When I, In Turn…

“When I, In Turn, Have Been Hostile To Them…”
Divine Repentance and Sacred Memory in Leviticus 26:40-46 

by Randall S. Frederick

By the time the reader of Leviticus has slogged through the sacrificial offerings, purity rituals, and Holiness code, they will likely miss that a dramatic shift in Jewish thinking has taken place – namely, that the sacrifices with which the book began and by which the people could purge sin from their midst so as to approach God are not relevant anymore. To the modern reader, this is already the present circumstance. The tedious butchery of the sacrifices may fall of blind eyes, and with it, the primacy on changing our ways and the notion that God has changed with us. This paper will proceed to bring attention to the shifting concepts of God in Lev. 26:40-46 as well as the changes taking place in how the Israelites were to approach God before addressing how these changes are relevant to modern theology.

Leviticus 26:40-46 is located within the Holiness Source[1] of Torah, part of a dramatic shift concerned with the consequences of ritual and holiness, ethical behavior, and civil equality of the Israelite people more than ritual purity of the Levitical tribe. Many see the change in tone as a consequence of new understandings on the part of the Israelite community. Chapters 17 through 27 have a renewed interest in “the creation of an egalitarian society… [where] everyone has access to the holy. The burden is now on the individual to live a life that accords with holiness.”[2] Turning to the individual, Lev. 17 onward takes on personal language, as if God is speaking at times to the collective people of Israel through Moses[3] and at others as if to an individual. Chapter 26 in particular affords a high degree of individualized reading, as it does not have the prelude we expect. It is as if God is finally speaking directly to the people, causing the passages here to resonate with divine import. The curses that God pronounces against the people, in light of this individualized reading, are to be seen as personally applicable – no one can escape through the crowd and hope for the best, or conversely claim personal holiness and blame their neighbor. Each member of the community is personally responsible for the actions of themselves, and for their community. All are punish’d,[4] all are responsible.

But is that how we are to read the final thoughts of Leviticus? Verses 40-46 seems so curious in light of what has preceded. Has God, having come to the end of his threats, also come to his senses? And are we to see God as admitting the possibility of some measure of divine repentance? The structure of these verses would seem to indicate as much, falling in such a way:

40 – “If [the people] confess their offenses against & hostility towards me personally…”
41 – “As a result of what they have done, I continued to be hostile towards them…”
42 – (v.41b – If they humble themselves), “Then I will remember the covenant…”
43 – “The land will be better without them if they fail…”
44 – “Yet I still cannot revoke the covenant”
45 – “I will remember”
46 – Conclusion of the oracle (ch. 26) and book (all of Leviticus)

In these verses, God seems to be speaking to either Godself or some third party, trying to explain the rationale or cause for his behavior. The punishment is merited, but God refuses to meet failure for failure. He will remember – conditionally, perhaps, but remember he must. The verses thus fall into a judgment oracle, which typically have two parts – a circumstance/accusation and the judgment/consequence linked by a particle sustaining the logic.

Preceding this selection, v.14-39 lay out a grand panorama of punishment.[5] In one sense, it makes sense. God repeatedly emphasizes, “If in spite of this [one form of punishment] you will not obey me, I will continue to punish/plague/remain hostile towards you sevenfold for your sins.” To be sure, God seems rational in the approach. Repeated offenses mandate escalating degrees of punishment.

Yet, it is important to note that the sins of the people are not escalating. The people are suffering compounded punishment for a sustained degree of sin, not a commensurate compounding of sin and punishment in equal measure. Between v.14 and v.39, the original punishment has compounded 2,401 times.[6] If we are to read the math here allegorically, it does not diminish the intent. Seven is a definite number “for an indefinite amount of increase in the severity of the judgments.” Perhaps God is rounding down and the violence is much worse, but we can be certain that a second meaning exists in that the number seven has echoes of Sabbath – or more specifically, the failure to abide by Sabbath. It is a “reminder of the whole religion in which the number seven and the sabbatical principle function so frequently, e.g., the seventh day, the seventh month, the seventh year.”[7] Again, at issue here is not an escalating sin, but a refusal to “turn back to me” – God is depicted as emotional, rather than rationally abiding by the precepts of holiness. With such a hostile God, who can blame them for turning away?[8][9]

