The goal of this whole section of Leviticus (the holiness texts, by a presumed author referred to as H) is to show Israel a way to restart the covenant. The time is probably the latter half of Hezekiah’s reign. The land is in ruins. The promises of the covenant with God (Leviticus 26:3-13) sound very, very good to a people living off of the land instead of agriculture, eating yogurt and fruit syrup to survive (see Isaiah 7:22).
Chapters 21 and 22 focus on one of the most important reforms the people can make: getting the priests to be holy. קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם kedoshim yihyu l’Elōheihem, “They must be holy to their God” (vs. 6). כִּי־קָדֹשׁ הוּא לֵאלֹהָיו ki-kadōsh hu l’Elōhav, “for he is holy to his God” (vs. 7). וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ vekidashtō, “and you must treat him as holy” (vs. 8). קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה־לָּךְ kadōsh yihyeh-lach, “holy he will be to you” (vs. 8). כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ki kadōsh ‘ani, “for I am holy” (vs. 8). יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם Adonai mekadshechem, “Adonai who sanctifies you” (vs. 8).
The priests must act in complete holiness, separating themselves from contact with impurity and purifying themselves whenever impurity is contracted. The people must treat the priests as holy, because it is the priests who do the work of keeping the people sanctified before God. They do this work by maintaining the dwelling place of God in the midst of the people. If Israel is to remain the “priestly people” and a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), they must demand holiness from the priesthood and trust in the work of the priests and sanctuary to elevate them to holy status with God.
What the H author wants and expects his audience to want is assurance of a right standing with God. To be the people of God is a thing to be desired. To have faith in God’s acceptance and to know that God will give amazing things to his children helps us in the here and now to have peace. While living in this world of death, do we know that God will surely redeem us and the world? Are we secure in our place within his “holiness”?
Priestly holiness regulations: do not defile by corpse contact with exceptions (1-4), deliberate baldness (5), they shall be holy (6), do not marry divorcee or prostitute (7), he shall be holy (8), daughter not promiscuous (9). High priestly holiness regulations: no mourning rituals or corpse contact and no exceptions (10-12), marry only a virgin (13-14), he shall not profane his offspring (15).
The ideal of a holy land and people includes a super-holy priesthood who are restricted from even more things than ordinary Israelites. The holiness author (H) continues to set forth a program for Israel to restart the covenant (in the latter days of Hezekiah’s reign) and attain to the much-desired promises that go along with the covenant (Leviticus 26:3-13). A “holy” priesthood is essential, which is to say that the priests must be totally committed to the purification laws and every moral and symbolic act of fealty to the One God. No wavering can be permitted. As the priests are the guardians of Israel’s sanctuary, they above all must be committed to keeping the forces of death out of God’s dwelling place. Therefore, chapters 21 and 22 will be all about holiness laws for the priests and the sacrificial offerings.
The first topic is mourning. Normally, when a close loved one dies, we have some contact with or proximity to their corpse. But in the symbol system of Israel concerning purity and impurity (clean and unclean), human death is the quintessential thing that defiles. Above all, priests must not bring the pollution of human death into the sanctuary. The actual laws governing corpse contact are not given (oddly) until Numbers 19. Yet it is assumed here in Leviticus 21 that the basic prohibition of corpse contact being brought into the temple is known.
An ordinary priest may not have contact with a corpse except for the very closest of relations (mother, father, son, daughter, brother, unmarried sister) and a high priest may not have contact with any corpse at all. The priests will keep human death out of God’s sanctuary completely.
The baldness referenced is an ancient custom of mourning for the dead (shaving parts of hair and beard, gashes in the skin). Such rites have no place in God’s sanctuary where death is defeated and life is the goal.
The daughters of priestly families are to be trained in careful preservation of their sexuality so as not to bring dishonor to the priesthood and to keep the priestly lines holy (no children born outside of marriage).
For the high priest, the regulations are even stricter. A priest can marry a widow, but a high priest only a virgin. The purpose is to keep the priestly lineage holy and avoid mixing of lines. These regulations may seem extreme, but priesthood is a high responsibility.
