The Ephod and Teraphim


In Judges, Micah has a shrine that includes an ephod and a teraphim – clearly cultic objects of some sort – that the Danites later steal. But what are they, exactly?

Many translations render the word “teraphim” in Judges 18:17 as “household gods,” and it is apparently the word used when Rachel steals the household gods from her father in Genesis 31. According to Wikipedia, the “-im” ending does not necessarily mean that the word refers to plural objects. Wikipedia goes on to say:

According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads.

Which is just totally metal!

So the teraphim remains something of a mystery, but what about the ephod? Well, we know from Judges 8:26-27 that it is a thing which can me made with recycled gold earrings. Both ephod and teraphim, then, seem to refer to idol-like cultic objects which, my study Bible writes, were “perhaps used for divination” (p.317). This is detail is supported by Judges 18:5, where the Danites ask Micah’s priest, who is in charge of the ephod and teraphim, is asked to “inquire of God” (something that would almost certainly be done through divination).

All our previous mentions of the ephod say that it is something a priest is supposed to wear. In Exodus 28:6-14, the ephod is to be made out of variously coloured yarns. It is to have shoulder pieces (onto which should be attached two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the tribes), and it is to be worn under the priestly breastplate (which contains the Urim and Thummim, which are almost certainly involved in divination). In Exodus 29:5, we are told that the high priest must wear “the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and [be girded] with the decorated band of the ephod.”

Similarly, in Leviticus 8:6-7, Moses places the ephod on Aaron, then binds it to him with the decorated band of the ephod.

What I get from this is that the ephod is an object that the Levitical high priest is supposed to wear strapped onto his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was worn by folk priests in the time of Judges, though. It could just as easily have been an object that was originally placed on a shrine and only incorporated into the priestly vestments at a later date. This is suggested by Judges 8:26-27, in which Gideon’s ephod is worshipped.

A few thoughts on Leviticus

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I’d heard that Leviticus would seriously try my commitment to this project, and I can see why. With the exception of a mini-story about Nadab and Abihu, the entire book has just been a long list of rules – most of them cultic.

The rules are overwhelmingly about the delineation between clean and unclean, sacred and profane. Most of the rules make no sense in a “worldly” context, but they serve to separate/reserve adherents (and, when the rules are applied to non-Jews living in Israel, the country as a whole). The goal of the most of the rules is, therefore, to set apart – despite the many efforts throughout the ages to explain away the rules in rationalist terms.

The result is that the rules in Leviticus are designed to make it very difficult for the Jewish people to assimilate in their surrounding cultures, or to be on friendly terms with non-Jewish neighbours. This makes sense given the authorship – the Levites hold no lands, so not only does their power depend on the cultic purity of the population, so does their subsistence.

Leviticus 27: On votive offerings

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For all it’s faults, Leviticus 26 would have ended the book with a bang and really tied up the narrative – such as it was – nicely. But with the usual narrative flair of the Levites, they just couldn’t leave it at that, and we get Leviticus 27 tacked onto the end instead.

In this chapter, we have a discussion of votive offerings (both made and promised), and how they might be redeemed if the owner changes his (masculine pronoun is deliberate because, hey, who are kidding?) mind.

Devoting a person

The discussion starts out strong with the rules for when a man “makes a special vow of persons to the Lord” (v.2). My interpretation of this is that the man is dedicating them to servile “lay” work in the sanctuary. If he changes his mind, or if they decide to buy their own freedom, the price structure depends on their age and gender:

  • Age 1month to 5 years: Boys cost 5 shekels, girls cost 3 shekels.
  • Age 5 to 20 years: Boys cost 20 shekels, girls cost 10 shekels.
  • Age 20 to 60 years: Men cost 50 shekels, women cost 30 shekels.
  • Age 60+ years: Men cost 15 shekels, women cost 10 shekels.

The value of the shekel is specified as being “according to the shekel of the sanctuary” (v.3), which presupposes the existence of a different value system. Indeed, the earlier Phoenician or Hebrew measurement was, according to my Study Bible, “heavier than the Babylonian shekel used in post-exilic times” (p.107). As in Leviticus 26, we’re seeing evidence for a late composition (or at least  a late editing) date for Leviticus.

If the standard rate can’t be afforded, an appeal can be made to the priest who will look over the votive person in question and assign them a new value “according to the ability of him who vowed” (v.8).

Gleaners by James Tissot

Gleaners by James Tissot

Obviously, there’s a bunch of ethical issues to unpack here, but I think that most of them are too obvious to warrant an in-depth discussion. There’s the fact that a family’s patriarch has the right to dedicate other human beings to service without their input, and there’s the fact that women are consistently valued as low as half what men are valued… I mean, really, there’s nothing good or moral about this passage – except maybe the small concession that a man has a special opportunity to buy back anyone he’s dedicated even if he’s too poor to afford the prices listed on the menu. But holy crap, that’s really stretching quite far to find anything that hasn’t horrible.

But there are some things that this passage is not. A Skeptic’s Journey points out that babies under a month old have “no value” and that this is a “a blow to religious pro-lifers.” The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible touches on this as well, pointing out that babies are “worth nothing at all.”

