Inner-Biblical Exegesis in the Holiness Code

All I originally intended to do was to tell my podcast listeners about “bullimong” — a unique English word that might be used to translate the Hebrew word kilayim.  But things got a little bit out of hand.  Let me explain.

Biblical scholars have long identified one of the priestly voices in the book of Leviticus as “the Holiness Code” — H, for short.  It’s a topic that well deserves its own “Beginners’ Guide” post, but I’m mentioning it now because it’s timely.  This week Jews on the Diaspora calendar are reading Leviticus 16-20, which includes the beginning of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26).

It’s no coincidence that the second of the two parshiyot that are being read this week is called Kedoshim (“holy ones”).  That is indeed the theme of the Holiness Code and the source of its name:

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני י-הוה אלהיכם

“Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy”

(Lev 19:2)

As I explain on this week’s episode of my “Torah Talk” podcast (posted Tuesdays at 1 PM Eastern Time), Christian scholars used to think (as perhaps some still do) that H was the earlier, more spiritual priestly voice, eventually supplanted by the technical, anti-spiritual voice that provides the instructions about how to offer sacrifice and maintain or restore ritual purity.

Jewish scholars, on the other hand, mostly subscribe to the view of Israel Knohl in his landmark book The Sanctuary of Silence.  Knohl demonstrated that what he calls “the Holiness School” was the creator of the Torah as a whole.

One of the things that this means is that, even though Leviticus comes before Deuteronomy in a Torah scroll or in our book-form Bibles, H had already read it.  I am convinced that H was a priestly writer who absorbed the Deuteronomic perspective and wanted to integrate it into his own priestly world view.  (Those who are willing to put up with a bit of technical language can read some more about this in the printed version of my dissertation, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel.)

This week’s parashah presents a fascinating example of how this may have worked.  In fact, it is an example of what scholars call “inner-biblical exegesis.” One biblical writer reads a text which is also found in the Bible as we have it today and responds to it.  Sometimes the new writer understands the original text in a way different from the way it was originally meant; sometimes the change is a deliberate revision of the original meaning.  The book that convinced biblical scholars about this is Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.  (Warning:  It’s a difficult read.  You will find some examples of inner-biblical exegesis explained more clearly in my book The Bible’s Many Voices; if you’re patient enough, I’ll get to them eventually in the book’s companion podcast.)

The verse I want to look at is Lev 19:19:

Observe My laws!

Your cattle you shall not breed in mixed pairs;

your field you shall not sow with mixed pairs of seed;

and mixed pairs of fabric — shaatnez — shall not be put on you.

The word I’m translating as “mixed pairs” in each of these phrases is כלאים (kilayim), a word with a dual ending (like פעמיים, “twice,” or מאתיים, “two hundred”).  It refers to “two of” something, and our verse describes three examples of things that are not supposed to be paired.  Why that’s true is a topic for a different occasion.

One might think that there would not be a word for this concept in any language other than the Hebrew where it is a technical term.  Remarkably, William Germano (who was not thinking at all about Leviticus) presented an English word for exactly this concept.  I read about it a year or so ago in a “Lingua Franca” column he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Poking around in Perry Miller’s classic anthology, The American Puritans, one might come upon many a tasty morsel of linguistic innovation.

To take just one example, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony one Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652), minister of Ipswich, turned to the  rather un-Puritanical subject of women’s fashions. When he did so he found new language in a new land.

In a work called The Simple Cobbler of Agawam  (Agawam was the indigenous name for Ipswich), Ward writes: “If any man mislikes a bullimong drassock more than I, let him take her for his labor,” for he only feels contempt when he hears “a nugiperous gentledame inquire what dress the Queen is in this week, what the nudiustertian fashion of the court” may be. This means something like “I can’t have much respect for a woman who decks herself  out in a confused, eye-popping outfit that panders to Court tastes.”

Bullimong, drassock, nugiperous, and nudiustertian are words unaccountably out of fashion today. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us as much help as it can with these terms; Mr Ward seems to be the inventor, or perhaps the perpetrator, of some of them.

bullimong: a mixture of grains sown together (as oats, pease, and vetches) for feeding cattle. Think of those little packets of mixed garden flower seeds. Now think that you’re feeding livestock.

If you check the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll see that Mr. Ward did not invent “bullimong” at all.  The earliest usage of it comes from 1313.  As for the etymology of the word, the OED describes it as “of obscure composition.”  (I’ll say.)  It was used, too:  See vol. 10 of “The East Anglian.”

Nathaniel Ward, however, unlike William Germano, was indeed thinking of Leviticus, and (in fact) of our verse, Lev 19:19.  He uses bullimong not in its original meaning as a mixture of seeds, but metaphorically, for a woman, and apparently based on what she wears.  That is, he has transferred “bullimong” from its literal meaning — kilayim of seeds — to a figurative one: kilayim of clothing.

