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From the structure of the book to its enigmatic law codes, Leviticus poses a number of interpretive questions for readers. Just when one thinks they have a grasp on the book, the text throws another curveball. This is certainly true of the so-called blasphemer pericope in Leviticus 24:10-23.
This paper aims to tackle each of the questions raised by the blasphemer narrative. In doing so, I will consider especially the relationship between the nature of the crime committed and the legal decision that follows. I further intend to show how the internal concerns of this pericope cohere with the concerns of the H redactor and the passage’s immediate context between chapters 23 and 25. While no doubt a difficult task, coming to an understanding of the blasphemer narrative is vital for grasping the structure and argument of Leviticus as a whole and especially the holiness codes in the latter half of the book.[1]Furthermore, this narrative raises obvious questions concerning the justice of God. Does the punishment of the blasphemer fit the crime? Does this sentencing fit with general notions of justice in the ancient world, or even with the God of Israel’s own legal standards?
· I explore three questions concerning identity of blasphemer
o Mixed Heritage and Place in community
o Significance and Meaning of the mother’s name
o The namelessness of the blasphemer himself
· Mixed Heritage
o יצע “go out” and בתוק
o Fuad and Cohen on mixed marriages in Israel
§ While marriages between an Israelite woman and a foreign man are mentioned less often than those between an Israelite man and a foreigner (due, in part, to the fact that women typically moved away to join their husband’s people-group), the children of matrilocal marriages were still considered Israelites
o Even so, other commentators have rightly noted the inclusion of the blasphemer’s genealogy is likely meant as a derogatory remark
§ While the inclusion of Dan is likely not derogatory, I still conclude that the mention of the blasphemer’s Egyptian father is. Having an Egyptian father, and especially so near in time to the Exodus event, would undoubtedly have created social stigma and invited hostility toward the blasphemer.
o Even so, the blasphemer would have been considered a full-fledged Israelite despite these social stigmas. Thus, interpreters who suggest that this pericope revolves primarily around the question of the blasphemer’s social place are mistaken.
§ Fuad and others point to the repeated application of the ruling to, “Aliens as well as citizens...”[2]Rooke, however, notes that this equative statement is not unique to the blasphemer pericope, and as I demonstrate, is a standard feature of the H material not unique to this the blasphemer narrative.
o Thus, the legal standing of foreigners, while a concern of H as a whole, is not the primary concern of this pericope. The social standing of the blasphemer was not ambiguous or contested. He would have been considered an Israelite. However, the blasphemer’s lineage would almost certainly have created social stigma, and the text brings this to the fore and clearly draws attention to it. I suggest that this is a literary device used by H to stir up emotion toward the blasphemer. This emotional stirring is then subverted, as the pericope cites the lex talionis to remind the reader that all are treated equally by the justice of YHWH, even the son of an Egyptian.[3]
· The Mother’s name
o Aside from the legal standing of the blasphemer, this text also raises questions of identity by its use of names and naming. The crime in question clearly involves הַשֵּׁם֙, i.e., “the Name.”[4]Yet the one who misuses “the Name” is himself nameless! Even stranger, while the perpetrator remains unnamed, the text deems it necessary to give us his mother’s name.
o Many odd proposals have been suggested for the meaning of the mother’s name.
§ King Solomon (Leuchter)
§ No meaning at all (Fuad and Hartley)
o I suggest the mother’s name is significant for two reasons.
§ The pericope inserts the mother’s name at a crucial point in the narrative. If the mother’s name were merely an identifier, why not introduce this information when giving the other genealogical details of the blasphemer in v. 10? Instead, the text introduces these details between the act of transgression and the imprisonment of the blasphemer. This narrative break suggests something more behind the name.
§ Names and naming have been shown to have unique functions within the Pentateuch and Hebrew Bible elsewhere.
