Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mutability of Torah, Example One

For our first example of the mutability of the Torah, we turn to a unique subset of the ancient Israelite priestly tradition, Leviticus chapters 17 – 26 which is often dubbed "the Holiness Code" for its preoccupation with holiness. The opening passage of the Holiness Code reads as follows:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto Aaron, and unto his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded, saying: 3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5 To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field, even that they may bring them unto the LORD, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings unto the LORD. 6 And the priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting, and make the fat smoke for a sweet savour unto the LORD. 7 And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs, after whom they go astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations. 8 And thou shalt say unto them: Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that offereth a burnt-offering or sacrifice, 9 and bringeth it not unto the door of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it unto the LORD, even that man shall be cut off from his people.

For emphasis let me draw out the two verses that I am focused on:

3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people.

In this passage the faithful are forbidden to slaughter a domestic animal that is not first brought as a sacrificial offering to the Lord. The person who slaughters an ox, a lamb, or a goat for eating without first brining it sacrificially to the tent of meeting or tabernacle is imputed blood guilt. The text reads, “blood shall be imputed unto that man.” Fox (1995) notes regarding this verse, “Such slaughtering seems to be equated with the murder of a human being” (p. 591). Keil and Delitzsch (1891) assert that the phrase “he hath shed blood,” shows that “ such slaughtering was to be recokoned as the shedding of blood, or blood-guiltiness, and punished with extermination” (p. 592). Of note, this passage states, “This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.” The “for ever” aspect of this passage is noteworthy not only because Messianics often emphasize passages that state that a given precept such as the Passover or the Sabbath is mean to be kept “for ever” but also because of the clear reversal of the is commandment in the passage that follows:

Deuteronomy 12:13-16 reads as follows:

13 Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt-offerings in every place that thou seest; 14 but in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt-offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee. 15 Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh within all thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul, according to the blessing of the LORD thy God which He hath given thee; the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the gazelle, and as of the hart. 16 Only ye shall not eat the blood; thou shalt pour it out upon the earth as water.
While this passage maintains the requirement of bringing sacrificial offerings to an authorized shrine (more on this in a moment), it loosens the presumably earlier legislation that required all animals to be slaughtered as offerings. In this passage the Israelite is permitted to slaughter his meat “within all thy gates, after the desire of thy soul.” He no longer is required to bring his animals to be offered first to the Lord (YHWH), but he is permitted to slaughter them whenever and wherever. Here what was once deemed a capital offense is now permitted as one pleases. What was once punishable by death is now an innocent pleasure.

It is worth noting that ancient Israel initially had many cultic locations and shrines. This eventually changed in the late seventh century under the reforms of Josiah when the Law of the Lord was presumably found by one Hilkiah the high priest. Where one was in the past able to bring his ox to a local shrine in the village, later one had to travel several days to make it to the singular national shrine in the Temple of Jerusalem. Faley (1970 ) explains this well:

Originally, the slaughter of clean animals, even for profane use, was considered a sacrificial act. The shedding of blood, as an act of dominion over life itself, was the exercise of a divine prerogative and could not be viewed as legitimate unless the life was first restored to God. For this reason, all such killings were reserved for a place of cult (I Sm 14:32-35). This requirement apparently presented no great difficultly as long as local sanctuaries were allowed, but with the centralization of cult under Josiah (621), such a law became impossible (78).

In the above example, the “eternal-statute” legislation demanding that all animals killed for food be brought first as a sacrifice with its severe penalty (i.e., death) is repealed with the permissibility of slaughter wherever one pleases.

Works Cited

Faley, Roland J. “Leviticus” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Champan: London, 1970

Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. Schocken Books: New York, 1995.

Keil, C. F. & Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament, vol 1. Translated, Hendrickson Publishers: Massachusetts, 1996.

Mutability of Torah, Introduction

As some of you already know, I attempt to dialogue with believers of various stripes. However successfully what transpires is as “dialogue” is open to question, but one of the religious groups that I discuss the Bible and theology with the most is “Messianics.” Though there is a great deal of theological and practical diversity among those who identify with the Messianics or Messianic “Judaism,” a rather common idea maintained by those I speak with is that of the immutability of the Law of God. Methodological problems aside (please see my post entitled “Messianic Negation of Torah”), the Law of God for the Messianic believer is found and expressed most authoritatively, exhaustively, and prescriptively in the five books of Moses which is often called variously the Chumash, the Pentateuch, and the Torah. For the Messianic believer that I have in mind, the Torah is God’s unchanging, immutable law or instruction. The Messianic will likely point out the following passage attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19).

With this passage the Messianic will pin to Jesus to the idea of the immutability of the Torah (the law referred to in this passage). However, this idea of the immutability of the Torah is by no means unique to Messianic believers, it is a fundamental axiom of rabbinic Judaism. Rambam, a much celebrated twelfth-century rabbi and Jewish thinker, formulated the essential 13 principles of Jewish faith. Number nine of these principals is as follows:

I believe with that the Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another given by God (see

The rabbis assert that the veracity of a prophet or a teacher is to be judged by this principle. The prophet or the teacher that asserts that God has eternally cancelled out a single precept of the Torah is a false prophet. And, in their misinformed zeal for the veneer of Torah piety, Messianics likewise take up the same rubric. In a recent discussion, a Messianic pastor asserted the following, “Scripture tells us that any teacher/prophet that is anti-Torah is a false teacher/prophet.” If asked for Scriptural support, this individual would likely hearken to passages such as Deuteronomy 13 which the rabbis likewise use to maintain this rubric of Torah immutability.

Though these posts that follow may not be of much relevance to many of my readers, they are directed to this specific subset of believers who identify variously as “Messianic” (though some eschew this term but maintain the idea that the Torah is immutable). It is my plan to provide a half dozen examples of where the Torah displays legal mutability with examples from within the text of the Torah and from the prophets. Truth be told, this is really an “in-house” discussion, and it might not be of immediate concern to many.