Friday, December 23, 2005

Best Books of 2005: Scripture

Leviticus as Literature by Mary Douglas

It might seem as if the effort expended to portray the book of Leviticus as enjoyable literature would be the most highly quixotic of any quest undertaken by a scripture scholar. Fortunately, Mary Douglas is not a scholar of the Bible, but an anthropologist. This fact, of course, does not by any means ensure us a good book on scripture, but with her background and imprimaturs from such OT doyens as Jacob Milgrom and Baruch Levine, one can assume that the scholarship is responsible (unlike many sallies into the field by experts in other areas).

Mary Douglas has been an influential name in scripture studies since the publication of her seminal study Purity and Danger in 1966. A student at the time of a revolution in the study of anthropology, she has pushed forward the general thrust of work done by E. Evans-Prichard and others in which cultural systems, seen as a whole, exhibit logic in ways that might seem from the Western, scientific worldview to be mere taboo or ritualism.

Leviticus is therefore a good test case, since the Priestly caste of Israel is on the receiving end of much scorn (usually somewhat masked) from historical-critical scholars, precisely because of their legalism, ritualism and 'magic' (e.g. can leprosy be cured by ashes that include scarlet ribbon?).

Douglas' approach is to see a profound theology of the Israelite priesthood that is very concerned to emphasize both the holiness (=otherness) of God and also His tremendous care and concern for creation, especially for animals. One beautiful insight to illustrate: the 'unclean' animals, far from being disgusting in God's eyes, are simply forbidden as food to the Israelites. This prohibition, rather than denigrating these animals (pigs, shrimp, rock badgers...) actually protects them from being poached and eaten.

According to Douglas the literary structure of the book parallels the structure of the internal organs of sacrificial animals which in turn parallels the structure of the temple itself. In all of these parallels, the guiding principle is that God is most interior to the person, most holy and therefore we must be most circumspect in honoring Him and approaching Him.

You may not have heard of Mary Douglas before, but how many anthropologists do you know that have their own fan club?

Honorary mention #1: The Critical Meaning of the Bible by Fr. Raymond Brown (an early work with some problems, but a great entry into the difficulties and potential of modern Catholic hermeneutics)

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