LEVITICUS 21:16 – 22:16
It seems unfair, but a priest born with a condition such as blindness, or even something less severe such as having one limb shorter than the other, was disqualified from fully officiating at the altar. He could perform other duties besides officiating at the altar, but ultimately could not serve in the full capacity of a priest. Similarly, and this goes without an explicit statement in Leviticus, women were disqualified from serving as priests, most likely because the symbolic system of impurity in which menstruation was considered impure. There was likely a fear that a woman might begin unknowingly to menstruate and bring symbolic death into the place of God’s dwelling.
The tabernacle, and later the temple, was a place intended to symbolize God’s home. Much of the Torah is devoted to explaining how the priests were to keep away all of the symbolic conditions of human death from God’s dwelling. The symbolism was more important to them than the concept of fairness. A priest with a physical condition considered to be a “blemish” (מוּם mûm) had to accept a limited role in the sanctuary as part of the cost of keeping up this symbolism.
All impurity is to be kept away from the sanctuary because it represents death. The system of restricting physical blemishes from the sanctuary service is perhaps because in the ideal world (and the world to come) such blemishes will not exist. The sanctuary is to be a place of life and of the ideal.
Physical blemishes that disqualify a priest (21:16-24), holy food and purity laws (22:1-9), non-priests and holy food (22:10-16).
Priests in ancient Israel (and in other nations) were disqualified from officiating at the altar if they were born with physical conditions listed in twelve categories. The Torah refers to these conditions as “blemishes” (from the word מוּם mûm). The physical conditions disqualifying a priest from being an officiant at the altar parallel the defects which disqualify animals from being offered as sacrifices. Physically disqualified priests were allowed other duties in the sanctuary besides officiating at the altar and were allowed to partake of sacred donations reserved for priests, including the sacred portions of sacrificial animals.
Vs. 23 should be translated, “he shall not enter before the veil or officiate at the altar.” It cannot mean “he shall not come near the altar,” since one had to come near the altar to eat the sacred portions. What does entering “before the veil” mean? Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) argues this refers to the duties of a high priest inside the sanctuary: daily lighting the menorah, offering incense on the inner altar, and weekly placing bread of the presence on the inner table. Therefore, vs. 23 is about a blemished high priest.
Chapter 22 begins with a concern about keeping the holy food separate from all impurities. This section takes us back to the purity laws of chapters 11-15. Whenever a priest was in a state of impurity (following intercourse or any semen discharge, if he had gonorrhea, or even if he had touched something impure such as an animal carcass), he was not permitted to touch sacred donations of meat and grain. The concern here in the holiness section of Leviticus is for a strict separation between impurity — representing the forces of death — from the sacred, representing life.
Priests were forbidden at all times to eat meat found dead (neveilah) or torn by beasts (tereifah, from which we get the word treif). Leviticus does not say laity were forbidden to eat tereifah, but only that they must undergo purification afterwards (Lev 17:15-16). However, in Deuteronomy 14:21 the law was tightened and the people were told not to eat tereifah.
“You shall heed my commandments” (וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי ushemartem mitzvōtai) “and do them” (וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם va’asitem ōtam). Israel’s way of expressing the concept of God’s “holiness” is by paying careful attention to (heeding) and actually carrying out (doing) the commandments.
The author of this section (referred to as H) has gathered a list of commandments covering a wide variety of aspects of Israel’s life as a nation and as individuals, and has combined it all into a program for renewing the covenant with God. The list is presented as if it comes from the time of Moses and refers to the earliest days of Israel, but this is a result of H’s text being combined by a later editor with the other sources to form one Torah.
H’s list so far has included: slaughter only at the sanctuary, the blood prohibition, purification after eating meat found dead, impure sexual relations, laws against Molech worship, imitating God, revering parents, keeping sacrifices holy, leavings for the poor, honesty in trade, justice for the helpless, impartial justice, loving one’s neighbor and forsaking vengeance, avoiding mixtures, penalty for having relations with a betrothed slave, laws for fruit trees, forsaking death magic and chthonic worship, protecting children of concubines, honoring Sabbath and sanctuary, forsaking necromancy, honoring the elderly, protecting immigrants and loving them, honesty in trade, forsaking Molech worship, abandoning necromancy, law against cursing parents, penalties for incestuous relationships and other impure sexual practices, the separation of the land from all customs related to magic and polytheism, laws concerning priests and blemishes, holiness regulations for priests and high priests, keeping sacred foods free from contact with impurity, sacrifices and blemishes, newborn animals, and thanksgiving sacrifices.
