Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology
Richard D. Nelson
(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 192 pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Jacob Milgrom
I still can’t believe it. A book on the institution of the priesthood in ancient Israel that is just 200 pages long, with scarcely a footnote, and yet is comprehensive and nearly always accurate. Moreover, it is sorely needed. There are excellent studies on priestly matters, to be sure, but Raising Up a Faithful Priest looks at the forest, not the trees. For the first time in this century, we are provided a full-blooded portrait of the priest, the guardian par excellence of Israel’s religious heritage.
The yawning gap Richard Nelson fills can be appreciated by comparing his book on the priest with similar works on the other major religious figure in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet. Even though prophets were usually outsiders, radicals and opponents of the priestly establishment, they left behind a body of work in their names from which we can reconstruct their personalities as well as their views.
The priests, on the other hand, are almost all anonymous. Not a single legal or theological statement in the entire Bible is attributed to a priest. No wonder that the very idea of putting together a composite picture of the priest has been so forbidding—all the more reason for congratulating Nelson on succeeding.
How does he do it? Simply put, he has realized that the values that inhere in priestly theology are expressed not in words but in rituals (see my column “Seeing the Ethical Within the Ritual,” BR 08:04). Thus after a brief 15-page review of the scholarly consensus on the history of Israel’s priesthood, Nelson sets forth criteria drawn from ritual studies in social anthropology that he applies to the priestly functions in the sanctuary.
First he discusses the binary concepts that inform the priestly role: pure/impure, sacred/profane, sacred/impure, contagion/purification. Next Nelson outlines the priestly functions: delivering oracles, teaching Torah, pronouncing blessings and, above all, conducting sacrifices.
He then draws conclusions concerning the priestly theology after examining the priest’s relationship vis-à-vis God and his people. Using the historical framework set forth in the opening pages, Nelson discusses the priestly role during the Exile and the restoration, and concludes with the impact of Israel’s priesthood on the New Testament and the Christian ministry.
Nelson’s literary style is lucid and precise. He successfully avoids the innumerable shoals that confront such a study, so that each of his statements accurately reflects the status of research and the existence of dissenting views. His book is for the scholar as well as for the intelligent layperson. I have learned from his work, not from the data (which are familiar to me), but from some of his striking generalizations: that priests, for example, distinguished themselves precisely at critical junctures in Israel’s history, mainly when the Temple service was suspended—such as the priest Ezekiel, during the sixth-century B.C.E. Exile; the redactors of the priestly writings, during the Exile; and the Maccabees, during the second-century B.C.E. Hellenistic oppression.
My major criticism regarding the book’s methodology is that Nelson chooses only one of many anthropological criteria: boundaries. He posits that the binary concepts mentioned above reflect the division of the natural and animate world into clearly defined spaces and species, the boundaries of which must not be violated. Interestingly, Nelson himself admits, albeit unwittingly, to the inadequacy of this criterion. First he writes, “In sexual intercourse a bodily boundary is obviously penetrated and uncleanness results,” and then adds, “For the most part, however, these classifications were not rational or consistent. Not all bodily secretions were unclean. Saliva or tears, for example, were neutral, as was blood from wounds.” The problem, however, is not priestly inconsistency in the Bible. The priests are, in fact, perfectly consistent, but they employ a different criterion: the dichotomy between life and death. The impure bodily secretions are those from the genital organs. Blood and semen represent the forces of life, and their loss symbolizes death.1 There is nothing wrong with Nelson’s criterion of boundaries; it is just not comprehensive enough.
Nelson employs the category of liminality, the marginal area between holy and profane states, to explain the rites of passage incumbent on individuals permitted to cross boundaries. This is a very illuminating criterion, but Nelson takes it in a wrong direction, concluding that priests are in a permanent state of liminality as are Nazirites during the term of their vows of abstention regarding diet, the cutting of hair and other matters. Not so. Priests indeed experience liminality but only during their seven-day rite of consecration (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8); the same for Nazirites when they terminate their Nazirite period with a purification offering, which desanctifies them and allows them to return to their prior profane state:2 But during the lifetime of the priests and the duration of the Nazirites’ vow, they are not in any “marginal area”; they are holy (the term qadosh, “holy,” is applied to both).
By the same token, the altar is not, as Nelson says it is, “a marginal area…the intersection of this world and that other, holy world.” The altar is holy—indeed, most holy (Exodus 29:37). In other words, the sanctuary and the priest (and the Nazirite during his votive term) are part of the sacred sphere. God, so to speak, has set up a branch of the divine realm on earth and has appointed the priest as its exclusive custodian. The upshot is that Nelson’s boundary theory is valid, but not exclusive; it must be broadened and refined.
