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HTS Theological Studies

versão On-line ISSN 2072-8050
versão impressa ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.68 no.1 Pretoria Jan. 2012




Divide and be different: priestly identity in the Persian period



Esias E. Meyer

Department of Old Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




The article focused on the Hebrew root לדב [divide] [bdl] in Priestly and post-Priestly material of the Pentateuch. In Genesis 1 God is the subject of the verb and often enough in the Holiness Code, but in many instances in Leviticus (e.g. 10:10 and 11:47) it is expected of priests to perform the same act. It was argued that in this regard priests were to imitate God. The article further argued that these texts helped us to describe Jewish identity in the Persian period as an identity of non-conformity, and they also helped us to describe the priests' own understanding of their role in maintaining this identity.




In this article I will be examining the use of the Hebrew root לדב [divide] in the Pentateuch. My argument will offer two different lines of reasoning, which I hope to show are actually intertwined with one another. The one line of reasoning has to do with the fact that I think that the root לדב helps us to understand something about Judaic identity in the Persian period. The second line of reasoning helps us to understand something of how the priests understood their role in maintaining this identity. For them it was probably not only about Judaic identity, but obviously also about the power they held in this post-exilic society. Leviticus 10:10 will be a kind of pivot around which my arguments will be built, since this verse makes it very clear that priests were to imitate God, which obviously gave them a position of power. My engagement with the text could be described as mostly synchronic, but as always diachronic issues will feature from time to time.



One already encounters the Hebrew stem לדב in the first chapter of the Bible, in what has been known as the Priestly creation account in Genesis 1 in verses 4, 6, 7 and 14. These are used to describe the acts of Elohim in dividing the light from the darkness (v. 4, day one), and the waters above from the waters below (v. 6, day two). In these two acts Elohim is the subject of the two verbs. In verses 6 and 14 the expanse and the lights are the dividing agents.1 The first creation narrative is often used to show how highly the priestly authors regarded order. As Collins (2004:76) says: 'In the Priestly creation, everything must be in its proper place'.

According to Becking and Korpel (2010:7-8), the verb לדב is usually used with a preposition such as or and in these cases it is translated as 'to separate' or 'to differentiate'. Without the preposition it is either translated as 'to select'2 or as 'to split, cleave'3. Similarly Van Wolde (2009) described the functioning of the verb לדב as follows:

The action designated by the verb ל'דבה4 always concerns two distinct elements and this is marked by the twice repeated preposition preceding these distinct entities. (p. 20)

Van Wolde is actually interested in the occurrences in Genesis 1, but what she describes here is true of most of the occurrences we will discuss below, although there are a few exceptions, where we find the preposition , or no preposition at all, as pointed out by Becking and Korpel (2010)5 above.

In the book of Exodus the root occurs only once, in 26:33, where it refers to the curtain in the tent of meeting which is to separate the holy from the holy of holies .

In the book of Leviticus the root is used twice (1:17 and 5:8) to refer to doves brought as sacrifices, which the priests are to tear open without severing (לדב) them. These are the only two occurrences in Leviticus where the verb is used without a preposition.

In Leviticus 10:10, after the 'strange fire', incident a new command is given by YHWH to Aaron to distinguish between holy and profane, and between unclean and clean. Thus, whereas Elohim or some of his agents have been the subject of this verb, it now becomes part of the job of Aaron and his sons. Just as Elohim divided water and land on the first few days of creation, they are now to continue this task of implementing divisions. The root also occurs at the end of the next chapter in 11:47, where the command to distinguish between clean and unclean is repeated as a kind of summary to that chapter, which is concerned with clean and unclean animals.

The next occurrence of this root is found in Leviticus 20:24-26, which is usually regarded as part of the parenetic frame6 of the Holiness Code, where we find the root occurring four times. In the book of Numbers (8:14; 16:9 & 21) these terms usually refer to the special status of the Levites, although the text is clear that they are not as special as the priests. In 8:14 Moses is commanded to separate the Levites from the other Israelites. In 16:9 Moses addresses Korah and reminds him of his position of privilege in that Elohim had separated Korah and his fellow Levites from the rest of Israel. In 16:21 Moses and Aaron are addressed by Yahweh, who orders them to separate themselves from the community, so that He can destroy the community. This is still part of the same narrative about the rebellion of Korah. All of the examples I have mentioned up to now are in the Hif'il.

