Leviticus: A Commentary

By S. Gerstenberger
Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox (1996). xiv + 450 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
8.2 (Fall 1997) : 236-238

Gerstenberger is Professor of Old Testament at Philipps-Universität, Marburg, Germany. He has written a number of books including Yahweh the Patriarch: Ancient Images of God and Feminist Theology (Fortress, 1996). Leviticus replaces the volume by Martin Noth (Westminster, 1965) in The Old Testament Library commentaries.

This volume contains a select bibliography at the beginning (xi-xiv) and a cursory subject index at the end (448-50). The translation of Leviticus follows the NRSV when there is essential agreement with Gerstenberger’s own German translation of the Hebrew text. The main purpose of the commentary is to provide a translation and a discussion of the “sociotheological significance” of the text (19). Gerstenberger then applies the teachings of Leviticus to contemporary questions regarding the worship of God within a community of faith.

At times the translator of Gerstenberger’s German text utilizes unusual collocations such as “hand leaning” for “laying on of hands” or “hand placement” (26), “blood aspersion” for “sprinkling blood” (27), and “stepwise burning” for “step by step burning” or “progressive burning” (30).

The author assumes a date for the composition of Leviticus in the Persian period between the fifth and third centuries B.C. There is no room for Mosaic authorship in his presentation. Indeed, he associates himself with a traditio-historical viewpoint that proposes an accretion of the parts of Leviticus like rings in a tree. “If a text grows like a tree in annual rings, then one can free oneself from the notion of an ordered, continuing narrative and focus on the thematically centered growth of individual textual groups” (6). Such presuppositions create their own set of interpretative problems. The author later admits that “theory and practice do not seem quite to coincide in the third book of Moses. The requirement of presenting an offering at the entrance to the tent of meeting, that is, at the one holy site and through the mediation of the one Aaronid priesthood, disregards the dispersal of the postexilic communities” (35). With this viewpoint the author must also devise an explanation for the constant references to Moses and Aaron as the recipients of divine revelation. Such problems are almost nonexistent if one accepts Mosaic authorship and an early setting for the book.

 In 2:2 the NRSV has “token portion” (cf. “memorial portion” in NASB). Gerstenberger translates and annotates as follows: “sacrificial portion [literally ‘memorial offering’]” (37). He goes on to explain that it most likely involves encomiastic confession or invocation (42). His discussion surpasses the less than convincing explanation previously given by Noth.

 “Semolina” in Gerstenberger’s translation of 2:1 is another departure from NRSV (“choice flour”). The translation represents something quite different from the traditional definition of a finely ground wheat flour. “Semolina,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is “the gritty, coarse particles of wheat left after the finer flour has passed through the bolting machine, used for pasta.”

Gerstenberger correctly describes the exegetical significance of the use of the second person direct address in Leviticus (cf. 1:2, “When any of you . . .”). He argues that the present title of the book was based upon a misunderstanding of the contents, originating in the Greek and Latin traditions. The text is not a manual for Levites, but an instruction manual for the congregation of Israel (1, 43). However, the author also utilizes the direct address in support of his traditio-historical argument for composition in the Persian period and editorial projection of the materials back into the Mosaic period (25).

In contrast to the consistent format of Noth’s volume, Gerstenberger’s inconsistency in format is frustrating. Some sections (e.g., Chap. 1) are granted an interpretative “Analysis” (24) while other sections have none (Chaps. 2–3). Other sections receive more detailed attention under the headings of “Structure and Content” (65) and “Details” (93). “Structure and Analysis” (160) for Chap. 13 does not follow the format of previous sections containing these elements in their headings. The treatment of Chap. 17 (235-40) bears none of the previous headings but follows the same format as Chap. 1’s analysis. Several sections have versereference outlines and present the reader with what approximates a verse-by-verse commentary (e.g., 251-54 on 18:18-23, 315-16 on 21:8, 12, and 374-92 on 25:2-55). Since this commentary is arranged mainly by topics, the reader in search of verseby- verse comment will often not find it.

Various interpretative discussions throughout the commentary are significantly more detailed than in Noth’s volume. For example, Gerstenberger discusses the presence of invocations or hymns at the time of sacrifice (31). In the handling of the important 26th chapter, the present volume has 34 pages of material as compared to Noth’s 6 pages. The author takes the time and space to discuss such things as the paronomasia involved in the word for “idols” (26:1; 403), the relationship to prophetic texts like Amos 4:6-11 (413), and the significance of “sevenfold” (26:18, 21, 24, 27; 413-14). Although Gerstenberger does not discuss whether Chap. 26 contains poetry, he does state that “the main melody is thus stated, and is then picked up and varied in the subsections” (412). He also mentions the use of poetic terminology. Ultimately, he classifies Chap. 26 as a comminatory sermon (423-26).

One of the outstanding characteristics of this commentary is the multitude of investigative questions that it asks. An interpreter must first know what questions to ask of the text before he can provide answers. Gerstenberger employs questions to guide the reader in a reasoned contemplation of the source for the text, the wording of the text, its purpose, and its application. For example, in his treatment of Chap. 13, the author poses 37 interpretative questions (156-73). The evangelical scholar may not agree with all the answers the author offers, but he certainly must give due consideration to the questions.

Anyone involved in a detailed study of Leviticus will do well to include this volume in his library. In spite of his redactional and traditio-historical perspective, Gerstenberger has made a significant contribution to the interpretation of Leviticus.