The Grand Scheme of Leviticus

Vayikra — Leviticus 1:1-5:26

By Gary Rendsburg

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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A brilliant insight by one of the major biblical commentators of the Middle Ages is the discovery by Ramban (that is, Nahmanides, 1194-1270) that the tripartite division of the Tabernacle reflects the similar tripartite division of Mount Sinai. According to Exodus 19 and 24, during the revelation of the Decalogue, (a) the people as a whole occupied the lower slopes; (b) Aaron, his two sons and the elders were permitted halfway up the mountain, and (c) only Moses was allowed on the summit. Ramban noted that, in like fashion, the priestly instructions in Exodus 25-40 and the book of Leviticus permit (a) the people as a whole to visit the outer court of the Tabernacle, in which the main altar was situated; (b) the priests to enter the inner sanctuary, which contained the table, the lamp stand and the incense altar, and (c) only the high priest to enter the holy of holies, or innermost sanctum, which housed the ark of the covenant.

One of the major discoveries of modern biblical scholarship is the recent contribution by Mary Douglas (in her book “Leviticus as Literature” [Oxford University Press, 1999]) to project this tripartite division of the Tabernacle onto the literary structure of the book of Leviticus. According to her analysis, (a) chapters 1-17 correspond to the outer court; (b) chapters 18-24 correspond to the sanctuary and (c) chapters 25-27 correspond to the holy of holies. One further notes that each chunk of literature corresponds in relative size to the different parts of the Tabernacle, with part (a) the largest, part (b) middle sized and part (c) the smallest.

In addition to this larger picture, Douglas has proposed that the biblical author envisioned the individual chapters of Leviticus displayed on the plan of the Tabernacle, thereby providing the reader with a virtual tour of Israel’s desert shrine as one proceeds through the book (see the accompanying diagram). Thus, for example, a) the first section includes the details concerning the sacrifices (chapters 1-7), which were performed in the outer courtyard, and the laws of purity (chapters 12-15), which governed who could enter the Tabernacle; b) the second section includes the laws concerning the priesthood (chapter 21-22) and the description of the lamp stand and the table (chapter 24:1-9), both of which relate to the inner sanctuary, and c) the third section focuses on the blessings and curses that will arise if Israel either observes or disobeys the covenant (chapter 26), which is embodied by the ark of the covenant housed in the innermost sanctum.

The layout of the chapters proposed by Douglas places the two narrative units of Leviticus, which interrupt the presentation of the cultic regulations, and whose presence in the book has always puzzled scholars, before the two screens that divide the Tabernacle into three parts. Chapters 8-10 relate the investiture of Aharon and his sons and the strange fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu, while Leviticus 24:10-23 is the rather extraordinary tale about the man who blasphemes God. The first of these units, chapters 8-10, is situated in the diagram before the masak that separates the outer court and the sanctuary, while Leviticus 24:10-23 is positioned before the paroket that separates the sanctuary from the holy of holies. One can only marvel at the mind of a master scholar such as Douglas in discovering this literary structure.

As we commence the reading of the book of Leviticus this week with portion Vayikra, filled as it is with arcane details of ancient rituals, it is easy to lose track of the fact that we still are reading literature. The grand scheme is a thing of beauty.

Gary Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie professor of Jewish history and chair of the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.


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