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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

S. TAMAR KAMIONKOWSKI, Wisdom Commentary: Leviticus (WC 3; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2018). Pp. lxiii + 337. Hardback. US$39.95.

There are two Introductions to this volume, the first by Barbara Reid, the General Editor of the Wisdom Commentary Series (xix–xxxvii). Various topics outlined allow readers to see the aims of the series and areas of specific interest, such as feminist biblical interpretation, methodologies and the issue of biblical authority. Reid mentions the diversity of voices in the series from the contributors who offer views besides those of the author (xix). Interpretation is considered an “act of power” (xxxi), allowing for the deconstruction and reconstruction of biblical history as women’s history.

The Leviticus commentary, S. Tamar Kamionkowski claims, emerges through a feminist lens, and her Introduction offers a number of specific headings to specify her approach to key concerns (xli–lxiii). One is the purpose of the text—whether it is a ritual for actual practice or a record of past practice. The reading of Leviticus still requires, in Kamionkowski’s view, further research in “ancient methods of composition” (l–liii). Leviticus is also marked by “problematic and oppressive elements” of a patriarchal system (xlviii), yet the theology of the work, while different from other Torah texts, is also marked by differences in the P and H “halves” so there is need for clarity on key issues such as sin and impurity (lvi).

The commentary follows the order of the text, with some chapters grouped because of common concerns and others treated individually. While this is practical, it does not always seem justifiable. The death of Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:1–7) is specified as the reason for the ritual described in Chapter 16. While the commentary offers little clarification about the deaths, it explains the presence of the topics in the intervening chapters (154). Such apparent intrusions of parts of the text are not always clarified. An outstanding example is the grouping of Leviticus 18–20, with no comment on differences of concerns and tone in Chapter 19. The presence of Chapters 21–22, with the concern about the Aaronide priesthood, challenges Kamionkowski’s view that Chapter 16 provides the “culmination and conclusion of the priestly manual of instructions” (154).

In this commentary the text appears generally only in English (NRSV), while discussions of terms often use Hebrew forms. Problems of translation remain, as many English terms for states such as “contamination” and “contagion” are now weighted with contemporary medical use. The author indicates awareness of many contemporary views of Leviticus, particularly of Chapters 1–16, as “gross” because of references to blood used in rituals. This results partly from the realities of food production from animals (xlvi). There are frequent discussions in the commentary of the choices of translation, and at various points there are usefully extended comments on language, one of the fullest the discussion of “desecration” (236–37), which is developed further (250). This is welcome in a commentary, as a warning (if nothing else!) that this is a complex text.

The number of contributions included in the commentary provides observations at religious, cultural and ethnological levels. The contributors come from different cultures, and some are Christian, so that their views differ from those of Kamionkowski. On pp. 76–78, Rushton comments on the emergence of women in priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, while on pp. 172–74 Seidenberg reflects on Chapter 17 as an expression of honouring all life as having ethical and spiritual value. Sonia Wong and Alex Weissman contribute on aspects of punishment for sexual depravity and on issues about the topic and presentation of homosexuality (225–29).

How does one evaluate a work of such complexity? For this reader it provides the balance of a feminist approach to such a markedly patriarchal text. It highlights those mention of women that do occur, as in Chapter 27, where the value of females is lower at any age than that of men. Kamionkowski points out (291) that the terms “male and female” are used, not man and woman. Perhaps some further comment might have helped here. Where women are not mentioned, the author brings them to our attention. In her commentary on Chapter 11 (96–97) she points out that meat was linked with wealth and rituals, with minor concern (“textual space”) for the dietary products of women’s work: grains, bread, the vegetarian diet. Meat is later associated with Torah scholarship, while women were assigned as “ritual experts in food preparation” (97).

The final brief postscript points out years of “immersion” in the text prepared the author to begin her study again, since she now can “relish the multiplicity of interpretations” (297). Just as Kamionkowski values the scholarship of her contributors and of all those whose work she cites, readers can gain from this commentary by seeing it in the wider context of other studies of this challenging text.

Review by
The University of Sydney