I don’t agree that we can really take that from the text. The value assigned to the people is not their worth as people, but rather their worth as servants (in other words, their market value rather than their moral value – the sin here being that it assigns a market value to people in the first place). I’ve had a newborn baby and, let me tell you, he did not pull his weight around the house at all. Of course, a one month old isn’t much better, but given the context I think it might be more likely that the point is to allow the baby to remain with its mother for at least one month, rather than saying that a newborn is not worth anything.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to destroy the “pro-life” argument in the Bible. We’ve already seen a bit of this in Exodus 21, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** we’ll be seeing some more examples when we get to Numbers. But this passage, alone, isn’t really explicit enough to form any kind of argument.

Devoting animals or land

This next part is written in legalese and I had to look at external sources to really get a passable idea of the details (and, frankly, I’m still not sure I’m really there).

Essentially, an animal, once dedicated, is considered holy and can never be re-purposed back to profane use. Once it’s accepted by the priests, that’s it. It has to die.

However,  if the priests determine that the animal is unclean (if it has blemishes, for example), it can be sold and the money kept by the sanctuary.

If the animal is a firstling (the first born to a particular mother animal), it can’t be dedicated because it already belongs to God (as we saw in Exodus 22).

If a man dedicates his house, the priest gets to assign it a value. If the man wants to get it back,  he has to pay for it and add a 5th of its value on top.

If he dedicates his land, the rules depend on whether he originally got it as part of an inheritance or if he bought it. If he inherited the land, the value is based on what can be planted on it and how long until the next Jubilee year. If he wants it back, he has to pay for it plus add a 5th of its value. If he doesn’t redeem it, it becomes the priest’s at the next Jubilee (good deal for the priests!). If he’d bought the field, it reverts back to the original owner (the one who had gotten the field as his inheritance) at the next Jubilee.

“To be utterly destroyed”

Though some offerings can be redeemed, some can’t. I’m not entirely sure how this works, but I think it’s the difference between a pledged offering and an offering that’s already been handed over.

So, as I covered above, an animal that’s been devoted is made holy by that devotion, and it cannot be taken back and returned to a profane context. Unfortunately, here’s the passage that says this:

“No one devoted, who is to be utterly destroyed from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall be put to death” (v.29).

So do we take this at face value as a reference to human sacrifice?

Over at BibleStudyTools, the author argues that this passage means only that a person, once devoted, cannot be redeemed. Therefore, they must continue to serve the sanctuary until they die. This is not, the author argues, meant to be interpreted as an instruction to actively kill the person.

Over at the La Vista Church of Christ website, the author argues that the passage refers not to people who have been dedicated by a person, but to a person who has been doomed by God to die. Much like the plot of Final Destination, Death has set his sights on that person and they cannot change that fact.

Both of these explanations require some pretty complex linguistic manoeuvring to pull off, and, having no access to the Hebrew text, I really can’t comment. If anyone can read the original and comment, it would be greatly appreciated.

But I will leave you with this: There are two explicit mentions of human sacrifice in Leviticus, and both come down strongly against it. However, both (Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20) only forbid sacrifice to Molech. It’s easy to see Leviticus as claiming that the bad thing is not sacrifice itself, but sacrifice to the wrong god.

Leviticus 26: Of the Carrot and the Stick

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We’ve been hearing a lot about the statutes and ordinances in Leviticus but, apart from a few enforced with either the death penalty or exile, there hasn’t been too much word of reward or punishment. That’s what Leviticus 26 is for.

But first,  it’s important that you know what the main rules are. After all, there’s no way that you could possibly just remember them, since we’ve only read them a few dozen times.

  1. No idols
  2. Keep the Sabbath

As David Plotz points out, we’ve already heard these two rules “at least 15 times. By contrast, ‘thou shalt not kill’ rates only half a dozen reminders.”

The Carrot

Of course, God promises some rewards for properly following these rules:

  • There will be rain in the right season and good harvests.
  • Israelites won’t be threatened by either “evil beasts” or invaders.
  • The enemies of Israel “shall fall before you by the sword” (v.7), and do so easily even when the Israelites are outnumbered.
  • The people will be fertile.
  • There will be such bumper harvests that the Israelites will still be eating their stored food when the new harvest comes.
  • God will hang out in Israel and not hate the Israelites.

The Stick

But, if the Israelites don’t follow the rules:

  • God will send terrible diseases to the Israelites.
  • The Israelites will have bad harvests (either because seeds will be eaten or simply because the yield will be poor).
  • Something about making the heavens like iron and the earth like brass.
  • God will send wild beasts among the Israelites, to kill their children and cattle.
  • God will send invading armies to conquer and rule over Israel. These invaders will “scatter you among the nations” (v.33).
  • If the Israelites try to hide from the invaders in walled cities, God will send diseases to get them anyway.
  • There will be starvation.
  • God will make the Israelites “eat the flesh of your sons, and […] eat the flesh of your daughters” (v.29).
  • God will destroy the Israelite places of worship. He will “cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols” (v.30).
  • God will make the Israelite cities desolate and he “will not smell your pleasing odors” (v.31).
  • Any Israelites who survive all of this will be made paranoid, so that they run away from a driven leaf “as one flees from the sword” (v.37).

If, after all this, the Israelites become humble in their “uncircumcised heart” (v.41) (quick note: if you are circumcising the heart, you’re doing it wrong), God will “remember” his covenant with the patriarchs and he won’t “abhor them [the Israelites] so as to destroy them utterly” (v.44).

A few final notes on Leviticus 26

One thing that leapt out at me when reading this chapter is the mention of an invading army scattering the Israelites (v.33-39). This is, of course, what actually happened to the Israelites during the Exile period. Yet Leviticus was, supposedly, written many hundreds of years before that ever happened. Of course, the easy explanation for a believer is that this is prophecy (it is, after all, coming from the mouth of God as a future consequence for not following his ordinances). But that’s not a very interesting answer.

