Va-yikra’: A JPS Companion for Reading Leviticus
I think I am actually on pace to finish my Bible-in-a-Year reading plan in two years–but, as I’ve said before, as much as I value getting a good overview of all of Scripture in a short time, it’s so deep and rich (and sometimes surprising and/or befuddling) that I keep wanting to go slow. This is not, of course, a bad thing. The reading plan can wait.
The JPS Torah Commentary has been my go-to companion for reading through the first five books of the Bible. I’m three volumes in, and each one has been excellent. See what I say about the Genesis volume here, and the Exodus volume here and here. Now I’ve found myself similarly aided by Baruch A. Levine’s JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus as I’ve made my way through that dense book of the Bible.
Levine’s commentary is more difficult to sit down and read through than Nahum Sarna’s Genesis or Exodus volumes, but this is less because of Levine and more because Leviticus does not have the same narrative flow of Genesis and Exodus. Its descriptions of laws and rituals are difficult for the uninitiated (um… and for the initiated) to wade through. It’s dense.
But Levine matches the density of the text with detail of his own, drawing also on rabbinical traditions to help the reader understand the world of the text. Levine addresses historical background and theology, as well as exegetical detail at the word level. But even his detailed exegesis highlights the larger literary context, so you can see the interrelations of Scripture as you read this commentary.
Allow me to share a specific example.
Here is the Hebrew text (nicely included in this commentary) of the admittedly harsh-sounding Leviticus 26:21:
Here’s the verse in the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation–also included in this edition:
And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.
Levine’s comment for the verse focuses on the phrase, “And if you remain hostile toward Me.” Note how he balances lexical analysis with both extrabiblical and biblical references (the Hebrew in the commentary is transliterated throughout):
Here, again, is a transition, where the conditions for God’s forgiveness are stated.
Hebrew keri, “hostility,” and the idiom halakh ʿim. . . be-keri, “to walk with. . . in hostility,” are unique to this chapter. Targum Onkelos translates be-kashyu, “with hardness, obstinacy,” deriving keri from the root k-r-r, “to be cold.” Compare the noun form karah, “cold wave,” in Nahum 3:17, and mekerah, “cool chamber,” in Judges 3:24. The reverse of “walking in hostility” is “agreeing to obey” (ʾavah li-shmoʿa) suggesting that keri is synonymous with meri, “rebelliousness.” Note the contrast in Isaiah 1:19–20: “If, then, you agree and give heed, / You will eat the good things of the earth; / But if you refuse and disobey (u-meritem), / You will be devoured by the sword.” The notion of meri as “rebelliousness” is a major theme in the prophecies of Ezekiel, but the term keri occurs nowhere else in the Bible; hence its meaning remains uncertain.
There is one other portion I need to quote at length, since it comes in Levine’s opening explanation of the sacrificial system in Leviticus 1. Maybe I’m obtuse or just not familiar enough with Leviticus, but I had somehow missed until now that one could not sacrifice to expiate for intentional sins:
It should be emphasized here, as the workings of the sacrificial system are introduced to the reader, that the laws of the Torah did not permit Israelites to expiate intentional or premeditated offenses by means of sacrifice. There was no vicarious, ritual remedy—substitution of one’s property or wealth—for such violations, whether they were perpetrated against other individuals or against God Himself. In those cases, the law dealt directly with the offender, imposing real punishments and acting to prevent recurrences. The entire expiatory system ordained in the Torah must be understood in this light. Ritual expiation was restricted to situations where a reasonable doubt existed as to the willfulness of the offense. Even then, restitution was always required where loss or injury to another person had occurred. The mistaken notion that ritual worship could atone for criminality or intentional religious desecration was persistently attacked by the prophets of Israel, who considered it a major threat to the entire covenantal relationship between Israel and God.
Is this why David in Psalm 51 says,” For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased”?
Levine comes back to this theme as Leviticus introduces the various offering types. He also explains the difference between sin and impurity, in a way that is really helpful for more fully engaging Leviticus.
The Introduction is some 30 pages, addressing both “The Leviticus Text” (which summarizes the book, highlights its structure, discusses its formation, and compares early versions) and “The Context” (Levine spells out how this commentary supports “the realism of Leviticus”). The 11 Excursuses (spanning some 40 pages) are utterly fascinating, covering topics like dietary laws, the scapegoat ritual, the festivals, and more.
All that is already more than enough to help the reader or teacher in her/his quest to better enter the world of Leviticus. But then the icing on the cake is the section called, “Leviticus in the Ongoing Jewish Tradition.” Here Levine hopes that “the reader of the Commentary may catch a glimpse of continuity and change and focus attention on the lasting relevance of Leviticus.”
And here’s some icing to go on that other icing: the binding is sewn and the book is beautifully bound. I’m quite sure I’ll be returning to this commentary again, but first–I’ve got more of the Torah to read through.
Many thanks to the folks at University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society for sending me a copy of the commentary for review. The book’s JPS product page is here; you can order it through Nebraska Press here. Find it on Amazon here.
Prefer an electronic edition? Accordance has the JPS Torah Commentary here.