Thibble Thursday: Carrots and Sticks (Leviticus 26:3–27:34)

During the breaks I lose track a bit of the days, so Wednesday kind of snuck up on me. Nonetheless, here we are, at long last, at the end of Leviticus! Three books of the Torah down, two to go! Here we’re in פָּרָשַׁת בחקתי (“In My Laws” portion), and back to the old JPS translation.

The quick snarky summary: Obey or die. OBEY OR DIE. OBEY OR DIE. Ahem. What was I saying? Oh yes, there’s a procedure for appraising charitable gifts to God, which the IRS may or may not approve of.


So this chapter breaks into roughly three parts: good things that will happen if the people follow the Torah law, bad things that will happen if they don’t, and a weird little postscript about the appraisal procedure for consecrating things to God.

So the first eleven verses are conditional blessings. They’re the usual promises of temporal welfare: peace and prosperity, fertility and agricultural plenty. Strangely enough, the promise of peace is followed up by a promise of victory in battle, which doesn’t really compute. The last few blessings are actually a bit more spiritual: the text mentions that God will live among the Israelites and maintain his relationship with them, which is kind of more the kind of thing I expect by way of a book of spirituality anyways. The disconnect between promise of temporal prosperity and the book of divine, spiritual significance that Jews and especially Christians want to wring out of the Bible is a bit jarring: it’s hard to reconcile a god whose highest priority is the physical comfort of his people with the spiritual redeemer of Christianity (or even the spiritual concepts of modern Judaism). But this perhaps is an inevitable result of the shifts in purposes and focuses of religion; the effect of gods on the temporal world rather than the spiritual used to be much more pronounced.

Anyways, from verse 14 to 45 there is an excruciatingly, lovingly detailed list of all the horrible calamities God will deliver upon those who do not keep faith. This sort of prophecy of doom remained popular for centuries and still is: while worldly prosperity seems a kind of trifling reward from a deity, worldly calamity to scourge out man’s evil has been a perpetually popular theme. And this scourge is certainly effectively presented! While the promise of prosperity was pretty summary, only really rising to poetic form in the description of military victory, the threat of disaster is presented with altogether too much style, with individual calamaties repeated with different stresses. These verses also seem to suggest that there’s a tiered system of punishments: first comes illness and military defeat, then drought, then wild beasts, then civil war and famine, then cannibalism and ruin.

Verses 33 to 45 seem like they may be of later or at least different authorship, because they refer particularly to a pattern of exile, and exile from the Land is a rather different theme, taken up for different reasons than this more straightforward list of misfortunes. Particularly, it’s worth noting that exile did in fact happen, and the post-exilic authors made it a prominent part of narratives and backdated prophecies. For instance, the ray of hope presented in verses 43–45 is much more indicative of later jeremiads than of the wrathful god presented in the Torah, but was an absolutely necessary component of the later prophets’ writings of dispersal and ruin: this is not quite eschatological but derives from the same impulse as much Jewish messianic prophecy does, namely, the promise of redemption.

Speaking of redemption, I have no idea what the text of Leviticus 27 is doing after this section. It’s really very anticlimactic. By any logical structuring, Leviticus 26 would be the last chapter of the book, putting the teeth into all the preceding laws. But, no, we get a pointless postscript about the proper way to fulfill vows of consecration. Consecrating humans to God isn’t really allowed as such; one can’t give God a person (even a slave, I suppose), so there’s an equivalency scale in silver, depending on age and sex (surprised that girls and women are explicitly less valuable? You shouldn’t be).

Everything except humans apparently can be “consecrated to God”, presumably meaning incorporation into the temple property. Animals are assessed by priestly judgment and can be rebought at 120% of their assessment value; houses are assessed by their lot size and then reduced in assessment value by the jubilee calendar (since, as seen last week, nothing’s actually sold, just leased until the next jubilee, so a gift of land in, say, the 48th year of a cycle isn’t worth much). Houses can also be rebought at 120% of their assessmernt value, but peculiarly, cnnsecrated land which is not redeemed does not return to the owner in the jubilee, which seems illogical in the face of the assessment reduction, which assumes return of the property in time.

Anyways, this section seems really quite badly placed, and it’s mystifying why Leviticus ends on such an irrelevant note. Genesis ended with the death of the patriarchs; Exodus with the building of the tabernacle. Leviticus by rights should’ve ended with the divine blessings and curses associated with the Law, but it didn’t. But, hey, next week we get a whole new book, and the census from which it derives its name!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Thibble Thursday: Carrots and Sticks (Leviticus 26:3–27:34)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Your note about backdated exile references caught my notice. I knew that some of that went on even before I started reading this series. However, I hadn’t put together that the cycle of turning away from god, punishment, and redemption was explicitly reinforced by later authors.

    • Jake says:

      Yeah, the dating of exactly who wrote what when is a bit murky. Historically it’s been thought that Genesis has Middle Bronze Age authorship to echo its presumably Middle Bronze Age chronology, but more recent scholarship suggests the social forms presented therein suggest that the text itself is mostly of Iron Age authorship (possibly built over MB oral-tradition plotlines). I think the middle three books of the Torah have always been ascribed significant early Iron Age authorship, but one unmistakable datum is that the entire Torah was extensively edited and redacted in the late Iron Age, during the Assyrian exile, so it’s quite likely that some of the exile references are tipped in by later editors rather than an original part of the text. At the very least, verses 26:33–45 are a latter-day addition to the text, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the entirety of chapter 26 is a late addition (compare its quasi-prophetic character and explicit promise of redemption to chapter 25 or 27, both of which are very much in line with what I except from a pre-exilic code of priestly conduct).

      There were vaguely exile-prophesying passages back in Genesis in a few places, but this is probably the most blatant one so far, and the one with the most transparent theme of redemption.

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