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

My Study Bible is very charitable, suggesting that these verses “indicate familiarity with the policy of deporting conquered peoples, a policy used effectively by the Assyrians (2 Kg. ch. 17)” (p.157).

Collins is a little more direct, saying that “the reference here to ‘the land of their enemies’ clearly presupposes the Babylonian exile” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82). I think that if not added entirely during or after the Exile period, this chapter was certainly edited at that time as an attempt to explain the tragedy of the Exile (and solidify priestly power since, of course, there’s always the implied threat that it could happen again so you’d better listen to the priests this time!).

I also found it interesting to see that the punishments get more than double the number of verses than the rewards (11 verses for the rewards and 26 for the punishments). As a parent, this hits rather close to home. There’s a lot of debate in parenting circles over discipline and how it should be used. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but what I’ve found is that punishing bad behaviour doesn’t achieve the effect I want. My son might stop doing the behaviour for the moment, but he’ll be upset with me and his take-away lesson is that “mom is unfair” and “therefore I can’t let her catch me.” Whereas when I praise him for good behaviour and explain to him my reasons for not wanting him to do certain things, even when he has the opportunity to do something I wouldn’t want him to do (like, say, run out into the road), he simply doesn’t do it.

What astounds me is how little the God we’ve seen so far seems to respect the Israelite people. Rather than talking to his Children and explaining to them why he’s making these rules – as I always try to do with my own son – he instead counts on his power to enforce rules. “You must obey me because I could crush you.” It smacks of the Pearl’s child-rearing handbook To Train Up A Child. Frankly, I find this reward/punishment system truly reprehensible, since it depends entirely on “might makes right.”

The last point I want to touch on comes from A Skeptic’s Journey, in which the author points out that the covenant God made with Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs depended only on them circumcising their children. If they did this, the Israelite portion of the covenant was considered fulfilled and God’s portion was to give them Israel.

But in Leviticus (and, to a certain extent, Exodus), God suddenly changes the rules. Suddenly, circumcision isn’t enough (and, in fact, is hardly even mentioned). Instead, he brings in all of these rules that affect every area of life and, in some cases, could very well lead to death (as we saw in our discussion of the Jubilee).

It seems an awful lot like God broke his covenant with Abraham, or at least shifted the goal posts. Worse than that, because Abraham agreed to the initial covenant he was given, the Israelites are now subject to horrific punishment for not abiding by the new “fine print.” It hardly seems fair.

Leviticus 25: Of jubilees and slavery


We’re back to statues and ordinances without a hint of narrative, I’m afraid, but at least this chapter is actually somewhat interesting.

To start with, we get a recap about the Sabbath year – or Shmita – that we saw in Exodus 23. The idea is that the same principle that applies to the week (six days of work followed by one day of rest) also applies to years (six years of normal farming followed by one year of laying all the fields fallow).

For those of you without green thumbs, the basic idea of fallowing is this: A plant draws its nutrition from the soil. Different plants have different needs, so only growing one particular type of plant in one particular plot of land leads to depletion of certain nutrients. This, in turn, leads to lower quality fruits and, in more extreme cases, the death of the plants. Nowadays, we can correct a lot of this by using fertilizers. But in the past (and many people still do this), a system called “crop rotation” was used.

The earliest form of this was called a “two-field rotation.” Farmers would divide their lands in two, and only plant in one half per year. By alternating, each portion of the field would “lie fallow” for a year, giving it a chance to replenish its nutrients. This later developed into a three-field system, and then a four-field system.

So the idea of fallowing has some pretty solid science behind it.

But the system being proposed here – in which nothing at all is planted for an entire year – is completely insane. They aren’t even allowed to gather fruit from perennial plants!

Even God seems to realize that it’s crazy to ask people not to plant anything. First, he moderates his claims a little by saying that “the sabbath of the land shall provide food for you” (v.6) – right after commanding that “what grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap” (v.5), which seems a little contradictory.

Then he tries to reassure the Hebrews by saying that they totally won’t starve during the Shmita because he’ll give them such an incredible bumper harvest in the 6th year that they’ll be fine – but, you know, only if they obey the statutes and ordinances. That’s a hell of an escape clause! Not to mention that the whole thing smacks of “if you loved me, you would do this crazy suicidal thing…”

The Jubilee

If anyone were to ask God what his favourite number is, I think I could make a fair guess at the answer.

Every seven times the seven year Shmita cycle (that would be 49 years), there’s an extra Sabbath year, called the Jubilee. To start off the festivities, a special trumpet must be blown – which is where the term Jubilee comes from (yobhel – or “ram’s horn”). Incidentally, anyone else find it strange that the new year is counted in the seventh month? How does that make any sense at all?

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

Anyways, the Jubilee has some pretty big social consequences. During this year:

  • All property that has been bought or loaned is to be returned (so leasing contracts can only last a maximum of 50 years).
  • Everyone is supposed to return to their family. This isn’t clarified, but I suppose it goes with the first point as a way of essentially ‘setting back the clock’ so that every family is occupying their ‘proper place’ in perpetuity – no matter what goes on in reality.
  • If you buy or sell things during the Jubilee year, you shouldn’t “wrong one another” (v.14), which seems to imply that it’s okay the other 49 years.
  • The price of crops depends on how long is left before the next Jubilee. If the next Jubilee year is still far off, the price goes up, but it goes down the closer you get. This makes some sense, since Jubilee years would be periods of mass starvation (being the second year of no agricultural activity). So if someone has successfully stockpiled a great deal of food, they could really take advantage of the situation.

