Lessons from Leviticus: Part 1, Silence, Magic, and Relationship

I'm currently reading through the book of Leviticus. My guides are Robert Alter's translation and commentary and Jacob Milgrom's commentary. With Alter and Milgrom as guides I'm enjoying the journey through Leviticus, which is a bit of a surprise. I've read through Leviticus a few times before and never got too much out of it. 

This series won't be a comprehensive survey of Leviticus. It will be, rather, an idiosyncratic collection of insights and observations as I've read through the book. This blog, from the beginning, has been a sort of public journal, my digital Moleskin, a place where I gather ideas, quotations, and observations. In this series I'll be archiving lessons I've learned from Leviticus.

In the first three posts in this series I want to share reflections about how Leviticus helped establish Israel's monotheism.

It's widely agreed that ancient Israel's great theological innovation was monotheism, denying the existence of all gods except the Creator God. Or, at the very least, the recognition that any supernatural agents in the cosmos are subordinate vassals created by God. And importantly for this series, Leviticus performed much of the heavy lifting in facilitating this monotheistic revolution. 

Specifically, modern readers find much of Leviticus bizarre and confusing. But viewed against its pagan, polytheistic backdrop one can discern a logic at work in how the rituals and regulations of the book separated Israel's worship of God from how their neighbors interacted with their deities. 

Take silence, for instance. Jacob Milgrom observes:

The rules [in Leviticus] governing the worship service further served to differentiate the Israelite tradition from the pagan religions. The entire sacrificial ritual of the tabernacle, aptly labeled "the sanctuary of silence" by Y. Kaufman, was conducted in silence. The lack of speech can be best explained as the concerted attempt of the priestly legist to distance the rites of Israel's priest from the magical incantations that necessarily accompanied and, indeed, empowered the ritual acts of his pagan counterpart. 

Silence separated God from magic. Israel was, rather, in a living relationship with God.

Magic is metaphysical technology. The incantation of a spell harnesses a spiritual power, bending it to the purposes of the spell caster. It is not unlike an electrician tapping into an electric source and directing it toward some desired end, like illuminating a lightbulb. Such was the relationship of Israel's neighbors with their gods. The gods were used to bless or curse. 

By contrast, the silence of Israel's worship pointed in a different direction. Israel's God wasn't a power among other powers that could be manipulated or used for personal gain. Just ask Balak and Balaam. Israel's God was the LORD. We stand silent before Him. We shut our mouths.

“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.
Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2.18-20)
I think it's interesting to ponder the degree to which our relationship with God is either magical or relational by keeping track of how much talking versus listening is going on, how much petitioning versus silence. 

To be clear, there is communication in a relationship and a lot of petitioning. My wife and I talk all the time, and we petition each other all the time. But the situation is mutual, relational. We listen as much as talk, we obey as much as we request. A similar mutuality should characterize our relationship with God, a sign that God isn't being used as magic.

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