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Everybody Loves a Good Story (Pinchas)

Does Sefer Bamidbar tell all the stories that were “taken out” of Sefer Vayikra? Are these really just parallel books, each telling the same story from a different perspective? Hmm… The beginnings of an exciting new theory, as we near the end of Sefer Bamidbar:

Everybody loves a good story. Unfortunately for everybody, Sefer Vaykra is not a book of stories.

Or is it?

Well, not in the conventional sense, it isn’t. With a couple of notable exceptions – the story of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, in parshat Shemini, and the story of the blasphemer, in parshat Emor – there are no true narratives in Sefer Vayikra. It is, on the whole, a book of laws.

But what is the story behind those laws? What is it that explains which laws were included in the book, and where they were placed within it? Is that something we can figure out?

Image result for storyPerhaps we can. And our starting point, if we’re to do so, would be to theorize – and to be clear, that’s all this is: a theory – but, to theorize that Sefer Vayikra, at its core, really does revolve around a set of stories. It’s just that those stories don’t appear in Sefer Vayikra. They may, however, appear in a different book of the Torah.

Let’s take a step back. With the caveat that everything which follows will be presented in extremely broad strokes, and will therefore leave many details unaccounted for (some of which may be addressed in the comments, time permitting), let’s see if we can get a handle on exactly what sorts of laws comprise the content of Sefer Vayikra – and which events may stand behind the dissemination of those laws.

So: When we zoom out our lens on Sefer Vayikra, we notice that it begins – as we would expect – right where the previous book, Sefer Shemot, had ended off. In the last few parshas of the previous sefer, b’nei Yisrael had been busy building the mishkan, or sanctuary, in which Hashem was to dwell. Sefer Vayikra continues that story. It begins with a detailed set of laws regarding the offerings that are to be brought in the newly constructed mishkan (=parshat Vayikra, and first half of parshat Tzav), moves next to the inauguration of the priests, or kohanim, and then the mishkan itself (=second half of parshat Tzav), and climaxes with the festivities that took place on the “eighth day” thereafter (=beginning of parshat Shemini) – including, of course, the aforementioned deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon who get swept up in the excitement of the day and wind up violating the sanctity of the kodesh kodashim, the Holy of Holies.

It’s at this point that the literary logic of Vayikra begins to unravel. Because, following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Sefer Vayikra devolves into a series of parshahs, bringing us all the way to the end of the sefer, which do not at all seem connected to the story we had been in the middle of telling – or, frankly, to each other, either. We get the laws of kosher animals (=second half of parshat Shemini); then the laws of tzara’at, a dreaded skin condition generally associated with the sin of lashon harah, i.e. slanderous speech (=parshat Tazria and Metzora); then the laws of Yom Kippur (=parshat Acharei Mot); then a series of disparate laws whose guiding theme is hard to pinpoint, but which includes clear sections on prohibited forms of idolatrous sorcery, and prohibited sexual relations (=parshat Kedoshim); then laws pertaining to the sanctity of the kohanim, and of the holidays (=parshat Emor); then laws pertaining to the use and allocation of territory in the land of Israel, followed by consequences for their violation (=parshat Behar and Bechukotai).

To be sure, cogent attempts have been made to explain the progression that might run through these body of laws, and have done so in terms of Sefer Vayikra’s own internal compositional structure. But our question is: alongside these normative (=having to do with laws) explanations, might there also be a narrative (=having to do with stories) explanation for the structure of Sefer Vayikra’s latter half?

UntitledIf there is, then the key to uncovering it would seem to be recognizing following fact: the central story of Sefer Vayikra’s first half – the construction of the mishkan – is not told only in Sefer Vayikra. It is also told in Sefer Bamidbar.

See, here’s the thing. We mentioned earlier that Sefer Vayikra picks up from where Sefer Shemot left off. But, confusingly, that’s also true about Sefer Bamidbar. It picks up in the second year of b’nei Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness, with a series of preparations taken in anticipation of leaving Sinai and marching towards the land of Israel (=parshat Bamidbar, Nasso). Yet it also re-tells another event which transpired around that time frame:  the story of the mishkan’s inauguration (=end of parshat Nasso), along with a series of laws related to that event, including the lighting of the menorah and the institution of pesach Sheni, i.e. the “second Passover” (=beginning of parshat Beha’alotcha).