The list is heavily oriented toward keeping the sanctuary and the sacrificial offerings pure and ridding the land of practices associated with idolatry and magic. But it is also a list that includes some of the highest moral and ethical demands (loving neighbor, protecting immigrants, imitating God).
The goal of H’s list of reforms is summed up here in Leviticus 22:31-33. Israel will show God as holy by keeping these ways of holiness. The people will take a revealed truth (God is holy, separate from the ways of death) and express it in daily life and in life together as a nation (especially at the sanctuary). “You shall not desecrate my holy Name,” God said, “so that I might be sanctified [treated as holy] among the children of Israel.” And in turn God’s holiness comes back on the people, “I am Adonai, your sanctifier.”
To put all this in plain language, God is saying, “Live according to the culture, statutes, and manner of worship I have revealed to the teachers of Israel and you will reveal me as holy to the world and I will show you as the holy people to the world.” This is the calling that defines Judaism. It is the heart of Torah.
Unblemished animals for God’s offerings (17-25), newborn animals (26-28), thanksgiving offerings (29-30), hallowing God and increasing sanctification (31-33).
The list of animal blemishes is nearly identical to the list of priestly blemishes in 21:18-20. It would be a temptation to offer God the animals that are blemished and less valuable. In addition to the ethical matter of offering God what is less valuable, the matter of blemishes also has a holiness component: God desires the sanctuary to be free from not only sin but all signs of death. The fact that people and animals have to suffer from physical disabilities is part of the condition of this present world as a place of death. The tabernacle and temple are symbols of a better world, what could be.
The law that a newborn animal is safe from being offered for the first seven days of life may stem from a sense of kindness to the mother or the newborn, but Milgrom (Leviticus 17-22, Anchor-Yale) rightly points out that this seems a very limited kindness. On the eighth day of life a suckling animal can be killed. Other suggestions for the seven-day exclusion of newborns from being offered as sacrifices are symbolic: it is only alive after seven days of creation or the seven-day period models the circumcision period for human males. Compare vs. 28 with the law of a bird and its young in Deuteronomy 22:6.
Vss. 29-30 on the thanksgiving offering (one of the kinds of well-being offering) seem out of place here. Milgrom explains it as an inclusio technique (literary bookends) with 19:5-6 on the other kinds of well-being offering. The result of 19:5-6 and 22:29-30 being placed where they are (at the beginning and end of a section) is to mark Leviticus 19-22 as a separate section within the larger book. The structure of the holiness portion of Leviticus has overlapping sections, since in a different way chapters 18-20 are also set apart structurally as a unit.
In keeping with this inclusio technique, 22:31-33 corresponds to 19:1-4 as a rationale for “holiness.” Israel represents God as holy by doing the commandments and in turn Israel is made holy in doing them.
Israel’s holidays are agricultural as well as symbolic, about the covenant relationship and also about sanctifying time. The barley, wheat, grapes, and various fruits of the land come in the spring and late summer, just before fall. There is nothing unusual in the ancient Near East about festivals for the harvest seasons. Nor is there anything unusual about combining harvest festivals with temple rituals.
But the Torah gives some unique attributes to the holy calendar of Israel. First, the holidays in Israel are rest days, Sabbaths, a unique concept in the ancient Near East. Second, the most significant of Israel’s holidays happens not once a year or even once a month, but once every seven days.
Concerning the issue of rest, some of the holidays are to be observed as a Shabbat Shabbatōn whereas others are merely Shabbatōns. Shabbat Shabbatōn (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) is a superlative, “the most restful of rest days,” and is used for Yom Kippur and, surprisingly, the weekly Sabbath. A translation that sounds better in English would be “a Sabbath of complete rest.” But several other days are merely called a Shabbatōn: Rosh Hashanah and the first and eighth day of Sukkot (Tabernacles). As for the first and seventh days of Passover as well as the day of Shavuot (Weeks), the term is not used but the people are commanded “you shall not do laborious work.” The result of these differing terms is such that there are two different levels of Sabbath. All holidays except Yom Kippur are lesser Sabbaths and some kinds of work are permitted (the rabbis say, preparation of food is permitted). But Yom Kippur and the weekly Sabbath are strict observances of rest. No work is permitted at all.