It is helpful to look to a parallel in the story of Samson’s revenge with foxes in Judges 15. In v.7 of that chapter, Samson responds to a failed marriage by tying 300 foxes together by their tails, lighting them on fire, and setting them loose in a nearby field – effectively destroying an entire community’s means of sustenance and income.[10] Throughout this wild behavior, Samson maintains that because of what has transpired to him personally,[11] he has a right to destroy their economy. When challenged, he posits that he “merely did to them what they did to me.”[12] In the Samson narrative, we are supposed to see a judge who has used his power both outside the scope of his occupation, a crazed maniac prone to excessive and unpredictable behavior, and a man who refuses to acknowledge his own shortcomings as a man, as a member of the community, and as a leader of the Israelite people.[13] In like manner, God’s excessive rage is not commensurate to the actions of the people.

Though chapter 26 situates vv. 40-46 as part of a judgment oracle, the whole of the chapter is perhaps meant to exaggerate as a means of motivation and to show that there are limits even to God’s wrath. Rather than judgment, 26:40-46 seem to be an oracle of hope, of God changing his mind, recognizing that the punishment has been excessive, and working out a need for his own repentance. The judgment has been too severe, the rage has diminished, and God is awaking to the horror of what he has done. God, in a sense, seems to be repenting. Indeed, what is required throughout these excessive measures is only for the people to turn to God and acknowledge their responsibility, but holding up their side of participation in creating a “good” world. God’s severity is not even about measuring out punishment, but a sense of betrayal to their relationship.[14] There is an interplay of remembering and doing, for in the biblical context remembering is more than a cognitive activity; remembering is equivalent to doing. God is doing God’s part,[15] but in remembering he must also recall the conditions under which his original declarations were made to Abraham and Isaac and to the people at Sinai – “the vigor with which the Egyptians pressed the Israelites”. Is God any different than Pharaoh in pressing the people beyond their means?[16]

That these passages are seen as an expression of exilic and post-exilic thought is important to remember as the people see themselves as both far from home and far from the promise. Rather than abuse an already oppressed people by means of an apologetic of destruction, the Holiness Source is affirming their exile and purposing it, or creating meaning for their condition. As Viktor Frankl, “father” of logotherapy, has written, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning [for the conditions] in one’s life.”[17] It has echoes of Nietzsche’s 1888 essay Twilight of the Idols – those who understand the why can endure the how. And so, in this way we come to understand the judgment oracle not as prescriptive, but as an expression of the reality post-exilic Israelites had found themselves already in. God is not a maniacal, fiendish judge like Samson doling out horrendous judgment for personal offense. The Holiness authors are instead framing their circumstance with the ever-present hope of a renewed society. We cannot, however, escape the personal language in Leviticus as a one-off. The oracles of prophetic literature cast God as emotionally, psychologically, and relationally invested in the people.[18] That God is depicted as so invested in the anticipations of the people indicates a continued affirmation that they have not been forgotten.[19] In context, this is not some passing emotion. Readers may be inclined to hurriedly pass through the end of Leviticus without consideration that, if these verses were written in conjunction with the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., and the resulting exile that Ezekiel speaks about in the oracles ascribed to him, where disease, war, famine, and cannibalism are so prevalent where is God in all of this? This is not some warning of potential judgment. It is a present reality, part of a shared history. Has the God of the Oppressed now become the Oppressor? Without 26:40-46, it would appear so.

