Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

Could you help me understand the style(s) or form(s) of the literature of the book of Leviticus (sometimes called the genre), especially in relation to similar ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature?

Leviticus is a challenge.  I don’t like to invent genres without comparison with existing texts elsewhere that may establish a genre.  Here I will summarize some of the major features of Leviticus in terms of literature similar to other ANE texts and to other biblical texts, as well as what is unique, and how it all fits into the larger context of the Pentateuch.  For more discussion, see my volumes,  The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction,  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016, pp. 79-101; Israelite Religions, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007, especially pp. 112-23 and references to Leviticus in the index, pp. 418-19; and my commentary, “Leviticus,” pp. 563-826 in T. Longman III and D. E .Garland eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised Edition 1: Genesis–Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.  

Chapters 1-7 begin the book by outlining the major sacrifices.  Such sacrificial texts are common at Ugarit and among the Hittites, Babylonians, and Egyptians.  However, there are two major differences.  First 1:1-6:7 (Heb. 5:26) outline procedures primarily for laity while the remaining texts address the priests.  The former begins with offerings that have an aroma pleasing to the LORD while the second half emphasize atonement.  There is overlap but this distinction enables the offerer to focus on what they should or want to present.  Such a handbook is unknown elsewhere in the ANE.  Second, sin or purification offerings are primarily West Semitic.  In Babylon and elsewhere sacrifices serve to feed the deity.  However, such atonement sacrifices may occur at the 13 th century BC West Semitic city of Ugarit (near the Mediterranean Sea in modern Syria) as well.  Even this, however, is unique to the Bible because the priest receives back part of these sin and guilt offerings for food.  Such an act is unusual because such offerings were thought to possess sin and thus would render the priest unclean.  This is not the case in Israel – sin does not have this property.

Chapters 8-10 describe the installation of the high priest, a ritual also known at 13th century Emar with many parallels in the text, e.g., about 7 days of rites and most importantly the act of anointing the priestly figure with oil.  For a summary see my  Israelite Religions, pp. 113-15.  These are the only texts in the ANE and Bible that have such parallels.  For ch. 10 and the significance of the strange fire as a foreign cultic rite (in the Emar text also occurring on the last day) see my “Leviticus 10:1: Strange Fire and an Odd Name,”  Bulletin for Biblical Research 12 (2002) 187-198.

For clean and unclean foods in ch. 11 see Israelite Religions, pp. 187-89.  The parallel (genre?) is Deut 14 (cf. Gen 1).  There are such categories among the Hittites and elsewhere but no similar texts that I know of.

The following chs. on childbirth, skin diseases, and the derivative mildew and bodily discharges also are unique texts to Israel.  Only here was all of this related to the high value on the (re)production of human life and its preservation.  Therefore, the discharge of bodily fluids connected with reproduction (semen, vaginal blood and fluid) rendered one unclean because they compromised the integrity of the body and its reproduction (see my discussions, conveniently in  The Old Testament) or the skin appearing to take on the appearance of a dead body.  I am not aware of something similar elsewhere.  

The Day of Atonement resembles a text at Ugarit (Israelite Religions, pp. 104-7, text KTU 1.40), which the Ugaritic scholar Dennis Pardee describes as a ritual of national unity.  I would bring that text closer to Lev 16 than Pardee, and would agree that there is something of a similar genre.  The remainder of the Holiness Code (chs. 17-26) is not unlike the Deuteronomic codes (chs. 12-26) except that it deals more with how people can be holy before God, suggested by the unique chiasm that focuses on ch. 19 and the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Special attention should be given to the cultic calendar in ch. 23.  Only 13th century BC Emar has produced such a calendar of more than one or two months (Lev 23 and Emar are 6-7 months in length) describing the major festivals.  Of all the biblical cultic calendars (Exod, 23; 34; Num 28-29; Deut 16), the Lev 23 most closely resembles the Emar text in form, structure, and content.  See  Israelite Religions, pp. 118-22; “Multi-Month Ritual Calendars in the West Semitic World: Emar 446 and Leviticus 23,” pp. 233-253 in J. Hoffmeier and A. Millard eds.,  The Future of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

The curses and blessings have a role similar to those at the end of some ANE legal collections and treaties (e..g, the last major sections of the laws of Hammurabi, xlvii.79–li.91;  Context of Scripture vol. 2 text 131, pp. 351-53).  The subject of vows and things dedicated seems to be an addendum to further guide people away from sin in these areas. 

In general, the book of Leviticus continues the laws and responses of Israel in the second half of Exodus.  There, following the acceptance of the covenant and the people’s feast with God (ch. 24) this continues as God accompanies them to the Promised Land (his gift in the covenant relationship) by instructing and building a tent for his presence to be with them (Tabernacle).  With the Tabernacle built, the necessary sacrifices (Lev 1-7, now including atonement in light of Exod 32) and the institution of those who oversee the sacrifices (Lev 8-10) are given as well as their special requirements for holiness and their responsibility to teach the rest of Israel (ch. 10).  The remainder of the book reflects on matters for fostering cleanness and holiness with a special focus on ch. 19 which repeats many of the 10 Commandments.  There is no single genre that encompasses everything here.  However, the text of Leviticus engages in other related texts in the Bible and the ANE, creating its own instruction and story, and preparing for the journey of the camp to the Promised Land that begins in the following book.

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