The Book of Leviticus in Volume 2 of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology


To begin with, I must express my hearty agreement with the starting point of Sonderegger.[i] ‘Theologians’, she says, ‘must seek instruction from Israel’s Scripture for the principal truth of doctrine’ (xxvi). For this second volume that means: ‘The Old Testament teaches and worships the One, Triune God’ (27). I notice a striking similarity with the project, I announced in my valedictory lecture, 7th May 2019, trying to understand Moses as the teacher of the Christian Church, too.[ii] When I distinguish a slightly different approach between us, provisionally I would say that I am inclined to embed the teaching or doctrine in the web of ground-words of the Law and the Prophets, while Sonderegger immediately penetrates the heart of the Dogma, i.e., in this Volume: the inner life of God. Especially the book of Leviticus, ‘focusing on the sacrificial cultus and the ordinances and narratives surrounding that Divine Act’, bears ‘the imprint of the Holiness School and … it grounds, teaches and guides the doctrine of the Divine Processions, and, under its own idiom, of the Divine Persons’ (xxvi). Therewith, she ‘seeks a theological unity’, not ‘of a textual or literary – nor even canonical – kind’, but rather ‘the unity that descends upon anything earthly when we readers stand in the fiery Presence of the One, when the One Lord commands and speaks’ (Vol. I, 272f.[iii]). Learned by Miskotte,[iv] I am inclined to allow myself more interaction between the literary and the theological dimensions in reading Scripture than Sonderegger from her perspective does.

The main thesis of this Volume asserts, that ‘the sacrificial cultus of Israel just is the Processional Life, the Fire who is God’ (457).  ‘In the mystery of sacrifice, we find enacted the Heavenly Life of God as Tri-Personed Being’ (459). ‘In Trinitarian Sacrifice, Almighty God gives Himself, His life as the Distillate, the Concretion, the Deity. He is Molten Gift. The costly Breaking, the Plunging Down, the Life that is Blood: that is the Divine Generation, the Hiddenness poured out and made Manifest’. And secondly, ‘the effective exchange, the peace forged between heaven and earth, comes to its fulfilment in the Rising Smoke, the Offering that is Savor, a Fragrance, the Heavenly Ascension’: ‘the Procession of the Spirit’ as ‘the gathering up of the Offering, joining with It and raising It up, completing and returning It to the Giver of every Good and perfect Gift’ (465-6, Italics mine). The most important ground for these impressive words has been found by Sonderegger in Chapter 9,24: ‘Fire came out from before the One and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat’. When I see it well, a reference by Sonderegger to an explicit explanation by the Book Leviticus itself of the divine subject as acting in both ‘processions’ here, is lacking. For me, an evident description of the movement by the One in the whole of the narrative as told by the Torah, is given in Exodus 3,8, where the One says: ‘I have come down (’ered) to deliver [my people] from the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up (halot) out of that land to a good and broad land’. This main divine movement of coming down and simultaneously bringing up could be reflected in the movement of sacrificing by the same divine subject. However, the verse from Exodus suggests divine ‘economy’ (soteriology), and Sonderegger assures us that here she is only dealing with the immanent life of the Triune God, and not yet with the economy. But can we abstract the economy here? In this context, I offer one observation. The burnt-offering (‘olah) on the altar (mizbeach) may be of the herd – an ox, a sheep or a goat –, or clean birds (Lev. 1:3-17). According to the priestly author in Genesis, the first animal that was killed for a sacrifice, was killed by Noah after the flood; he had taken clean animals in seven pairs partly to serve as food in this emergency. On the sixth day of the Creation story, the animals did not need to fear, that human beings, who had dominion over them, might kill them to provide food, because the human ate green plants. Violent death was not present in God’s eyes (Gen. 1,29). But after the flood, violence has not been washed away totally by the flood (Gen. 9,1ff.). Violent death made its entry, although the killing of animals must be limited, for it signifies the pouring out of blood.[v] From this interconnection in the priestly writings, I conclude that the sacrifice, as sketched in the book Wajikra’, belongs to the order of Reconciliation, and not to the order of Creation – but I realize (to take over the classical distinction), this is a designation of an economic kind, and not of a theological one. However, Sonderegger, although acknowledging that, maintains her accenting: ‘We could not read the Levitical sacrifice as instruction of Trinity without including the rebellions and defilements and apostasies that surround its founding, for the cultus is inaugurated for just this end: to sanctify and cleanse the people and its temple from sin. Now, this does not make sin ingredient in or necessary to Trinity! The Triune economy and Immanence do not relate in such a fashion, from below to above, But the sin and defilement show us why the Divine Descent is sacrifice – is costly – because the Divine Fire is Holy; It Hallows’ (380). In that connection, I understand how she thinks to be able to devoid to attribute violence to the inner life of God. For a moment, speaking of ‘terror and grace’ in the context of the Akida, she indeed seems to reckon with this (460), but in the perspective of the God of Peace and the Eternal Sabbath at the last pages of this Volume (554), such a nightmare has been disappeared.

