Still Relevant – VaYikra83

D'var Torah | Leviticus

Professor Jacob Milgrom offers a surprising explanation of the purpose of the book of Leviticus. While the text centers mostly on priestly laws, the subtext is the eradication of pagan religion (Leviticus, p. 8ff). The basic premises of pagan religion, Milgrom writes, are threefold. First, the gods themselves are dependent upon and influenced by a higher realm. Second, this higher realm spawns a host of deities both good and evil. And third, were humans capable of tapping into this supernal realm they would gain the magical power to force the gods themselves into doing their bidding. Priestly theology, that is, the ideas inherent in the Book of Leviticus, negates these three premises.

Fundamental to the Book of Leviticus is the presumption of one supreme God who is peerless and whose power is absolute. There are no autonomous foes of the One God. The only demonic force – if it could be conceptualized this way – is the human being who willfully violates God’s laws. Pagans secured the protection of a benevolent deity by feeding, housing, and worshipping it. The Book of Leviticus seemingly refers to the same activities, featuring extensive excurses on sacrifices and the place they were to be offered. The difference is that pagans needed to protect the sacred precincts from malevolent forces from both the higher and lower realms while the Book of Leviticus intends to make the sacred precincts a place to purge human beings of their moral and ritual sins. Milgrom calls this dramatic difference “the thoroughgoing evisceration of the demonic.”

The process of evisceration is nearly immediate. All sacrifices were to be offered on the outer altar in the open courtyard (Leviticus 2:1). Here, the offering was visible to all and, more importantly, far removed from the inner sanctum, the purported domicile of God. The implication was clear. Levitical sacrifices were not intended to be food for God. Moreover, the entire sacrificial ritual was conducted in silence, in stark contrast with the incantations that necessarily accompanied pagan rites.

While it is a commonplace to think of the book of Leviticus – with the exception of the Holiness Code beginning with chapter 19 – as largely irrelevant, modern Biblical scholarship casts a new light on the text. While the ritual of sacrifices is no longer performed, the embedded message that there is but One supreme God, incomparable and autonomous, is still apropos.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter