Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary

Written by R. K. Harrison Reviewed By T. Desmond Alexander

In his preface, to this the latest addition to the Tyndale Old Testament commentary series, Prof. Harrison reminds Christians everywhere of the spiritual value and relevance of the book of Leviticus; and by way of encouragement to study this much neglected book he provides a generally useful and helpful commentary.

At the outset Harrison is to be commended for attempting to shed light on what is for the Christian one of the most complex and difficult books of the Old Testament. However—in dealing with a book like Leviticus it is only natural to expect that problems will arise which even the best of biblical scholars may find difficult to resolve. Thus, while Harrison’s elucidation of the text has much to commend it, there are a few occasions when one might wish to query his conclusions.

One major difficulty facing any commentator on Leviticus concerns the section on clean and unclean animals (11:1–47). Why was it that the Israelites were commanded to eat only certain types of animals? Over the centuries differing solutions have been offered to explain the rationale behind these peculiar regulations. For his part Harrison prefers to adopt a ‘hygienic’ explanation; i.e., while the clean creatures were safe to eat, the unclean animals carried various diseases which made them unsuitable for human consumption. However the arguments forwarded in favour of this approach are not altogether convincing. Following a detailed discussion as to why pork was dangerous to eat, Harrison notes, on the one hand, that the liver of the pig is ‘the only animal liver to be completely free from germs’, whereas, on the other hand, the ox, which was pronounced clean, ‘is the intermediate host for a worm known as Taenia saginata, which has about 2000 segments and can grow to 6 m in length’ (p. 126). A similar situation arises with marine creatures. ‘Even the “clean” species of fish are only relatively so, since tape worms can be contracted from eating raw or imperfected cooked varieties’ (p. 127). Thus it is not apparent that the clean animals are always safer to eat than the unclean animals. Also, if this hygienic explanation was the actual basis for the distinction between clean and unclean animals, then how does one explain the fact that Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19; cf. Acts 10:9–16). Is the Christian any less prone to disease from certain foods than OT believers?

Yet it would be unfair to Harrison if one was merely to point out the weaknesses in his position. Is there an alternative explanation for the distinction between clean and unclean animals? In his introduction Harrison makes reference to Dr Mary Douglas, a social anthropologist, who has sought to offer a ‘symbolic’ explanation for the distinction between the clean and the unclean animals. Her position may be briefly outlined as follows. The animal world is symbolic of the human world. Mankind was for the Israelites composed of two distinctive groups—Israelites and Gentiles. These groups were symbolized by the clean and unclean animals respectively. The people of Israel were expected to adopt a particular standard of life which set them apart morally and spiritually from the Gentiles. This finds its parallel in the animal world in that the clean animals had to conform to certain patterns of behaviour. Failure to fit into these categories meant that an animal could not be regarded as clean. Thus Douglas’s approach offers an alternative rationale for the distinction between clean and unclean creatures. It is perhaps unfortunate that Harrison did not develop this ‘symbolic’ explanation in his treatment of this particular section of Leviticus.

While we have limited the above discussion to the issue of clean and unclean animals it should be noted that Harrison adopts a ‘hygienic’ rationale to explain other regulations in Leviticus. Without considering all of the relevant regulations here and now it is probable that Harrison over-estimates the part played by hygiene in the formulation of these rules.

The commentary also displays, what were for this reviewer, certain frustrating features. First, there is a plethora of technical terms, especially in the field of medicine. In a commentary intended to be used by the ‘general reader’ one must surely question the value of including such technical vocabulary without offering any explanation as to its meaning. What is the uninitiated to make of terms like: omentum, atheroscherosis, prothrombin, phimosis, staphylococcal, vitiligo, achondroplaia, orchiotrophy, spondylitis, to mention but a few? By using such terminology Harrison can hardly be said ‘to help the reader of the Bible understand what the text actually says and what it means’. Second, on occasions Harrison incorporates material which has only a limited bearing upon the text. For example, there are unnecessarily long discussions on alcohol (pp. 114–117) and leprosy (pp. 136–139). While it must be admitted that Harrison’s remarks are informative they can hardly be said to elucidate substantially the text. Similarly one must surely question the value of including in a commentary of this nature ‘an experimental translation of Leviticus 13 into semi-technical English’ (Appendix A, pp. 241–247). Space devoted to this might have been better employed elsewhere in the commentary; for example, the concentric pattern mentioned in 24:15–23 could have been outlined in detail.

In general the commentary has been well produced. Only a few minor printing errors have survived. Most noteworthy is the transliteration of ‘and he called’ wayyiqra’ (p. 40; cf. p. 13). A helpful feature of the commentary is the table outlining the various types of sacrifice. This allows one to see at a glance the main differences between them.

The criticisms offered above are not intended to detract from what Professor Harrison has sought to achieve in this commentary. Rather they highlight the enormous difficulties confronting anyone who writes a commentary on Leviticus. Professor Harrison deserves our thanks for the way in which he has set about his task.

T. Desmond Alexander

Union Theological College, Belfast