Concerning the weekly holiday that is unique to Israel, the Sabbath, it is hard to overstate the importance of this holiday to Israel and to the world. From Judaism it spread to Christianity and from Christianity it spread to the world. Christians and other peoples of the world do not generally observe the requirement of resting from labor, but the concept of a “week,” a period of seven days, comes from the spread of the Bible through the Western world. No culture observed a “week” until the Jewish concept caught on.
Meanwhile, within Judaism, the holidays and the weekly Sabbath are even more significant. They are about sanctifying time. The Sabbath is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Sabbath) has said, “a palace in time.” The tabernacle is God’s earthly palace in space and the Sabbath is his territory in time. “To understand the teaching of the Bible,” says Rabbi Heschel, “one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space.”
Sabbath (1-3), Passover and Unleavened Bread (4-8), Firstfruits of Barley (9-14), Shavuot and Firstfruits of Wheat (15-22).
There are five descriptions in Torah of the festival calendar: Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-26; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28-29. The last two are closely related, like two sides of a coin. Numbers 28-29 gives the instructions for offerings on the sacred occasions to the priests while Leviticus 23 addresses the people concerning how the sacred occasions are to be observed. Leviticus 23 offers the most information about the biblical holidays and deserves a close reading.
There are two terms used for the Sabbath and the seven days throughout the year designated as holidays and days on which normal work is prohibited. They are called mo’adim (מוֹעֲדִים) and miqra’ei qōdesh (מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ). Mo’adim is from the root ya’ad meaning to designate either a time or place (Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale). It is best translated as “appointed times” or something similar (Milgrom chooses “fixed times”). Miqra’ei qōdesh is from the root qara whose basic meaning is to speak something aloud, to proclaim it. In a literal sense the phrase would be “proclamations of holiness,” which could be turned into an adjective phrase such as “holy proclamations” or “sacred proclamations.” However, since the “proclamation” was about a festival day, the term came to be more closely associated with the occasion rather than the proclamation, so Milgrom renders it “sacred occasion.”
The “proclamation” aspect of the holidays refers to the fact that the priests decided which days were the official new moon and publicly announced them (in the Second Temple period this was done using a trumpet). After the Second Jewish War (132-135 CE) the Jewish calendar was set automatically according to formulas related to the calendar and the “proclamation” aspect of the holidays from Jerusalem was lost.
Vs. 2 could be translated, “These are the appointed times of Adonai, the sacred occasions which you will proclaim at their appointed times.” And then, what are the sacred occasions which follow? They are seven days throughout the year plus the weekly Sabbath. In order they are: weekly Sabbath, first day of Passover, seventh day of Passover, Shavuot (Weeks), Rosh Hashanah (Trumpets), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), first day of Sukkot (Tabernacles), and eighth day of Sukkot.
Another term that is used twice in the chapter is Shabbat Shabbatōn (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן). As Milgrom explains, Shabbat means “rest” and Shabbatōn is an adjective form. So the phrase is “a rest of rests,” which is a Hebrew idiom for the superlative, “the most restful of rests.” This is perhaps best translated as “a Sabbath of complete rest.” Then a shortened form is used three times in the chapter, just Shabbatōn. Two occasions are a Shabbat Shabbatōn, the weekly Sabbath and Yom Kippur. On these days, all labor is prohibited. On three other days, a Shabbatōn is proclaimed, probably meaning a less stringent rest (Rosh Hashanah and the first and eighth day of Sukkot).
The effect of Israel’s calendar of sacred occasions is profound. For one thing, the concept of a week consisting of seven days passed through Jewish culture to the entire world. The “week” is an invention of the Hebrew Bible and through Christianity’s appropriation of the Bible, this calendrical concept is now observed worldwide!
As for the effect of the calendar within Israel, the practice of sanctifying times and coming together to observe them unifies the people with each other and with God. Judaism becomes very much a religion of hallowing time, especially because the weekly Sabbath is regarded as one of the holidays. Milgrom asks the question, how did a weekly Sabbath come to be associated with the major religious holidays of Israel? He proposes a theory, that during the Babylonian exile (597-517 BCE) an editor of Torah who had a high regard for the holiness texts (by a presumed author referred to as H) made some changes to the text. The motive was simple. The holidays involving animal sacrifices could not be observed in Babylon. So this editor promised the weekly Sabbath as a holiday in and of itself. It is an interesting theory with some support from prophetic passages thought to be written during or after the exile (Isaiah 56:1-8; 58:13-14; Ezekiel 20:12-13, 20-21).
