BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 142
Copyright © 2001 Biblical Horizons
I recently heard of a new English translation of the Bible being prepared by men concerned to preserve a literal word-for-word rendering of the Hebrew and Greek but also sensitive to ecclesiastical tradition. I wrote to the committee and asked if they were going to fix the traditional translation of key words in Leviticus, and I was told that they were not going to do so. “Ascension” would still be mistranslated “Burnt Offering”; “Tribute” would still be mistranslated “Grain Offering”; and so forth. Ecclesiastical tradition apparently will triumph over literal precision in these cases.
Well, I’m tired of not having ready to hand an accurate and precise translation of Leviticus. The best available in print is Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken, 1995), but it still has a number of infelicities. So, I’ve begun to work on a translation for myself. Of course, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, and I’m not the best person to do this. But Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has taught me that if I wait for the right person to do it, it will never be done, because the right persons generally don’t see the need to do it. Thus, the thing to do is put out the best translation I can do, warts and all, and hope that it makes some “right person” irritated enough to do a better job himself!
I should be working on finishing my commentary on Daniel, and I am, but I got inspired and spent a week working on Leviticus. I have a long way to go, but I thought I’d share my work with you as I do it. So, from time to time I’ll be putting parts of Leviticus into Biblical Horizons for you to read and study.
The book of Leviticus is extremely practical and valuable for Christian life and worship, but this fact is almost completely obscured by our English translations. Leviticus 1 & 2 show that we ascend into God’s presence, with tribute, and that He then shares part of that tribute with us in a meal with Him. This is what happens in worship (forgiveness, ascension to God to hear His Word, offering, and communion), but we cannot see this as long as mistranslations like “burnt offering” and “grain offering” get in our way.
“Offering” does not bring out the idea of bringing something near, which is essential to the Hebrew word. “Sin offering” does not communicate the same thing as Purification (offering), and “trespass offering” does not communicate the same thing as Desanctifying Offering. The English words “altar” and “sacrifice” do not communicate the idea of a shared communion meal, which the Hebrew words entail. The English “priest” is so overladen with wrong connotations that I have used the more accurate “palace-servant” for the Hebrew word. A “stroke of leprosy” does not communicate the same thing as a more literal and accurate “plague of corruption,” for the things discussed in Leviticus 13-14 are not “leprosy,” and the word for “stroke” is the same word used for the plagues of Egypt – and the connection to Egypt is all-important: “I will put a plague of corruption on you” means “I will put the plagues of Egypt on you.” The words “abominable” and “detestable” connote different things, and must be translated with care.
A much debated word is the word kaphar and the words related to it. Scholars debate whether it has to do with covering, with wiping clean, or with ransom. The discussions start with etymology, which provides no firm answer. Thus, the discussions turn to how the word is used. The choice made by a particular scholar tends to be along the lines of his interest: Traditional Christians looking to find the equivalent of fairly abstract and Pauline “systematic theology” language in Leviticus favor “propitiate, atonement, ransom, mercy seat” and the like. Scholars influenced by comparative religion and viewing Israelite religion as in many ways like other ancient religions, tend toward “purge, cleanse.” A Biblio-theological standpoint, however, starts with Genesis 1 and takes note of the simple, ordinary things that are specifically listed there, and then takes note of how those concrete parts of the world begin to take on deeper symbolic significance as the Bible progresses. And from such an approach, we are led to consider “cover” more seriously than those approaching the term from other directions generally do.
I submit that “cover” is the basic meaning, and that it nicely fits all contexts in which kaphar and related terms appear. Thus, the ark of Noah was “covered” with a “covering” (pitch). The slab of gold on the Ark of the Covenant is not a “mercy seat” but a cover, a symbol of the firmament over the earth. The Day of Atonement is the Day of Covering, when the Ark-cover is covered with blood and the High Palace-Servant receives his clothing back again. “Make atonement” means “cover.” All of these covers relate to the firmament-cover over the world, the clothing put on Adam and Eve after they sinned, and the clothing of the High Palace-Servant, to mention but a few. Such coverings before God obviously relate to propitiation, cleansing, atonement, and the like, but the fundamental idea is that of covering, of being rightly clothed before God. The Christian, understanding that he must be hidden in Christ, clothed by Him, before he dares to approach God, will have no trouble grasping the deep significance of such coverings.
