The intellectual and spiritual leadership of ancient Israel, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible, was divided into three groups: priests, prophets and wisdom teachers. Their pronouncements are, in the main, concentrated in the three sections of the Hebrew Bible respectively: the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. Prophets, of course, contains the messages of, and stories about, the prophets; Writings includes the legacy of wisdom teachers (for example, Proverbs, Job, Koheleth [Ecclesiastes]). But where in the Pentateuch or for that matter anywhere in the Bible is there a single pronouncement attributed to a priest?
Surprisingly enough, there are only two places where God addresses Aaron, the founder of the priesthood, directly. These only involve in-house matters: priestly safeguards and perquisites (Numbers 18 and Leviticus 10:8–9). Otherwise, God speaks to Aaron only through the medium of Moses, even regarding the priestly functions in the sanctuary. But when it comes to legal and theological pronouncements, in which the Pentateuch especially abounds, Aaron and his successors play no role at all. The silence of Israel’s priests contrasts sharply with their counterparts in contemporary Egypt and Mesopotamia. There, the priests were the sole transmitters of the divine word, which they safe-guarded jealously in their temples.
The truth is, however, that in Israel the situation was in many ways not very different. Israel’s Temple was also the authoritative archive of divine instructions, a fact acknowledged by the prophets themselves. Jeremiah states categorically: “Divine instruction [torah] shall not fail from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor oracle from the prophet” (Jeremiah 18:18). Here, not only do we see the identical troika of Israel’s spiritual leaders, but also that the knowledge of divine instruction is the particular expertise of the priests.1
How then can we explain the total silence of the priests in the Bible? The answer is simply this: Israel’s priests spoke in rituals, not in words. As we learn from anthropologists: “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…[P]eople express in ritual what moves them most, and since form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory it is the values of the group (italics added) that are revealed.”2 These basic values of Israel’s priesthood are in the main ethical, and are ensconced in the rituals prescribed in the priestly texts of the Pentateuch. In this initial column, I shall limit myself to the priestly impurity rules contained in Leviticus 12–15 and Numbers 19.
From the start it must be admitted that these impurity rules make no sense medically or hygienically. For example, the detailed symptomology of skin disease in Leviticus 13 (wrongly translated as “leprosy”a) corresponds, in the main, to noncontagious ailments such as psoriasis. Yet, to judge by the plethora of Mesopotamian texts dealing with the diagnosis of virulent diseases, it is fair to assume that Israel was aware of contagious diseases as well. Why, then, doesn’t the Bible list them as impure? The same holds true for genital discharges declared impure in Leviticus 12 and 15. Some discharges like semen and menstrual flow are not even pathological. And if these natural secretions are impure, what of those emanating from other orifices of the body: oral mucus, perspiration and especially urine and feces?
These questions should lead us to suspect that the biblical impurity laws have nothing to do with disease. They constitute a symbolic system unified by a basic rationale. That rationale becomes clear as soon as we realize that priestly impurity generated only from three sources: certain skin diseases, genital discharges and carcasses or corpses (Leviticus 11; Numbers 19). Their common denominator is death. Male genital discharge is semen; female, blood. These represent the force of life, and their loss represents death. The designation of certain skin ailments as impure also becomes comprehensible with the realization that the priests focused not on disease per se but on the appearance of disease. Thus moldy fabrics and fungus on the walls of homes (Leviticus 13:47–58, 14:35–53) are also singled out not because they are diseased, but because they give that appearance. So too the few varieties of skin diseases afflicting humans: their oozing, scaling appearance is that of vital deterioration. When Miriam contracts a skin disease, Moses prays, “Let her not be like a corpse” (Numbers 12:12). The wasting of the body, the common characteristic of the highly visible, biblically impure skin diseases, symbolizes the death process as much as the loss of genital blood and semen. This, then, is what Israel’s priests are saying: Impurity stands for the forces of death. Hence, one should eschew impurity. But if it is unavoidable, the appropriate rite of purification should be followed.
The priestly system is not just negative—seeking the avoidance of impurity/death. 013It also provides the antidote, a positive plan of action subsumed under the word “holy” (Hebrew qadosh), which is the antonym of “impure” (Hebrew tame’).
If the impure symbolizes the forces of death, holiness then symbolizes the forces of life.
The source of holiness is God, and Israel is enjoined to a life of godliness—“You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This requirement is followed by a series of commandments in which the ritual is intertwined with the ethical, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall love him [the alien] as yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). As long as Israel serves God by obeying his commandments, it overcomes the forces of impurity/death.
In my next column, I shall deal with the dietary laws, in particular the blood prohibition of Leviticus 17 and the prohibited animals of Leviticus 11. These laws provide additional evidence of the attempt by the priests to inculcate their ethical teachings not through words but through rituals. Readers of BR who want to pursue this topic on a deeper, more technical level might wish to consult my commentary, Leviticus 1–16.3
The intellectual and spiritual leadership of ancient Israel, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible, was divided into three groups: priests, prophets and wisdom teachers. Their pronouncements are, in the main, concentrated in the three sections of the Hebrew Bible respectively: the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. Prophets, of course, contains the messages of, and stories about, the prophets; Writings includes the legacy of wisdom teachers (for example, Proverbs, Job, Koheleth [Ecclesiastes]). But where in the Pentateuch or for that matter anywhere in the Bible is there a single pronouncement attributed to a priest? Surprisingly enough, there are only […]
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