The celebration of the weekly Sabbath as a holiday is perhaps the most colorful and visible of all the Jewish customs. For those who observe it on a weekly basis, the holiday aspect of the Sabbath is a great joy. In the absence of a temple, the Sabbath has become for Judaism almost a replacement. It is a temple in time.
If you live in a semi-desert region of the world, rain means a great deal to you. The lands around the Mediterranean, such as Israel of course, can be a lush agricultural paradise or they can be virtual deserts. It all depends on two short rainy seasons, the early and latter rain.
The seventh month on the Torah calendar is filled with holidays. Ten out of the month’s thirty days are holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the eight days of Sukkot).
It is the seventh month, which has a holiness significance like the seventh day or seventh year. It is also the key month between the end of harvest and the beginning of the rain season. So the people remind God they have a need with trumpet blasts on a day now referred to as Rosh Hashanah. And the nation repents and practices self debasement on the day of the annual purging of impurity from the temple. And then people camp for eight days and rejoice in a harvest festival, filled with practices imploring God for rain.
“If you follow my statutes . . . I will give you your rains in their season” (Lev 26:3-4). To bless the Jewish people and make the land of Israel a virtual paradise, the first and greatest step is sending rain. Then no one will go hungry. The year will be filled with feasting and rejoicing.
Our needs are simpler than we realize. In the modern world many of us have already achieved a life of abundance, with plenty of food and relative freedom from health disasters and war. Yet we are unfulfilled, seeking psychological happiness and self-actualization in undefined ways as if we can never get enough out of life. Torah depicts a simpler way of finding pleasure in life: relating to God, enjoying the fruit of the land, participating in community, and taking time to rejoice.
“Go, eat your bread with joy,” said the Teacher, “and drink your wine with a rejoicing heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7). “You shall rejoice in your feast,” (Deuteronomy 16:14). “I will give peace in the land and you will rest untroubled by anyone,” (Leviticus 26:6).
Day of shofar sounding (23-25), Yom Kippur (26-32).
The seventh month, like the seventh day and seventh year, is holy. The alarm blasts on the first day of the seventh month (known today as Rosh HaShanah, and regarded as a new year) potentially serve two functions. They are called here literally זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה zichrōn teruah, “a reminder with alarm blasts.” They could remind the people that the great day of national repentance is coming in ten days, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement or Day of Purgation). They also probably fulfill what is said in Numbers 10:10, וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהֵיכֶם vehayu lachem lezichrōn lifnei Eloheichem, “they will be a reminder of you before God.”
That is to say, the people are using trumpets — probably not only shofars, but also the priestly trumpets — to get God’s attention and remind him of their existence and need. What would they need to remind God about and seek his assistance with? Rain. The seventh month is when the harvest has come in but the latter rains have not yet begun. The land of Israel’s lushness and abundance depend completely on two god seasons of rain: “if you follow my statutes . . . I will give you your rains in their season” (Lev 26:3-4). The very lives of the people depended on God’s covenant blessing over the land and sending rain.
This is probably also why the seventh month was the appropriate time for the annual purging of the sanctuary, to rid it of all un-purified impurity. The priestly rituals for Yom Kippur are given in chapter 16, but here in chapter 23 the focus is on what the people must do. “You shall afflict your throats” (וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם ve’initem et-nafshōteichem). Milgrom (Leviticus 23-37, Anchor-Yale) reminds us that the Hebrew word nefesh (usually “soul” or “life”) originally referred to the throat (the place where we take in air and swallow food). Afflicting the throat is see elsewhere as a call for abstaining from food (examples from the life of David and Daniel). It also was accompanied by other rituals of self-debasement, such as refraining from bathing.
Over time, Torah adapted to the reality of a scattered people of Israel. We see evidence in Leviticus 23 that someone has added sections giving customs that do not rely on the people having access to a temple.
Thus, for example, while for the most part Leviticus 23 corresponds to the list of holidays and sacrifices in Numbers 28-29, the glaring exception concerns the Sabbath. In Numbers we read “on the Sabbath day, offer two yearling lambs without blemish . . . in addition to the perpetual burnt offering” (Num 28:9-10). But in the Sabbath section of Leviticus 23, we read nothing about sacrifices. It is the only holiday that omits reference to sacrifices in the chapter.