The Shmita is a terrible idea based on solid agricultural practice. Before the two-field crop rotation system was invented, the Shmita may have actually been cutting-edge science. The problem is that it was codified as a religious practice, so that farmers had to keep to an old and very inefficient system long after agriculture had found better (and better better!) solutions. Ain’t that just the way?

But the Jubilee year is pure theology, and would be disastrous for a nation that actually followed it. It seems that the farmers realized this, since, as Collins points out: “There is no evidence that the Jubilee Year was ever actually observed” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.81).

Ownership of land

The next part of Leviticus 25 deals with the ownership of land. According to this chapter, land cannot be sold, only leased. The reason given in the text is that “the land is mine” (v.23). Since it belongs to God, it is not for individuals to sell.

But I think that it has more to do with the idea of communal identity. We’ve already encountered the concept of communal guilt a few times. Here, I think it’s the idea that Patriarch Bob isn’t the true owner of his family’s land, since he shares ownership with both Patriarch Bob Sr. and Patriarch Bob Jr. Therefore, if he sells the land, he’s essentially stealing it from his sons, his sons’ sons, and on down the line.

If someone sells his property anyway, he or any member of his family must “come and redeem” (v.25) it soon as possible. If neither he nor anyone in his family pays to redeem it before the next Jubilee year, it reverts back to him automatically. Which is a pretty bum deal for whoever bought the land!

At some point, someone realized that while these rules might work out okay in a rural village setting, enforcing eternal ownership in an urban area would be extremely stifling. So a special clause is added for property located “in a walled city” (v.29), in which case the rights of redemption last only for a year and the Jubilee return does not apply.

Another exception is made for the Levites who, as you will remember, are the guys writing Leviticus. Their rights of redemption never expire, no matter where they live. That being said, “the fields of common land belonging to their [Levite] cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession” (v.34). In other words, their land that is used by the whole community must remain in use for the whole community, which sounds a bit like Socialism to me.

I find the use of the word “possession” in this chapter rather interesting. This section of the chapter starts off with God talking about how he, and only he, owns all the land. But the rest is a discussion of who gets to own what land and the conditions under which they can (or not) sell it. I’d be curious to know if the original Hebrew made a distinction between true ownership and god-given stewardship.

Ownership of people

This next section begins with a discussion of what to do if a “brother” falls on hard times. In other parts of the text, the word “neighbour” is used when referring to a fellow Hebrew, so I initially assumed that “brother” either refers to a literal brother or, at least, to someone with a close kinship. But then there’s a line about how, after a certain period of time, “he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family” (v.41), which suggests that the word is being used in the same way that “neighbour” is used elsewhere.

Anyways, that’s a bit of an aside. Onward with the content!

So if your  “brother” is destitute, you must take him in. You must help him without charging interest and without profiting from him (well, strictly speaking, you just can’t profit from feeding him).

If your “brother” is so poor that he “sells himself to you” (v.39), he must be considered a servant rather than a slave, and his term as a bond-servant can only last until the next Jubilee.

If an Israelite sells himself to a non-Hebrew, his family can redeem him (or he can redeem himself). As with land, if he is not redeemed by the Jubilee, he must then be set free. There’s no mention of this applying only if they live within Israel or even during a time when Hebrews are the ones getting to make the laws in Israel. Imposing such an ownership law on people who may not recognize your authority to do so seems rather silly.

So that’s all well and good. Debt-slavery isn’t exactly my preferred economic plan, but I suppose it’s better than starvation. Unfortunately, there’s a big but.

See, this only applies to fellow Hebrews.

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them (v.44-46).

I checked the Enduring Word commentaries to see if they had any excuses to make for this passage, but all they were able to come up with is that “they had to be treated humanely.” Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered (a site devoted to explaining away SAB‘s criticisms) has a better go of it, arguing that this passage is merely the regulation of the slave trade, and that “regulation doesn’t mean approval, just as regulation of a vice doesn’t mean you approve of it.

Nice try, but there’s a fundamental issue with this – namely that this book is meant to function as a law code and, today, is used as a moral code, and the only argument it has to offer against the practice of owning actual human beings is that certain people shouldn’t be owned by other people because they already belong to God (v.55).

This is why I started gagging whenever I hear someone claim to derive their moral code from the Bible or, worse yet, ask me how I could possibly know right from wrong without it.

Leviticus 24: Everybody must get stoned


Leviticus 24 starts off with some little housekeeping details. On the Sabbath, the priests must bake twelve cakes and line them up just so and drizzle them with a lovely frankincense sauce, to be served au flambé. Aaron&sons get to eat the charred remnants.

God also wants a lamp to be kept burning (with pure olive oil only) all the time so that he doesn’t accidentally stub his toe every time he has to go to the bathroom during the night. Interestingly, both practices are to be followed “for ever throughout your generations” (v.3). So much for that.

The blasphemer

We actually get a little bit of narrative in this chapter (finally!) in the form of a story about that one time Shelomith’s son got into a fight. In the course of this fight, Shelomith’s son either “blasphemed the Name, and cursed” or “blasphemed the Name with a curse” (v.11), depending on your translation.

The boy is then taken into custody and held while Moses has a quick conference with God to determine what should be done in this, and all subsequent cases of a similar nature. God decides that this warrants the death penalty, so the Israelites carry it out.

