Dietary Dilemmas in Biblical Law: Part 2
Meat or Murder? Leviticus Versus Deuteronomy
In Part I, we looked at the restrictions placed on meat consumption found in the books of Genesis and Leviticus. Part II will examine the tensions which emerge from a comparison of Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12 and how the earliest commentators sought to resolve them. In this debate, what is at stake is nothing less than your steak.
Deuteronomy 12 is known as one of the most far-reaching biblical laws, establishing the centralization of worship at the place “that the Lord will choose to place his name.” Israelites are commanded to bring all of their sacrifices, priestly gifts and votive offerings to the single central sanctuary. This legislation is similar in its aims to that of Leviticus 17, only that here the requirements are transferred from the wilderness sanctuary to the future settlement in the Land of Israel.
Like Leviticus 17, the point of departure of Deuteronomy 12 is the assumption that sacrificial animals can only be consumed as part of a sacrifice, i.e. that there is no secular consumption of these animals. Deuteronomy 12 seeks to address the problematic future situation that these sacrifices will be offered at local altars throughout the land of Israel. Though providing a convenient place to offer these sacrifices, the multiplicity of altars poses the danger of worshipping multiple gods (see Lev. 17:7). In its effort to restrict these offerings to the central sanctuary, Deuteronomy 12 is led to the following concession:
כִּי יַרְחִיב ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה’ לְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ: אַךְ כַּאֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל אֶת הַצְּבִי וְאֶת הָאַיָּל כֵּן תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ הַטָּמֵא וְהַטָּהוֹר יַחְדָּו יֹאכְלֶנּוּ: רַק חֲזַק לְבִלְתִּי אֲכֹל הַדָּם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם הַבָּשָׂר: לֹא תֹּאכְלֶנּוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ תִּשְׁפְּכֶנּוּ כַּמָּיִם:
Should the Lord, your God, expand your territory as He has said to you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you have a desire to eat meat, as much as you desire you may eat meat. Should the place that the Lord, your God, chooses to set his name there be too far from you, you may slaughter from your cattle and flock that the Lord has given you as I have instructed you, and you will eat within your settlements as much as you desire. Indeed, just as the deer and the ram are eaten, so you will eat it, the impure together with the pure will eat it. But take care not to consume the blood, because the blood is the spirit, and you may not eat the spirit together with the flesh. Do not eat it! On the earth you shall spill it out, like water (20–24).
Due to the potentially large distance between the various Israelite settlements and the central sanctuary, Deuteronomy 12 invents what is clearly a new concept: non-sacral slaughter (בשר תאוה). Underlying this concession is the assumption that the Israelites cannot be expected to confine their meat consumption to periodic pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple. In response to this practical reality, not only may Israelites partake of God’s blessing at a distance from the sanctuary, they need not fear being accountable for the death of the animal. They may spill out its blood “like water.”
While such a resolution might have been expected to evoke tribulation among throngs of carnivorous Jews, the remarkable fact is that the earliest commentators were clearly uncomfortable with the gap between the strict ideal laid out by Leviticus 17 and the down-to-earth pragmatism of Deuteronomy’s dispensation. Moreover, they were apparently bothered by the fact that the “eternal statute” of Lev 17:7 was essentially null and void within Moses’ lifetime. The attempts to alleviate these tensions are found in early biblical manuscripts and translations, the Qumran scrolls and even as a fundamental disagreement between R. Akiba and R. Ishmael in the Talmud (b. Hullin 16b–17a; Leviticus Rabbah 22).
Two approaches: R. Ishmael and R. Akiba
Let us begin with the rabbinic sources. R. Ishmael understands Deuteronomy 12 as permitting non-sacrificial meat (בשר תאוה), which was forbidden by Leviticus 17. Indeed, the relationship between the two chapters as presented above is essentially identical with this view. R. Akiba’s understanding is quite different. According to his view, Leviticus 17 only deals with sacrificial offerings, specifying that these must be brought to the entrance of the Tabernacle. It does not address private meat consumption (בשר תאוה), which was entirely permissible. The innovation of Deuteronomy 12 is to require that Israelites slaughter animals through kosher slaughter; previously they were allowed to kill the animals through stabbing (נחירה).
We find a parallel to R. Akiba’s interpretation of Leviticus 17 in the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), which is essentially the same as that found in the Qumran fragment 4QLevd and the translation found in the Septuagint (LXX). The following is a comparison of this version with the Masoretic Text (MT) at vs. 4:
Samaritan Pentateuch (=4QLevd, LXX)
ואל פתח אהל מועד לא הביאו לעשות אתו עלה או שלמים לה’ לרצונכם לריח ניחח וישחטהו בחוץ
ואל פתח אהל מועד לא הביאו להקריב קרבן לה’
and to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting he does not bring it to make it a burnt or well-being offering for your favor as a pleasant aroma, and he slaughters it outside.
and to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting he does not bring it to offer as an offering to the Lord
The significantly longer SP version takes pains to emphasize that the point of the legislation is to prohibit sacrificial offerings outside the Tabernacle. One might infer from here, as does Rabbi Akiba, that non-sacrificial meat was completely permissible. Indeed, the specification of “burnt offerings” together with “well-being” offerings rules out the possibility that we are dealing with private meat consumption, since burnt offerings are burned entirely on the altar.
In defense of R. Ishmael’s position, we should point out that this addition contradicts v. 5 which does, in fact, focus on well-being offerings, since these are permissible to lay Israelites: “so that the Israelites will bring their offerings…to the Tent of Meeting to the priest and to slaughter well-being offerings (זבחי שלמים) to the Lord from them.” Furthermore, it is very difficult to understand the dispensation of Deuteronomy 12, particularly verses 20–24, according to R. Akiba’s view, that these verses only come to require proper slaughter. If so, why are these verses concerned with the distance from the temple? Rather, it appears that we must follow R. Ishmael in acknowledging a basic tension between the Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12.
A Non-Harmonistic Reading
Though traditional interpreters usually seek to harmonize contradictions, the acknowledgment of inner-biblical tension is meaningful. To be more precise, a non-harmonistic reading enables each passage to speak for itself without its voice being stifled by the other. As we have seen, Leviticus 17 emphasizes that the sacrificial animals belong to God, requiring that they be presented as offerings. Any Israelite who violates this command will be held accountable for the animal’s spilled blood. In contrast, Deuteronomy 12 recognizes that such an ideal is incompatible with the conditions of mundane existence.
The vegetarian ideal presented in Genesis 1:29, and modified in Genesis 9 and Leviticus 17, invites us to cultivate attentiveness to the strict conditions according to which God offered his creatures for human consumption. The tension between this ideal and the more permissive approach offered by Deuteronomy 12 is nothing less than the tension between the sacred (קודש) and the profane (חול). The conditions of practical life may require a more permissive approach – the freedom from obligation designated as חול, but the attachment to God and his sanctity (= otherness) can only be achieved by adherence to the strictures of the divine law.
This indissoluble tension lies at the base of Jewish existence. While Deuteronomy 12 teaches us the necessity to consider human limitations when translating the Torah’s dictates into reality, this pragmatism cannot – and should not – cause us to lose touch with the higher potential demanded of us.
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July 28, 2013
January 1, 2021
Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His upcoming book, Contagion and Cognition: Defilement as Embodied Discourse in the Hebrew Bible, examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.
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