Milgrom (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) argues that the Sabbath verse (Lev 23:3) is a later addition, added during the Babylonian exile. There was no temple. The author seems to be someone who has edited the H texts here and in other places (Milgrom calls him the H Redactor). Whereas H (the presumed author of the last half of Leviticus and some other texts scattered throughout Torah) lived in the latter part of Hezekiah’s reign, the H Redactor lived in exile more than a century later.
Leviticus 23:3 makes the Sabbath one of the festivals, a rather unusual invention. The Sabbath is an occasion that can easily bond the Israelites together in exile and keep the culture alive in the absence of a temple.
Similarly, Leviticus 23:39-43, which seem to be an addition to the preexisting Sukkot text of H in vss. 33-38, describe a Sukkot festival without sacrifices. This is, of course, the nature of the Sukkot festival as we know it today. It is all about the booths and branches and fruit of the land. Perhaps the exiles could gather the same species of tree branches and fruit in Babylon as they could in Israel.
Torah as a way of life is something that outlives the need for the Israelites to be in the land and have a functioning temple. Although the temple is central to so much of the teaching in the Torah, we see that Torah went beyond and gave a vision for the diaspora (the scattering of the Jewish people in other lands).
Sukkot part 1 (33-36), summary of festivals (37-38), Sukkot part 2 (39-43), conclusion (44).
The name of this holiday in Hebrew, סֻכּוֹת sukkōt, is the plural of סֻכָּה sukkah, meaning a sort of brush arbor or booth made using branches. It is not a tent, though vs. 43 compares these booths to the tents Israel lived in during the wilderness period. The comparison is clearly artificial or symbolic, since a tent is a much more secure shelter than a brush arbor. The real origin of a booth like those used at Sukkot is from agriculture, where workers would make a brush arbor for shade in the middle of the fields.
The idea of a festival with pilgrims camped in makeshift structures around a temple is known from other cultures outside of Israel (Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale). Everything about the festival is related to the agricultural cycle and beseeching God for rain. All of the crops and fruit of the land have been gathered in, so those who live by farming are free to get away for an eight day festival (really a seven plus one, see below). At the same time, the rainy season is not due to start yet. The land will either have abundance or be a desert for the next year depending on how the rains go.
The total of seventy offerings during the seven days of Sukkot equals the number of nations (as per Genesis 10). This may indicate a desire for universal participation, that it was expected that non-Israelites would participate in the festival focusing on harvest and prayer for rain (cf. Zechariah 14:16). In Numbers Rabbah 21:24 we find an early tradition that the seventy offerings are “an atonement for the seventy nations” but the one offering on the eighth day (Shemini Atzeret) is for Israel (Milgrom).
Everywhere that Sukkot is discussed in Torah it is called a seven day festival and the eighth day is mentioned separately. Clearly the eighth day is an add-on. This eighth and final day is called an עֲצֶרֶת atzeret, which seems to refer to a sort of emergency gathering (often translated “solemn assembly”). The term is used, for example, in Joel 1:14, “Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the dwellers in the land.” In the case of Sukkot, what is the emergency? The answer can only be the need for rain. The eighth day of Sukkot is an especially focused gathering beseeching God for a good rainy season.
Vss. 37-38 look like an original ending to the section to which vss. 39-43 were added later (Milgrom). Milgrom and others suggest that vss. 39-43 were added during the Babylonian exile when it was not possible to gather at the temple. If the author of the last half of Leviticus is H (a priest in the days of Hezekiah), there may have been an editor of Torah who edited H during the Babylonian exile. Examples of this editor’s work include the Sabbath portion of Leviticus 23 and this final sub-section on Sukkot. The intent of his edits was to make customs for Israel in exile that were independent of a temple (Sabbath in the home and Sukkot as a festival that could be held anywhere).
This chapter perfectly illustrates the fact that human beings are not ready to dwell with God. The author of the holiness section of Leviticus sees the entire land as holy because the Shechinah (the divine Presence in the sanctuary) is there. But the actions of individuals can create ritual impurity, polluting and contaminating the land and sanctuary. If the community does not maintain the holiness of the land and sanctuary, God will depart and so will his protection. Israel will face all the normal causes of death that characterize the natural world: war, disease, hunger.