Since Leviticus is a book of rituals, the language used is extremely precise. Words need to be translated as precisely as possible, and the same way each time they are used. With this in mind, I am capitalizing many technical terms. It is my goal to provide such a translation, with commentary notes.
The Overall Structure of Leviticus
Leviticus is structured, as so many Bible books are, as a chiasm:
1. Nearbringings for covering, Lev. 1-7
2. Narrative of palace-servants’ investiture and rebellion; death of sons, Lev. 8-10
3. Coverings for uncleanness, Lev. 11-15
4. Day of Covering, Lev. 16
5. Holiness, Lev. 17:1-24:9
6. Narrative of Israelite rebellion; death of a son, Lev. 24:10-23
7. Redemption, Lev. 25-27
The center of the book is the Day of Covering. It begins with an allusion back to death of Nadab and Abihu (section 2), and ends with the statement that both Israelite and sojourner must observe this day (section 6; 24:16, 22). The ritual involves two goats: the first goat for uncleanness (section 3) and the second goat cut off from the people (holiness language; section 5). Thus, the literary order of Leviticus 16 moves chiastically from sections 2 to 3 to 5 to 6.
The emphases in the legal sections are as follows:
Sections 1 & 3: These sections concern Instruction (torah) regarding Nearbringings for covering and coverings for impurities and uncleanness. Adam needed to be covered, clothed, by God, and the book begins by saying that the adams descended from him also need covering.
Section 3 focuses on uncleanness of the flesh.
Section 5 focuses on holiness and related concepts: the Name Yahweh, cutting off, blood (contrast “flesh” in section 3).
Section 7 focuses on holiness, but on redemption rather than covering.
The Structure of Leviticus 1-7
The Nearbringings section consists of two parts. The first (1:1 – 6:7 in English) consists of four separate speeches from Yahweh. The second (6:8 – 7:38) consists of five speeches embracing five Instructions.
1:1 Yahweh called to Moses, say to Israel
1:2 Nearbringings, introduction
3:1 Communion-Sacrifices of Fellowship
4:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, say to Israel (Purifications)
5:14 Yahweh spoke to Moses (Trespass against God, Desanctifying Offerings)
6:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses (Trespass against man and God, Desanctifying Offerings)
6:8 Yahweh spoke to Moses, say to Aaron
6:9 Instruction for Ascensions
6:14 Instruction for Tributes
6:19 Yahweh spoke to Moses (Aaron’s anointing Tribute)
6:24 Yahweh spoke to Moses, say to Aaron
6:25 Instruction for Purifications
7:1 Instruction for Desanctifying Offerings
7:11 Instruction for Communion-Sacrifices of Fellowship
7:22 Yahweh spoke to Moses, say to Israel (fat and blood forbidden)
7:28 Yahweh spoke to Moses, say to Israel (Liftings and Contributions of the Communion-Sacrifice of Fellowship)
7:37 Instruction for Nearbringings (summary)
Introduction to the Nearbringings for
1And Yahweh called to Moses,
and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying,
Moses did not prepare his heart to receive the Word of Yahweh. He did not get himself into the mood to hear some inner voice. Moses may not have been expecting Yahweh to call to him at all. Yahweh initiates the speech and its contents, which concern approaching Him. We do not come to worship when and how we wish, but we come because God calls us and tells us when and how. God initiates worship.
The “tabernacle” is the place where Yahweh dwells, while the “tent of meeting” is the place where He meets with His people. They are the same place after the Tabernacle ordered in Exodus 25-40 is set up. Before that time, there was another tent of meeting where Moses met with God (Ex. 33:7-11). Exodus 40 records the initial consecration of the palace-servants (priests) on the first day of the second year, and on that day the Tabernacle was set up. This consecration is recorded in more detail in Leviticus 8-10. It appears, then, that the laws given to Moses in Leviticus 1-7 came from God’s presence in the earlier tent of meeting, prior to the events in Exodus 40 and Leviticus 8-10 (and note 7:38). Every other use of the phrase in Leviticus refers to the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting.
