Leviticus 1–10

Written by James W. Watts Reviewed By G. Geoffrey Harper

A major challenge facing any Leviticus commentator is overcoming (mis)conceptions of dry irrelevancy that people (including some scholars) harbour towards the biblical book. In this latest addition to the Historical Commentary on the OT series, James Watts succeeds admirably. Watts is professor and chair of the department of religion at Syracuse University. The core of his work over the last twenty years has been in the field of rhetorical criticism, and in particular, its application to the texts and contexts of the Pentateuch. The fruits of those labours are here applied to the text of Lev 1–10. The resulting commentary has much to commend itself.

The introduction is detailed, yet eminently readable, and serves to bring readers quickly up to speed with the current (and often complex) state of Leviticus scholarship. Particularly helpful is Watts’s survey of various approaches that have been canvassed in recent times. Everything from compositional and literary analyses to ideological criticism and ritual theory is considered (pp. 40–86). Each hermeneutic is judiciously weighed. Watts, of course, argues for a rhetorical approach and proceeds to outline its particular application to Leviticus (pp. 89–133). Again, this overview offers an initiation to readers unfamiliar with his method. In short, Watts suggests that Leviticus was primarily written to be heard, not read, and that it was shaped to persuade. This means Leviticus ought to be read with different sensitivities, which has implications for everything from translation of ritual terms (pp. 4–8) to the structure of the book (pp. 15–20). Accordingly, Watts notes that his interpretation “contradicts many of the findings of its predecessors” (p. 89).

That conclusion is borne out in the commentary proper. For each chapter, a translation of the text is followed by an “Essentials” section which presents an overview of content, context, and rhetoric. Then, under “Exposition,” significant textual, theological and historical issues are discussed. Finally, a verse-by-verse “Exegesis” section explores lexical and syntactical features in depth. The method employed serves to keep the whole in view while working on the details. It is this continual interaction with the broader purposes of the text that constitutes one of the major strengths of the commentary. For Watts, the ever-present question is: “Who is trying to persuade whom of what?” (p. 122). How the ‘bits’ contribute to the persuasive aims of the whole is continually borne in mind.

By taking the final-form text seriously, Watts challenges many source-critical ‘givens.’ For example, in his discussion of chapters 4–5 he highlights the rhetorical effect (and artistry) of paronomasia in relation to the offerings prescribed. His conclusion, in contrast to prevailing views, is that “[t]his play on multiple meanings and nuances of the same root words undermines the claim that P’s vocabulary . . . consists of precisely defined technical terms” (p. 302). In this way, Watts’ rhetorical analysis regularly shows itself capable of generating novel insights and of challenging the status quo.

Another notable feature is the commentary’s engagement with a broad range of scholarly and ecclesial positions. Watts draws upon critical and conservative scholars alike and is sensitive to a diversity of Christian and Jewish readings of the book. The commentary thus presents a rounded appraisal of current scholarship as well as providing helpful insights into the text’s reception history.

However, a couple of weaknesses need to be noted. The first is relatively minor. Readers wanting to follow up the wider argument behind Watts’ treatment will find themselves frustrated at times by the imprecise referencing system utilised. In some instances works are referred to without page numbers (e.g., p. 264).

A second issue is more serious. Watts, to his credit, works hard to isolate the rhetorical setting of Leviticus, rightly arguing that this is essential groundwork for discussing persuasive purpose (p. 88). He concludes that Leviticus’s primary function was to bolster the power claims of the Aaronide dynasty in postexilic Yehud (pp. 91–132). Therefore, in line with much critical scholarship the text is viewed as a product of the early Persian period. As a result, various aspects, such as the tabernacle, are understood as ciphers for postexilic realities, namely, the temples of Jerusalem and Mt. Gerazim (p. 105). Watts’ reconstruction understandably shapes his interpretation and so perhaps limits its value for readers who would challenge his dating of the text.

The larger issue at stake is whether (proposed) rhetorical function can be used to determine a text’s provenance. Even if it were conclusively demonstrated that Leviticus was used for a postexilic agenda, it does not necessarily follow that such appropriation was in line with the intent of the text. It is equally possible that such use represents a communicative ‘misfire.’ Particular utilisation does not conclusively demonstrate that a text was written for that purpose or during that era. The complexity of the issue remains somewhat under-addressed.

Furthermore, this reading of Leviticus requires one to see it as being little more than a thinly veiled political manifesto. For instance, in relation to priestly dues, Watts states that the “rhetorical structure effectively buries the rules for priestly prebends in the aural equivalent of contractual fine print” (p. 385). The theological implications, particularly in relation to the text’s function as divine discourse, are not discussed. Thus some readers may find the interpretation a ‘thin’ appraisal of the text and one that reflects more postmodern ideology than original intention.

Nevertheless, Watts has produced a masterful and well-written exposition of Leviticus 1–10, even if one does not subscribe to his proposed provenance. The level of detail may make it unwieldy for preachers, although insights into how the text functions rhetorically will prove useful. For scholars and graduate students, however, the commentary is indispensable. I for one am eagerly awaiting the second volume.

G. Geoffrey Harper

G. Geoffrey Harper
Sydney Missionary & Bible College
Croydon, New South Wales, Australia

Other Articles in this Issue

Jesus and the authors of the New Testament consistently link how Jesus’ followers are to live (ethics) with when they live (eschatology)...

Possessing a helpful explanation of the slowness of spiritual change can be encouraging to Christians who are not growing spiritually as quickly or consistently as they might have hoped...

Many have written on the difficulties of pastoral ministry, backed by research into the demise of those who become discouraged in the work...

In light of John A. D’Elia’s A Place at the Table and Stanley E...

A trio of recent books raises important questions on how Scripture is handled in halls of (certain kinds of) learning and how such handling affects Scripture’s perceived truth and message...