Holiness Code Week 1 Reading Guide

Holiness Code

Think about what holiness means to you.
Write down what holiness means to you.
Forget what holiness means to you.
Over four weeks we will encounter several attempts to articulate what holiness meant to the Priestly source. Forget about “serene” or “peaceful,” and start thinking “dangerous, ominous.” There may be an argument for thinking of holiness as related to righteousness, but that argument does not go without saying, and is not automatically implicit in the use of the term. Pay attention to how holiness is described. To start with, use a base meaning of “separate, restricted, cut off from the mundane world and ordinary use.” Some will suggest a secondary meaning of “whole, complete, integrated, properly ordered.” See if you can revise these definitions or come up with a better definition of your own. Purity is a related but distinct concept. “Belonging to God” may be a tad circular without further explanation.

English has more words than Hebrew. For our purposes we will treat as synonymous all forms of “holy” and “sacred” (including consecrate, sanctify, sancta). Similarly, “profane” and “common” translate the same Hebrew word.

Collins, pp. 31–40, 85–95

Collins reviews the origin, tenets, and criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis. Although the Documentary Hypothesis is not certain in all the details, no alternative has gained traction, and it is certainly an improvement over the older idea that the entire Pentateuch was written by Moses. D and P are clearly distinct sources in language and theology. There are at least two older sources that can be called J and E, but they are vague, and they are sometimes just called “The Epic Tradition.” Doubt persists around the extent to which these were distinct, independent documents, and the chronological relationship between them. In addition to the new readings in Collins, recall the section we already read at the end of the chapter on Deuteronomy, pp. 105–107, on the relationship between D and P.

Collins’ chapter on P introduces issues we will continue with for the next four weeks. The Holiness Code (H) is considered a part of the Priestly Source (P), although it is distinct in several ways. At this point in the course we are breaking chronological sequence by dealing with H before the rest of P; the reason for this is that H is more closely related to D than the rest of P, and we just finished D. I think it is reasonable to think of H as P’s answer to D. The sacrificial system, the priesthood, and purity will come to the fore in the coming weeks. When considering the rigid concern for order it is worth recalling the historical context of the destruction of Jerusalem and end of Israel as a sovereign political entity.

Blenkinsopp, pp. 120–133

The Persian Period begins with Cyrus in 539 BCE, and lasts until Alexander the Great, 333 BCE. Under the Persians the Judeans were allowed to establish their own temple worship and priests, but were not allowed to have a king. The local governors were primarily responsible to the Persian central government. Before the Persian Period was the Neo-Babylonian Period (611–539 BCE). Before the Neo-Babylonians were the Assyrians.

Blenkinsopp is apparently reluctant to add to the alphabet soup, but he does discuss the question of whether P existed as a document before the work of the Redactor (R) began, or if P and R were inseparable processes, perhaps better thought of as a Priestly Redactor (PR).

Some of these names should start sounding familiar. Julius Wellhausen was at the forefront of articulating and defending the Documentary Hypothesis with P as the latest stage (1878). His historical judgments were more sound than his value judgments, which were quite derisive about anything late, Jewish, or Catholic. Yehezkel Kaufmann’s response was brilliant, but flawed in its own way (1960). We read from Kaufmann’s successor, Moshe Greenberg, earlier in the course.

Leviticus 17–26

Although there is an argument to be made against calling Leviticus 17–26 the Holiness Code, by ancient standards it does seem to have a coherent, even systematic, organization around the idea of holiness. I propose for your evaluation the following outline of H:

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Excerpts on Holiness, Ethics, and Land, pp. 1397–1405, 1711–1726. (PDF)

Milgrom is a brilliant and unassailably informed scholar. You should be aware of one way in which he is in the scholarly minority. While most scholars believe P was written during and after the Babylonian Exile, Milgrom argues that most of it predates the Exile (he cannot escape the fact that at least some of it was written later). The debate is extraordinarily complex, but you should be safe by thinking that many of the ideas and formulations existed before the Exile, even if their codification and redaction did not take place until later. I do not agree with Milgrom’s assertion that the economic conditions of the 8th century explain the ethics of H, and I certainly do not agree that the concept of exile is not to be found in the theology of the land.

Milgrom distinguishes inherent and aspirational holiness. For example, priests are inherently holy, but must maintain that holiness (through purity and ethics). Lay persons are not inherently holy, but may aspire to emulate holiness (through purity and ethics). Note that holiness is not always a good thing, and there are reasons that the land, for example, cannot be holy, per se.

Milgrom also distinguishes purity from holiness. The characteristic impure/pure is not the same as common/holy. That which is impure cannot come into contact with that which is holy. Purifying something is not the same as making it holy. We will return to purity later in the course. (Milgrom thinks the common thread of impurity is real or symbolic death. It will be necessary to distinguish ritual and moral purity.)

Milgrom sees H as unique in the integration of ethics and ritual under holiness. The theme of God as protector of the unprotected, or legal advocate of the unadvocated, is common, but H goes further in measures to prevent poverty. (Or thus says Milgrom. Deuteronomy also aspired to the ideal, “There shall be no poor among you.” Leviticus 25 does indeed go further with specifics, and seems to take this vision more seriously.)