THE SIGNS OF SIN: SERIOUSNESS OF OFFENCE IN BIBLICAL LAWWritten by Jonathan P. Burnside Reviewed By Jonathan Rowe
In contemporary Western legal praxis judges apply general rules to specific cases. If a similar approach is taken to OT law it can lead to questions like: ‘What if a son is rebellious but not a drunkard?’ (cf. Deut. 21:18–20) (16). Jonathan Burnside’s revised doctoral dissertation eschews such semantics in favour of the semiotic (narrative) approach recently advocated by Bernard Jackson.
Burnside investigates ‘seriousness of offence’ within the OT by attending to narrative context and stereotypical ‘paradigm cases’ in five texts: the ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ (Deut. 21:18–21); the unwilling Leverite (Deut. 25:5–10); ‘playing the harlot’ (Lev. 21:9 and Deut. 22:20–21); inadvertent sins (Lev. 4:1–35); and idolatry (Ezek. 8:1–18). He concludes that, ‘biblical law discriminated between the seriousness of different offences and between the seriousness of committing the same offence in different ways’ (225) and, further, that the seriousness of the offence varies according to social status, where the offence occurred and the relationship between the offender and victim (228–29). To finish, Burnside offers observations about the role of emotions in determining perceptions of the seriousness of the offence and the relationship between wrongfulness and harmfulness. The book contains a bibliography, and text and author indices.
There are several very positive aspects to The Signs of Sin. The cultural gap between the modern and biblical world is often recognised, but few have sought to tease out the implications for the study of OT law as Burnside does. The book also includes some fine exegesis of the selected texts accompanied by engagement with the secondary literature. The author shows not only that the texts portray sin as serious (which we knew anyway) but how they do so, and demonstrates that biblical law contains implicit scales of values. Furthermore, the brief discussion of the role of the emotions in legal practice is most suggestive.
Space allows two more critical observations. First, although it is a stated aim to account for cultural assumptions (21), The Signs of Sin is essentially a narrative study. The glances at cultural values per se are largely limited to mention of ‘honour and shame’, currently much in vogue within biblical studies. Second, the thesis that status affects the seriousness of sin (228) is not proven: (a) the involvement of a social elite in the apostasy of Ezekiel 8 could simply be a cipher for the completeness of the corruption; (b) the high priest’s offence (Lev. 4:3–12) is exceptional since it involves only one emblematic individual: it says nothing about social status in general; and, (c) the comparison between death by burning for a priest’s daughter (Lev. 21:9) but stoning of a commoner’s daughter (Deut. 22:20–21) involves the incommensurable. Leviticus is obviously concerned with priestly purity whilst Deuteronomy nowhere stipulates the more severe penalty. Burnside is aware of this latter objection (121–22), but it has more force than he is ready to concede. Texts must be allowed to speak for themselves before being marshalled into line by intra-canonical comparison.
The Signs of Sin is a fine study of an important topic. Although some of Burnside’s conclusions are not wholly convincing, more advanced students and others interested in biblical law or the passages discussed in depth will find plenty to stimulate reflection. The book’s price will probably mean that this engagement will take place in a library rather than the study.
Seminario Evangélico Unido de Teologia, El Escorial