I bought Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity because I am on a quest to understand the priesthood, particularly in regard to how the community that produced the P (Priestly) portions of the Pentateuch lived. We have a wide variety of P writings, but what about the community or communities that produced them?
This is not quite the question that Leuchter is dealing with.
His question has more to do with Israelite identity. To me, this question seems too embedded in modern ideology. Identity and identity politics have come to the forefront in post-Marxist discussion. For Karl Marx identity was about class. So Marxist interpreters of the Hebrew Bible tended to opt for the idea that the Hebrews originated as peasants. Think of the peasant revolt theory of settlement and Norman Gottwald’s work.
But in more recent times identity as class has expanded to identity as race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Identity is tied in with theories of oppression and ideological meta narratives.
As I read Leuchter, he sets the Levites always over against empire: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and–in his discussions of Midrash and the New Testament—Greek and Roman. He sees mythology in the ancient world as ideological. Israelite deconstruction and reuse of mythology makes an ideological statement and establishes boundaries against the ideologies of the various empires.
This is an interesting approach and it gives us some good insights. I wonder, though, whether it takes the less political, religious aspect seriously enough. The Levites appear as warriors, prophets, scribes and sages. But the more obvious role as functionaries in religious rituals takes a backseat. However, I think ritual considerations may have been more important than we think. The Qumran sect, for instance, had its reason for existing in ritual and calendar disagreements with other priests.
One of the most thought-provoking of his proposals is that gods (elohim) in early Israel sometimes meant semi-deified ancestors. His notion that Jeroboam I used ancestor worship as part of his religious program makes a lot of sense.
Jacob Milgrom has suggested that Levite opposition to an ancestor cult might explain the lack of reference to the afterlife in much of the Hebrew Bible. The dead had no existence for the Levites, at least in the popular, superstitious sense.
It is hard to look at historical events and intuit the motives of ancient people. Leuchter makes use of the idea of chiefdoms as form of government during the age of Judges. Chiefdoms derive from the theories of anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins used the theory in his claim that the Hawaiians killed the explorer, James Cook, because they at first thought he was a god and then became disillusioned.
There has been a famous backlash against this theory as politically incorrect in the light of post-colonialist thought. See here.
For me, though, the controversy highlights the difficulty of discerning the religious motives of ancient or non-western people. We know the Hawaiians killed Cook. But reading their minds about why is a problem.
We know the Levites existed. We have their writing. We even have DNA evidence about their family line. But discerning their motives and development is a very complex problem.
Mark Leuchter wasn’t really answering the question I was asking. But much of his work touches on my question. It has given me more material as I inquire into the nature of the groups that composed the P material.