Leviticus 24 - The Blasphemer by Niccolo Dell Abbate

The Blasphemer by Niccolo Dell Abbate

The whole narrative is over in five verses, but it’s packed with some very interesting details. For example, we’re explicitly told that Selomith’s son is a “half-breed” (Shelomith being an Israelite – the daughter of Dibri, from the tribe of Dan – but his father was an Egyptian), yet it’s implied that the person he fought with was a full-blooded Israelite. The crime is pretty explicitly the act of blaspheming, but I find the mention of the boy’s mixed parentage rather interesting.

Next, there’s the vagueness of the crime. Was the issue that the boy simply said the Name? Or was the problem that he said it as part of a curse? And given how seriously some countries take the charge of blasphemy, I think we’d all feel better if the authors had chosen to be a bit more precise. All the more so since the law (and its punishment) are to be applied to everyone, “the sojourner as well as the native” (v.16).

And then there’s the method of execution. To start with, anyone who overheard Shelomith’s blasphemy must lay their hands over his head which, as you will remember, is how sin is transferred from people into the Scapegoat and sin offerings. To me, this implies that hearing someone blaspheme is a sin, just as actually doing the blaspheming is. So those who overheard it must shove the sin back into the blasphemer to absolve themselves.

The execution itself involves “all the congregation” (v.14) stoning the person – that’s over 600,000 people (assuming that only the men are participating)! Talk about impractical!

As usual when a rule is this impractical to actually implement, there’s a theological motivation. According to my Study Bible: “It is held that blasphemy pollutes the community. Stoning, a communal mode of execution, is the means of purifying the evil from the midst of the people” (p.153). I also think that making execution a communal activity shares the guilt of taking a life – making it not the act of an executioner, but rather of the entire people (who, as a body, personify God).

Which is good because the very next line tells us that “he who kills a man shall be put to death” (v.17). Sounds like the set up to a rather vicious cycle!

An eye for an eye

To close off the chapter, we are given a few more laws regarding the death penalty and killing things in general. We are told, for example, that “he who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death” (v.21). Short of actually killing a person, any disfigurement or injury done to them must be done to you as well, repeating the lex talionis of Exodus 21:23-25 – “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v.20).

“An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye … ends in making everybody blind.” ~Gandhi

Leviticus 23: More airtime for the cultic calendar


So instead of just getting a nice calendar with all the important dates pre-printed that he could distribute like my cousin does, God decides to just write it all out instead. I have to say, it’s nowhere near as visually appealing. Couldn’t he just put a little calendar in the back of every Bible and cut these chapters out?

We’ve already covered everything in this chapter a few times and, I fear, will do so a few more. I’m sorry. I didn’t write this stuff!

1. Sabbath

Every seventh day is the Sabbath, and no one is allowed to work.

The importance of the Sabbath is emphasized, argues Victor Matthews, because it was “unparalleled by any other [religious activity] in the ancient Near East” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p. 158). Once again, we see that being separate, being different, is valued. I believe this makes Jews the original hipsters.

2. Passover

Remember the Sabbath Day by Phillip Ratner

Remember the Sabbath Day by Phillip Ratner

I don’t think it really needs to be repeated that celebrating the massacre of children is a little problematic, even if those children were all parented by slave owners (which is by no means either explicitly stated nor implied by the text).

Some will surely argue that the celebration of Passover is that the Jewish homes were spared, but that doesn’t change what they were spared from, and who caused the massacre to begin with.

Best case scenario, the celebration is of the subsequent escape from Egypt. But the celebration is called “Passover,” not “Passthroughthewilderness.” And, of course, the Exodus text is very clear that the only reason that the freedom didn’t happen much sooner and at far less of a cost in human and animal life is that God kept actively hardening the Pharaoh’s heart.

3. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread

The day after Passover is the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. For the next seven days (I can’t read that without doing Samara’s voice from The Ring), you can’t eat bread made with yeast.

The first day, like the Sabbath, is a day when no one is allowed to work. During the seven days, food offerings must be made and, then, on the seventh day, there’s no work and the people have to have a “sacred assembly.”

4. The First Fruits

When the Israelites first enter the Promised Land, they have to give in sacrifice a sheaf from their first harvest, and it has to be waved around in front of God on the day after the Sabbath. While the sheaf is being waved around, they must also sacrifice a year old lamb “without defect” (v.12) – because we all know how much God hates defects (that he created in the first place) – flour mixed with olive oil, and some wine.

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live” (v.14). Or, you know, just for a finite period of time and then it’s not required any more. Either way.

5. The Feast of Weeks

This one is another requirement to offer a sacrifice of grain, though in this case it has to be offered in loaves that have been baked with yeast (every deity needs a little variety), along with seven male year old lambs (again without blemish), a young bull, and two rams. Once these are all sacrificed, a sin offering of one male goat and a fellowship offering of two year-old lambs.

The implication is that every individual (or, I supposed, household) must make all these sacrifices every year, but that seems really onerous, particularly for the poor. And, unlike other sacrificial menus we’ve read, no easier option is offered for the poor.

But at least we get a repetition of the command not to reap the harvest right up to the edges of the field or to father the gleanings, allowing the poor to have these bits instead. So that’s something, I guess.

The Feast culminates in a sacred assembly and a day when people are forbidden from doing any work. Once again, “this is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live” (V. 21).

