What sort of literature is the Torah? How did people from the period of the Iron Age view it? As it developed from multiple sources (known as J, E, D, P, and H) over the centuries and as it was compiled (perhaps by Ezra the scribe) in the Persian period, what genre of writing was it to them?
Of course the Torah contains stories and includes the background and origin of the Israelites. But it largely consists of a complex series of instructions about a way of life. And, as a set of instructions, Torah bears a resemblance to two ancient genres: the law-code and the suzerain-vassal treaty.
Of the two ancient genres, Torah follows the latter most closely: the treaty between an ancient suzerain (king) and a less powerful nation (vassal). In such treaties the more powerful king promised blessings (protection) in exchange for the service (tribute, troops, etc.) to be provided by the lesser king. Such treaties spelled out the “blessings” of the great king’s protection and the “curses” (both earthly and from the gods) if the lesser king failed to faithfully adhere to the terms.
Leviticus 26, written for the most part before Israel went into exile, is the first of two writings in Torah that list the blessings and curses of the relationship between God and Israel. God is the suzerain demanding obedience from Israel, his vassal. The second passage, Deuteronomy 28, is quite similar.
These blessings and curses help define exactly what Torah is. Torah is personal, specific, and national. Its teachings certainly have meaning to non-Jews, since we learn from Torah what God likes and dislikes. But as a whole package, as a collection of instructions about a way of life, the Torah is between God and Israel.
The blessings for Israel have two characteristics about them we should pay attention to. First, they are specific to the needs of a people living in the land of Canaan. This is a specific covenant, not a general relationship between God and all the people’s of the earth. Second, they are ultimately supernatural (as will be seen all the more in vss. 6-13).
The blessings of Torah describe conditions that are miraculous and supernatural. The curses, on the other hand, are natural. They describe the kinds of things that happen all over the world every day in the present condition of humanity. That is to say, Israel was given (and perhaps still is) a chance to attain to a supernatural paradise on earth. But unless the nation as a whole faithfully adheres to the ways of Torah, the natural conditions of death will be rampant.
The condition and blessing of abundance.
Many ancient law-codes ended with blessings and curses. The idea is that if people faithfully adhere to the requirements, they will obtain the blessings. We see similar examples in the Code of Hammurabi and treaties with the Assyrian king Essarhaddon (cited in Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale). The curses are generally longer than the blessings and are designed to incite fear of breaking the covenant.
God’s condition is for Israel’s blessing is simple: to do the statutes. The blessing is not a promise to individuals of prosperity (a common way they are misinterpreted) but a national promise of abundant rain and harvest. This is not about wealth, but being well-provisioned and not going hungry.
The Torah, then, is a set of teachings in Israel that can be likened in some ways to a law-code and in others to a sort of covenant known by scholars today as a suzerain-vassal treaty (an agreement between a more powerful king and a subservient one). In a law-code from the ancient Near East, the king was generally justifying his reign, claiming to be a just ruler, by listing out to the gods the principles of justice by which he claimed to rule (it was always an ideal, overlooking the injustices that actually occurred). In a suzerain-vassal treaty, a more powerful king was making the terms of an alliance with a lesser king. He promised to be an ally and protection with certain benefits if the lesser king provided certain kinds of service.
The author of the holiness section (an author referred to as H, who seems to have lived in the latter half of Hezekiah’s reign) has brilliantly written up the first “blessings and curses” section of Torah (Deuteronomy 28 is the second and later one). Milgrom goes on at length to show that most of Leviticus 26 was written before the exile and that Ezekiel (during the exile) had nearly the full text from which to build his arguments. The nature of “blessings and curses” as part of a covenant between a lesser and greater entity is one of the clearest and most meaningful ways to see the Torah as a document. Leviticus 26 helps define the Torah as a way of life to be lived by a people who exist in a treaty relationship with God as king.
The presumed author of this section, H (which stand for “holiness”) is living in war ravaged Judah. People’s lives have been disrupted. All of the towns have been decimated except Jerusalem, which now stands up alone like a brush arbor in a cucumber field (Isaiah 1:9).
There has not been peace in the land. Judah has not had success against its enemies. The people are not enjoying the fruitfulness of the land.
But there was for H and his generation a set of promises which were unique, a relationship with God unlike that enjoyed by any other people on earth. How had Judah failed to live up to this? “An ox knows its owner,” Isaiah observed, “but Israel does not know; my people do not think” ((Isaiah 1:3).
