Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Offering of Leviticus 3

One of the things I do when I am preparing for a lecture for the CBSM class I teach is to compare the major translations as much as possible. This often means looking at the RSV, NRSV, and NABRE. This week, I am giving a summary lecture on the book of Leviticus. I am sure many of you know the old joke about those who desire to read the whole Bible in one year starting on January 1, but stopping completely in February after reaching Leviticus. However, while perhaps the experience for some, its unfortunate because Leviticus is an important book, not only for understanding Jewish worship, but also for coming into a more profound understanding of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. You cannot fully understand a book like Hebrews, unless you have spent some serious time reading and meditating on Leviticus. But before you begin a study of Leviticus, make sure to have a good commentary or study Bible while doing it. I would highly recommend Oxford's Jewish Study Bible and the Catholic Study Bible. Both are fantastic resources!

This brings me to Leviticus 3, which describes the third offering prescribed by God through Moses. (Please note that Leviticus 7:11-36 goes into more detail about the three different types of this offering.) Depending on the translation, the Hebrew word shelamim may be translated in a number of different ways. Often, it is referred to in English as the Peace Offering, which is followed most notably by the RSV. Some scholars prefer this due to the closeness to the Hebrew word shalom. However, the NRSV and JPS translations prefer to go with Well-Being Offering, which is connected to the idea of peace. Lastly, the NABRE (and the NJB) went with Communion Offering. So which one is better?

In this offering, a herd animal was brought to the sanctuary, divided into several parts with the fatty portions being placed on the fires of the altar and given to God. A choice portion was given to the priest, while the remainder was returned to the offerer and his family to be eaten. It seems that his type of offering was the most common. The note in the NJB gives a good indication as to why it was so popular: "In early times, this sacrifice was the most common and formed the central rite at festivals, being the most perfect way of expressing the communal life, covenantal bond and fellowship existing between the worshipper and his God." In addition, the note found in the JSB points out: "Well-being offerings are thus the natural expression of gladness, the worshipper celebrating by feasting in the presence of God in acknowledgment of His loving-kindness (210)." Finally, Fr. Lawrence Boadt, who died last year, insisted in his introduction to Leviticus in the CSB that our understanding of the Eucharist is greatly enhanced by what we find in Leviticus.

So, with that brief background I provided, both of the Hebrew term and the ritual of the shelamim offering/sacrifice, which English translation better captures the intended meaning?


Chrysostom said...

Peace offering.

Communion offering introduces some interesting typology, but seems incorrect.

Well-being offering has a completely wrong overtone and connotation to my ear, but it is technically valid using dictionary definitions.

Theophrastus said...

Note that it is a defined, technical term, and not a term in ordinary language, so any phrase is logicaly valid.

Still, the term I favor is "Sacred Gift of Greeting," following Baruch Levine's commentary:

The Hebrew term shelamim is better rendered “a sacred gift of greeting” as will be explained in due course. The noun zevaḥ produced the verb zavaḥ, which is usually translated “to slaughter.” Although in practice a biblical zevaḥ consisted of slaughtered animals, it is more accurate to explain this term as “food offering” and to understand the verb z-v-ḥ as “to celebrate a sacred meal.” The Akkadian cognate is zību, which may designate any offering of food. Both Ugaritic and Phoenician texts indicate that other foodstuffs, aside from meat, could be termed z-b-ḥ/d-b-ḥ. The widespread circulation of these Semitic terms testifies to the importance of this type of sacrifice, from earliest times, in any number of religious cults....

The term shelamim has puzzled commentators since antiquity. The Septuagint gives it no fewer than three different Greek renderings, and midrashic interpretations likewise vary greatly. The usual translation, “peace offering,” merely echoes the Latin of the Vulgate, pacificus, and the Greek eirēnikos, one of the Septuagint’s renderings. Both mean “that which relates to peace.” Presumably, this translation expresses the peaceful, or harmonious, relationship between the worshiper and God, brought about and reaffirmed by the sacrifice itself. In a similar vein, some scholars have taken their cue from a statement in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem included in 1 Kings 8. On that occasion, shelamim offerings were sacrificed, and verse 61 states: “And may you be wholehearted with [shalem ʿim] the LORD our God.” In the view of these scholars, this statement, in the context of the dedication ceremony, establishes the meaning of the word shelamim as a sacrifice intended to reaffirm the covenant between God and the Israelite people. Still another interpretation, also based on one of the connotations of the verb sh-l-m, is preserved in Midrash ha-Gadol. There shelamim is explained in quantitative terms: she-ha-kol shelemim bo, “for all are ‘complete’ in it,” that is, all receive a portion of the sacrifices—priests, participants (or donors), and God. The New English Bible seems to have adopted this view, because it translates shelamim as “shared offering.”

