I have begun reading Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus (Continental Commentary).
Over and over again throughout Leviticus, the statement that YHWH spoke to Moses recurs. Now there are overwhelming arguments that the historical figure, Moses, did not personally compose Leviticus. Yet the book repeatedly claims to be revelation: God spoke. Additionally this relates to a historical revelation to Moses.
This gives Milgrom the opportunity to set out what revelation means. There are those who seem to find it obvious that for the Bible to be revelation, God must have dictated every word. Yet, when you read the Bible, that does not seem to be what happened. So Milgrom has an introduction where he asks “Can critical scholarship believe in the Mosaic origins of the Torah?”
His answer is yes. He claims that Leviticus is about values and that the values are based on a revelation to Moses. This allows him to admit to contradictions and lack of unity within the Torah without denying Mosaic origins. Just as rabbis throughout history have developed Judaism always based on a backwards glance to Mosaic tradition, so Leviticus, although composed some centuries after Moses, bases itself upon principles and values derived from Moses.
The book is about rituals. Rituals, says Milgrom, have emerged in anthropological studies as the way that societies express and preserve their fundamental values. The values revealed to Moses at Sinai needed to find expression in repeated acts of commitment. They needed to be made visual and participatory. That is what the rituals we find in Leviticus did.
“Ritual”, says Milgrom, “is the poetry of religion that leads us to a moment of transcendence.”
He uses the example of tithing. Three places in the Torah mention different recipients of the tithe: Leviticus 27:30, Numbers 18:21, and Deuteronomy 14:23. Leviticus says the tithe is for God. Numbers says it is for the Levites. Deuteronomy says it is for yourself to eat. The recipient of the tithe is not the point. The grateful setting aside of produce in a ritual is the the value or principle. He suggests that the original tithe law said, “You shall not delay tithing your produce.” But the disharmonious application of this principle reflects different times and interpreters. So despite of the lack of unity and even outright contradictions, the divine revelation to Moses stands.
Different traditions contributed to the Torah. But each of these based themselves on traditions you could trace to Moses.
“The compilers of the Torah were theologically pluralistic. They were willing to include variant traditions into the master text that became our Bible, trusting that each of these traditions emanated from the Mosaic core, although they may have chosen different ways of interpreting it. The text itself does not make a truth claim among the traditions, nor does it try to reconcile them blithely. Instead, the text happily transmits the various, oftentimes conflicting, traditions to its readers. None claimed exclusive access to the divine word.”
Notice how this is another way of seeing scripture as Israel Knohl’s divine symphony. The are different instruments or voices. There is point and counterpoint. But the whole conveys a divine message.
I have one quibble with Milgrom. He calls those who take a more literal approach “Maximilists” and those, like himself, who have a more contextual approach “Minimalists”. I am familiar with those terms when they refer to those who differ about the historicity of biblical accounts of early Israelite history. Minimalists often deny that we know anything about Israelite history before time of Omri. They tend to discount the biblical text as saying anything about history. Maximilists are not just fundamentalists, but anybody who thinks the biblical text is historically illuminating.
Anyway, I would prefer not to use those terms for this entirely different dichotomy.
At the end of his introduction, he mentions that he believes Leviticus contains two priestly traditions, P and H. P is in chapters 1-16 and contains a cache of rituals. H is mostly in 17-27 and contains instructions about holy behavior. But he rejects the notion that one is ritual and the other is ethics. Both are ethics. Ethics inheres in ritual. And we have failed to understand many of the behavioral injunctions. He promises to show us why this is so in the commentary.