Levenson on John 3:16, Von Rad, and Redactors

In this post, I’ll be going through Jon Levenson’s The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism and highlighting passages that stood out to me.

1.  On pages 17-18, Levenson says that there is continuity and discontinuity between the Hebrew Bible and John 3:16.  Areas of continuity include the notion that God has a son (the Davidic monarch in Psalm 2:7); that an Israelite father must give his firstborn son to God, presumably as a sacrifice (Exodus 22:28-29); and that one can offer his son out of love (Levenson mentions the akedah of Genesis 22).  Areas of discontinuity are that there are few places in the Hebrew Bible in which the king of Israel is the biological or adoptive son of God, and the Deuteronomic conception of the monarchy is “thoroughly nonmythological” and “instrumental” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20; 28:36; I Samuel 8:10-22); that there is a gulf between human beings and God, according to I Samuel 15:29 and Hosea 11:9; that God’s wife and children are metaphorical, not literal (Deuteronomy 14:1; Hosea 1-3); and that there are many places in which the Hebrew Bible condemns the sacrifice of children (Exodus 13:13; 34:20; Leviticus 20:2-5) and considers such a practice to be “emblematic of idolatry” (Jeremiah 7:31; Ezekiel 16:20-21).  Actually, according to Levenson, there is a greater parallel between John 3:16 and Canaanite mythology: “Indeed, a Phoenician source tells us of El’s own sacrifice of two of his sons, Yadid and Mot, and in Ugaritic myth, the divine father El hands over the younger god Baal for bondage but also, in another text, rejoices when Baal is raised from the dead.”  Levenson’s point in this discussion is the Hebrew Bible is not univocal, and that it is both continuous and also discontinuous with its re-contextualizations, namely, Judaism and Christianity.

2.  On pages 24-25, Levenson discusses Gerhard Von Rad.  Von Rad believed that there were two sets of tradition underneath the “earliest documents of the Hexateuch” (Genesis-Joshua).  One was connected with the Feast of Booths and “centered on the experience at Sinai and the proclamation of cultic law.”  The other was associated with Pentecost and focused on the settlement of the Promised Land, “a tradition in which the exodus was of prime import.”  Von Rad appealed to texts that talked about “the story of descent into Egypt, enslavement, liberation, and the assumption of the land without any mention of the revelation at Sinai” (see Deuteronomy 26:5-9; Joshua 24:2-13; I Samuel 12:8).  Yet, there are also texts that combine the two traditions (Nehemiah 9; Psalm 106).  According to Von Rad, the Yahwist (J) during the United Monarchy merged the two traditions  by incorporating the Sinai tradition into the tradition on settlement.  Levenson believes that something ideological is going on here—that Von Rad is separating Law from Gospel and is subordinating the Law to soteriology, as Paul did.  This somewhat took me aback because the first place that I learned about the idea that the Sinai tradition was absent in certain creeds of the Hebrew Bible was at Hebrew Union College—and the professor’s argument in that case was that the Sinai tradition was late.

Interestingly, there are occasions in which Levenson sees significance in the absence of Sinai from certain traditions in the Hebrew Bible.  On page 107, Levenson states that “The prophets did not preach a book or show any awareness that God had revealed one to Moses on Mount Sinai”.  Levenson here attempts to distinguish the religion within the Hebrew Bible from the religion of the Hebrew Bible—for the religion of the Hebrew Bible only came about after the Hebrew Bible was completed.  Levenson may believe that there were laws that at some point were attributed to God’s revelation from Mount Sinai, an attribution that combined law with covenant by making the laws into personal commandments from God (page 27).

On pages 36-37, Levenson says that certain literature in the Hebrew Bible—such as Proverbs, Qoheleth, and Song of Songs—may have been unaware of pentateuchal traditions, such as the Exodus and Sinai.  His argument here is against Christian biblical theologians who have sought a common theme that runs throughout the entire Hebrew Bible.  According to Levenson, Christianity has a tendency towards systematization and a search for unity, whereas Judaism is more open to plurality (page 56).  Levenson attributes this difference to rabbinic Judaism lacking “the apocalyptic urgency of apostolic Christianity”, which meant that “the rabbis were not generally disposed to identify events or institutions from their own time as the definitive fulfillment of biblical texts” (page 39); rather, the rabbis felt free to apply the biblical text to all sorts of people and things.  In any case, Levenson questions the fruitfulness of attempts by Christian biblical theologians to find a common theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible.  One thread that some have claimed to identify is God’s covenant with Israel, but, as Levenson points out, this theme does not really appear in Proverbs, Qoheleth, and Song of Songs.

I want to turn now to Levenson’s discussion of Von Rad’s approach to Genesis 15:6, which affirms that God reckoned Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness.  Von Rad argued that Genesis 15:6 was a spiritualization of what took place in the cult.  In the cult, a priest could pronounce the will of God on a matter, as when he declares a man unclean in Leviticus 13:8.  Leviticus 7:18 says that a sacrifice of well-being that is eaten on the third day is an abomination and will not be reckoned to the offerer.  Leviticus 17:4 affirms that bloodguilt will be reckoned to the one who slaughters an animal but does not offer it to the LORD.  So the cult had a concept of certain states being reckoned to people, and the verb in Leviticus 7:18 and 17:4, chasah, is what appears in Genesis 15:6.  Von Rad concluded that Genesis 15:6 spiritualizes what occurred in the cult: Abraham is reckoned as righteous apart from a cultic intermediary, solely on the basis of his faith.

Levenson on page 60 disagrees with Von Rad’s interpretation: “The facts that cult and priesthood were not spiritualized away in the Hebrew Bible and that righteousness could be imputed not only for faith, but also for observance (e.g., Deut 6:25 and Ps 106:31), are ignored.”  I agree with Levenson that, in the Hebrew Bible, people are reckoned as righteous for acts other than faith.  Faith is one act that can lead a person to be reckoned as righteous, but it’s not the only one.  But, unlike Levenson, I would say that cult and priesthood indeed are spiritualized in the Hebrew Bible.  Psalms 50-51 refer to sacrifices in spiritual terms—such as a broken spirit, or thanksgiving.  In Hosea 14:2, the speakers ask God to receive the calves of their lips—which indicates that prayer is being treated as animal sacrifices.  I wouldn’t be surprised if an author in the exile (though I do not know when Von Rad dated Genesis 15:6) sought to compensate for the destruction of Israel’s cult by spiritualizing it—by affirming that Judahites could get what they once received in the cult by means of faith.

3.  On page 78, Levenson offers interesting thoughts on redactors: “…it is also quite possible that the redactors of the Pentateuch worked more like anthologizers unaware of the problems their labors posed, law being for them a matter of customary practice unrelated to current exegesis.  Perhaps, instead, they wanted us to pick one code over the others in the smorgasbord of law that they provided, or perhaps they thought of Deuteronomy as the final and therefore normative statement.”

Levenson’s argument in this particular essay appears to be against a “pick-and-choose” approach to the Hebrew Bible that views some things as theologically normative, while dismissing other things.  But, if the biblical text is diverse (which Levenson acknowledges), on what can we base a synchronic reading?  On the intention of the redactor?  Levenson has shown that we can’t really know what that was!  Is the reader-response of religious communities a legitimate basis for a synchronic approach to the Bible—as we see how they have read the Bible as a whole?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.