I conclude with a partial list of minor corrections, which the author will want to consider for future editions. The Priestly Code does not reflect the eclipse of private and family offerings (p. 12). Leviticus 1–7 are the only chapters that discuss the details of sacrificial procedure, yet they deal exclusively with private offerings! Before asserting categorically that the term and office of “high priest” did not exist in pre-Exilic times (p. 13), proof would have to be brought that the verses containing the term (2 Kings 12:11, 22:4, 23:4) are also not pre-Exilic. Moreover, the high priest’s garments are not royal regalia that prove the succeeded the king in the cult (p. 13); ancient Near Eastern texts and iconography indicate that the office of the high Priest is ancient and that his resplendent garments were different from those worn by the king. The purpose of the Levitic encampment around the tabernacle was not to protect the people “from the radiation of the holy center” (p. 29), but the reverse—to protect the tabernacle from the encroaching Israelites (see my Numbers, pp. 340–342). It is true that “the contagion of holiness was normally considered to be of little practical significance” (p. 31), but that was the accomplishment of the priestly legists who had stripped the sancta of any contagion to humans (see my Leviticus, pp. 443–455). Unclean animals are not impure (p. 32), just their carcasses. The priest is rendered profane, not impure, by his illicit marriage (p. 32) or by his daughter’s harlotry (p. 38). Only high priests subsequent to Aaron underwent consecratory rites, but not ordinary priests (p. 50). That “sin” or “guilt” offerings become prominent only in post-Exilic times (p. 57) is refuted by 2 Kings 12:16; if individuals were offering them, all the more so the sanctuary. Leviticus 5:14–6:7 is not “a ritual framework for civil damages”; only Leviticus 6:1–7 deals with civil damages, and they are a priestly concern only because they invite a false oath, that is, a sin against God (see my Leviticus, pp. 368–373).3
If these relatively minor errors are corrected and if the book’s anthropological underpinnings are expanded in a second edition, Raising Up a Faithful Priest will become a standard for decades to come.
The Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250–587 B.C.E.
Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin
(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993) 327 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Philip J. King
The history of modern biblical research, extending over 250 years, from time to time includes new methods for the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Today, though not for the first time, sociology and anthropology play a prominent role in explaining biblical texts. Through the interpretive tools of modern social science, scholars can try to reconstruct the social history of the biblical world. The better one knows the people of the biblical world, the better one understands the Bible. The authors of The Social World of Ancient Israel succeed admirably in describing the impact of the social sciences on biblical studies.
The book is divided into two principal sections, each dealing with a major social institution in the Bible: the village and the state. Both are analyzed with regard to five areas of daily life—politics, economics, diplomacy, law and education—and with regard to the dominant social roles in each of these categories. The institution of the village, for example, includes father, mother, farmer, herder, midwife, host, stranger, chief, legal guardian, elder, widow, sage and fool; that of the state includes monarch, virgin, priest, slave, prophet, lawgiver and storyteller. While describing these diverse social roles, the authors impart a good deal of information about daily life in biblical times.
All the chapters are informative, but chapter two, on the role of the mother, has special relevance as a corrective to the common observation that the Bible is antifeminist. Regarding the status of women in the biblical world, the authors state: “The Bible itself grants women much more access to the administrative, judicial, and economic systems than many of today’s generalizations about women and the Bible acknowledge.” The biblical world, to be sure, was patriarchal, but patriarchy as a social system and sexism as a form of prejudice are quite different. Women in the biblical household had significant authority and power, especially over the education of their children. The authors emphasize the responsibilities and not the restrictions placed upon the mother. In biblical teaching, for instance, homemaking and childbearing are not inferior roles. The father and mother had different functions, but the Bible insists that honor is due equally to both parents.
Among the book’s numerous virtues are a glossary of technical and literary terms, and indexes of modern authors and ancient sources. The book’s format is especially inviting. The generous use of subheadings enhances clarity. Another attractive feature is the blocked paragraphs, set off in shaded color, which serve to highlight biblical and extrabiblical texts and other salient features, such as summaries of the functions of the various social roles described in the book.
Both the English text and the interspersed Hebrew are remarkably free errors. If the book has a fault, it is its literal and repetitive style. But that hardly detracts from its overall value as a synthesis of the contribution of social science to biblical interpretation.
Healing Body and Soul: The Meaning of Illness in the New Testament and in Psychotherapy
John A. Sanford
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 144 pp., $9.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Johnson
Pastors and laypeople who struggle with psychological pain or emotional illness frequently seek to bring the resources of their faith traditions to the process of healing. If they are Christians, that search inevitably brings them to the New Testament. Pastoral theologians and biblical scholars who attempt to aid the search, however, soon discover that the New Testament seldom answers their questions, in part because the 20th century’s psychological and therapeutic worldview is foreign to these ancient documents, but also because a simplistic application of biblical injunctions may actually be harmful in some contemporary human situations. To counsel a woman whose husband beats her, for example, to turn the other cheek to her abuser (Matthew 5:39) or to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) risks jeopardizing the woman’s life and in any case does nothing to stop the abuse.
