The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel

By Miller, Patrick D. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel


Miller, Patrick D., Journal of Biblical Literature


The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel, by Moshe Weinfeld. VTSup 100. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xiv + 162. $98.00 (hardcover). ISBN 9004137491.

Few persons are better qualified to take up the subject reflected in the tide of this book than Moshe Weinfeld, whose varied works on Deuteronomy have been seminal for the modern study of Deuteronomic literature. The reader, however, should be prepared for a somewhat narrower focus than the title suggests. While the title is not inaccurate, the "place" to which the title refers is largely a historical matter, more specifically, the question of how and where to date the Priestly Code. An appropriate subtitle would be something like "A Critique of Wellhausen's Dating of P." As such, the book joins a number of other works, largely by Jewish scholars, as Weinfeld notes. Indeed the persistence of Wellhausen's sequencing of the pentateuchal strata among Christian scholars is surely one of the reasons behind Weinfeld's detailed investigation of Wellhausen's thesis and its underlying assumptions.

Weinfeld begins by identifying in some detail the prejudice against Judaism that underlay Wellhausen's analysis of the Priestly law. Through various extended quotations, he uncovers Wellhausen's reading of Pharisaic Judaism as a ritualistic obedience to the law that stands in sharp contrast to the ethical teachings of Jesus. Weinfeld demonstrates Wellhausens willful ignorance of Jewish sources or, at best, his superficiality in handling them and sets over against that the various ways in which Jesus and the Pharisees shared a common ground, especially with regard to the centrality of love of God and love of neighbor. As Weinfeld and others have observed, Wellhausen's views on Judaism as a religion of dry rules and ritual totally transcended by Jesus's teaching were widely shared among biblical scholars and theologians of his era.

Chapters 2 and 3 may be the most important in the book, for there Weinfeld engages directly the literary-critical arguments of Wellhausen and brings the ancient Near Eastern data into engagement and critique of his position. He takes up each of the five categories of Israel's religious life that Wellhausen used to argue the lateness of P and sets forth counterarguments, for example, the mention of Shiloh as predecessor and prototype to the Jerusalem temple in Jer 7:12 and Ps 78:60 rather than Wellhausen's interpretation of it as a retrojection of the temple. Many of the arguments are cogent, and many of them presume a logical movement that makes good sense but could well have been the reverse of the way Weinfeld proposes. For example, the provision in Deut 12:15 allowing the slaughter and eating of meat in any of the towns and not simply at the sanctuary where the blood can be expiated is seen as a development out of Leviticus 17, where such slaughter is confined to the sanctuary. Also allowing gazelle and deer in Deut 12:15 means that the distinction between the sheep and cattle and hunted animals relative to their being eaten in a state of impurity no longer holds. The domestic animal can now be eaten in an impure state like the hunted animals, which were already free of that restriction in the prior Priestly law. Weinfeld also sees Deuteronomy taking over the Priestly prohibition against eating the blood of the animal (Deut 12:23). The argument is cogent. One nevertheless can ask if the process may not have worked in reverse. That is, there may have been a movement toward restriction rather than away from it. The primary weight in favor of Weinfeld's ordering of events would be the development of a fixed central sanctuary, which would inhibit the requirement of slaughter at the sanctuary and so lead to an opening of the requirements for persons far from the sanctuary.

On sacrificial practices, Weinfeld rightly points to evidence from outside the legal material that suggests a more extensive and complex sacrificial system earlier than Wellhausen presumes.

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