leuchter takes this to reflect the oldest text, which had a reference to elohim. He interprets this as meaning “bow down to him all you venerated ancestors.” It is an image of the underworld submitting to YHWH.

These ancestral deities are delegitimized in v. 17 as “demons”, unknown gods, and new gods.

The final text he deals with is the book of Hosea. I cannot get into much of his very interesting discussion.

But, once again, he sees the imagery as reflecting Canaanite cosmology more than referring to historical events. In fact, he contrasts Hosea with Deuteronomy. Hosea and Deuteronomy have in common that they see Moses as a prophet. But Deuteronomy aligns with the Torah sources P and non P in seeing Moses as a historical figure with something like a biography. Deuteronomy has moved away from what he calls the “premonarchic mythotype”.

Important to Leuchter’s view is that these mythological texts are written over against the Canaanite god of death, Mot. Especially, compelling is his analysis of the oracles of Hosea as imagining the royal state and cult as possessed by the cosmic enemy, Mot/Death.

All of this contains much that is really helpful. But I, for one, just do not see the isolation of the cosmic/mythological from the historic/geographical. This goes back to Leuchter’s view that the Song of the Sea with its horses and riders thrown into the sea is mythological and does not refer to an event or a place.

I am not convinced. The other victory hymns of ancient Israel, like the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, seem to combine mythological themes with historical events.

In Judges 5 Sisera was defeated at the Kishon River—an event at a place. And in Exodus 15 it still looks to me like a chariot force was drown in a watery location near Egypt. In both cases God is said to have used water against the foe. Sure, this corresponds with mythological themes. But there was still an event and a place.

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