6. Feast of Trumpets

For this one, there’s a sabbath, a sacred assembly, and trumpet blasts, combined with the requirement that a “food offering” (blessedly free of specifics) be made to God.

This sounds like a… blast.


7. The Day of Atonement

Another sabbath, sacred assembly, and food offering. Anyone who doesn’t “deny themselves” (which I assume means some kind of fast) must be cut off from their people, and anyone who does any work will be “destroyed” by God. Once again, “this is to be a lasting ordinance” (v. 31).

8. Feast of Tabernacles

This one’s another crazy party, lasting for a full eight days. On the first day, there’s a sabbath and a sacred assembly. Over the next week, food offerings must be presented to God and, on the eighth day, there’s another sabbath, sacred assembly, and food offering.

This feast also requires taking the branches from “luxuriant trees” (v.40) and “rejoice before the Lord.” What you’re supposed to do with these luxuriant branches isn’t specified, but I guess you could probably just wave them around a bit, since that seemed so successful with the grain offerings.

Also, during this week-long feast, the people have to live in temporary shelters – or booths – to represent the shelters that the followers of Moses would have lived in during their travels.

Now, quite a few of these require “sacred assemblies” which seem to be mandatory. That would probably work out fine for a nomadic group travelling together anyway, but how onerous would it be for a sedentary people spread out across a whole country? It would mean abandoning home and field, leaving both vulnerable to pillagers, overcrowding in the location where the assembly is held… It just doesn’t seem practical if conducted at the scale indicated here. Perhaps someone could correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and assume that these rules were never followed to the letter by a majority of Israelites.

Leviticus 21-22: Special instructions for the priests


We’re chest deep in another lists sections. I’m sorry, folks, but I made a vow to read the entire Bible, so we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and bear it. Hopefully, we’ll be back to reading stories soon.

In the last couple chapters, we’ve been covering the ordinances – or laws – by which the people of Israel must live. Now we get the special rules just for the priests.

On mourning

A priest is not allowed to “defile himself for the dead” (Lev. 21:1), meaning that he is not allowed to participates in customs of mourning.

Leviticus 21-22There are, thankfully, a few exceptions to this rule. A priest is allowed to mourn for his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his sister  – but only if she’s still a virgin, “because she has no husband” (Lev. 21:3). Notice any conspicuous absences from this list?

“He shall not defile himself as a husband” (Lev. 21:4). Or, if it makes it any clearer, the NIV has it as: “He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.”

To be fair, this passage seems to be rather a difficult one to translate. The King James, for example, has it: “But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.” So it’s possible that this is an explanation of why priests aren’t allowed to participate in mourning rituals, rather than a specific prohibition against mourning for their wives. Though the absence of wives in the listed relations for whom a priest is allowed to mourn renders the debate rather irrelevant.

Next up, we get a list of the specific mourning customs that priests aren’t allowed to participate in: Cutting their hair, cutting their beards, letting their hair hang loose, rending their clothing, or cutting into their flesh (which, as we saw in Lev. 19:28, is prohibited for everyone anyway).

If I’m reading it correctly, the next bit says that he can’t help to prepare a dead body (though I did get a giggle out of the phrasing: “he shall not go in to any dead body”), even for a close relation, such as his parents.

On marriage

Priests also get special rules about who they are allowed to marry. Translations differ (thanks to the lack of commas in Ancient Hebrew, I guess), but the following two options are offered by various translations:

  1. A priest can’t marry a woman who is a prostitute, has been defiled (I’m assuming this means that she isn’t a virgin), or who is divorced.
  2. A priest can’t marry a woman who is a prostitute or who is divorced.

In the latter option, translations explain that priests can’t marry a woman who has been “defiled by” prostitute or divorce, whereas the former option takes the defilement as it’s own category of unmarriageables.

In another passage, the prohibition is given against marrying any non-virgins, which – for anyone who might be confused – is clarified with the same list as above, though with the addition of widows.

But not any virgin will do. Only a virgin chosen from “his own people” (Lev. 21:14) is suitable. I’m glad this was included because I was just thinking that this chapter didn’t have enough xenophobia.

The last note on the composition of priestly families has it that the daughter of a priest who engages in prostitution “profanes her father” (Lev. 21:9) and therefore must be burned with fire. I already used the “well that escalated quickly” meme recently, so I’ll spare you. But I feel it’s worth noting that this is where the idea of collective guilt takes you.


A priest with a blemish is not allowed to make a sacrificial offering.

What’s meant by “blemish”? Well, this chapter helpfully provides clarification:

  • Blindness
  • Lameness (as in an inability to walk in the “normal” way. Not, like, ‘doesn’t get invited to parties’)
  • Having a mutilated face
  • Having a disproportional limb
  • Having an injured hand or foot
  • Having a hunchback
  • Having dwarfism
  • Having a defect in your vision
  • Having an itching disease
  • Having scabs
  • Having crushed testicles (ouch!)
  • Having leprosy
  • Having “a discharge”
  • Touching anything unclean (the examples being a dead body or a man who has had an emission of semen – like, how would the priest know if he’s touched a man who has had an emission of semen? For goodness’ sake, clean up after yourselves, people!)
  • Touching “a creeping thing” (Lev.22:5)
  • Having eaten anything that died on its own or was torn by beasts

But at least you can still be a priest and still eat food that’s been offered as a sacrifice – you just can’t make the sacrifice yourself. Unless it’s the ‘touching unclean/creeping thing’ things, in which case the priest must take a bath and wait until the sun goes down before he can eat any sacrificial food.

