Holiness and Leviticus: A Reading Guide to Prepare for Class

Leviticus is a radical departure from Exodus in many ways.  Instead of protracted narratives that are filled with tense moments, we have a series of laws and rituals that could seem strange to many of us.  Much of the text consists of legal collections, instructions for worship and ritual purity, dietary laws, and ceremonial instructions. 

One point that Marc Brettler makes in his chapter on ritual in Leviticus is that “developing a sympathetic understanding of ritual is crucial for understanding what biblical texts meant” (74). Understanding these laws in their historical and literary context is a challenge, to be sure.  Here are some questions to keep in mind when reading.

What is the function of ritual in Leviticus? What worldview(s) and theological perspectives inform the writers of Leviticus?  How are these views expressed in the text?

On Wednesday’s class we will discuss a chapter from Mary Douglas’s extremely influential text, Purity and Danger.  Her chapter, on the dietary laws in Leviticus, is available here. Douglas seeks to uncover one of the oldest puzzles in biblical scholarship:  what do all of the laws in Leviticus mean?  Why are some animals (for instance, some types of locusts but not others) seen as an abomination, even though God created everything and said that it was good?  Douglas offers an anthropological system of meaning to these laws that has, for over 40 years, remained central to any discussion of biblical purity.

What is Douglas’s interpretation of the dietary laws in Leviticus?  What is its fundamental premise?  In what way do we see Douglas’s analysis influencing other areas of thinking that perhaps exist outside of the biblical text?

How (or why) is holiness important to the people of Israel? In what way is the Holiness Collection a theological treatise?


About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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