Priestly Source Week 1 Reading Guide


Many readers have trouble appreciating the “ritual” components of the Priestly Source. Ritual is often compared negatively to moral ideals. Yet for the Priestly Source the proper operation of the priestly cult played an essential role in maintaining the balance of the cosmos, and linked the human and divine realms. In Israel and the ancient Near East, crimes against the gods are crimes against society, and ritual laws cannot be separated from ethical laws. At least for some interpreters, maintaining a life of ritual purity, as prescribed by P, maintained the discipline and reminders for moral ideals. For other interpreters, purity was a more subconscious manifestation of the attempt to make sense of the world around us and our place in it. Every small instance of purity was a component of a holistic life and the maintenance of order against chaos.

Leviticus 10–16

Our concerns will be slightly different in Leviticus 10, 11–15, and 16. Leviticus 10 relates the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons. Leviticus 8–9 had related the eight-day procedure culminating in the inauguration of the sanctuary and the priesthood. As one of my teachers put it, the sanctuary is like a nuclear power plant. The potential benefits are great, but the consequences for errors in personnel or procedure are disastrous.

Leviticus 11–15 outlines the sources and resolutions of ritual impurity. The readings will discuss attempts to find a coherent system in all this, or you could try to find one yourself.

Leviticus 16 is strikingly different in language and style than the rest of Leviticus. It describes the annual purgation of the sanctuary, known as Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Recall Collins’ discussion.

Kugel, “Worship in the Wilderness [part 1]” (pp. 441–451)

Usually the pre-modern interpretations in Kugel are fun because they seem creative and far expansive from the simple sense. In this case, they may seem to be the obvious interpretation, but they are not. For example, Leviticus 11 does not say the food laws have metaphorical significance, and Leviticus 16 does not use the word “repent.”

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, pp. 41–57. New York: Praeger, 1966. (PDF)

This reading is a classic, even if certain details require revision. Douglas was an anthropologist, and situated the priestly ritual laws in the context of human society and culture. The idea is that every culture has notions of impurity and taboo, even if the details vary and seem silly to other cultures.

The following should roughly outline the reading, but leaves room for clarification and perhaps improved formulation.

Klawans, Jonathan. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, pp. v–ix, 21–42. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. (PDF)

It is important to be clear that in P purity is a prerequisite for holiness, they are not identical. It is better to think of holy as the opposite of profane and pure as the opposite of impure, with holy and impure as inimical. Klawans distinguishes ritual impurity and moral impurity. The rest of Klawans’ book goes on to look at other Jewish texts, and how they interpreted, adapted, or misunderstood the P system.

Again, a rough outline as a basis for elaboration...

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp. 42–51, Anchor Bible 3. New York: Doubleday, 1991. (PDF)

It may be the case that moral impurity cannot be fully resolved, and the only good way to deal with sin is to avoid it. Nevertheless, some of the consequences could be cleaned up through sacrificial ritual. Sin causes moral impurity which pollutes the shrine (not by physical contact), and penetrates according to the severity of the sin. God is holy, and does not tolerate impurity. If you want God to dwell in your shrine, you have to keep it pure. That’s where the purgation offerings come in.

Again, general points from Milgrom...

For more on the consequences of sin and the resolution thereof, as far as the sanctuary in concerned, see Milgrom, Jacob. “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’.” Revue Biblique, no. 83 (1976): 390–399. (PDF)