Approaching the altar while having one of these blemishes would “profane” the sanctuary (Lev. 21:25). Disobeying these rules will cause the priest to be struck down by God.

So even though God admitted to creating blemishes in the first place (Exodus 4:11), he doesn’t want them anywhere near him. Nice.

As David Plotz points out:

That God who spoke up so powerfully for the blind and the deaf in Chapter 19? He’s gone. Out with Martin Luther King God, in with Martha Stewart God – a finicky Lord who’s peeved by human frailty and offended by illness.

Eating holy things

We’ve covered a few times that priests get to eat certain portions of foods offered to God in sacrifice. Now we learn that it’s not just for the priests.

Lay persons who are not in a priest’s immediate household are not allowed to eat consecrated food. Neither can travellers or hired servants. But “those that are born in his house” and his slaves can.

Of course, daughters are always a special case. If she married an “outsider” (a lay person who isn’t in the priest’s immediate household), she can’t. If, however, she is a widow or divorced, provided that she doesn’t have any children, and has “returned to her father’s house, as in her youth” (Lev. 22:13).

If a man eats a holy thing “unwittingly,” he has to add a fifth to its value and give it all over to the priests (presumably “it” here refers to a replacement and not to something gross).

Acceptable offerings

When someone makes an offering, it must have no blemishes. Again, we get a list of specified blemishes:

  • Blind animals
  • Disabled animals
  • Mutilated animals
  • Animals having a discharge
  • Animals having an itch (I assume this refers more to a mange-link condition than, say, just needing to have a little scratch)
  • Animals with scabs
  • Animals with bruised, crushed, torn, or cut testicles (ouch!)
  • Animals that have been gotten from a foreigner (because ew, foreigners – although one commentary interprets this to mean that a foreigner who has converted may wish to offer a blemished animal to God thinking it would be okay since he’s used to offering crappy animals to his own gods, and that the priest might think “hey, at least the guy’s making an effort” and accept it anyway, because what do foreigners know, you know?)
  • Animals that are younger than eight days old
  • Animals offered on the same day as their child/mother

But the good news is that if you have an animal that has “a part too long or too short” (Lev. 22:23), you can still give it as a freewill offering. Just not for any other kind.

When a thanksgiving sacrifice is made, it has to be eaten that same day. God hates leftovers.

Finally, in the most tiresome guilt trip of the Bible, you have to obey all these rules because God “brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev.22:33). Have you ever had that friend? I mean, yes, thank you, but do you have to keep going on about it?

What’s with all the blemish stuff?

According to Collins:

It is characteristic of the Priestly authors that they like clear and distinct dividing lines. By categorizing things in this manner, they impose a sense of order on experience, and this in turn gives people a sense of security, which is especially attractive in times of crisis and uncertainty. Such a system can have unfortunate consequences for people who are themselves deemed to deviate from what is considered normal in their society. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 78).

In other words, the sacred is only sacred by its distinction from the profane.

Leviticus 20: “Off with her head!”

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In this chapter, we get to hear all about the punishments that are to be given for breaking the ordinances we’ve already covered. And, since I live with the compulsion to categorise things, I will be organizing by type of punishment. Please hold on and keep your arms and legs inside the ordinance at all times.

Punishment: To be cut off from the people

If a person knows that someone is sacrificing his child(ren) to Molech and does nothing, the whole family and anyone following that person is to be cut off from the people.

I’m not a fan of the “guilt by association” aspect of this, but I do agree with condemning those who know that child sacrifice is going on but fail to do anything to prevent it. The only problem with this is that “the whole family” would apply to any of the children who haven’t been sacrificed yet as well, and that’s obviously problematic.

Leviticus 20 - MolechIf someone turns to “mediums and wizards” (v.6).

After the somewhat recent kerfuffle with Sylvia Brown (yes, again), there’s a part of me that definitely wants to agree with this one.

If a man has sex with his sister, his aunt (by blood or marriage), or his brother’s wife. Both should be cut off and, for some of these, they shall die childless.

Not sure how the childlessness would be enforced. I assume it’s a God curse thing, but would there have been earthly repercussions as well? For example, would a man who had slept with his aunt be denied the right to have an heir? Would any of his (or her) children be considered bastards?

If a man has sex with a menstruating woman, both should be cut off from the people.

Some women report better sex while menstruating (extra lubrication, hormonal softening of the cervix and other tissue in the genital region, increased libido, etc). This just seems mean-spirited towards those women.

Punishment: Death penalty

If a man sacrifices his children to Molech. This applies to both Israelites and to “sojourners,” and the punishment is death by stoning.

You know what? That’s fair. Even applied to non-Jews or to non-Israelites, this is one case where I can get behind a universal law. We can debate the ethics of the death penalty, but I think that we can all agree (I’d hope, though the next one makes me wonder) that killing your children is a bad bad thing.

If someone curses one (or, presumably, both) of his parents.

No “and your parents were very nice to you and never abusive” or anything like that. Just straight up cursing your parents warrants the death penalty. This is what a patriarchal society looks like – authority is valued far above anything else.

If a man has sex with his neighbour’s wife, his father’s wife, or his daughter-in-law. Both get the death penalty.

If a man marries both a woman and her mother. All three must be burned to death with fire.

I’m assuming that any mention of “neighbour” in these rules refers to fellow Israelites, and not to literal neighbours. I’m also assuming that, though the language lists only  men as the active parties, that it applies only if the women are willing participants.

