I could go on and on with Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus. The book of Leviticus is full of details. I have chosen not to go into too many of them so that I can deal with the larger picture.
This was easier because Milgrom has several sections that deal with larger themes. But I have come nearly to the end of the issues that interest me enough to write about.
One thing I would rather he had not done is use the term “egalitarianism” to describe the program of Leviticus so far as social reform is concerned. I have disliked this term as a description of Israelite polity ever since I first ran into it in the works of Norman Gottwald. Egalitarianism is a belief in social and economic equality of all people. But Israel was hardly a society where this prevailed. I am pretty sure they did not even think in those terms.
Communists touted egalitarianism. But look at what their regimes were actually like. The same with labor unions or feminist organizations or liberal churches. They can never get rid of hierarchy. And their hierarchies seem to me to be worse for their attempts to disguise the power plays and the drive for status and position.
But what we do have in Israel–in the prophets and in both the P and H sections of Leviticus–is a respect for people at the bottom. I do not see that they are treated as having equal rights. There is a pecking order. But those closer to the bottom are treated with dignity. If you can’t afford to sacrifice livestock like cattle or sheep, there is still dignity in the sacrifice of doves or even grain. These sacrifices do not have lower effectiveness.
H made provision for the poor, but also for the resident alien. The reason, as Milgrom explains, for H making several laws about the resident alien is that for H the whole land was like a sanctuary. Those who lived in it could pollute it. This included non-Israelites who lived there. So some laws had to apply to them. But also some of the benefits of living in the land had to apply to them.
The priests had a sense of fairness. But this came from their theology. It was far from the rationals for fairness in Marx or John Rawls. Everybody was the property and slave of God. All the land belonged to God and all the people were tenants. This was the primary hierarchy. It did not prevent kings, queen mothers, priests, village elders,wise men and women, or heads of households from having a higher status than others. It did not mean that your family background or gender did not matter. But it did mean that all were equally under the care of God and must be treated fairly.
In sum though, the term egalitarianism as it has been used in social and political discourse since the French Revolution does not apply to ancient Israel. Their clan-based society was less hierarchical than many of the city states around. But the Davidic monarchy brought with it the power structures that you find in Egypt and the Phoenecian city states and imposed them over the clan structure. And, as far as I can see. even the old clan-based society did not aspire to be egalitarian.
What I have gotten from Milgrom’s work is a broader sense of the way the theory that he shares with Israel Knohl about the eighth century Holiness movement could be fleshed out. I am tending to agree with the theory. The prophets criticized the spirituality and ethics that took hold then. The priests behind the Holiness movement did not wholly agree with someone like Isaiah, but they responded to him by addressing the issues in their own way. The theory makes a lot of sense and accounts for a lot of facts.
Some of Milgrom’s ideas are challenging. The idea that being “cut off” from your people had to do with alienation from family after death is intriguing. But I’m not sure it is correct and neither is Milgrom. The whole notion about ancestor worship forming the background for some of the laws is a theory I had not run into before. I would need more information before I could affirm it.
Overall, I am grateful for this book and feel I know a whole lot more about Leviticus than I did before.