In the rest of the paper I will focus mainly on texts from the Pentateuch and especially Leviticus. For the sake of completeness I simply mention that one finds לדב in Ezekiel (three times),7 and in the books of Ezra8 and Nehemiah9 it is mostly used with regard to the so-called 'foreign women' texts. Apart from these examples, the term is found a few times in Deuteronomy,10 once in 1 Kings,11 in Chronicles12 and in Trito-Isaiah.13


Leviticus 10:10

In the final form of the book of Leviticus we find only two narratives. These are in Chapters 8-10 and 24:10-23.14 The first narrative describes the inauguration of the priests. Chapters 8 and 9 describe the ordination of the priests with an elaborate set of rituals being executed over a period of eight days. The end result is a cultic climax at the end of Leviticus 9, when the glory 3)דובכ of the Lord appears to all the people (v. 23) and eventually fire comes from the Lord and consumes the burnt offering (ההע) and the fat on the altar. Everybody seems happy,15 which includes YHWH, Moses, the priests and the people who witness the ritual, who are in awe (v. 24). Some scholars have argued that this was the original ending of the so-called Priestly Grundschrift (PG),16 but in the current form of Leviticus the narrative does not end here. It continues in Chapter 10 with the sons of Aaron bringing 'strange fire' to the altar and they end up like the burnt offering (לדב) in 9:23, namely 'consumed'. After their bodies have been removed, YHWH speaks directly to Aaron17 (Lv 10:9-11):18

Many explanations have been given on the question of what exactly the two sons of Aaron did wrong (Milgrom 1991:628635), but it is clearly a case of 'ritual failure' (Bibb 2009:111).19 We will take a closer look at one reason below, but one other important issue has been the unity of Chapter 10, which some have questioned. Thus Gerstenberger (1996) argues:

Even a cursory reading reveals that Leviticus 10 has been put together by different tradents and groups. The chapter lacks any thematic or stylistic unity, and everywhere we notice breaks, gaps, and doubling. (p. 115)

Other scholars have identified a chiastic structure in this chapter. Hartley (1992:129) identifies an ABA' structure which divides the chapter into three parts, namely verses 1-7, 8-11 and 12-20. For Hartley the chapter does not lack 'any thematic or stylistic unity', as Gerstenberger would have it. More recently Nihan (2007:602) has argued (against Gerstenberger) that Leviticus 10 'forms a complex yet coherent composition inserted by the final editor of Leviticus'.20 He thus thinks that the chapter as a whole forms some kind of unit, which was added to the whole book of Leviticus. We are thus now moving from synchronic issues to diachronic issues. This article is not that concerned with Chapter 10 as such, but is more interested in how 10:10 is related to the rest of Leviticus and to the other לדב texts in the Pentateuch.

One could argue that 10:10 forms part of the final redactional layer of the book, since it already says something about the two collections which follow in the rest of the book. Leviticus 11-15 is concerned with clean and unclean, and Leviticus 17-26, better known as the Holiness Code, is concerned with holiness. This verse thus connects two fairly diverse collections into one single command given to Aaron. To read verse 10 like this also implies that it was written or added after 11-15 and 17-26 were already part of the book of Leviticus, which brings us to the other diachronic issues.

As mentioned above, Nihan (2007:576-607) has argued that Leviticus 10 as a whole was the last chapter added to the book of Leviticus. Nihan (2007:579) first presents arguments as to why one should read Chapter 10 as 'a complex, yet nevertheless coherent narrative, whose general theme is the priests' observance of the law, (original emphasis) and then he (2007:579-602) offers a 'close study' of the whole chapter in which he engages with most of the exegetical issues associated with this chapter (and there are plenty). He makes the observation that the 'strange fire' in 10:1 has to do with the censer offering brought by Nadab and Abihu. This kind of offering had not been ordered in Leviticus 1-9, as the last clause in verse 1 clearly says: [He did not order them]. The attentive reader would notice that in the only two other texts in the Pentateuch which refer to censer incense offerings are to be found in Leviticus 16:1213 and Numbers 17:6-15 where 'the performance of this rite is always a competence reserved to the high priest' (Nihan's italics) (Nihan 2007:582). Nihan (2007:584) mentions many parallels between Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16, and then concludes (2007:585) that 'the interpolation of Lev 10 is contemporary with the last edition of Num 16-17 which, as argued above, should be assigned to the "theocratic revision" identified in Numbers by Achenbach'.21

Numbers 16-17 is about a struggle for power between Korah, Dathan and Abiram, on the one hand, and Aaron on the other, a struggle clearly won by Aaron. Numbers 16 is also one of the few places where the root לדב occurs in Numbers. Nihan (2007:602-607) argues that eventually Leviticus 10 became the 'founding legend of priestly exegesis.' Although Numbers 16 is a different issue, let us for the time being note that Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16 have more things in common22 than simply the root לדב.

