Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Structure of Leviticus

Leviticus is a Latin word derived from the Greek Leuītikos, meaning “levitical”, or “having to do with Levites”. The third book of the Old Testament is not the only place we find the Law of Moses laid out in detail for us: Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy preserve laws as well, but they are primarily historical books. Leviticus is unusual in that it contains almost nothing else but law after law after law.

There are three notable exceptions. We will definitely get to those.

From the Mouth of God

These laws came directly from the mouth of God himself. The text insists on it. It begins with “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying …” in 1:1 and finishes with “These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” in 27:34. So these laws were not merely something influential Israelite men cooked up between themselves as a way of organizing and maintaining control over their developing society, and to which God’s name was later appended in order to invest their ideas with greater authority.

To ensure the reader is in no doubt about that, there are constant reminders. A little formula repeats 37 times throughout the book. In Hebrew it is יְהֹוָה דָבַר מֹשֶׁה or some variant thereof, translated as “the Lord called to Moses”, “the Lord spoke to Moses” or “the Lord said to Moses”, and in several instances where the subject concerns the priesthood, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron”.

Every major subject addressed in the Law of Moses begins with some version of this formula. It is a bold claim to divine authorship that makes it difficult for readers to hedge their bets on the inspiration question where Leviticus is concerned: either God said these things or he did not. There is no fence to straddle.

The Chiastic Structure of Leviticus

Multiple writers believe Leviticus has a chiastic structure. A chiasm (or chiasmus) is a literary device in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. There are numerous identifiable chiasms in Hebrew scripture, so this is not at all improbable. Here are two proposals which divide the book up as a seven-part chiasmus, here is a third, and here is yet another. A seven-part chiasmus may be represented visually something like this:

A  B  C  X  C  B  A

where ‘X’ is the nexus, or central idea, bracketed by three sets of parallel concepts (‘A/A’, ‘B/B’ and ‘C/C’).

If these scholars are correct, Leviticus is undoubtedly the grandest chiasmus in all of scripture. But I question whether they really are, not least because the writers who identify a chiasmus in Leviticus cannot come to any sort of agreement about where its component parts begin and end. If such a structure were really intended by its author, it ought to be a little more universally recognized.

The appeal of the chiasmus theory is pointed out by Peter Leithart, who also mentions the 37 instances of “the Lord spoke to Moses”, and notes that the 19th or central reference falls right at the beginning of chapter 16, which I have called the second (and central) historical interlude: the first Day of Atonement. Leithart is undoubtedly correct that the Day of Atonement is the lynchpin on which the book turns, but maybe it is better that we infer its significance from the fact that it is neatly bracketed by 18 instances of “the Lord spoke to Moses” on each side, or from the fact that it is the central of three rare historical interludes in the book, rather than from artificial divisions we impose on chapters 1-15 and chapters 17-27 about which no two scholars agree. (One doesn’t even place the Day of Atonement at the center of his chiasm.)

The problem with making Leviticus a chiasmus is that every proposed chiastic structure for the book is forced to cram like and unlike subject matter together at one point or another in order to arrive at a desirable symmetry. To my mind they self-defeat on that basis alone.

The Structure of Leviticus

The following proposal is nowhere near so elegant as the literary equivalent of a menorah, but I like to think it observes the necessary distinctions in the subject matter of Leviticus that are otherwise obscured. Your milage may vary.

  1. Sacrificial laws:
    Burnt offerings (1:1-17)
    Grain offerings (2:1-16)
    Peace offerings (3:1-17)
    Sin offerings (4:1-5:13)
    Guilt offerings (5:14-6:7)
    Administration of the offerings by the priests (6:8-7:38)
  2. Historical interlude #1: Consecration (8:1-9:24) and judgment (10:1-20)

  3. Cleanliness laws:
    Dietary laws (11:1-47)
    Purification after childbirth (12:1-8)
    Identification of leprosy (13:1-59)
    Cleansing lepers (14:1-32)
    Cleansing houses (14:33-57)
    Bodily discharges (15:1-33)
  4. Historical interlude #2: The first Day of Atonement (16:1-34)

  5. Holiness laws:
    Sacrificing to other gods (17:1-9)
    Eating blood (17:10-16)
    Appropriate sexual relations (18:1-30)
    Consumption of peace offerings (19:5-8)
    Treatment of neighbors (19:9-18)
    Miscellaneous statutes (19:19-37)
    Punishments for various violations (20:1-27)
    Priestly cleanliness (21:1-22:16)
    Acceptable offerings (22:17-31)
  6. Feast laws (23:1-44):
    Sabbath (23:3)
    Passover (23:4-8)
    Firstfruits (23:9-14)
    Weeks (23:15-22)
    Trumpets (23:23-25)
    Day of Atonement (23:26-32)
    Booths (23:33-43)
  7. Tabernacle laws:
    Lamps (24:1-4)
    Bread (24:5-9)
  8. Historical interlude #3: Judgment (24:10-16)

  9. Compensation laws (24:17-23)
  10. Reset laws:
    Fields (25:1-7)
    Jubilee (25:8-22)
    Return of property (25:23-34)
    Restoration of impoverished Israelites (25:35-55)
  11. Consequences of corporate obedience/disobedience:
    Obedience (26:1-13)
    Disobedience (26:14-46)
  12. Law of vows (27:1-33)

Leviticus and History

A quick glance down the entries on the above list shows the stark difference between Leviticus and all the other books we are told were written by Moses. Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are historical books that contain laws. Leviticus is a law book with three brief historical hiccups all of which are concerned with judgments — the account of the very first Day of Atonement being bookended by two cases of imposed law which both ended in capital punishment.

“Hiccup” is probably a poor description; it strikes me that God is highly unlikely to have interrupted his 27-chapter-long recitation of law three times like this unless these interludes were of crucial importance. Their placement here is no accident.

But of course looking at these interludes more carefully is going to take another post or two …

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