Saturday 21 February 2009

Derek Tidball on Leviticus (2)

Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to be Holy, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 2005).

In the Introduction to his commentary on Leviticus, Derek has a section headed ‘direction-finders’ (25-31) in which he discusses four issues of orientation to the book.

1. The meaning of sacrifice
Derek notes that there may be shades of meaning in Leviticus in a number of different views on the meaning of sacrifice (e.g., anthropological explanations, thanksgiving meals, acts of communion), but ‘uppermost, in a way many wish to avoid, is the offering of blood to make atonement’ in order ‘to secure forgiveness, provide cleansing and restore a broken relationship with God’ (26).

2. The geography of holiness
Holiness is not a one-dimensional status but ‘a spectrum on which something may be more or less holy’ (26). Borrowing from Philip Jenson’s work, we may think of ‘grades of holiness’ – the Most Holy Place (where only the events of the Day of Atonement take place), the Holy Place (where routine sacrifices occur), the courtyard, the camp, and outside the camp.

3. Holy and common, clean and unclean
These terms are not synonymous. Holiness ‘is a status indicating that a person or object is dedicated to the service of God’; clean ‘is the normal state of things’; uncleanness may be temporary or permanent; common is (in the words of Gordon Wenham) ‘a category between the two extremes of holiness and uncleanness’ (27-28). There is a fluidity in the categories: something that is clean may be holy or common; clean things can be made holy; clean things or people can become unclean, etc.

4. Understanding the law
Derek points out the difficulties of holding to a ceremonial-civil-moral distinction in the law, not least because ‘all three strands are woven together in such a way as to make it hard to separate them’ (28-29). He follows Chris Wright in seeking to study the laws ‘in their original social context with a view to understanding the moral principles behind them all rather than assuming that only some continue to be relevant today’ (29).

While some interpreters (e.g., Richard Bauckham, J. Daniel Hays) adopt a ‘principlising’ approach to the laws, Chris Wright prefers to see Israel as a paradigm, ‘a model or pattern for other cases where a basic principle is fixed – which enables one both to critique other claims and to reapply the principle to other contexts’ (29). His paradigm gives weight to the theological angle of God’s choosing, redeeming, and covenanting with Israel, to the social angle of Israel structuring its life and relationships around the covenant, and to the economic angle of the land as promise, gift, and responsibility. Wright’s paradigmatic approach includes the isolation of principles (along the lines of the principlising approach), but ‘cannot be reduced to that alone, and ensures that the particular historical reality of which the Bible speaks is not lost sight of, as can easily happen if we are in too much of a hurry to look for principles’ (30).

C.S. Rodd argues against both principlising and paradigmatic approaches since neither, he holds, allows the text to speak for itself. He calls for the Bible to be abandoned as an external authority, and says we should visit the Old Testament as we would visit a ‘strange land’ and not try too hard to make it fit our own culture. The value in doing so, he says, is to open our eyes ‘to completely different assumptions and presuppositions, motives and aims’ that question our own (30, citing C.S. Rodd).

While Rodd’s approach reminds us of the ‘strangeness’ of the text, and warns us about moving to it too quickly, yet his structure ‘is based on a weak foundation of biblical authority…, plays up diversity and ambiguity, revels in complexities and questions, but yields very few answers and gives very few directions’ (31).

Derek himself concludes that ‘providing we exercise appropriate caution, the search for principles and paradigms is the most credible way to interpret Leviticus, and gives due weight to it as divine revelation and historical document and as having contemporary relevance’ (31).

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