The value of the Pentateuch
Written on Thursday 21 November 2002 for University of Cambridge, BA Theology Part IIA
© Ben Green 2002
What possible value could the Priestly sections of the Pentateuch have had for Jews living in Exile?
Such provocative titles as this are often the easiest to get into because they suggest the expected answer. In this case it would appear that the Priestly sections of the Pentateuch were of great value for Jews living in Exile. So what are the Priestly sections of the Pentateuch? In this essay I will be basing my answer on Genesis 1-11 and 17, and Leviticus. They are clearly quite different books, and so a different definition of 'Priestly' for each book is required. For Genesis, I will be looking at the parts which were composed by the Priestly source P. These are:
1.1 - 2.4a Creation
5.1-32 Adam to Noah
6.9-22 God decides to destroy the wicked world but save the righteous Noah
7.1 - 8.22 The Flood, God's promise to Noah
9.1-17 God's covenant with Noah
10.1-32 Nations descended from Noah
11.10-32 Nations descended from Noah (continued) and
17.1-27 God's covenant with Abraham
I will be using most of Leviticus, and will be grouping the chapters together in the following way:
1.1 - 7.38 Sacrificial instruction
11.1 - 15.33 Cleanness regulations
16.1-34 The Day of Atonement
17.1 - 26.46 The Holiness Code
So now that I have defined my texts, I will move on to discuss the rest of the title. Clearly it assumes that the Priestly sections were written before or during the Exile, otherwise the question is meaningless. I think that this assumption is a valid one, because parts of the theology, for instance the Creation narrative in Genesis, are quite developed, and arguably only developed during the Exile out of the need to separate God from the land of Israel. While it is possible that the sections were written after the Exile, I think that it is unlikely because the book is written, as is Deuteronomy, into the historical situation of the Hebrews before they entered Canaan. It is highly likely therefore, that the book was written into a situation where the people were outside the land - in other words during the Exile. This is extremely important because it gives us clues as to why the sections might have been written - to justify the reason they have been exiled, perhaps, and to provide a framework for the New Israel - a way of doing things which won't get them Exiled by God again?
I will start at the beginning, the very beginning, with Genesis 1. The development of a Doctrine of Creation was hugely important for Israelite theology during the Exile, for the sole reason that it established that God was not confined to the land of Israel. As Creator, he was neither bound by nor limited to the land. In Deutero-Isaiah, for instance, the writer uses his Doctrine of Creation to show how God is in control of history - to him the nations are like a drop in a bucket. This means that when Israel and Judah were conquered, God was not destroyed. This is the conclusion that would have been reached if God was purely confined to the land. So therefore it meant that God had not abandoned the Israelites either - he was with them wherever they were, be it Babylon, Egypt, or still in Israel or Judah, and he was in control of events.1 Depending on how you interpret Genesis 1.1-2, either God created the world as a formless void and then ordered it, or he 'found' the formless void and ordered it. Either way, God has mastery over chaos, so much so that he turned it into something which is "very good".2
Also with the Doctrine of Creation comes the teaching that God created humankind in his (or their) image. 5.1-2 contains various plays on the word 'Adam', which means 'humankind', and it affirms that God made humankind in the image of God. 5.3 is extremely important because it shows that for the writers, the image of God is passed down from generation to generation. So all humans possess the imago Dei, whatever that is. It does imply however that we should perhaps try to be like God as much as we are able to - if this is what God created us to be, reflections of himself, then we should strive to fulfil that purpose. The Priestly writers explain how to be more like God, how to be more holy, in Leviticus, which I will look at later.
After the Creation narrative comes the first part of the story of Noah. First of all we get the genealogy from Adam to Noah, and then his story. Noah is presented as the ideal person - he is blameless and righteous, so God 'walks' with him. Quite clearly, the way to get closer to God, according to the text, is not to live in his special land necessarily, but to be righteous and blameless before him. This can be directly applied to the Exiles, who are obviously not in the Promised Land, but they can still come close to God because God is everywhere, and walks with the righteous, wherever they are. Another reason to be righteous is given: God saves the righteous and destroys the wicked. Until chapter six there is only one mention of the wickedness of humankind, and that is not part of the Priestly source. It comes in 5.28-30. I suggest that v.29 was not part of the original source, and that v.28 has been altered so that v.29 can be included. Instead of,
28 When Lamech had lived one hundred eighty-two years, he became the father of a son; 29 he named him Noah, saying, "Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands." 30 Lamech lived after the birth of Noah five hundred ninety-five years, and had other sons and daughters.
It should read,
28 When Lamech had lived one hundred eighty-two years, he became the father of Noah. 30 Lamech lived after the birth of Noah five hundred ninety-five years, and had other sons and daughters.
This follows precisely the pattern of all the previous fathers and sons,
When father had lived x years, he became the father of son. Father lived after the birth of son x years, and had other sons and daughters.
