First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. You are going to listen to a podcast about Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. When this is over, you’ll surely have earned some kind of mindless, indulgent treat, like a deep fried Twinkie or an NBC sitcom. You have my admiration simply for showing up. Kudos, my friend. Here we go, BOOK!
It might seem foolhardy to undertake three whole books in one short podcast, but I think it will work out nicely and free us up to move on quickly to the next chapter in Israel’s history and the Bible’s literary pageant. We’ve already examined Genesis and Exodus in some detail, now here’s how the rest of the Torah breaks down: Leviticus consists of more covenant law, Numbers is the story of the generation that passes before Israel is ready to finally enter the land of Canaan, and Deuteronomy is a sort of theological recap of Exodus. They are all good reads, but more important, they are all foundational for the biblical literature that follows. Remember that, technically, we have only been reading a single book by a single author or group of authors so far. After today, we will move forward and discover new genres and new perspectives on Israel’s history, but the Torah will always be square one. Nothing else can make sense without it.
OK, here we go: Leviticus.
The Latin name “Leviticus” refers to the Israelite tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and his brother Aaron. The Levite tribe was unlike the other eleven tribes of Israel, as they were set aside or “consecrated” to be priests. Instead of selecting priests from among the various tribes by some standard of personal merit, the only way to become a priest in Israel was to be born into the family of Levi. Leviticus is a repository for laws and instructions that relate specifically to the work of priests: how to make the various types of food sacrifices, laws about “clean” and “unclean” animals and activities, and rituals for people who had become “unclean” by contracting a disease or touching something designated “unclean.”
This is the “cult” of Israel, or the daily religious ritual. It also details the various feasts and holidays which the priests will oversee, including Passover, which we studied in Exodus, and the Day of Atonement, when sacrifices are made on behalf of the entire nation of Israel to “atone” or “wipe away” the guilt of their corporate sin. The laws about acceptable and unacceptable sexual practices are the only bits from Leviticus which get any press these days, and the people preaching or condemning those passages rarely recognize that this is basically a handbook for ancient priests, and shouldn’t be removed that very specific context.
The scroll we call “Numbers” is one of those long and tricky texts which at first appears to be an endless list of genealogies and names, but actually plays an important narrative and thematic role in the Torah. A quick summary of the structure of Numbers: First, a census of the people, including a breakdown of each tribe and some more details about the priests; then Israel’s departure from Mount Sinai and their adventures on the way to Canaan, including rebellions, battles, and a run-in with a pagan prophet named Balaam; then another census, and some more laws and instructions for the priests. On the surface it seems like a grab-bag of lists and little narrative pieces, but once we discover the literary structure, its purpose in the overall structure of the Torah becomes more clear.
Numbers is all about transition, the discontinuity of the people who will enter the land, but the continuity of the covenant and the leadership. It’s like this: the keys to the structure are the census at the beginning, and the census toward the end. An entire generation passes between them, so that (almost) none who were living at the time of the lawgiving at Mount Sinai are still alive when the group reaches Canaan. God states plainly in Numbers chapter 14 that this will be the case, a punishment for the peoples’ grumbling and rebellion.
However, by breaking the people down into tribes as part of that first census (in Numbers chapter 1), and organizing them by the names of Jacob’s twelve sons (Judah, Simeon, Levi, etc.), the tribal identities will survive and in that way the people will be the “same” when they enter the land. The scroll of Numbers moves the story along, but more importantly does so with all of the covenant trappings in place. Israel’s identity is now big enough and strong enough to live on beyond that first particular group of people who fled from Egypt. Israel is now an idea, ready to plant itself in the ground and become a nation. That’s the scroll of Numbers.
“Deuteronomy,” or devarim in Hebrew, is the last of the five sections of Torah. It starts and ends with narrative bits, but the bulk of the book consists of laws and admonitions to the people of Israel, presumably from the priests. There is a lot of new material, but also much that is recycled and expanded from earlier in the Torah: the Ten Commandments are repeated in a slightly different configuration, the feasts and holidays are revisited, and some of the laws from Exodus and Leviticus are restated. However, it is hard to ignore the very different tone and presentation of the laws in Deuteronomy. While the legal bits in the previous books were written down as literature, the material in Deuteronomy appears to have been designed to be read out loud. A repeated refrain throughout the book is “Hear, O Israel…” followed by some instruction, blessing, or warning.