· “Dan” in Gen 49:16-17
· Marks on Moses’ name.
o Thus, I suggest the mother’s name serves as an ironic foreshadowing of events just as we find in other etymological passages. The blasphemer will be judged (דן / דין) for his crime by the word (דבר/דברי) of YHWH and will thus make restitution (שלמית/שלמ) for his transgression.
· Namelessness of Blasphemer
o I argue that the namelessness of the blasphemer serves similar theological purposes as the namelessness of Pharaoh or the nameless enemies in prophetic literature (see Strawn and Eidevall). Perhaps H simply did not want to commemorate a man who committed such a sacrilegious act. It seems equally likely, however, that the namelessness of the perpetrator is intended to make the case more generally applicable. By refusing to name the blasphemer H invites readers to insert their own name into the story. It is not just this man who will suffer death from blaspheming the divine name, but אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי־יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו, “Any man who curses his God.”[5]
· The blasphemer narrative makes it clear that one who blasphemes God will suffer death. However, what exactly is entailed by “blaspheming” here (if this word is even appropriate) has been hotly debated.
· Firstly, there is debate about whetherויקב is a derivative of the root נקב or קבב. There is still further disagreement, if the root is taken to be נקב, on whether the word should be translated as “to name/designate” or “to blaspheme.” The meaning of the second verb, קלל, is also contested. Some scholars consider it to be essentially equivalent to a curse formula, while others argue that it is a less serious offense, e.g., it means something akin to, “to belittle.” Scholars further disagree about how these two actions relate to one another (e.g., whether they are synonymous, sequential, etc.).
· In short, I argue that the semantic and syntactic features of the text suggest the crime consists of the blasphemer cursing the tetragrammaton.
o Milgrom and Lewis agree with this reading, yet hold to the bizarre conclusion that the blasphemer must have cursed YHWH by YHWH’s own name.
o However, this presupposes the blasphemer would have possessed sound Israelite theology! Given the blasphemer’s Egyptian heritage on his father’s side, it is possible that this man was not an entirely orthodox adherent to the religion of YHWH in the first place. Thus, it seems just as likely that the blasphemer was evoking the powers of another Canaanite or Egyptian god against YHWH.
· Nihan argues against taking this sentencing as the first instance of an injunction against usage of the divine name in toto, and I agree with his assessment.[6]However, the narrative does seem to suggest that the H redactor viewed using the tetragrammaton in a curse as a greater crime than cursing God in general. This may indicate an earlier reverence for God’s personal name which developed over time into the injunction against its use in toto. Hence, H writes that one who simply curses (i.e., קלל) God must “bear his sin,” but the greater crime of designating the name (נקב) in the curse brings the penalty of stoning… It is only use of the Name itself that warrants penal action from the community.
Meaning of NQB
· There is no doubt the Israelites recognized the blasphemer’s words as deserving judicial action. The sentencing of the blasphemer’s crime, however, seems as odd as the rest of the pericope. The imprisonment of the blasphemer raises its own questions, as does the appeal to the lex talionis. Why does Moses need to consult YHWH on this legal matter, and why does YHWH give legal reasoning from lex talionis to support his decision?
· In agreement with Johnson, I suggest the people were looking for an understanding concerning a matter of the law that seemed new or unusual to them and wanted a decision on the basis of YHWH’s own words. Thus, what Moses declares to the people should be seen as an expansion or clarification of Ex 22:27. The law given in Exodus had already made clear that cursing God was a grave transgression, but now a penalty had to be decided for the crime.
Chiasm and Talion
· One of the more unique features of the sentence given to the blasphemer is the highly structured chiastic pattern in which it is framed. Numerous commentators have observed this structure in the passage.
· Timothy Willis picks up on this larger chiasm and offers profound insight into its significance. He suggests the chiasm not only points us to the talion law at the heart of the structure, but also presents an ascensive schema of transgression so that the seriousness of the offenses increases as the chiasmus progresses. [7]The heart of the chiasmus provides the logic of the entire structure: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”[8]This logic is then played out through more and more serious scenarios: the death of an animal is compensated with money (v. 18 and v. 21a), one who kills another human must be put to death (v. 17 and v. 21b), and worst of all, any who curse God are to be stoned (v. 13-16 and v.22-23).
