donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation), Westminster John Knox, 2002; in: Interpretation

Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation), Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Review in: Interpretation 2005 59: 67
Review door: Gary A. Anderson
Gevonden op:
by Samuel E. Balentine
Interpretation. John Knox, Louisville, 2002.
220 pp. $24.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8042-3103-6.

THIS VOLUME IS PART OF THE Interpretation series that is designed for use in the parish. It intends to synthesize historical and theological research in a manner that will allow the message of the entire book to be grasped by interested laypersons and pastors. This contribution fills these criteria admirably.

In Balentine's mind the role of ritual is key to interpreting the message of Leviticus. In this respect he makes available for the average reader the many groundbreaking insights that accompany Jacob Milgrom's massive three-volume commentary. In addition, the work of Frank Gorman (The Ideology of Ritual: Space, Time, and Status in the Priestly Theology) and Mary Douglas {Leviticus as Literature) on Leviticus and ritual is also mined and used effectively. On occasion, his appeal to ritual theory leads to an overly anthropocentric focus that cuts across the grain of Leviticus' uncompromising theocentric claims. Nevertheless the comparative examination is generally illuminative. The book also juxtaposes the insights of Leviticus to a number of classic poets (my personal favorites were his citations of George Herbert) and contemporary Jewish thinkers such as Leon Wieseltier (Kaddish) and Abraham Heschel (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man). These more than occasional asides will allow the more alien features of the book to reach contemporary ears.

Of course, none of the Levitical ritual will derive any theological traction unless the actions are viewed over against the claim that the God of Israel dwells in the tabernacle. We take these rituals seriously because they map out the manner we are to behave when we draw near to the Holy One of Israel. To drive home this point, the book of Leviticus is redolent with the vocabulary and imagery of Genesis 1. The point here is

that God's creational order is generative of and sustained by human observance of an imaging ritual order. This ritual order is manifest in the litany of the primordial week, when through seven commands God speaks into being a cosmic order that finds its culmination in the observance of the Sabbath day (Gen l:l-2:4a). This primordial design provides the foundation for the liturgy of the covenant making, when God's seven commands (Exod 25-31) and Israel's seven acts of compliance (Exod 40:17-33) bring into existence a cultic order centered in the tabernacle, which provides God's holy residence in the midst of a fragile world (p. 4).

Time and again the text of Leviticus uses the pattern of a seven-fold iteration of a command not as a piece of literary artistry but rather as a way of granting what might appear to be a time-bound ritual role in marking and imitating the cosmic order.

Given the importance of the sacrifices of atonement in Leviticus for the epistle to the Hebrews, this is one section of the book that all Christian Bible readers would do well to become familiar with. Here Balentine does an admirable job of making one of Milgrom's most important contributions to the study of Priestly literature accessible to the lay reader. The key chapters are Lev 4 (the basic outline of how the purification offering, often translated, "sin offering," works) and Lev 16 (the incorporation of the purification offering into the ritual for the annual Day of Atonement rite). As Childs has long reminded us, the relationship between the two testaments is an exceedingly complex affair and before one embarks on the important theological task of describing how the two are related, each testament must be heard on its own grounds. Balentine makes quite clear that for Leviticus sin is not merely some symbol of things gone wrong but rather "actualizes the belief that the sanctuary is no ordinary place....The sanctuary is holy because it is the visible center of God's presence in the world. When it is defiled, God's presence is compromised, and the world's stability is threatened" (p. 58). In light of this, one can see why some sort of strong atonement theory is needed to make sense of the cross. God cannot simply declare an amnesty or overlook sin in a casual manner; sin creates a barrier that must be dealt with. According to the logic of the New Testament, God has no choice but to enter the created world to redeem the created order God so deeply loves.

The so-called Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) concerns itself with the moral life of the Israelite community. If the beginning of the book appears too "clerical" in focus or too restricted to the domain of the altar, this is more than compensated for in the lengthy treatise that ends this book. Here Israel is enjoined to be holy just as God is holy. Whereas concern for impurity in Lev 1-16 was, by and large, limited to the effect it would have on the sanctuary, in Lev 17ff. the concern is for how "unethical and immoral human conduct outside the sanctuary defiles the world with consequences no less catastrophic than religious infidelity. The measure of Israel's obedience to God is not only the purity of its rituals; it is also the morality of its everyday conduct" (p. 153, author's italics).

In setting up his argument in this fashion, Balentine makes it clear that the laws governing the moral life in Lev 18-20 are central to the task of being a holy nation. This will create some problems for many readers of the volume because many of these laws (18:6-23; 20:9-21) that govern the moral life of the Israelite concern themselves with sexual propriety, and among those is a law (18:22) that proscribes homosexual behavior (but not homosexual intentions; Leviticus is not interested in the world of internal desire, only the process of acting on those desires).

This proscription of homosexual relations is frequently relativized by setting it next to the food laws of Lev 11, the point being that just as Christians may ignore the laws about shell fish, so they are at liberty to pass over the restrictions on homosexual relations. Balentine's argument for the centrality of these chapters will not allow him recourse to this strategy. Leaning on Milgrom, he declares that the laws on improper sexual relations are rooted in a theology of creation: "The fundamental issue behind all these prohibitions... is the concern to honor God's procreational commission to be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28) (p. 158). This sort of law is not subject to abrogation in Christian thought in the manner in which the food laws are. Though he provides some appropriate caveats that a reader must keep in mind when interpreting the specific law regarding homosexuality (Balentine himself is quite tolerant on this particular issue), he wisely keeps the creation theology of Ρ at the forefront: "Finally, however we may decide to appropriate these prohibitions, we should remember that the rationale behind all of them, including those dealing with male homosexuality, is the overriding concern to honor God's procreational commission" (p. 159).

This book is a marvelous introduction to the rich—albeit foreign—world of Leviticus. A careful reading of this volume in consultation with the Biblical text will be immensely rewarding.

Gary A. Anderson

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