All of the aforementioned interpretations are possible, of course, but there is now comparative evidence to suggest that the term shelamim originally meant “tribute, gift of greeting.” In a Ugaritic epic, Keret, the king of a besieged city, offered shalamūma to the commander of the attacking forces in an effort to induce him to withdraw the siege. In Akkadian texts we find a cognate term, shulmānu, that literally means “a gift of greeting,” such as was presented by vassals to their suzerains when they visited them or by emissaries on a mission to their allies. This meaning reflects the word of greeting, which is shalom in Hebrew and is expressed by similar words in Ugaritic and Akkadian. The shelamim is offered when one greets another by saying “shalom!” In the cult, the shelamim assumed the form of an animal sacrifice offered to God when one came before Him to greet Him at a sacred meal. It was adopted as the name of a particular sacrifice because it expressed the fellowship experienced by the worshipers and priests in God’s presence, as they greeted their divine guest.

Another excellent commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom's three-volume "Anchor-Bible" set, makes a strong argument for "Well-being offering" in a lengthy note. While Milgrom's arguments are excellent, I think that Levine's phrasing here is preferable.

By the way, what is your opinion of the Jewish Study Bible in whole? Are you finding it useful?

Timothy said...


I should do a summary review of the JSB in 2012. But to put it bluntly, its awesome. I love it. It gives a helpful perspective, particularly with the Torah and prophets. Plus, the page format is done really well, and the essays/introductions are quite useful.

Timothy said...

Lexically, I think 'peace offering' makes sense.
But looking at the purpose and action of the offering, not to mention the typological connection, I can see how 'Communion' might be chosen.

Anonymous said...

I concur about the Jewish Study Bible. It’s a fabulous resource. I’ve been studying Genesis and find the footnotes to be extremely valuable. For instance, on page 60 they provide a midrash explaining what may have transpired on the night of Jacob’s marriage to Rachel (or should I say Leah?) as recorded in Chapter 29. I found it to be a very thought-providing explanation as to what could have happened.
Tim: do you have Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses? IMHO, it’s terrific. It seems to be a very literal translation of the Hebrew so I have a couple of other translations nearby (specifically the NRSV and NABRE) when I find myself trying to figure out who’s doing the talking. For example, I just finished reading Genesis 33 and at times I wasn’t sure who was doing the talking, Jacob or his brother Esau, so I had to refer to either of my other bibles as they do a better job of letting the reader know who’s speaking.
Tim/Theophrastus: Just for the record, Alter translates the Leviticus passage as “communion sacrifice” and provides a footnote explaining his decision.

Russ said...

Tim: I thought I had provided my name on that last post.

Chrysostom said...

I don't have the Jewish Study Bible, but, from what I hear here, and depending on a review, I'll pick it up when I can afford it, along with the "Jewish New Testament" recently released.

I love Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch, and from the snippet of commentary given, it seems to be the kind of good exegetical commentary that keeps God in mind that I so like.

After half a year of saving money, I just got the Navarre Old Testament today for a Christmas gift to myself. I'm surprised with how little commentary it has based on my use of the ICSBNT, the Navarre NT, the Haydock, and the NOAB 4th edition. I'd love to do a review of it as well once I've had more time to see it and use it a bit, as, like the Haydock, there are no proper reviews of it out there on the internet (the Haydock has no reviews, the Navarre individual volumes each have a few very short customer reviews on Amazon).

Jim said...

Very interesting thread on CAF
readers of this blog may find useful.

Pomeranian Catholic said...

Speaking of the Catholic Study Bible, has the new update come out yet or should I still wait on it?

Timothy said...

I do not believe the corrected edition is out, so I'd hold off.