A Spiritual Disease

The skin condition which is poorly translated as leprosy in English versions of the Bible is no ordinary disease. Sufferers from the disease are not only quarantined, as we might expect; they are also declared spiritually unclean- tamei in biblical Hebrew.

Spiritual uncleanness can occur in many ways, for example contact with a corpse or a bodily emission. But there are no other examples of spiritual uncleanness in the bible where physical isolation is also required. Continue reading “A Spiritual Disease”

Aaron’s Sons- Evidence of an Ancient Folk Tradition?

One of the most difficult incidents to understand in the whole Bible is the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, at the ceremony of dedication for the Tabernacle. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. The portable sanctuary that the Israelites had constructed in the wilderness was finally finished and Aaron was being consecrated as its priest when suddenly fire came out of heaven and consumed Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10,2). Their offence was that they had offered ‘strange fire’ in their censers. This is usually understood to mean that they had used their own recipe to make the incense they were burning, instead of sticking to the divinely sanctioned formula.

Immediately after the event, Moses turned to Aaron, telling him that God had already warned that he would be sanctified through those who draw close to him, and that would be honoured before all the people. It is not at all clear what Moses meant and the later Jewish commentators struggle to understand it. The consensus, which is difficult for us to accept, is that somehow Nadav and Avihu were greatly privileged by being chosen to die;  the dedication of the tabernacle was such a tremendous event that it could only be fully sanctified by the death of the most righteous of all people. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be the ones to die, but it turned out that Nadav and Avihu were more deserving.

Needless to say, this explanation is not satisfying to modern sensibilities. The idea that God is appeased or even pleased by the death of people puts us in mind of horrors like child sacrifice, that the Bible itself rails against. Continue reading “Aaron’s Sons- Evidence of an Ancient Folk Tradition?”

Ideas That Lie Beneath the Surface

The Book of Leviticus discussing sacrifices far more widely than any other section of the Bible. Most of us do not find the idea of sacrifices stimulating, indeed many people are repelled by the thought of them. But if you believe that it is possible to find ideas and insights below the surface text of the Bible, then it is instructive to try to investigate what we may be able to learn from the lengthy and complex descriptions of sacrifices. Particularly since sacrifice does not necessarily mean slaughtering animals. A sacrifice is the giving of something one values, or of oneself, for a higher purpose, for reconciliation or propitiation.

One of the most intriguing concepts in the whole sacrificial system is the concept of piggul. It is introduced in Leviticus 7,18 where we read that if someone delays eating eats their sacrificial meal until its allotted time has passed, the sacrifice will not be accepted, it has become piggul. Continue reading “Ideas That Lie Beneath the Surface”

What Shall We Do With The Recalcitrant Witness?

“And should a person offend when he hears a voice in adjuration, he being a witness, or has seen or known, if he does not tell, he shall bear his punishment” (Leviticus 5,1, Robert Alter translation).

This is a strange verse, not only in its language, but in the idea that lies behind it. The word that Robert Alter translates as punishment is could equally be expressed as ‘guilt’, because although the Bible specifies actions to be taken by the offender, they are not a punishment. The word translated as ‘adjuration’ is more usually rendered to mean a curse or an oath.

The verse is discussing someone who has been called to testify in court and who fails to go. The summons they received came in the form of an oath or a curse, which would take effect if they did not heed the call. Continue reading “What Shall We Do With The Recalcitrant Witness?”

Why Biblical Words Matter

The final section of Exodus begins with a tally of the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle, an enterprise which has been described in detail during the previous fourteen chapters, over one third of the book. The chapter is introduced with the words ‘these are the accounts of the Tabernacle…’

The English word ‘account’ has a dual meaning, it can refer either to a tale or to a statement about finance. The Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘account’ has many more meanings. Coming from the verbal root pkd it is one of those multi-purpose words that can be used in different ways that often seem to be unrelated, or very loosely so at best. Continue reading “Why Biblical Words Matter”

Evidence of Deliberate Literary Structure in the Book of Exodus

There is a clear literary structure to the Book of Exodus. It runs far deeper than just the bare outline of the tale, opening with the enslaved Israelites being forced to build pyramids for Pharaoh and ending with them liberated, voluntarily constructing a tabernacle for God. The details of the plot, and the very choice of vocabulary itself indicates a deliberate contrast between the first and second halves of the book. Continue reading “Evidence of Deliberate Literary Structure in the Book of Exodus”

We will do, but do we hear?

How could the Israelites have made the Golden Calf? They had just witnessed the most awe-inspiring, mind boggling miracles- the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and to cap it all God’s revelation to them on Mount Sinai. And yet here they were only a few weeks later making a golden calf and proclaiming: “these are your gods Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

Many explanations have been put forward. Moses had been up the mountain for longer than they expected, so they assumed he was dead and sought a substitute for his leadership. Alternatively, the calf was made by the foreigners in their midst- they blamed the foreigners in those days too. Or they were so subsumed in their slave mentality that they could not deal with the idea of an unknown invisible deity; they needed a concrete representation. Continue reading “We will do, but do we hear?”

Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss

The High Priest in the Israelite Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple, was told to wear an object, identified as a tzitz, on his forehead. The instruction to make this object is found in the book of Exodus (28, 36-38), but no details are given as to its size, shape or weight. All we are told is that it is to be made of pure gold, placed upon the priest’s linen headdress and suspended from a woollen thread dyed with t’chelet, a blue pigment extracted from a particular species of marine snail. The tzitz is to have the words Holy to the Lord engraved upon it.

As we would expect, rabbinic tradition amplifies this very vague instruction. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) the tzitz was a plate, two fingerbreadths in breadth, that extended the full width of the forehead, from one ear to the other. To the Lord was written on one line, the word Holy was written beneath. R. Eliezer ben Yosé disagreed; he claimed to have seen the tzitz in Rome, taken there with the other treasures after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. The words Holy to the Lord were, he said, written on one line. Continue reading “Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss”

God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites. Continue reading “God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat”

Akiva’s Educational Manifesto

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jewish religion could easily have vanished with it. The Temple was Judaism’s cultic centre, without it the faith’s survival seemed impossible. Had it not been for a small group of people, who we now call the Rabbis. They took it upon themselves to reshape Judaism for a new future, one in which individuals rather than priests were responsible for their own spiritual needs, in which the home and synagogue rather than the Temple became the centre of religious life.

The first generation of rabbis began the process of establishing the religion’s framework. They drew on the traditions they knew, and they expounded the text of the written Torah. Subsequent generations clarified, expanded and supplemented their work. But they were a small, isolated group of scholars. For their work to have any meaning at all they would have to inspire and enthuse the masses. They needed to get their message out. Continue reading “Akiva’s Educational Manifesto”