James W. Watts. Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Watts argues in this book that Leviticus 1-16 employs rhetoric to
uphold the authority of the Aaronide priests. Watts notes examples in
the Hebrew Bible of texts being read aloud to the people, and he
believes that the use of the second person in Leviticus is one
indication that this text is intended to be read aloud to persuade the
people using rhetoric.
The message and intent of Leviticus 1-16 is largely political,
according to Watts. Sin offerings were invented so that more offerings
would come to the Aaronide priests, in a time when they lacked a royal
sponsor and were suffering a dearth of priestly revenues. The story of
the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, highlights the serious
(even dangerous) work that the Aaronide priests are doing. Burnt
offerings are often mentioned before other offerings because that would
highlight to the people the importance of offering to God. And the
Aaronide priests are depicted in Leviticus 1-16 as the only people who
brought atonement, or purification.
From a religious perspective, one that looks to the Bible for
spiritual edification or enlightenment, this book is quite baffling. I
may be post-evangelical in many respects, but I still want to be edified
when I read the biblical text. At the very least, I would like to
understand what the details of the Bible have to do with religious
conceptions of God. But Watts challenges this tendency within me and
many others in a variety of ways. Not only does he contend that aspects
of Leviticus 1-16 had a political motive, but he argues that rituals
often precede the interpretation that is attached to them, and that many
writings of the Hebrew Bible attained authoritative status on account
of the rituals within them, meaning that the stories and theological
ideas came along for the ride and were actually secondary. Watts also
dismisses one scholar’s theological idea that the Book of Leviticus was
about the healing of the world.
Is there a way to be theologically edified, while embracing Watts’
ideas in this book? Well, maybe one can learn the lesson of supporting
one’s leaders and appreciating the difficult work that they are doing.
From a Christian standpoint, perhaps one can apply what Leviticus 1-16
says about the Aaronide priests to Jesus Christ. Watts in this book
points out that, while many Christians have presented Jesus as the
sacrificial offering itself, the Book of Hebrews is actually closer to
the spirit of Leviticus 1-16 in that Hebrews emphasizes Jesus’ status as
high priest. Overall, however, Watts appears to believe that the goal
of deriving spiritual or theological meaning from Leviticus 1-16 has
baffled many. Watts notes interpreters, such as Philo, who seek to
interpret the sacrifices in Leviticus from a spiritual standpoint.
Watts’ book is interesting on a variety of fronts. He discusses a
variety of scholarly ideas about the Book of Leviticus, such as the view
that Leviticus 11 has an environmental purpose for forbidding the
Israelites to eat unclean meat (an idea that Watts rejects). Watts also
compares and contrasts Leviticus 1-16 with other ancient Near Eastern
books of ritual. While Watts notes some overlap, he also sees
differences: the way that Leviticus 1-16 puts the commands for rituals
in the mouth of the deity (which occurs occasionally and briefly in
ancient Near Eastern stories, but not on the level that we see in
Leviticus), and the status of the Torah, not only as a book of rituals,
but as a religious book that is to shape the lives of the Israelites.
Watts also makes an interesting observation about how the Samaritan
priests held that they were Aaronides, and Watts contends that this was
pertinent to the attempts by Judean priests to form connections with the
I found the book to be a difficult read, not because the prose and
the vocabulary were hard for me, but rather because Watts was throwing
at me one pearl after another, and it wasn’t always easy for me to stay
caught up. There were also times when I was unsure of where Watts was
going with his points. He did well to summarize his main arguments in
the course of his book, but that tempted me to want to go back and see
how the trees related to the forest.
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