Rather than despair of the Bible’s usefulness in addressing human pain, several pastoral theologians have attempted to combine the best psychological and sociological wisdom available with a more nuanced historical-critical reading of the scriptures to offer assistance to those who want to know what the Bible has to say about the very real pain in their lives. J. Randall Nichols devotes two chapters of his book Ending Marriage, Keeping Faith: A New Guide Through the Spiritual Journey of Divorce (New York: Crossroad, 1991) to the biblical material on divorce, and Donald Capps offers a broader survey of Biblical Approaches to Pastoral Counseling (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981).
John A. Sanford’s approach in Healing Body and Soul has much in common with critics who examine the ways readers experience texts without particular regard for their putative “original” meanings. Sanford is a Jungian analyst, the son of Edgar and Agnes Sanford, who pioneered the so-called spiritual healing movement, which commends healing through prayer, laying on of hands and sacramental means such as the eucharist. He reads New Testament texts—particularly healing stories in the Gospels—in much the way he reads fairy tales and cultural legends: as reflections of universal human experience interpreted by Jungian categories such as the self and the collective unconscious. His book is frequently insightful about human experience, offers some provocative readings of texts and is potentially helpful to readers who are willing to share the author’s Jungian starting point and are comfortable with experiential readings of the Bible.
If that were as far as Sanford went in interpreting New Testament texts, the book would have more methodological coherence than it does. As Sanford moves beyond his own psychological expertise, he is on less certain ground. Numerous word studies dot the book, treating individual words as though they carried meanings in themselves (which they do not rather than being defined by their various users in diverse contexts). Sanford makes much, for example, of the various Greek words that are translated “sin” in the New Testament, allotting to each one a fixed nuance regardless of a given author’s customary usage. There are even moments when Sanford appears to decide what a word or phrase in the Gospels means despite its evident meaning, as in the case of “hardness of heart,” which Sanford describes as the sin of egocentricity but which Mark (and other biblical writers) frequently attribute to God’s action (Mark 8:17; compare Mark 4:12 and parallels; Romans 11:7–10).
This book is perhaps a better window into the categories of Jungian analysis and psychological healing from a Christian perspective than it is into the New Testament itself, although the interested reader will find much about both to ponder.
The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament
Willard M. Swartley, ed.
(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 326 pp., $29.99, paperback
Reviewed by Albert C. Winn
Those who believe that the Bible should exercise more or less direct authority over our decisions regarding war and peace, violence and nonviolence, should be grateful to the Institute of Mennonite Studies for its Studies in Peace and Scripture. In the present volume, scholars of different persuasions focus on the key issues of nonretaliation and love of enemy, using precise and sophisticated methods of biblical criticism.
Among the sayings attributed to Jesus are, of course, the command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28, 32–36) and the prohibition against revenge or retaliation (Matthew 5:38–42; Luke 6:29–31). This volume of essays explores the ways in which the New Testament advocates these two principles of Christian behavior.
Some scholars have questioned the originality and authenticity of these sayings as part of Jesus’ teaching. In the opening essay, William Klassen helpfully reviews the growing literature on this topic and defends the sayings as thoroughly consonant with Jesus’ other teachings and with his life.
More difficult than questions of originality and authenticity are those of meaning and applicability, especially regarding the nonretaliation command in Matthew 5:38–42 (“Do not resist one who is evil …”). Do these words call for one to be completely passive in the face of violence or to take fresh initiatives to resolve conflict with one’s enemies? Do they apply to personal relations among Jesus’ followers or to relations in the larger society? Dorothy Jean Weaver reviews the different scholarly views of the nonretaliation command.
Four essays are devoted to a provocative exchange between Richard Horsley and Walter Wink. Horsley, like many ethicists, holds that the Bible exercises at best an indirect authority over our present ethical decisions. He maintains that the sayings of Jesus have nothing to do with physical violence, but concern the interaction of Galilean peasants in a situation of economic oppression. Wink argues that the oppressors are Roman soldiers and the Jewish power structure, and that Jesus is here prescribing a middle way between passivity and violence, a way of embarrassing and even endangering the persecutor.
The early Church, as seen through Paul, also advocated nonretaliation (Romans 12:14–21). The scholarly debate concerns whether Paul takes this position out of genuine love for enemies or out of apocalyptic expectation that the enemies will soon receive from God the punishment they deserve. Gordon Zerbe maintains that Paul is motivated by both factors.
Two concluding essays, by Pheme Perkins and David Rensberger, treat with commendable honesty the Johannine literature’s silence on the love of enemies and its emphasis on love within the Christian community. Nonretaliation is a theme, however, in the Revelation of John, according to which vengeance is left to God.
Summarizing Swartley’s main argument: The New Testament affirms that love of enemy and nonretaliation are basic and important elements in Jesus’ teaching. Why have these elements been neglected and marginalized since the fourth century, right down to today’s church?
Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology
Richard D. Nelson
(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 192 pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Jacob Milgrom