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Illuminating Leviticus

A Study of Its Laws and Institutions in the Light of Biblical Narratives

Calum Carmichael

Publication Year: 2006

The origin of law in the Hebrew Bible has long been the subject of scholarly debate. Until recently, the historico-critical methodologies of the academy have yielded unsatisfactory conclusions concerning the source of these laws which are woven through biblical narratives. In this original and provocative study, Calum Carmichael—a leading scholar of biblical law and rhetoric—suggests that Hebrew law was inspired by the study of the narratives in Genesis through 2 Kings. Discussing particular laws found in the book of Leviticus—addressing issues such as the Day of Atonement, consumption of meat that still has blood, the Jubilee year, sexual and bodily contamination, and the treatment of slaves—Carmichael links each to a narrative. He contends that biblical laws did not emerge from social imperatives in ancient Israel, but instead from the careful, retrospective study of the nation’s history and identity.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-x

This book is an attempt to transform our understanding of the laws of Leviticus, to show that while these laws may well seem excessively dry and strange, fundamentally— and startlingly—they concern some of the most dramatic incidents and famous personages in biblical sources. We will encounter, among others, Noah of the Flood narrative, the Philistines of the plague narrative,...

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Introduction: The Nature of Biblical Law

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pp. 1-10

A marked feature of biblical laws is that they are mainly attributed to Moses. Examples are the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21:2–23:19, the laws in Deuteronomy 12–26, and the rules in the books of Numbers and Leviticus. Only exceptionally does God communicate rules directly: on permission to kill animals for meat and on homicide to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9, on circumcision to Abraham...

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1 Looking at Leviticus: Leviticus 10–14

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pp. 11-26

A reader of Leviticus comes away with the overwhelming impression that Moses gives the laws therein to his contemporaries and their future descendants. The laws he produces inaugurate the cult and ordain how it is to function and how both priests and laity are to relate to it. The text clearly communicates that the events of Moses’s life that occur in Egypt and that happen on his and his people’s trek...

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2 Genital Impurity in the Lineages of David and Jonathan: Leviticus 15

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pp. 27-36

What prompted the lawgiver in Leviticus 15 to focus next on the topic of bodily or genital uncleanness (among Israelites in general), first of males and then of females? If the sequence of the rules in Leviticus 12–15 was based on the rules’ topics following logically one to the next, we would have expected the order: childbirth, female discharges, male discharges,...

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3 The Day of Atonement: Leviticus 16

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pp. 37-52

Jewish tradition links the Day of Atonement with the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. The book of Jubilees in the Pseudepigrapha (second century B.C.E.) explicitly connects them. A poetic version, ’eleh ezkerah (“These things I remember”), of the Midrash ‘asarah harugei malkhut, which is recited on the Day of Atonement (in Ashkenazi ritual), recalls how the death of ten Jewish martyrs during the...

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4 The Slaughter of Animals: Leviticus 17:2–9

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pp. 53-65

In this chapter I wish to take issue with a problem that has played a major role in the study of the Old Testament. The rule in Lev 17:2–7 has been understood by conventional scholarship to provide crucial support for a theory that makes a distinction (in time and character) between Leviticus and Deuteronomy in regard to the slaughter of animals. I argue that the rule provides no such...

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5 The Blood Taboo: Leviticus 17:10–16

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pp. 66-79

In his commentary on the book of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom claims that the priestly class in ancient Israel rated above the Ten Commandments the prohibition against ingesting the blood of an animal when consuming its flesh. The Decalogue was for Israel, but the blood prohibition was for all of humankind (Lev 17:10–16; Gen 9:1–7). He also attaches considerable weight to the fact that the blood prohibition is a major theme of an entire chapter of...

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6 Mourning and Marriage Rules for Priests: Leviticus 21

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pp. 80-95

A rule in Lev 21:1–6 restricts to close family members those persons a priest can mourn in a formal, ritualized manner. A long-recognized, very puzzling element presents itself. The rule excludes a wife from the circle of intimates. Her husband is not to engage in any outward lamentation for her passing. The following rule in Lev 21:7, 8, which is not separated from the previous one, restricts in turn a priest from...

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7 Life and Lies of David: Leviticus 22 and 23

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pp. 96-109

The primary focus of the author of Leviticus is the narrative traditions about the early history of the priesthood. From the time of the Judges, for example, there is the story of the Levite priest whose raped wife dies at the hands of a mob of Benjaminites. In the intertribal war that follows to avenge the outrage, many of the culprits die. The continuation of the tribe of Benjamin is only ensured when the other...

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8 Blasphemies: Leviticus 24

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pp. 110-121

Why should the lawgiver have singled out the sanctuary lamp and the Sabbath showbread offering as the two items pertaining to the sanctuary when he could have highlighted so many others? Jacob Milgrom mentions, for example, the provision of the daily incense and the anointment oil (Exod 35:8, 27, 28).1 Why also do the injunctions about the sanctuary lamp and the Sabbath...

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9 The Year of Jubilee: Leviticus 25

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pp. 122-138

Despite confounding interpreters as to its original meaning, the institution of the Year of Jubilee has captured the imagination of religious thinkers and political reformers down through the centuries. Going back some two and a half thousand years, the law establishing it continues to stimulate models for liberation from oppressive forces, for reconciliation, and for new...

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10 Three Laws on the Release of Slaves: Exodus 21:2–11, Deuteronomy 15:12–18, and Leviticus 25:39–46

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pp. 139-160

I address in this chapter one of the most enduring problems in the history of Pentateuchal criticism. The three laws on the manumission of slaves, all from Moses, are set down at different points throughout the Pentateuch, and the directions in one law are seen to be at odds with those in each of the other two. Even the Talmudic authorities had great difficulty in demonstrating, what they felt they...

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Conclusion: The Inseparability of Biblical Laws and Narratives

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pp. 161-166

The fictional character of both the narrative and legal material is not paid enough attention. While critics are aware that Moses did not give the laws in his own lifetime, they still persist in viewing them as the product of the real-life experiences of later Israelites. It is puzzling why this is so. Part of the explanation may be that we like to identify with people’s actual lives, not with...


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pp. 167-168


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pp. 169-200

Index of Biblical Sources

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pp. 201-209

Subject Index

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pp. 210-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889639
E-ISBN-10: 0801889634
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801885006
Print-ISBN-10: 0801885000

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 213306072
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Illuminating Leviticus

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Subject Headings

  • Bible. O.T. Historical Books -- Relation to Leviticus.
  • Jewish law.
  • Bible. O.T. Leviticus -- Relation to the Historical books.
  • Bible. O.T. Genesis -- Relation to Leviticus.
  • Bible. O.T. Leviticus -- Relation to Exodus.
  • Bible. O.T. Exodus -- Relation to Leviticus.
  • Bible. O.T. Leviticus X-XXV -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Narration in the Bible.
  • Bible. O.T. Leviticus -- Relation to Genesis.
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