· The ruling given by YHWH through Moses is thereby shown to be consistent with previously established legal precedent. The entire point of the talion, in fact, is to ensure fairness in legal jurisprudence. By employing this chiastic structure and use of the lex talionis principle, the H redactor clearly hopes to show that the judgement of the blasphemer is fair and just.
· Yet Johnson suggests that the sentencing of the blasphemer is inherently unfair in this passage. Pointing to evidence from the MAPD, he suggests that the entire talion segment is little more than an ad-hoc redaction appended to the passage in order to cover over the inherent injustice of lèse-majesté.
· However, his conclusions are unwarranted. He suggests, for example, that the context of a fight should be a mitigating circumstance, since the intent of the blasphemer is unclear.
o Yet Johnson himself admits that such fighting tropes in ANE legal literature are intended to assess the role of intent in a crime.
o He notes the role of adverbial phrases in the MAPD to suggest intent of perpetrators, but ignores Leviticus’s emphasis on the utterance of the divine name in the blasphemer’s curse. The repetition of the blasphemer “designating the name” is likely meant to have a similar function as the adverbial phrases in the MAPD. It shows that, regardless of the messy context of a brawl, the blasphemer’s targeted words had clear and conscious intent to curse God.
o Other problems arise with Johnson’s comparison as well. The MAPD are specifically decrees made to women in a king’s harem, and thus it is unclear whether these laws were applicable to the larger Assyrian populace
o Additionally, several other Middle Assyrian law codes (MAL) complicate Johnson’s argument for lèse-majesté. Two parallel laws from tablet N consider an accusation of blasphemy against a god and his temple, also in the context of a brawl.
§ In these cases, an accusation of blasphemy results in flogging rather than death. Unlike the MAPD Johnson cites, they are an example from free citizens rather than the king’s harem. This seems to conflict with Johnson’s assumption of a mere mirroring of laws between Leviticus and the MAPD, since different penalties existed for blasphemy. Additionally, it speaks against Johnson’s presumption of lèse-majesté as a motive for stoning the blasphemer. Leviticus simply does not suggest a brutal vengeance on the part of YHWH or a petty response on the basis of honor
o Perhaps the most we can say is that blasphemy was considered a criminal act in the ANE, and that this act was punished in various ways.[9]If anything, the evidence from the MAPD and MAL suggest the penalty in Assyria was based on class, since the freeman in the MAL receives only lashes and indentured servitude, whereas the women from the harem receive death. If this class-based system was present in Assyria, it is noticeably absent from Leviticus. The blasphemer narrative insists that the law is equally applicable to both “the foreigner and the native,” irrespective of class. The sentence of the blasphemer is therefore not a case of lèse-majesté.
[1] C.f. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 3A of Anchor Yale Bible. Yale University Press, 2008, 1318–1444. [2] Lev 24:16 NRSV. [3] A similar subversive literary device can be observed in other OT narratives. The stories of Rahab and Ruth are classic examples of literary subversion. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, proves herself to be more righteous than the Israelite spies who visit her city. Ruth, a Moabite, shows herself to be faithful and true to Naomi. The stories of these women subvert stereotypes of their genealogical heritages. [4] C.f. Lev 24:11. [5] Lev 24:15. [6] Nihan, “Murder, Blasphemy and Sacral Law,” 217. [7] Timothy M Willis, “Blasphemy, Talion, and Chiasmus: The Marriage of Form and Content in Lev 24,13-23,” Bib 90.1 (2009): 73. [8] Leviticus 24:19, NRSV. [9] Aside from the MAPD and MAL, another rescript from the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon suggests blasphemy may have been punished by maiming (e.g., gouging out the offender’s eyes and cutting off their hands and feet). C.f. Pritchard, James Bennett, The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 540.
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