Indeed, personal language appears in both Leviticus and Ezekiel and there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the two share theological ideas. “Some scholars… maintain that P served as a source for Ezekiel. Others conclude that, for the most part, the relationship was the reverse: It was Ezekiel who introduced some of the themes that found their way into the priestly source of the Torah.”[20] With such high involvement from God – whether destructive in nature or the anticipated favor of covenant – what is taking place here is both a change in God as well as a change in theological understanding. “Even in the midst of waste, devastation, and exile, the ancient promise of YHWH remains an activity possibility in the life of Israel.”[21] God will not, indeed cannot destroy the people entirely[22] for “that would constitute a breaking of the covenant.”[23] God cannot entirely divorce himself from the people for he has already sworn to be their God – a point reaffirmed by the blessings in v.11-13 where he has declared, “I will place my dwelling in your midst… I will walk with you… I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Lest we get caught up in the curses, this change, it becomes apparent, turns v.40-46 into something different – a promise of restoration conditioned on confession of the people. Not a word has been said by God regarding sacrifices on the part of the people. Change of heart and repentance – for after all, isn’t that what God is doing here? – is the chief concern. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Post-exilic Israel has concluded that confession and repentance is the pathway to God. This shift “should not be underestimated. It approximates and perhaps influence the prophetic doctrine of repentance, which not only suspends the sacrificial requirements but eliminates them entirely.”[24] The Holiness tradition has taken a leap forward and sets a precedent for the future of the faith – confession is the first step towards renewal.[25] What is more, we see a second shift taking place here away from the doctrine of collective responsibility (a “cardinal plank in the structure of priestly theology”) mentioned previously towards a privatized faith, thus explaining the individually-directed language of Lev. 26 and specifically v. 40-46. That Jeremiah[26] and Ezekiel[27] together reject “both sacrifices and collective responsibility as requisites for divine expiation” marks an evolution in Jewish theology and lays the requisite thinking necessary for the rise of prophets like John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as the New Testament writers with their emphasis on repentance and life-change in the construction of the Kingdom of God. Put another way, judgment is not the final word. Rather than gloss over the dramatic impact of these verses and the context in which they were written,[28] we can accept them for what they are – a text of terror.[29] But we can also accept that this is not the final word, not because we are well-served looking to a time when the destruction will stop, but because God seems to recognize he is committing a far greater offense than his followers. He has become excessively “violent, even bloodthirsty” in his pursuit of love and seems to know it. Repentance by the people seems to be met with a repentance by God.[30]

We can conclude a few things from all of this – One, that God is not static and despite reaching a judgment on the fate of both nations and individuals, judgment is not final. Not yet, anyway. There is always a hope that can sustain us in the face of terrible circumstance and uncertain future.

Secondly, religion evolves as our concept of God evolves. “Israel’s prophets came to their distinctive summons to repentance as a result of their immersion in the very ritual system they felt compelled not only to critique but also to preserve.”[31] This does not mean that we have come to do away with any previous understanding or revelation,[32] but that we are able to see the texts, creeds, practices, traditions, and revelations around which we orient our lives as possessing the hallmark of the divine – the words continue to be applicable across time even in new contexts. What is more, sometimes we can initiate change as part of a long-standing hope on the part of God that we sustain creation and continue creating ourselves.

While God might be capricious at times – forgetting the people he has pledged to attend to, going too far in his anger, and issuing a judgment that is unsustainable to his overriding command – there continues to remain a measure of hope that things can change.

[1] Or “Priestly Tradition.”

[2] Jacob Milgrom. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 175.

[3] See how the first verse of each chapter begins with “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” and the closely related directives to the people of Israel.

[4] William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet 5.3.293-295

[5] We see similar instances of a legal texts ending this way, for in biblical times “major legal texts (such as a code of laws or a covenantal agreement) ended with such blessings and curses. The main section of Deut. concludes in a similar way and we also find this pattern in Ex. 23:25-33 and Josh. 24:20” according to Armando J. Levoratti. “Leviticus” The International Bible Commentary. Ed. William R. Farmer. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 473.

[6] See the original statement of punishment in v.14-17, times “sevenfold” in v.18 (1×7= 49), times “sevenfold” in v.21 (49×7=343), and times “sevenfold” in v.24 (343×7=2,401).