If a man has sex with a man.

If either a man or a woman has sex with an animal. Both person and animal are to be killed.

Take it away, Collins!

The juxtaposition of the prohibition of male homosexuality with that of bestiality and the fact that the death penalty is prescribed for all parties in both cases shows that the issue is not exploitation of the weak by the strong.


Procreation is the common theme. Waste of reproductive seed is an issue here. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 80)

If someone is a medium or wizard.

I don’t think I need to go into how much suffering this one has caused (and continues to cause).

The chapter concludes with a bunch of jabber about the importance of not violating the ordinances, yadda yadda. At one point, God describes himself as the one who has “separated you from the peoples” (v.24). As in countless stories, from the Tower of Babel on, God is standing in the way of good relations between Israel and its neighbours – and is proud of it.

And we finish up with a reminder to “make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean” (v.25).

Leviticus 19: Because you can never have too many ordinances


Leviticus 19 is just a long list of rules (*yawn*), so to make it fun, I’ve decided to organize them into categories. Because nothing spells fun like C-A-T-E-G-O-R-I-Z-I-N-G!

Note that the text doesn’t organize these at all. The rules are just all jumbled up so that prohibitions about sowing seeds a certain way are right up there next to prohibitions against prostituting your daughter, and there’s no indication of a severity ranking. Go figure.

Cultic Rules

  • Leviticus 19 - Leviticus 18 tattooKeep the Sabbaths – Listed twice, just in case you missed it the first time (v.3 & v.30).
  • Do not worship or make idols.
  • Peace offerings must be eaten the same day or the next day. Any leftovers remaining on the third day must be burned  with fire – No wonder they are so big on hospitality. They have to make sure all their food is eaten or it goes to waste!
  • Do not swear falsely using God’s name.
  • Fear God. This one is listed a number of times.
  • Don’t wear a piece of clothing made of two different types of material.
  • Don’t eat rare steak (“flesh with blood in it” v.26).
  • Don’t dabble in augury or witchcraft.
  • Don’t trim the hair on your temples or the edges of your beard.
  • Don’t cut yourself on account of the dead.
  • No tattoos.
  • Don’t prostitute your daughter. You might think that this is an ethical issue and not a cultic one, but the text gives as a reason for this law that doing so might cause “the land to fall into harlotry” (v.29), making it clear that the concern is social, not ethical. In other words, the concern is over the cultic pollution it might cause to Israel (and, perhaps, the concern is specifically over sacred prostitution in the worship of other gods), and not the moral issues of, you know, selling your daughter into prostitution.
  • Reverence the sanctuary (notice the singular).
  • Don’t deal with mediums or wizards.

Farming Instructions

  • When harvesting, do not reap the fields right up the border.
  • When harvesting, leave the gleanings – According to Wikipedia, these are the leftover crops that it is not economically profitable to waste time collecting, and they could then be collected by the poor.
  • Don’t strip your vineyard bare, and don’t gather fallen grapes (no word on whether the ‘five second rule’ applies). These should instead be left for the poor and for travellers.
  • Don’t let your cattle breed with a different kind.
  • Don’t sow your fields with two kinds of seed – God clearly is not a fan of companion planting.
  • When you first arrive in Israel and start planting trees, don’t eat the fruit for the first three years. The fourth year fruit should all be sacrificed to God, and the fifth year fruit is yours to nom.

Ethical Laws

  • Revere your parents – Even if they aren’t deserving of reverence? Even if they are abusive?
  • No stealing, no lying, and no dealing falsely.
  • Do not oppress your neighbour.
  • Do not rob your neighbour.
  • Pay up wages that you owe your employees in a timely manner.
  • Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of a blind man – Seriously? This was happening with enough frequency to warrant a mention??
  • Be fair in your judgements. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (v.15).
  • Don’t slander.
  • Don’t “stand forth against the life of your neighbour” (v.16).
  • Don’t hate “your brother.” Reason with him instead, “lest you bear sin because of him” (v.17).
  • Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v.18).
  • If you sleep with a female slave who is betrothed by not yet “ransomed or given her freedom,” and inquiry must be held (v.20). You (and the slave) won’t get the death penalty because she is still a slave, but you’ll have to make a guilt offering. Anyone else see an ethical issue here?
  • Honour old men – What, even if they’re jerks?
  • Don’t be mean to travellers. “Love him as yourself” (v.34).
  • When trading, make correct measurements. In other words, don’t scam people.

I find the cultic rituals rather silly, obviously, since they all rely on the presumption that God is real and that his preferences matter. The farming category seems like a bit of a cross over between cultic and ethical rules rather than anything that would actually be useful in farming.

As for the ethical rules, I’m on board with most of them. The ones about automatically respecting people just because of their age or procreative status irk me since I think that respect (above the basic amount that is deserved across the board) should be earned. Not to mention the icky-ness of the slave woman one. But other than that, I do appreciate the concern for feeding the poor (even if it is only letting them have the scraps) and being good to travellers, and dealing honestly and fairly with people, etc.

I guess my issue here is that it’s such a hodge-podge. If you were a moral blank slate, the Bible would be a terrible guide because it offers no moral distinction between the prohibition on getting a tattoo and robbing someone. I need to turn to the outside sources of logic and my own moral compass to say that there is a very important and fundamental difference between the ethical implications of getting a tattoo and robbing someone. So, at best, the Bible only works as a moral reflection or list, not as a guide.

You know, assuming it was ever intended to be used as such.

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