God calls from the “tent of meeting” and not “from Sinai” because He is calling the people to meet with Him. Compare 7:37-38, which says that the revelation came from Mount Sinai, terming it Instructions (torah). Generally speaking, laws come from Sinai; invitations from the tent of meeting.
2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them,
‘An adam,1 when he brings near from youp a Nearbringing2 to Yahweh,
from livestock3 from the herd and from the flock youp shall bring near yourp Nearbringing.4
1. “Adam” is used when there is some kind of association with the ground (‘adamah) from which human beings (‘adam) were made. Genesis 2:7 reads, “And Yahweh God formed the man (‘adam) of dust from the ground (‘adamah); and He breathed into his nostrils breath of life, and the man (‘adam) became a living soul.” 1 Corinthians 15:47 reads, “The first man is from the ground, made of dust; the second man is from heaven.”
‘Adam as used in the Hebrew scriptures seems to connote mankind as considered united to Adam: human beings in their first phase of existence, and often connotes human beings as sinners united to fallen Adam. It does not quite mean “human beings in general.” To avoid an awkward translation, such as “human beings in their first and fallen phase,” I have simply put the word into English as “adam” and “adams.”
But there is more: In Genesis 2:15 we read that God put the adam into the Garden to beautify and to guard it. An adam is a palace-servant in a general sense. In Leviticus the word adam is specified to the Israelites, who are the representative adams for humanity: “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them: An adam… .” Genesis 5:2 makes it clear that “adam” includes both men and women, and thus “sons” of Israel also includes women. When the first Adam entered the Garden, the woman had not yet been separated from him, so the woman is included among the adams who are invited to draw near into the Tabernacle Courtyard.
The original Adam was the palace-servant of the Garden-sanctuary, and the Israelite adams have the same general duty, though that duty is more closely associated with the Levites and Aaronic palace-servants. As “man” in the book of Revelation means “Jews,” while the Gentiles are spoken of as “tongues, tribes, nations, and peoples,” so “adam” in Leviticus means “Israelites.” Aliens and sojourners may also draw near and offer Nearbringings (Numbers 15), but they are not in view in Leviticus, which except for chapters 17 and 18, is spoken only to the “sons of Israel.”
‘Adam occurs in the following places in Leviticus:
1:2 – The original Adam stole from God; good and faithful adams bring Nearbringings to Him. Though this is the duty of all human beings, it is the particular duty of the “sons of Israel” as special adams.
5:3 – uncleanness, symbolic death. God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground (‘adamah) with reference to you.” The ground is not cursed, but it prosecutes the curse (death) against man as God’s agent. The human body, made of the ground, thus prosecutes the curse of death against man, and this death is symbolized as uncleanness. In certain specific ways, man’s soil-body strikes him dead by making him unclean. This is why uncleanness comes out of man as ‘adam. The same usage of “adam” is found in 6:3; 7:21; 13:2, 9; 22:5. These passages apply only to Israelites. The Gentiles did not come under the special laws of uncleanness; only the special adams, Israelites, did.
16:17 – no adam may be in the Tent of Meeting while the High Palace-Servant performs the rites of the Day of Covering. On this occasion there is a contrast between the High Palace-Servant and the adams. On this occasion, the High Palace-Servant prefigures the new, last-Adam humanity of Jesus Christ, acting to save the old adamic first-Adam humanity.
18:5 – an adam finds life if he guards the statutes and ordinances of God, which were specifically given to Israel. Faith-filled obedience is the way the old, fallen, first-Adam adam finds life in the restored and glorified kingdom of God.
24:17, 20, 21 – murder, taking the “soul” of an adam, requires the death penalty. Only God and His appointed agents (magistrates and blood avengers) are permitted to prosecute the death-curse against Adamic humanity to the full extent of taking the soul. The Noahic Covenant had made it clear that this rule applies to all human beings, but here it is pointedly specified to the Israelite adams.
27:28, 29 – adams are dedicated to God in the same way as land, the soil from which adams were made.
(continued in issue 143)
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