[7] “Leviticus” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I. Ed. Neil M. Alexander  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1180

[8] Though Lev. 26 records the people’s sin as a “simple” refusal to acknowledge God, Kleinig explains that it is much worse than that. Lev. 26 minimizes the true nature of the offense, where the “acts of sacrilege are the violation of the commandments in 26:1-2. In Ezekiel the sin of sacrilege [is] caused by idolatry, the desecration of the Sabbaths, and the presentation of offerings [not to God, but] on the ‘high places (Ezek 20:27 in the context of 20:1-29)” is the true reason behind God’s wrath. John W. Kleinig. “Leviticus” Concordia Commentary. Ed. Dean O. Wenthe. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2003), 566.

[9] See also the fear of the people in Ex. 20:19.

[10] See Judges 15.

[11] Judges 15:7, TNIV

[12] Judges 15:11, TNIV

[13] Namely, in this particular instance among many other failings and erratic behavior, that he abandoned his wife (14:19-20), forgot her (15:1a), and upon remembering her sought her only for sex and not as a husband who actually thought about her in any covenantal sense (15:1b).

[14] Baruch A. Levine. Leviticus: The JPS Torah Commentary. Ed. Nahum M. Sarna. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 190.

[15] “Both parties must respond and act” according to Frank H. Gorman, Jr. Leviticus: Divine Presence and Community. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 147.

[16] Leviticus” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I. Ed. Neil M. Alexander  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1181.

[17] Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Washington Square Press, 1984), 126.

[18] See Ezek. 17:20; 18:24; 39:23; and Ezra 10:2.a

[19] This idea must, of course, be held in tension with the fear that they had, in fact, been forgotten. It does not serve us well to brush over this fear, centuries later. While God is often seen as invested in the good fortunes of the Israelites, there is something to be said for his episodic forgetfulness. The terrifying extent of this forgetfulness or blindness is on display in the Exodus account (see Ex:2:24-25). That the Torah would keep both conceptions of God as both remembering (a priori, having forgotten) and remembering (renewed investment in the peope) creates a tension we must be mindful of, lest we too – like the Israelites addressed here – forget the legacy of our foreparents.

[20] The Priestly Tradition which heavily influences Leviticus.

[21] Frank H. Gorman, Jr. Leviticus: Divine Presence and Community. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 147.

[22] An idea we should pause with, as it seems evident that God has indeed broken the covenant by taking such an active role in Israel’s destruction. There are punishments worse than death, which the Israelite people know full well by now. As modern readers, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of a divine Stockholm Syndrome where God takes such a personal and active role in the destruction of a people and then, come round to some new theological idea, step back and outsource the destruction to Egypt or Babylon. The fear of God’s wrath was an ever-present reality for the reasons discussed in this paper, not something we can pass over with relief.

[23] Gorman, 147.

[24] Milgrom, 322.

[25] Milgrom points to Ps. 106:6, “we have sinned with our ancestors” and Dan. 9:16b; cf. v. 8, 11, and 20, “because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a mockery among all who are around us.”

[26] See Jer. 31:29, writing sometime between 626 and 560 B.C.

[27] See Ezek. 18, especially vv. 2-3, and 30-33.

[28] A standard trope is that of Gordon J. Wenham on pg.332 of his commentary, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1979) where he argues that the unrelenting devastation of God’s horrendous wrath is not “judgment” but “discipline… [God] punishes them because they are his own.”

[29] As described by Phyllis Trible in her Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984), these include scriptural narratives of slavery, genocide, assassination, beheading, cannibalism, rape, and many other heinous acts commanded by YHWH, or worse, expressly committed by Godself.

[30] Following this idea, the oft-quoted thought from James 4:6 that if we draw near to God (and repent), God will draw near to us (and repent) takes on a new dimension, as does the invitation to argue with God in Is. 1:18, for in arguing can God be found to be in the wrong? cf. Gen. 6:6; Ex. 32:10-14; 1 Sam. 15:11,35; 2 Sam. 24:16; 2 Chr. 21:15; Is. 38:1-5; Jer. 15:6; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; Jer. 42:10; amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:10.

[31] Samuel E. Balentine. Leviticus: Interpretation. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2002), 202.

[32] To paraphrase Jesus in Matt. 5:17, we as theologians are not come to do away with the TNKH, but to fulfill it and continue holding out hope as part of a long tradition.

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