So there is no mention of wickedness until 6.11, after we have been told that Noah was "a righteous man, blameless in his generation".3 He was living up to the imago Dei, the rest of the world was not. So God decides, in 6.13, to destroy everything as it has become so wicked, but in 6.14ff he shows that he is going to save Noah, because of his righteousness. He tells Noah to take with him two of everything, so that after the world has been destroyed, it can be 're-started', without blemish. This could be applied to the situation the Exiles found themselves in; they were saved by God because of their righteousness, in order that after Israel and Judah had been destroyed, God might set up the nation again, without blemish. They, as the righteous, had been removed from the destruction by God, they had been saved, whereas everyone else, the wicked, had not been removed by God and so had been destroyed.
But what is this righteous behaviour which allows people to be saved from destruction? I will now turn to Leviticus before I finish the story of Noah. Chapters 1-15 are, in essence, all about worshipping and coming to God in the right way. Chapters 1-7 contain regulations about sacrifices - what to sacrifice in which situation, and then 11-15 talk about the state of the person making the sacrifices. In order for it be acceptable, the person must be clean and pure - in other words righteous. Chapters 11-15 contain instructions on what makes a person unclean, and how to avoid becoming unclean. In certain cases, for instance childbirth, disease or "bodily discharges", it is rather hard to avoid doing them, so the book is concerned with how to cleanse oneself after the act. The act of cleansing means that the Israelite in question can worship God untainted by the world and its wickedness. Although the world was "very good" when it was made, the wickedness of humankind has tarnished and twisted it, so that now it is an unclean place, not as God intended. Originally God allowed humans to eat whatever they wanted - they had complete mastery over the beasts, as God has complete mastery over all of Creation. However now, due to humankind's wickedness, God imposes dietary requirements on humans in order for them to remain clean and holy.
The chapter after the 'cleanness regulations' is concerned with the Day of Atonement, or "The great cleansing ritual", as Martin Noth calls it. The writers are clearly making allowances for the fact that people are not perfect, and it would be extremely difficult to follow all the cleanness laws exactly. So, having presented laws designed to keep people clean, they recognise that there is a need for something a bit more forgiving as well. So on the Day of Atonement, a scapegoat (literally) is offered to God as an atonement for all the times when they were unable to keep righteous before him. It recognises the sinful nature of humankind, as attested by God in Genesis 9.21. So this is the way in which people can stay righteous, even if they fail to keep up with the cleanness regulations, and therefore stay within God's saving grace. Although the Exiles were saved because of their righteousness once, they need to make sure that they stay righteous so that they are saved if it happens again.
Despite this 'fall-back' position, the writers clearly think that it is better for people to remain holy and not need the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. This is shown by the ten chapters (17-26) devoted to staying holy, after the chapter on Atonement. These ten chapters are usually referred to as the Holiness Code. Again it emphasises proper conduct as the main way to stay holy - regular sacrifices to God, eating the correct food, treating other people in the correct manner. It also emphasises the importance of priestly holiness, because one requires priests for sacrifices. As the priest is the one who offers up the sacrifice to God, he must be clean and without blemish, as the person making the sacrifice is, and the sacrifice itself is. So the Holiness Code provides a continuing role for priests after the Exile. Sacrifices need to be made to God in order to stay holy, and the only way one can make an acceptable sacrifice to God is through a holy priest. This is important for understanding the value of the Pentateuch for Jews in Exile, because a large number of them were priests. When the Jews were exiled, it was primarily the ruling elite who were removed from Jerusalem, not the ordinary plebs, and a large number of that elite were priests. They had lost their entire livelihood both because the Temple had been destroyed and because they were no longer in Jerusalem. So this text served the function of providing encouragement that on their return, it would be business as usual.
The Holiness Code is not simply about worshipping God through sacrifices however. It also contains regulations concerning the Festivals to be observed by the Jews, found in chapters 23 and 25. The most important Festivals concern the Sabbath, so I will deal with those last. First, then, is the Harvest Festival, in 23.9-14. On entering the land, at the beginning of every harvest they must bring the first fruits of the harvest to the priests and offer it up to God, along with a one year old lamb. Second is the Festival of Trumpets, according to which on the first day of the seventh month the people must rest, and the day will be marked by trumpet blasts. Third is the Day of Atonement, which is the tenth day of the seventh month.
So then, Sabbath regulations. In 23.3-8 the general Sabbath law is laid down - that the seventh day must be marked as holy by complete rest from all labours.4 In the same passage is laid down the rules of observance of the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 23.15-22 introduces the Festival of Weeks, which is that every seven Sabbaths (every Sabbath-week, or 50 days) a special offering must be made. Further to that, every seven years (every Sabbath-year) the ground must lie fallow to recover. The people are allowed to eat what grows naturally, but the aren't allowed to grow food like they would in any other year. Lastly, every seven weeks of years (after 49 years, so in the 50th year), it will be a year of Jubilee. It should be treated like a Sabbath-year, and it should also be marked with trumpets, and slaves should be set free, debts cancelled and so on. So the Sabbath Festivals occur frequently, intended to remind people regularly of God. Their observance is clearly seen as a way of being righteous, because it is obeying the commands of God, as relayed through Moses, for that is how the book is presented. These regulations were used by the Exiles as a reason why the Exile occurred in the first place. If one looks at chapter 26, which contains rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience, one can see that if the people do not follow all the Sabbath laws, then God will scatter the people away from the land (v.33) so that it can lie fallow and enjoy its Sabbath rest, which it did not receive while the people were living on it. So an 'excuse' for the Exile was that the forefathers of the Exiles had not observed the Sabbath laws properly, and so God was giving the land the rest it needed. These Sabbath laws, and all the holiness laws, and all the other Festivals, were to be observed not simply so that one might remain righteous, but because it was part of the covenant made by God with the Jews' ancestors.