And speaking of blessing and warning, this is perhaps the main innovation of Deuteronomy. While the laws of Exodus and Leviticus are presented as statements of identity, as simple boundary markers, Deuteronomy introduces the idea of reward for obedience to the law, and punishment for breaking the law. Not rewards or punishments doled out by the priests (though these do come up from time to time), but rather blessings and curses poured out on the people by God himself. If you obey the law, life in the land will go well, you will be victorious in battle and your crops will be healthy. If you disobey and follow another path, things will be rough for you. Your enemies will defeat you, and perhaps even – worst case scenario – carry you off into exile (file that one away for later). Note, however, that we’re still talking about very earthbound blessings and curses. This is not heaven versus hell, it’s success versus failure in this life, in this land, here and now.
Deuteronomy makes more sense if we think about the social-religious reality of Israel at this stage in its development. The first generation, the generation that left Egypt and received the law first-hand from Moses at Mt. Sinai, is gone. They’re dead. The new generation has inherited the covenant and the mission to settle the land. They didn’t experience the Red Sea or Sinai for themselves, so like any generation which inherits religion from the old folks, it needs to be retold, re-explained, expanded and supported, or it’s just not going to stick. The often passionate, sermon-like tone of the teachings in Deuteronomy – combined with the “read-aloud” format – reflects this dynamic.
One more thing about the text of Deuteronomy, and this takes us in a very different direction and a new kind of conversation here on BOOK. There is a formidable scholarly hypothesis that suggests portions of Deuteronomy were written later in Israel’s history – much later – and edited back into the scroll. Specifically, the business about blessings and curses and exile all sounds very much like theology that would have developed a thousand or so years later when Israel actually found itself threatened with imminent exile. The second book of Kings describes how King Josiah – one of the last kings of Israel before the great exile that altered their national destiny forever – discovered the long-lost “scroll of the law,” presumably Deuteronomy, and how the Israelites rejoiced and read it out loud. The redaction theory suggests that at this point the scroll was edited and updated to reflect Israel’s contemporary situation.
On the one hand, I’m always rather cautious and skeptical when it comes to hypothetical Bible redactions. Scholars have had a field day, explaining that every passage that strikes them as odd must have just been added by someone “after the fact.” These theories are fascinating, but they are ALWAYS just theories, and many times they reflect a willful ignorance of the way the literature was originally designed to work. HOWEVER, religious readers who shudder and balk at the idea of biblical redaction in general need to calm down and understand how ancient authorship worked. It is not at all unthinkable that any Bible text might have been edited, updated, or otherwise redacted – even heavily so. This is how ancient texts were developed and put together. Authorship and ownership of literature did not work then as it does now. Communities forged texts, often through oral transmission and “contemporization” to their own time and place.
We’ve already suggested that the Torah was compiled out of existing material by Israel’s priests upon the settlement of the land. That makes the whole thing a work of editing and redaction, so there’s really no reason that a later redaction would be a big problem. I’m not completely convinced by the Josian redaction theory about Deuteronomy, but I don’t see it as a problem or threat. It’s just an historically reasonable theory, and I wanted to at least introduce the notion of redaction into our study.
Deuteronomy ends with Moses pronouncing a blessing on Israel, and then breathing his last. Before he dies, Moses passes the banner of leadership over to his right-hand-man Joshua who, along with his partner Caleb, are the only two witnesses of Mount Sinai who will enter into the land. That narrative is picked up after the Torah by the book bearing Joshua’s name. We’ll look at that controversial text next time.
But that’s a wrap on our examination of the Torah. Take a deep breath. We covered a lot of material in ten short podcasts, picked apart some very complex and very old pieces of writing, and tried to wrap our brains around some very big, very foreign ideas. There is a LOT of Bible left, but the events, themes, and literary tropes of the Torah are now the currency and medium with which the later Bible authors will weave their stories. Creation and covenant, blessings and curses, offspring and land. These are the keys to connecting the biblical dots.
That’s gonna do it for today. Next time we’ll look at the first two books of the Bible after the Torah: Joshua and Judges. Very different books that are stages in the same argument. They set up a problem which is solved in the following books, Ruth and Samuel. But before any of that, I think we’ll do a fun supplement with a few “deleted scenes” from Genesis and Exodus, some juicy bits we had to leave out for time. Look for that soon.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. I would seriously love to hear from you. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.