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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Leviticus and the Actual Temple Cult.

1.

Does Leviticus (or it and the rest of P) describe the rites in the temple, or is it merely a theoretical document, a programme, or even a mere fantasy? We can say with some confidence that Leviticus does not describe the cult in a tabernacle built by the Israelites under Moses during 40 years in the wilderness. The whole story as described in the biblical text (from Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy) is now generally rejected by biblical scholars. A generation ago, many would have given greater credence to the story, or at least certain parts of it. New archaeological information and further study has convinced most that Israel did not enter the land as a unified group out of the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. Rather, even if some had been in Egypt, they would have been a small group. The bulk of those who came to make up Israel were probably indigenous people in some sense, though there may also have been immigrants from outside the area. Those who coalesced to produce Israel no doubt had their shrines, permanent or portable, but the description of building the tabernacle in Exodus is fiction as it stands. For example, the altar described in Exodus is made of wood and bronze. This sort of construction would hardly stand the heat of the fire necessary to consume the sacrificial portions, and any actual altar was probably made of stone and earth (Gerstenberger 1993: 29). Nevertheless, some reality may have lain behind it. What might that have been?

2.

It is possible that the description in P is purely hypothetical or utopian. Priests who had a vision of an idealized cult could write it up and present it as if that was what happened long ago under Moses. There is no doubt that we find a certain amount of idealization in the description of the tabernacle and the setting up of its cult. However, most scholars would see some relationship to what went on in an actual temple or shrine. Those who date P to the post-exilic period consider the Priestly material to reflect generally the situation in the Second Temple which was built in the early Persian period. If P is dated to the exilic period, one would expect that it is presenting a programme for a renewed cult in Jerusalem (which was expected imminently), with the hope of influencing the structure of the new cult.

3.

Cross (1947 ) advanced the thesis that the tent of David, which housed the ark before and after its removal to Jerusalem but before the temple was built, was the basis of the tabernacle tradition. The proposal of (Haran 1962 ), followed by Milgrom (1991 ), makes the core of Leviticus relate to the temple at Shiloh in the early period of the monarchy. Part of Milgrom's argument concerns later editings which attempted to bring the material up to date, with some of these even as late as the post-exilic period. Therefore, despite possible earlier origins the cult and regulations in the present text of Leviticus in most cases can be related to the practice in the First Temple.

4.

What most would accept is that Leviticus represents to a large extent actual cultic practice, despite some tensions and contradictions. No doubt there have been editings, perhaps in part because of changes and developments in actual practice. But it is also likely that many cultic procedures remained essentially unchanged over long periods of time (Rendtorff 1985–92 :5; Grabbe 1995: 207). The many differences in detail between Leviticus and other passages in the OT do not suggest major differences in the overall shape of the cult. Those who see Leviticus as by and large a description of cultic observance in the Second Temple period are probably correct since, even if much of it goes back to the First Temple, the same practices were probably continued when the temple was rebuilt.

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