Priestly Theology, #5

A Partial List of Purification Procedures
These are the kinds of things an Israelite must do to become pure again following any type of impurity. First the list and then the big point at the end:

  • Waiting until sundown, after which one is pure again.
  • Bathing (immersion in water) and waiting until sundown.
  • Bathing, washing clothes, and waiting until sundown.
  • Waiting for longer periods, such as seven days.
  • Being declared clean by a priest and then undergoing a purification ritual.
  • Being sprinkled with water containing ashes of the red heifer on the third and seventh day.
  • Bringing offerings, including a “sin” offering (which should be called rather a purification offering, since it is not only for sin).

The Big Point: None of these are incantations. None involve magic. Even the cleansing ceremony for the “leper” (scale-diseased person) does not heal them, but symbolically purifies them after they are already clean. Impurity is not demonic. Purification is not magic. The whole system is about symbolically keeping God’s Presence at the Temple separate from sin and death (the symbolic meaning of impurity is death or loss of life).

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Priestly Theology, #4

Two verses, seemingly obscure and nearly never quoted, are key pieces of information for understanding purity, atonement, sacrifice, and the overall purpose of much of what is in Torah:

Leviticus 15:31,Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.

Numbers 19:20, If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Lord’s sanctuary.

Read Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.

Priestly Theology, #3

Divination (omenology). Incantation (manipulation of the beyond-realm with words and rituals). Curse. Evil eye. Necromancy (conjuring shades, spirits of the dead).

The ancients believed gods and goddesses were not transcendent. They possessed powers over nature (though often even the gods required “magic” items or incantations to exercise their power).

Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics) quotes the Assyriologist W.G. Lambert:

The impression is gained that everyday religion [in Mesopotamia] was dominated by fear of evil powers and black magic rather than the worship of the gods . . . the world was conceived to be full of evil demons who might cause trouble in the sphere of life. If they had attacked, the right ritual should effect the cure. . . . Humans, as well as devils, might work evil against a person by the black arts, and here too the appropriate ritual was required.

So, Milgrom gives the great principle of the Torah: “It posits the existence of one supreme God . . . only one creature remains with ‘demonic’ power — the human being.” We will see in this series how the real trouble in the world is not so much demonic, but human — according to Torah (though Torah recognizes also a sub-divine realm of heavenly beings and powers as well).

See Part 1.
See Part 2.

Priestly Theology, #2

In Part 1 (see it here) we talked about the “realm beyond the gods” in ancient thought (the metadivine realm, as Jacob Milgrom calls it). We said that much of the Torah is about negating the idea of a realm which is above and beyond God.

Much of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion was about bringing blessing from the gods through appeasing them. But as a measure of last resort, people believed humans could (weakly, and with only a small chance of success) tap into the metadivine realm (magic). Using incantations priests could exert pressure on deities. The gods and goddesses were masters of the metadivine realm, but they were lower and subject to its power. So humans could sometimes thwart the gods with this power. In Part 3 we’ll see more about how the Priestly Theology of the Torah undermines the idea of anything to which God is subject.

Priestly Theology, #1

Is there something higher than God? Near Eastern religion (a.k.a. paganism, polytheism, Mesopotamian and Egyptian idolatry) did not believe that the highest power was deity. The gods and goddesses were on a level above humans and nature, but below a higher realm — call it magic. Jacob Milgrom calls it the metadivine realm (meta = beyond, so the “realm beyond the gods”).

The first step in understanding the creation narratives in Genesis, the instructions for the Tabernacle, the regulations for offerings, and so on, is to grasp that Torah stands in opposition to the idea of a metadivine realm.

REFERENCE: I’ll be mentioning Jacob Milgrom a lot in this series. His one-volume commentary on Leviticus has an article called “The Priestly Theology of Chapters 1-16” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004). For serious study, I highly recommend all three volumes by Milgrom on Leviticus in the Anchor-Yale series.

In this series, I will give short summaries of ideas in the thought of Torah as it related to the ancient world of Mesopotamia and Egypt (the Near East) in which Israel was centrally located. I teach a class called “In the Days of Torah: Purity & Temple.” I’m offering it live here in Atlanta Jan 15, 2012. I may offer it as an online class in the future. If you’d like to be on a list of people interested in an online class, email me at yeshuaincontext at gmail (or if you’d like to come Jan 15 to the class in Atlanta).

Hints of the Patriarchal Past, Pt 9

This is the ninth and final installment in this series. We began noting early on something interesting about place names in the Patriarchal stories and moved on the the realization that the Divine Name was unknown to the Patriarchs. Moses inserted the Divine Name in retelling the stories. Moberly (The Old Testament of the Old Testament) brings up another fascinating point. Names like "Israel" have the "-el" ending and not the "-yahu" ending more familiar in later Israelite names. This is because the name Israel (and place names like Bethel also) predate the revelation to Moses. Hmm, evidence that Israel really did exist long before the Torah was written down? Otherwise, we'd call the nation Isra-yahu!

Hints of the Patriarchal Past, Pt 8

This series began with the notion that the Israelites were very familiar with stories of Abraham, of Laban, of Sarah, Jacob, Rachel and others from the Patriarchal Age. We get only glimpses of a rich past in the Torah and hints of much more than is recorded. The shocking realization along the way is that the Patriarchs did not know the Divine Name but worshipped only by the titles El, Elohim, El Shaddai, El Elyon, and similar. The Patriarchal stories are, as Moberly puts it, the “Old Testament of the Old Testament.” And when retold in Torah, the Divine Name as well as other anachronisms were included. In other words, part of what God revealed to Moses was that the ancient faith of the Patriarchs was true, needed to be revived, and would be added to — but the new Sinai-faith was in continuity with what had come before. JUMP TO THE FINAL POST, PART 9 –>>