The author seems to have expected his generation to know about the supernatural promises. Yet why are they only now, in the eighth century, being written down? Did they go back to the time of Moses? Had they been expanded by the prophets in the eighth century? The logic of the chapter is such that the promises must have been known beforehand and that they were used by H to call his generation back to something that had been missed.
Do we believe God can and will someday make a world without war, a world where the bounty of the earth brings joy to all its inhabitants? The priests and prophets of Israel dreamed about it, enacted it in their regulations at the temple, and wrote about it. This is what God desires and surely his desires all come to pass.
Continued national blessings for covenant obedience: peace in the land (6), success against enemies without (7-8), fruitfulness and confirmation of covenant (9).
These promises are simple to understand and the people would dearly love to have had such blessings when, in the course of Israelite history, the very opposite happened. Failing to abide by the covenant, Israel encountered violence within and defeat without. The promises of national blessing mean a great deal to a people when suffering and insufficiency are the order of the day.
Vs. 9 interestingly describes the promises as confirming the covenant: showing signs that would help people believe the words of the invisible God are true. “I will maintain my covenant with you,” the key words being וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי vehaqimōti et-beriti. When there is a new covenant being described, the verb is כרת krt. But the verb in Leviticus 26:9 is a Hifil from קוּם, which has a general meaning of confirm. But as Milgrom shows (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) when the object of this verb is “covenant,” the meaning is maintain or uphold. That is, God will do his part and maintain a covenant previously undertaken with the people, the covenant at Sinai.
The conditions described as the covenant blessings are supernatural, a state of being we have not experience in this present world at any time or place. Peace and plentifulness without fear is something we can only approximate for a time, but good times are always marred by the forces of death at work in the world.
What about the conditions described as Israel’s curse for not keeping the covenant? They are not supernatural really, other than being described as under the control of God who can prevent them from happening. War, disease, and famine happen daily in the world.
In other words, the choice between blessing and curse is not a choice to either be given good things by God or be smitten by his wrathful judgments. Not at all. The choice is between God suspending the natural forces of death in the world or letting nature take its course.
The author ends the section with hope for the people in exile. In other words, the promise of this chapter is applied to the very condition Israel and the world finds itself in now. The exile has been a long time and it is still going. “I will not reject them,” says God about the Jewish people. “I will remember with favor the covenant.” It seems the dream of a blessed world is not dead. It continues amongst those who hope in God and believe he will make it come to pass.
God’s dwelling and walking with Israel (10-13), curses stage 1: war, disease, famine (14-17), stage 2: seven judgments (18-22), stage 3: increased hostility from God (23-26), stage 4: wrathful hostility (27-39), repentance and restoration for Israel (40-45), these are the statutes (46).
Vs. 10 continues the “fruitfulness” promise. Vss. 11-12 are a promise of the Divine Presence. Interestingly, the text says “I will establish my mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן, tabernacle, dwelling place) in your midst,” but it does not mean tabernacle here. The word mishkan is being used for the moveable presence of God, like the later word (not found in the Bible, Shekhinah). In vs. 12, the promise of God walking amidst Israel is in the Hithpa’el verb form: “I will walk myself” or “I will walk to and fro.” The idea is not walking to get to a destination, but walking repeatedly within Israel.
This is an allusion to Genesis, specifically 3:8, “they heard the sound of God walking in the cool of the day.” In other words, H is saying the land of Israel can become like the Garden of Eden.
The judgments of covenant disobedience fill vss. 14-45. These curses are awful and they did come to pass more than once historically. Yet there are sublime truths in this passage: (1) God walks amongst the people of Israel, vs. 12, and (2) even in exile, God does not reject his people, but is with Israel and will restore, vs. 44.
The pattern of repentance and restoration in vss. 40-45 is telling: confession, repentance marked by changed action, the covenant promise with Abraham remembered by God, restorative judgments, acceptance even in exile. Vss. 44-45 are vital, revealing that God is present with the Jewish people in exile and that the attitudes and actions of Jewish people now in the diaspora matters in heaven.
Vows met a psychological need in the ancient world. To begin to understand, we have to recognize the difference in worldview. In a polytheistic worldview, everything that happens is influenced by unseen beings including deities and demonic forces. Whereas a modern person might recognize that natural causes are impersonal, to an ancient person it is likely that nothing was viewed as happening because of random natural processes. Therefore, every stillborn child, crop failure, wasting disease, and act of violence was personal, the result of the actions of beings in a higher realm.
To vow something to a deity was to make a sort of covenant of protection. “I will bring you a yearling lamb at the festival, O [insert name of deity],” was a form of prayer.