Now, that seems strange. Why would two different books of the Torah both resume the saga of Biblical history from more or less the same place? And why would they both devote so much attention to relating the same event – the story of the mishkan’s inauguration? Are these just redundant texts?

No – but maybe they are parallel texts. Maybe, Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamidbar ought to be read, in some sense, not as two books, but as one. Because maybe they’re actually telling the same story, from different vantage points. Both carru forward the story that began in Sefer Shemot. Both place particular focus upon the foundational event that was the inauguration of the mishkan. But whereas Sefer Bamidbar proceeds to share the events which followed from that pivotal episode, Sefer Vayikra records the laws that emerged as a result of that episode. Sefer Bamidbar, in other words, contains the historical aftermath of the mishkan’s inauguration; Sefer Vayikra, meanwhile, contains the corresponding legislative response. [Note: the notion of Sefer Bamidbar serving as the parallel to another Biblical book is by no means new to Biblical scholarship – from traditional mefarshim onwards, many have noted the pervasive parallels it bears to Sefer Shemot. But whereas those parallels connect two sets of stories which occurred at different times, yet share common elements, the parallels proposed here between Sefer Bamidbar and Sefer Vayikra connect a set of stories with the laws to which they purportedly gave rise, and with which they may chronologically coincide].

A cursory comparison of the ways in which both books unfold following the story of the mishkan’s inauguration – and it is, again, very cursory – suggests that there may be a lot of promise to this approach. Thus: Parallel to the laws of kosher animals (=parshat Shemini) we have the story of those who craved for meat (=middle of parshat Beha’alotcha). Parallel to the laws of tzara’at we have Miriam’s leprosy (=end of parshat Beha’alotcha) and the “evil report,” that is, the lashon harah issued against the land of Israel (=parshat Shelach). Parallel to the laws circumscribing the offering of ketoret, or frankincense, and insisting upon Aharon’s unique role in broaching the Holy of Holies (=parshat Acharei Mot), we have Korach offering ketoret to challenge Aharon’s unique role, on the argument that “everyone is holy” (=parshat Korach). Parallel to the death of Aharon and his sister, Miriam – both of whom are subject to the newly introduced “red heiffer” ritual ministered by Aharon’s son (=parshat Chukkat), we have a series of laws introduced in their entirety as arriving “after the deaths of Aharon’s two [oldest] sons” (=also parshat Acharei Mot). Parallel to  several series of law which prohibit consulting sorcerers or engaging in divination (=section near the beginning of parshat Kedoshim) we have the sorcery and divination of the prophet Bilaam (=majority of parshat Balak). Parallel to the prohibitions of sexual promiscuity and other forbidden relations (=section near the end of parshat Kedoshim) we have b’nei Yisrael’s succumbing to promiscuity with the women of Midian (=end of parshat Balak). Parallel to the laws of the priesthood (=beginning of parshat Emor) we have the appointment of Pinchas to the office of priesthood (=beginning of parshat Pinchas – note as well that the end of both Emor and Pinchas detail the laws of the holidays). Parallel to the laws of land use, allocation, and distribution (=parshat Behar) and the consequences of not upholding these laws (=parshat Bechukotai), we have the first wars of conquest; the request of Reuven and Gad to settle the eastern bank of the Jordan (=parshat Mattot); review of the territory traversed en route to the land; boundaries of the land; allocation of the Levite cities and the cities of refuge; and a controversy concerning the territorial inheritance of Tzelofchad (=parshat Massei).

To repeat, at risk of redundancy: this is only a theory. And there are some major questions we still need to answer.