Yet one does not only have to link Leviticus 10 to later (meaning both later in the Pentateuch and younger), but also to earlier (meaning both earlier in the Pentateuch and older) texts. In the rest of the article I will attempt to describe some of the links between 10:10 and the two following collections (11-15 and 17-26) and I will attempt to show that these are all closely connected to the Priestly creation narrative in Genesis 1.


Leviticus 10:10, 11-15 and Genesis 1

Liss (2008:348) has recently argued that there are clear links between the commands in Leviticus 10:10, Leviticus 11-15 and Genesis 1. She puts it as follows:

According to Leviticus 11-15, this outlining of the world's categories and particularities is one, if not the, priestly task. In this, the priestly task of separation (between tähor and täme, between counting 7 days of uncleanness up to an 8th day of purification etc.) becomes an imitatio dei, since one of God's major tasks during the act of creation was 'separation' of one entity from the other. (p. 348)

If Liss is correct then priests are being portrayed as (re)doing God's work by continuously repeating his acts in creation. Just as He created the world in a specific order, so it is their responsibility to maintain this order and make sure that everything is in its right place. Liss (2008:348) also specifically links Leviticus 10:10 with 11:47, where the command to distinguish between clean and unclean is repeated at the end of that chapter on clean and unclean animals. She also links it to Exodus 26:33, where it is the task of the curtain to keep the holy and the holy of holies apart.

With regard to Chapter 11 specifically, Nihan (2007:293) has argued that verses 2-23 made use of an original source or Vorlage which 'has been significantly expanded, and apparently partly harmonized with the P account on creation in Genesis 1'. Much later in his book, when he (2007:335-339) engages with the 'significance' of the dietary laws for Israel, he argues:

The placement of the törä on clean and unclean animals at the outset of the collection on impurities thus serves to connect this collection with the general theme of P, i.e. the restoration of the creational order and Israel's transformation in the 'priestly nation' among the other nations of the world. (p. 338)

For Nihan the connections between Leviticus 11 and the first creation narrative are clear, not only on the source critical level, but also in terms of the theological message of Chapter 11. The purpose of the chapter was to help Israel to conform to the creational order. Yet Nihan (2007:339) also argues that 'the törä of Lev 11 sets apart those who practice it from the rest of humanity' (Nihan's italics). Nihan (2007:383-394) dates this text to the first decades of the fifth century in the Achaemenid Period and one could thus say (with Meyer 2011:156) that 'an act of conformity to the cosmic order is an act of nonconformity to the Persian Empire'. The term 'nonconformity' is often used by the North American scholar Daniel Smith-Christopher (2002:137-162) when discussing Leviticus 11. Other scholars have argued similarly. Thus, Gerstenberger (1996) puts it as follows:

They [i.e. the laws of Lev 11] serve to identify one's own group (confession) and to provide a delimitation in relation to the outside. This finds unequivocal expression in the two concluding explanations in Lev. 11:44-47.23 (p. 145)

Leviticus 11 is thus clearly related to the first creation narrative and in the broader priestly world view, abiding by the rules of this chapter meant abiding by the order Elohim built into his creation, but it is also closely related to maintaining Jewish identity in the Persian Empire.

Yet, a scholar like Liss (2008:348-352) sees also further connections between Leviticus 12-15 and creation, and especially the command in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply. She concludes:

One could, therefore, say that the Priestly narrative portrays the installation of the cult and the laws of ritual purity as the initiation of the teaching of the categories the created world consists of. (p. 352)

It should thus be clear that it is not only about the priests of 10:10 doing what Elohim did in Genesis 1, but in priestly theology the law helped Israel to conform to that creation. What Liss means by 'cult' is not that clear from her article, but other scholars have made the link between cult and creation much clearer.24 This line of thought also continues into what has traditionally been known as the Holiness Code, which is often regarded today as post-Priestly literature.25


Leviticus 10:10, 17-26 and creation

In a mostly synchronic study Ruwe (1999:90-97) has described the basic theme of the second part of the Holiness Code (chs. 23-25) as 'Sabbath', which also takes it back to the seventh day of the first creation story. The Leitmotiv of the first part is 'fear of the sanctuary' (Ruwe 1999:103).26 Ruwe (1999:103-115) also has a larger argument that the sanctuary functions as a kind of restoration of the creation, or what he calls a 'schöpfungsrestitutive Funktion' [creation-restoring function]. In his argument he first takes a step back and looks at the description of the building of the Sanctuary in the second half of Exodus. Ruwe (1999:104-105) argues, for instance, that there are many 'Anspielungen' [allusions] between the tent sanctuary in the second part of Exodus and creation. Ruwe (1999:106) argues that 'Schöpfungswerk' [act of creation]