And this is exactly what H itself did with the original Hebrew word.  We can see this by looking at Deut 22:9-11, the only other place in the entire Bible where the word kilayim is found — and, by no coincidence, also the only other place in the Bible where the word sha’atnez is found:

9  You shall not plant your vineyard kilayim, lest you “sanctify” the growth of the seed you sow and the produce of the vineyard.

10  You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.

11  You shall not wear sha’atnez (wool and linen combined).

The word I translated as “sanctify” in v. 9 is a difficult one; see the commentators.  Everett Fox, in his unique Torah translation, renders the phrase as “lest you forfeit-as-holy the full-yield from the seed that you sow.”  That’s worthy of a post as well, but again it is one for a different occasion.

Deuteronomy has used the word kilayim only once, and apparently in the sense of “bullimong”: planting two kinds of seed together.  But H has decided that what Deuteronomy calls sha’atnez — our American “linsey-woolsey” — is also a case of kilayim, and he gives it that name.

There’s a third instance of kilayim in our Leviticus verse, and it matches Deut 22:10, the verse in between the two that we’ve talked about so far.  Both are about illicit combinations of two animals, and again H has decided that this too deserves the name of kilayim, a “mixed pair.”  But he has switched vv. 9 and 10 of Deuteronomy 22 around in conformity with Seidel’s law, which says that biblical writers marked quotation by exactly this kind of switching.  (Read more about it in n. 51 here.)

Since this is not the kind of common phrase (like “silver and gold”) where we could identify the original and the copy, Seidel’s law does not tell us which of these writers was reading the other.  But now, (at last!) we can tell that this is a case of H reading D and not vice versa.  The clue is these two kinds of mixtures, unlike those in vv. 9 and 11 of Deuteronomy, are not the same.

It’s clear that Lev 19:19 and Deut 22:9-11 fit together somehow.  But Deuteronomy prohibits plowing with an ox and an ass together; H prohibits breeding them (or any other mixed pair of animals) together.  What is the relationship between these two verses?

Nahmanides, the 13th-century Spanish-Jewish biblical commentator, explains (in his comment to Lev 19:19):

You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind. The prohibition of plowing “with an ox and an ass together” (Deut. 22:10) is based on the same logic, since farmers keep their team together in the barn and might end up letting them mate.

He says essentially the same thing in his comment to Deut 22:10:

You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. Or any other two species of animals. What makes this an elaboration of “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind” (Lev. 19:19) is that farmers bring their team into a single barn and breed them together.

Nahmanides, of course, was sure that Deuteronomy was an elaboration of Leviticus.  But whether or not you find Nahmanides’ explanation convincing, one thing he does not explain is why Deuteronomy would have specified these two particular animals.  From my perspective, the fact that H uses kilayim of Deuteronomy (originally just a case of “bullimong”)  for two other comparable situations in itself shows us that it is H who has read D.  But that demands that an explanation for why H changed the Deuteronomic  law about plowing to one about  breeding.

There is an explanation, and one that (in my view) absolutely clinches the question of who read whom.  Is there ever a case anywhere else in the Bible where “plowing” and “mating” are connected?  Yes!

It is in the story of Samson.  He is interested in a woman from the Philistine town of Timnah (not Delilah, who will show up only in Judges 16, but an earlier girlfriend), and on his way there he kills a lion.  Passing by the carcass later, he finds a beehive in it, full of honey.  At the wedding festivities, he propounds a riddle (translations of this chapter are taken from NJPS):

Out of the eater came something to eat,

Out of the strong came something sweet.

(Jud 14:14)

Only Samson could possibly know the answer to this.  It is something that actually happened to him.  But at the end of the wedding week, the Philistines tell him the answer.  He responds this way:

Had you not plowed with my heifer,

You would not have guessed my riddle!

(Jud 14:18)

He thinks one of them  has slept with his wife, who had indeed, under pressure from her townsmen, persuaded him to tell her the answer.  There’s no other possible way anyone could have known it.

The author of the Holiness Code has read Deut 22:10, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together,” and decided two things:

1)  This is another example of kilayim.

2)  I can’t let this euphemism mislead people — I must express what Deuteronomy means in plain Hebrew, so no one is confused.  “Plowing” really means “breeding.”  The euphemism made Deuteronomy choose two plow animals, but of course they really meant any two different species.

I don’t see a better way to explain the obvious relationship between these two Torah passages.  But this explanation makes sense.  From my perspective, it is yet one more piece of evidence that H was a priestly writer who was determined to incorporate a Deuteronomic perspective into the priestly point of view.






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