Image result for connectionsA first question: What about those stories in Sefer Bamidbar that seem to have no parallel, at the place we would expect them to,  with laws in Sefer Vayikra – or, vice versa? Sometimes, the answer to this question involves refining our understanding of the stories or the laws in question. The water crisis in parshat Chukkat, for instance, does not easily “fit” where it should in sefer Vayikra; however, that problem falls away if one recognizes that story as simply an appendix to the larger story of Miriam’s death, which it follows. Likewise, the laws of purifying utensils, at the end of parshat Shemini, do not “fit” easily where they should in sefer Bamidbar; but that problem, too, falls away, if one recognizes those laws as simply the appendix to the larger section of kashrut laws of which they are a part. Recourse to the internal literary structure of each individual book probably accounts for many of the other laws and stories that we have excluded or glossed over in the course of our high-level presentation – but an argument would have to be advanced on a case-by-case basis. (Examples of excluded material include: the laws of forbidden relations in Acharei Mot; the series of laws related to ethics, agriculture and economics at the beginning of parshat Kedoshim; the story of Yitro’s departure, in Beha’alotcha; the story of the wood-gatherer, in Shelach; the story of Yehoshua’s election, in Pinchas...)

A second question: What about the fact that Sefer Bamidbar also contains laws – and, to a lesser extent, that Sefer Vayikra also contains at least one story unconnected to the inauguration of the mishkan? Here, too, recourse to the internal literary structure of the book in question may help somewhat. For instance, we have argued in the past that the laws of the nazir, in Nasso, appear where they do because that section of the Torah discusses the inauguration of the mishkan, and the nazir represents some sort of reaction to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who had died on that day. Likewise, the laws of the libations, at the end of Shelach, are probably connected to both the spying incident which precedes them: the spies spurned the bounty of God’s land, i.e. its grapes; hereafter, b’nei Yisrael must offer the product of those grapes, i.e. wine, back to God, when serving Him in that land. One suspects that similar arguments can be made regarding almost all laws punctuating the narrative flow of Sefer Bamidbar. Yet even if we can explain how these laws are related to their surrounding material, the question remains, in light of our theory: Why place them there, and not with the other laws, in Sefer Vayikra? Presumably, the distinction will have something to do with the fact that Sefer Vayikra is concerned primarily with laws of holiness, purity, and the sanctuary. But more work remains to be done here.

A third question: What, exactly, is the relationship between each set of parallel laws and stories? Were the laws introduced in response to the stories? Or, might the laws, in some cases, have inspired the stories? Or, might the correlation, in some cases, be purely literary, with no intended chronological overlap? Lacking this final postulate, it would emerge that, from about Kedoshim onwards, the latter half of Sefer Vayikra was actually presented in the fortieth year of b’nei Yisrael’s journeys through the desert – corresponding to the shift from year two (parshat Korach) to year forty (parshat Chukkat) that one observes in Sefer Bamidbar. This is not an impossible claim to advance, but it certainly is a novel one!

So the theory is very much nascent. That said, there is, it seems, much arguing in favor of it. And, to the extent that it is generally accurate, its implications for our understanding of Sefers Vayikra and Bamidbar are many. Besides for bringing into sharper focus the respective functions of each book, the theory also provides us with a fascinating framework through which to analyze anew each of the texts which we have proposed as parallels. Are the laws of kosher meat consumption, in parshat Shemini, intended in part to stave off the sort of gluttony unleashed in parshat Beha’alotcha? How does our perception of the kohen’s role in parshat Tazria change if we consider that the laws of tzara’at may have been introduced in response to the slander spoken by no less than the sister of the kohen gadol – that is, Miriam – also in parshat Beha’alotcha? Does the fact that Aharon dies, in parshat Chukkat, knowing that his son will witness his death, and officiate at the red heifer ceremony thereafter, somehow ease the pain of having once witnessed the death of his other sons, and of having officiated himself in the sanctuary thereafter – as recounted in parshat Acharei Mot? Do the laws prohibiting a kohen from coming in contact with the dead, in parshat Emor, push back, somehow, against the notion, espoused in parshat Pinchas, that a killer could serve as a priest?

As you can see, the possibilities for inquiry run deep indeed!

1 Comment

  1. Simon Italiaander says:

    Alex, this is a fascinating theory, and it makes me feel less dumb for often feeling deja vu when learning parshiyos in Bamidbar, as if it felt like I’d learned that just weeks prior. Also, thanks for the frequent CAUTION signs that this is only a theory- its the sole reason that I didn’t write you up in the Commentator for heresy. Talk soon!


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