Can We Eat Bacon Now? Leviticus Was Written for Priests, Not You, Say Scholars

The Book of Leviticus is thought to lay down rules for all Jews, but some biblical scholars think the laws were originally meant for a more select group

Elizabeth Sloane
Elizabeth Sloane
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Pancakes, and that animal: If Leviticus really was written for the priests, not the laity, does that mean Jews can eat bacon:
Pancakes, and that animal: If Leviticus really was written for the priests, not the laity, does that mean Jews can eat bacon:Credit: David Bachar
Elizabeth Sloane
Elizabeth Sloane

The Lord spoke again to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creature which you may eat from all the animals that are on the Earth.’” (Leviticus 11)

The Book of Leviticus, the third book in the Old Testament, is considered something of an anomaly by some scholars.

The rest of the Old Testament books are concerned with the history of the Jewish people and their belief. But Leviticus concerns itself with ritual, legal, and moral practices. It lays down the laws by which the Jewish people are supposed to live.

But, was it truly meant for the laity? Should all Jews have to adhere to its tenets, as is commonly assumed? Some Biblical scholars argue that the Book of Leviticus was not originally meant to apply to the general public: its laws were meant for the priests of the Temple.

In one section, there is no doubt. Chapter 21 explicitly hands down rules that apply specifically to priests, such as bans on ritual scarring and tattoos: "Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies."

Also, the priests and their families have to adhere to higher norms - "They must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire," Chapter 21 states, for example. But what about the rest of the book?

Dating Leviticus

Tradition says that it was Moses who compiled the Book of Leviticus based on YHWH’s instructions to him, which, going by rabbinical calculations, was around 3,400 to 3,500 years ago.

However, Biblical scholars Erhard Gerstenberger, Professor Emeritus at Marburg University, and Gordon Wenham, professor emeritus of Old Testament at University of Gloucestershire, place the composition of the Book of Leviticus later, during the Babylonian Exile of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E.

There is no telling, though. The late Mary Douglas, a well-known social anthropologist who wrote many books on issues of purity, acknowledged in one of her later books, "Leviticus as Literature", that the book, or at least the laws contained therein, likely had a long pre-history before it became part of the Biblical canon.

The theory that at least some of the laws found in the Book of Leviticus go back further into antiquity and only reached its final form during the Persian Period (538 - 332 B.C.E.) enjoys wide support in the community of Biblical scholars.

A man receives a tattoo on his arm during the 4th Israel Tattoo Convention in Tel Aviv, on October 7, 2016. Credit: Moti Milrod

Even if scholars agree that the final form of the Book of Leviticus did not come about until the Persian Period, it is hard to say which parts are original and which were added later.

But that still leaves open the question of who the laws and rules contained in the book were meant for.

All priests?

The traditional view is that YHWH gave the laws as commandments to Moses to deliver to the entirety of the Israelite people after they had fled from the Egyptians, as described in the Book of Exodus.

James Watts, professor of Religion at Syracuse University, contends that the Book of Leviticus was written for all worshippers at the temples in Jerusalem and Samaria.

The quote from Book 11, where the Lord spoke again to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creature which you may eat from all the animals that are on the Earth’” seems to support that argument.

On the other hand, Dr. Robert Gnuse, professor in the Religious Studies Department at Loyola University, says that historically, the rules on food and clothing found in the Book of Leviticus were meant exclusively for priests, just like the laws in the Hindu Code of Manu Smriti for Brahmin priests.

That is, until the period of the Babylonian captivity. Someone from the priestly class in Babylon found a way to encourage the Jewish people living in exile to take on these laws in order to keep them together as a community, Gnuse theorizes. This is also the view Mary Douglas took in her earlier works.

Keeping these customs would have given the Jewish people a unique identity that separated them from the non-Jews they were living among in Babylon, Gnuse explains.

It may have also given them “the enthusiastic self-perception that they were all priests in the new Temple of God, the world. Of course, it also implies that if Jews are the priests, then the new lay people must be the Gentiles,” Gnuse points out.

Tablet from Jewish exile in Babylon: Ahikam Ben Refayahu divides his wealth among his five children.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, Cindy and David Sofer Collection



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