Fortress Press

Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics: Continental Commentaries


A Book of Ritual and Ethics: Continental Commentaries

Jacob Milgrom (Author)


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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.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Hardcover
  • ISBN 9780800695149
  • eBook ISBN 9781451410150
  • Dimensions 7 x 9.56
  • Pages 408
  • Publication Date June 21, 2004


''Values are what Leviticus is all about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse. You may be surprised to read this, since the dominant view of Leviticus is that it consists only of rituals, such as sacrifices and impurities. This, too, is true: Leviticus does discuss rituals. However, underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and to each other.''
— from the Introduction


I must confess to some puzzlement at this new addition to the Continental Commentary series, which I had assumed was focused on providing English translations of commentaries produced by European scholars. With the addition to the series of a work written in English by an American-Israeli scholar it appears that the character of the series has changed. While puzzled, I am not disappointed that this concise, well-organized, and readable commentary has been made available in this series. Readers already familiar with Jacob Milgrom’s scholarship will find little in this volume that is truly new, but should nevertheless be most appreciative of the ready access it provides to his exegesis of Leviticus and his interpretation of Priestly religion.

Following an introduction, in which he establishes the emphasis of his commentary on values and ethics, discusses the structure of Leviticus, and provides an overview of the Priestly theology of Leviticus 1–16, Milgrom works sequentially through Leviticus. For the most part, each chapter of Leviticus is treated in one chapter of commentary. However, Leviticus 5 is treated in three chapters of commentary and Leviticus 6–7 are treated together in one. Sub-units of Leviticus are introduced with brief preliminary discussions: Leviticus 1–7 (“The Sacrificial System,” 17-20); 8–10 (“The Inauguration of the Tabernacle Service,” 77); 11–16 (“The Impurity System,” 101); 17–27 (“The Holiness Source [H],” 175-83). At the end of the volume there is a useful Glossary (335-36), bibliography, and three indices.

Each commentary chapter except the last includes a section of “Selected Texts,” in which Milgrom discusses textual content requiring elucidation. Most chapters also include “Selected Theme(s),” which usually stand prior to the discussion of “Selected Texts.” Milgrom suggests that the “Selected Theme(s)” for each chapter should be given primary attention, as they function to highlight “some of the chapter’s important values” (xiii).

As Milgrom indicates, this work is a supplement to his three-volume Anchor Bible (AB) magnum opus (xiii). For those with a special scholarly interest in Leviticus and Priestly religion, it will not replace the AB commentary. However, it will serve well as a collection of “abstracts” to that more elaborate discussion, a starting point to engagement with Milgrom’s scholarship. For those with less specialized interests, the commentary will serve as a valuable point of access to Milgrom’s work.

This commentary is clearly designed to be of interest to religious professionals—Jewish and Christian clergy and religious educators. Milgrom has not written a commentary that leaves Leviticus in its ancient Israelite context. Instead, he emphasizes the importance and relevance of the book for present-day readers. According to Milgrom, Leviticus, “so long thought to be esoteric and irrelevant, will turn out to be an old-new guide toward achieving quality life” (xiii). Thus, several of the “Selected Themes” are oriented to present-day concerns. For example, we find a section titled, “Jubilee: A Rallying Cry for Today’s Oppressed” (311-12) that connects Leviticus’ Jubilee (Leviticus 25) with “Third World” debt-relief.

In this work, Milgrom approaches Leviticus and Priestly religion from the same basic theoretical perspective as in his AB commentary and other publications. He follows a still-influential—but not unproblematic—approach to ritual that sees it as a vehicle for preserving and transmitting a culture’s “basic values” (xiii). Throughout the commentary, Milgrom refers to the symbolic significance of ritual actions and the ethical values communicated through that symbolism. According to Milgrom, “biblical rituals are symbolic acts that, in the main, contain within them ethical values” (30).

Milgrom frequently—and characteristically—employs the word “system” in a strong sense when discussing Priestly legislation. In explaining this emphasis, Milgrom appeals to the metaphor of a forest and its trees: “one cannot understand the trees without encompassing the forest” (xii). Thus, Milgrom offers an approach to Priestly religion that seeks to identify the conceptual unity that holds together diverse rules and practices, an approach that eschews close attention to gaps and lacunae in our understanding of Priestly ritual and religious ideology. According to Milgrom, not only can the whole be interpreted as making coherent sense, but this coherent sense is what the Priestly authors themselves intended.

Milgrom equates—problematically in my view—Priestly and “Israelite” religion (e.g., 133), and sharply distinguish this Priestly Israelite religious ideology from other, clearly inferior, forms of religion. Thus, according to Milgrom, “there is no animism in the Bible” in contrast to that found in “primitive religion” (107). In his discussion of “scale disease” (Leviticus 13) and the possible concern with contagion, Milgrom’s discussion takes on a somewhat apologetic cast. According to Milgrom, fear of contagion is “irrational,” and Israelite (that is, Priestly) law could not have been based on such irrational fear (128).

In sum, all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of Milgrom’s contribution to the interpretation of Leviticus and Priestly religion are present in this volume. Its clarity and accessibility make it a most valuable resource for anyone who wishes to engage with Jacob Milgrom’s important scholarly contributions.

— Reviewed by William K. Gilders, Emory University