Lessons from Leviticus: Part 5, Theodicy and Collective Responsibility

One of the interesting observations Jacob Milgrom makes in his commentary on Leviticus is that Leviticus functions, or at least embodies, a theodicy.

The perennial question of theodicy--Why are bad things happening to us?--is given an answer in Leviticus: the communal accumulation of sin, which eventually leads to God abandoning His sanctuary. As Milgrom writes:

God will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. To be sure, the Merciful One would tolerate a modicum of pollution. But there is a point of no return. If the pollution levels continue to rise, the end is inexorable. God abandons the sanctuary and leaves the people to their doom.

What are Israel's priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy...Is it possible that Israel's priests, whose prime function as "to teach the Israelites" (10:11) had nothing to say regarding God's providence?

We know now where to find their answer--not in words but in rituals, not in legal statues but in cultic procedure--specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering...[The] priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and unless quickly expunged, God's presence will depart.

[The purification ritual demonstrates] the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.

And not just sinners, the innocent will also get swept up in the punishment of God. 

Now, of course, this might seem grossly unfair, but what we find here in Leviticus does have modern ring to it: The notion of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point" where the group suffers the consequences of collective, distributed guilt. 

Think about climate change, and all the suffering that lies in store for humanity. Why is that suffering happening? Well, a failure of collective responsibility and reaching a "tipping point." Current "flourishing" will have a price. A tally is being kept and will have to be repaid at some point. 

Or think about generational and systemic sin. Individual people, or groups of people, may "flourish" because of systemic injustices, but those injustices damage the social fabric of society. And if that damage is allowed to accumulate our social contract will fracture and split. 

My point isn't to draw precise analogies with these examples and what's being described in Leviticus. I'm simply underlining Milgrom's point that the vision of "crime and punishment" in Leviticus is communal in nature, and also temporally delayed when a tipping point is reached. In this vision, isolated and individual sinners might not always get the punishment they deserve. In fact, they may benefit and flourish from their wickedness. But that sin is being reckoned. It doesn't evaporate into thin air. And it accumulates over time. Things get worse and worse. And should the community reach the tipping point, they will, collectively, suffer the consequence. 

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