Now I return to Noah. God has rescued Noah from destruction by commanding him to build an Ark, but as yet the Flood has not occurred. At the start of Genesis 7 God commands Noah to populate the Ark, which he does, and then in 7.6 the Flood is introduced. 7.17-24 describe the rain and the Flood to great effect, repeating the phrase "the waters swelled" three times. After many, many days, we reach chapter 8, which is absolutely vital for understanding the story of Noah,
But God remembered Noah... And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided..5
God remembered. He did not abandon Noah, having destroyed the earth. He removed him from the destruction, and then he removed the destruction to restore him to the earth. Eventually the waters subside completely and Noah is able to empty the Ark and the earth is populated once more with living creatures. I think this story part of the story has two vital points, closely linked. The first is that God will remember, and the second is that it may take a while for his salvation to take effect. It was more than 150 days after God began to pull back the waters before Noah was able to get off the Ark. So the message is: God will act but it may be a while before his actions are noticeable.
Finally I will talk about covenants. After the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah, and his descendents (9.9), that he would never again wipe out all living things on the earth. As a reminder to himself of his covenant with Noah he set his 'bow' in the sky to remind himself to stop the rains before the earth gets wiped out (9.16-17). This covenant is specifically for Noah and his descendents, and the next sections of P trace that line, from Noah down to Abram. I now move on to Genesis 17 to discuss the covenant God made with Abraham. Again he makes a covenant with Abram because of his faith and righteousness. He builds on his covenant made with Noah, saying both that he would give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendents forever, and that he would raise up from Abraham mighty nations, especially one called Israel. The land was given to Abraham as "a perpetual holding" - perpetual that is, as long as the covenant is kept by both sides. Clearly God will not break his covenant, because he remembers, so it is down to Abraham and his descendents to stick to their side of the covenant. Instead of God setting up a reminder for himself, as he did with Noah, he commands Abraham to set up a reminder by circumcising all males on the eight day. In this way the covenant will never be broken (v.14). Therefore, keeping God's covenant is about keeping God's commandments, especially the commandment to circumcise all babies. This is something which the Exiles would have been able to do - they were not in the land, but if they kept their half of the covenant by circumcising they could be sure that God would keep his side of the covenant, and the land would remain theirs, and their nation would never be utterly destroyed.
So the value of the Priestly sections of the Pentateuch to those in Exile is four-fold, as I see it. Firstly, God is everywhere and has mastery over everything, for he created everything. He speaks, and through his Word things are created, history is made. If he makes a promise then that promise will hold true forever. This is of vital importance to those in Exile - they had to remind themselves that God remembers the covenants he makes. This is the second point: that they had to keep up their side of the covenant and everything would be ok, because God would remember his side and not destroy them or leave them out of the land forever. Thirdly, God rescues the righteous from his anger, and destroys the wicked with his anger. So it is extremely important to remain righteous. The priestly sections provide a way of doing this in the cleanness regulations, the Holiness Code and the Festivals. These also provide a reason for the Exile's occurrence - their ancestors had not observed the land's Sabbath rest properly, so now God was enforcing his own laws. Fourthly, the emphasis on sacrifices provides a continuing role for the priests on their return to Israel. They had lost a major part of their identity in Exile, so it was vital for them to keep their eyes fixed on the return, when they would be able to restore things to how they were before the Exile. Most importantly, though: God remembers.
1 There is an alternative interpretation of this that I can see. Clearly in 1.1 - 2.4a God is not straightforwardly single. In 1.26 God says, "Let us make humankind in our image..." yet in 1.27 it says, "So God created humankind in his image". So what can be made of this? I wonder if one interpretation could be that God is many and yet one - so that different Gods are in different lands, for example, yet they are all the same God. However this interpretation is being liberal with the text, as it says nothing about God being in different lands, but I thought it was an interesting idea.
2 Genesis 1.31.
3 Genesis 6.10.
4 Interestingly, the passage does not say why they must observe the Sabbath, simply that they should.
5 Genesis 8.1 (abridged).
Clements, RE. A Century of Old Testament Study. Bath: Pitman Press, 1976.
_____. 'Pentateuchal Problems' in Tradition and Interpretation (ed. GW Anderson). Oxford: OUP, 1979.
Noth, Martin. Leviticus. London: SCM Press, 1965.
von Rad, G. The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1958
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise stated, are taken from the NRSV Annotated Study Bible (ed. Howard Clark Lee), Cambridge: CUP 1999.
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