In this story, a half-Israelite, the son of an Egyptian man and and Israelite woman, fails to understand the seriousness with which God and the community take the sanctity of the divine Name. He engaged in something not uncommon in cultures outside of Israel: using the name of a deity to curse someone. But in Israel, with its theology of the sanctity of the land and the divine Name, this offense carried the death penalty.
The execution of Shelomith’s son is a tragedy. Ironically, the high regard Israel has for the divine Name leads to a terrible act, a man stoned to death for what amounts to a cultural mistake.
God showed Israel the potential of living at the threshold of the supernatural. Of course, no nation can maintain the purity required to stay in the realm of the supernatural and that lesson was surely part of what God had in mind with the covenant and the Torah. But in giving a foreshadowing of the future, when something will change and human beings will be able to live in God’s Presence, God set expectations and created a desire in the Jewish people for the messianic age.
But we are not ready now. Human beings in the presence of the Divine is a disaster. Even one person, uneducated in the ways of holiness and reverence, can ruin paradise. The question this story should make us ask is: what will have to change in human beings for us the be able to live together in God’s Presence? And then we should ask: how will this change be brought about?
The people must provide the lamp oil (1-4), the people must provide the weekly bread (5-9), a case of blasphemy: Shelomith’s son (10-16), laws of punishment in kind (17-22), the penalty carried out (23).
The command for the people to provide oil and bread, a story about a difficult case of blasphemy to adjudicate, the laws of punishment matching the crime, and then the conclusion of the blasphemy story — how do these topics fit into the structure of Leviticus and the holiness themes of this last half of the book?
Vss. 1-9 concern the requirement of the people to continually supply olive oil and grain for the service of the sanctuary. This is indirectly related to what all of chapter 23 was about: commands for the people during the holidays at the sanctuary. Whereas Numbers 28-29 gives commands for the priests about sacrificial procedures for Sabbath and holidays, the focus in Leviticus 23 is on what the lay people are to do. The commands about bringing the regular supplies needed at the temple fill out that section as a sort of appendix to chapter 23.
The rest of chapter 24, then, starts a new topic. It is a narrative about a kind of desecration. We have seen one other narrative (and only one) in Leviticus, which is the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10. That story also was a desecration. Nadab and Abihu’s death in the sanctuary courts brought the contamination of human death into the dwelling place of God. The story of Shelomith’s son is about someone defiling the “Name” of God, which is a sort of parallel idea to defiling the temple of God.
In terms of the literary structure of Leviticus, Milgrom (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) shows that there is a “ring structure” to the whole book. Practically speaking, this means elements in the second half match up with elements in the first half. The case of Shelomith’s son is here to balance out the Nadab and Abide case in the first half.
The law which is stated as the result from this narrative is perhaps surprising, and the JPS translation captures it well: “Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name LORD, he shall be put to death” (vss. 15-16). In other words, uttering a curse against God bears only divine punishment, but pronouncing the divine Name out loud as part of any curse against God or a human being is punishable by the court. There are two elements that turn this into a capital crime: witnesses hear the curse or blasphemy being uttered and the use of the divine name as part of the curse or blasphemy. Further complicating the case of Shelomith’s son is his status as a half-Israelite. Therefore Moses had to inquire of God what to do about his offense.
The laws of commensurate punishment (often called lex talion, “law of retaliation”) can be interpreted two ways. They could be taken literally, so that, for example, if someone assaulted a person and knocked out their teeth, the court should appoint an enforcer to knock out the perpetrator’s teeth. But Milgrom (and the rabbis, and many other commentators) argues for a metaphorical interpretation. The severity of the punishment must match the crime. This was an advance in justice, since other law codes legislated the death penalty if a commoner assaulted a noble, for example. In Israel, the punishment must fit the crime.
How does Shelomith’s son’s execution by stoning relate to the “law of retaliation”? Milgrom’s suggestions are unsatisfying. Perhaps the idea is this: by blaspheming the divine Name, Shelomith’s son created a kind of impurity that could cause God to depart from the sanctuary. If God’s Presence withdrew from Israel, many people would die from hunger, war, and disease. He would be creating death for the community. Therefore the community put him to death.