vrijdag 25 januari 2013

Review of: Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3B), Doubleday, 2001

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3B), Doubleday, 2001.

Review in: Hebrew Studies Journal

LEVITICUS 23-27: A NEW TRANSLATION WITH INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY. By Jacob Milgrom. The Anchor Bible 3B. Pp. xxi + 1893-2714. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Cloth, $50.00. 

This volume marks the conclusion of Milgrom's magnum opus on Leviticus. The scope of his work can be glimpsed in the sheer number of pages he devotes to the last chapters of Leviticus (Leviticus 23, pages 1947-2080; Leviticus 24, pages 2080-2145; Leviticus 25, pages 2145-2271; Leviticus 26, pages 2272-2365; Leviticus 27, pages 2365-2436) and in his characteristic interest in bringing insights from rabbinic literature, in analyzing the interpretation of the Qumran community of the texts he treats, and in comparing ancient Near Eastern ritual texts, principally Hittite ones, to the priestly texts of the Pentateuch. Even though Milgrom must have been working on this commentary for decades, he energetically incorporates much more recent material and is engaged in a mighty battle with other interpreters from Ibn Ezra to the late Robert Cover.
Milgrom's work is brilliant and thought-provoking, studded with insights both philological and ideological. It does have limitations. The sheer mass of Milgrom's commentary can at times obscure his insights. (Here I will confine myself to the commentary on Lev 24:1-4). For example, Milgrom considers the problem of whether the candelabrum originally had seven branches and appears to conclude that the passage in question assumed that it possessed but a single lamp or bowl (p. 2088). The sole open question he leaves unanswered is whether the seven branches were a late First Temple or Second Temple development. However, a few pages later, after a host of other insights into the text, Milgrom notes that Lev 24:4 refers to the seven-branched candelabrum (p. 2091). How this coheres with what he argues persuasively for a few pages earlier is unclear to this reader. Moreover, Milgrom's ability to shed light on many conundrums leaves this reader disappointed in the cases where he does not. Milgrom explains that the reason why the two altars require daubing with blood, while the candelabrum and candle do not, is because the latter are purified by the sevenfold sprinkling of the curtain, while the altars, as the funnel of the people's prayers to God, symbolically represented by the ascending smoke of the altar, require stronger measures of protection from the forces of impurity (p. 2090). At the same time that Milgrom offers this sterling insight, he explains the reason for the apparent doublet of Exod 27:20-21 as anticipatory of Lev 24:1-4 without any argumentation (p. 2084). Lastly, the sheer complexity of the issues Milgrom addresses produces a certain amount of indecisiveness. In comparing Lev 24:1-4 to Exod 27:20-21, he highlights the ideological distinction between the two: in Exodus, the entire priestly group, holds the responsibility for setting up the lamps, while in Leviticus, the responsibility is Aaron's alone (p. 2084). A few pages later, Milgrom argues that ubanayw should be added to the Leviticus passage, obscuring the ideological consequences (p. 2088). Milgrom has so much to offer that he has difficulty holding it all together.

Another wrinkle in Milgrom's work originates in the very nature of commentary. In Milgrom's discussion of lex talionis, he observes that talionic punishment is far from precise, despite the implications of how the talionic principle is worded. The punishment of forty years' wandering in the Wilderness is generated from the forty days that the scouts reconnoitered the Land. Exact talionic punishment would mean the dissemination of disinformation that would make the Israelites panic and flee back to Egypt. Forty days is not equal to forty years, and the forty days of reconnaissance was not a sin. Rather the exaggeration of the abilities of the native inhabitants and the recommendation against invasion by ten of the spies were the sins. Milgrom is correct in pointing out that lex talionis in this case is more an expression of emphasis of the inevitability and irreversibility of punishment. Milgrom notes that talionic punishment is found in Mesopotamian law, but fails to note that it does not apply to capital punishment in Mesopotamian law. Serious offenses in Mesopotamian law are remedied by the death penalty, whether or not the offender has killed another. In Lev 24:10-23, the verbal expression of lex talionis is used for non-fatal bodily injuries, and a variant of it is used for the slaying of human beings. The principle of lex talionis is used in Mesopotamian law for non-fatal bodily injuries but not for capital cases, which fall under the rubric of serious offenses, whatever they might be, for which the penalty is death. This oversight is a genetic problem of commentaries. While Milgrom's publisher has allowed him the freedom of excurses, they can be too limited in scope to deal with complex issues that require a more sustained approach. Monographic works, on the other hand, can be so focused so as to ignore the demands of textual interpretation.

A final limitation arises from a focus on Leviticus that can obscure the greater culture from which it stems. Milgrom observes that holy days lack rituals of separation and incorporation and notes that blowing of the shofar could serve for this (pp. 1951-1952). There is more to pilgrimage celebrations than what is in Leviticus. Pilgrimage psalms were part of First Temple Israelite religion, yet they are not reflected in priestly texts.

This reader is grateful for Milgrom's efforts, in his commentaries and monographic works. His penetrating research has deepened our understanding of priestly texts, and those who study the Hebrew Bible will be forever in debt to Jacob Milgrom.
Pamela Barmash
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, MO 63130

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