In the theology of Torah, it is true that vows should not be required. The One God is master of all nature and he does not need be appeased by promises such as, “I will dedicate him [my firstborn] to Adonai for all the days of his life” (a vow Hannah made, which is why Samuel became a sanctuary servant as a child, 1 Samuel 1).
But Torah provides for vows, perhaps because the need for them was so strongly felt, as a way to pray for favor and blessing. As long as vows were allowed, the author of the holiness section is at pains to prevent desecrations, such as human sacrifice, from occurring. It is also possible that some ignorant person might attempt to offer an unclean animal, such as a donkey, because they vowed it to God. Or land might pass out of the clan system to the sanctuary because people vowed it. The laws of redeeming vows, which means substituting money for them, prevents all unholy or impure acts that might result.
Redemption price of people dedicated in a vow to God (1-7), provision for the poor (8), for offerable and unofferable animals (9-13), for a house (14-15).
By assigning redemption values for people dedicated to God in vows, the Torah prevents such things as human sacrifice (e.g., Jephthah’s daughter) and mandatory temple slavery (e.g., Samuel). The values are based on someone’s worth as a laborer (hence women are valued at a lower amount). Philo says, “. . . the law laid down a scale of valuation in which no regard is paid to beauty or stature or anything of the kind, but all are assessed equally . . . in the sight of men inequality, in the sight of God equality, is held in honor” (cited in Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale).
Some see chapter 27 as an appendix since chapter 26 seems to really conclude Leviticus. Yet others suggest that chapter 27 fits into a literary outline: the book begins with sanctuary regulations (offerings) and ends with them as well (vowed things, votaries). Milgrom cites the conclusion of Mary Douglas: Chapter 25 “only tells the Israelites to free their brothers from servitude” while chapter 27 “extends the liberation theme . . . God will also allow persons, land and animals dedicated to his service to be redeemed.” Leviticus 27 assumes that along with sacrificial animals, people will seek the favor of God by making gifts, even ill-conceived vows, but the Torah allows all to be redeemed.
To “consecrate” something to Adonai, a term used repeatedly in this section, is an interesting concept. Anything vowed, set aside in advance to be given as a tithe, or placed under a ban (according to the laws of “the ban,” חֶרֶם cherem) is taken out of the realm of “ordinary” and becomes “consecrated.” That is to say, it is dedicated to God.
Something consecrated, such as a field vowed to God, moves from the realm of the ordinary to the holy. They are designated for God and may not be used for anything else. Cases of accidental violation of this principle, such as someone using grain that was set aside for a tithe, require a reparation offering (per the laws of Leviticus 5).
The author of the holiness section of Leviticus is concerned that vowed fields be properly handled. His belief is that Israel must carefully protect what is holy. Vowed fields are holy. Their crop is for the benefit of the sanctuary and the priests. But the land must not, in most cases, pass out of the possession of the clans to whom God assigned them. Therefore they are released in the Jubilee.
Valuation and redemption of land consecrated.
Vs. 16 concerns a person who wishes to lease and/or donate crops to the sanctuary. The value of their gift depends on how much seed will be planted. The price of fifty shekels is most likely for the fifty year period between Jubilees (a shekel per year per homer of seed required to plant the field, so Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale). It is not clear if the intent is to lease the field (and the owner would then be paid the money) or donate it (in which case the gift would be valued at a shekel per year per homer). The crop would then be for the use of the Levites and the sanctuary (and also shared with the needy).
In vss. 17-18, the value depends on the number of years left until Jubilee (at one shekel per year per homer of seed required to plant). The field can be redeemed for the valuation plus one fifth (that is, the owner can take it back, vs. 19).
Vs. 20 involves some translation difficulties. Milgrom’s interpretation is that one who sells the use of a field to another (until the Jubilee) and then consecrates it anyway (by saying, “at the Jubilee I will not take it back, but donate it to the sanctuary”), gives up the land permanently to the sanctuary. We have here a perfect example of the time-bound nature of the Torah, that its parts were written in a specific time with an apparent intention to be amended when the situation changed. The value of a shekel per homer of seed would have to change with time, though the Torah does not make reference to this. The value mandated here was based on the economy when this Torah law was written. To be able to lease a field now, in the twenty-first century, for a shekel per homer of seed would be far less than its worth.
Meanwhile, why would people dedicate a field to the sanctuary and how would such a gift benefit anyone? The answer is that the Levites, priests, and the needy who would eat from from the gifted parcel of land.