Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics

Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics

Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics

Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics


Building upon his life-long work on the Book of Leviticus, Milgrom makes this book accessible to all readers. He demonstrates the logic of Israel's sacrificial system, the ethical dimensions of ancient worship, and the priestly forms of ritual.


Fifty years ago, when I began to research the book of Leviticus, I discovered to my great surprise that it had hardly been the subject of critical examination. Indeed, during the past century, until the 1990s, only one comprehensive commentary on Leviticus appeared—in German. I stumbled on the reason accidentally in conversation with the chancellor of a Protestant seminary.

When I received my doctorate—not on Leviticus but on the prophets—I was invited by the same chancellor to join his faculty. “What book will you teach,” asked the chancellor. With trepidation I replied, “Exilic Isaiah (chapters 40–66).” I knew that these chapters were quoted in the New Testament more than any other part of the Hebrew Bible. (The nerve of a rabbi who would teach Christians the very sources of their faith!) The chancellor replied unhesitatingly, “Fine. But no sermons, ONLY THE TRUTH.” He just wanted the plain, unadorned, undoctrinaire meaning of the text—the truth! I knew then that this was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

My intuition about the chancellor was enforced when I invited him and other faculty members to my home to partake of the Passover service and meal. The moment they saw the bottles of wine on the table they froze. I had forgotten they were tea-totaling Baptists. I should have set out grape juice for them. All eyes were on the chancellor. Calmly, he picked up a bottle, slowly read the label, and then announced: “It’s OK boys. It’s sacramental.” Obviously, he had compromised his principles so as not to embarrass me.

There were similar incidents during the entire semester. I shall cite only the last one. The school baccalaureate took place in the campus church. Its climax was the Eucharist. The congregation partook of the bread and wine symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood. When the plate came down my row it was my turn to freeze. The chancellor, who sat at my side, passed it on and whispered, “It’s not for you. It’s only grape juice.”

I had to tell you of my extraordinary relationship with the chancellor, because without it you would never have understood why I was shocked at our next encounter. During that year I had experienced a breakthrough in understanding the enigmatic dietary laws in the book of Leviticus. I could hardly wait to share my insights with my seminary students. Thus, when my friend, the chancellor, asked me what book I intended to teach, I replied without hesitation “Leviticus.” His face darkened, and he . . .

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