Instead, I am inclined to propose another figura, in line with Reformed theology. First, there is the series of places that Sonderegger reads as manifestation of the processions of the Triune God: The accompanying phenomena of the theophany in Ex. 19 (thunders, lightnings, the dark cloud, the voice of the shophar; 386), the eating and drinking and the ‘seeing the Lord’ in Ex. 24 (387), the cloud covering the tent of meeting and the kavod of the One, filling the mishkān in Ex. 40,34, the fire from before the One, consuming upon the altar the burnt-offering after the anointing and ordination of Aharon as the high priest in Lev. 9,24 (378) and lastly the fire from the Holy One consuming and killing Nadab and Abihu, a burnt offering of Divine Wrath in Lev. 10,2 (391). I read the whole of this series as the foundation of the covenant of the One with Israel, thoroughly unilateral, monopleuron, Sonderegger asserts: ‘The Manifestation of the Living God in Israel is to distinguish from the Divine Workings ad extra’(374). In contrast, I would say: actually, this series speaks of divine works ad extra, but certainly they are founded in the decisive divine work ad intra – that exists in the eternal decrees (Wolleb[vi]), namely the decrees of eternal election and of eternal covenant (cf. 390). After sketching the beginning of covenant in time, that is monopleuron, the old Reformed teachers continue with the unfolding and development of the covenant, that is dipleuron. Jonathan Sachs, in his deep essays at the weekly synagogal parashot of Leviticus, says in his introductory essay:[vii] after the dramatic breaking of the covenant by the people, lead by Aharon, in the drama of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), the One concluded, that the people needed a way of ‘democratic’ participation, a ‘religion’ of its own to express its commitment to the covenant. For that reason, during the small year at the feet of mountain Sinai (Ex. 19,1 – Num. 10,11), the people received instructions and rituals for Holy Living; since the covenant does not exist only in religion, but for sure also in religion (cf. Sonderegger, 50-55). In this way, the book of Leviticus begins as follows: ‘A human being (adām) among you, when approaching the altar and the priest…’ (Lev. 1,2 – that is a formula that sounds in correspondence with the theory of Albrecht Alt about ‘casuistic law’ in Israel). Members of the people can take initiative now, confess their sins and transgressions and seeking for atonement. Sonderegger is overarching this answer of the covenant partner with the (Pauline) motive of the procession (of the divine Person of the Spirit), activating the answer of human being in holiness, taking up its contribution and lifting it up back to its divine Origin. I have no objection against such a ‘canonical reading’, but, as I said, I am less inclined to recognize its truth directly in the text of the Torah itself.

Sonderegger observes ‘chiastic patterns’, that ties Leviticus to Exodus (394) *: Moses intimacy with the One God and the rebellion (or breaking the covenant). I would somewhat expand the chiasm. In the narrative of the Torah, as well in the drama of the Golden Calf in Ex. 32-34 (388-9) as in the similar drama of the refusing by the people to set foot on the land (Num. 14; Vol. I, 277), both ending with a mediating intervention of Moses, the people appear as foedifragius, breaker of the covenant. In the middle, this ‘impossible possibility’ appears in a cultic atmosphere (in the acting of Nadab and Abihu), together with its remedy: kaphar, ‘to cover’, to atone and to expiate (while the exegetes disagree whether the Chapter Lev. 16 should be the ‘middle of this middle section’ of the chiasm).

Several Jewish commentators (such as Martin Buber[viii] and Umberto Cassuto[ix]) have stressed the way, in which Ex. 39 and 40 repeat the motives of the description of the seventh day (Gen. 2,1-3) in the story of the completion and the erection of the tent of meeting in the wilderness. That means, looking backwards from the book of Leviticus: the service of the One God by the people of Israel in and around the tent – in its feasts, its regulations on eating, sexuality, or illness etc. – keeps pars pro toto the Mystery of Creation and practices the preservation of its ordering on earth.

Looking forwards, the Divine acting on the transgression of the Sons of Aharon, continues in Chapter 16 (392): ‘And the One spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before the One, and died; and the One said to Moses: speak unto Aharon thy brother, that he come not all times into the holy place within the veil…’ (Lev. 16, 1-2). ‘Not all times’ is an exceptional expression in Tanakh.[x] ‘All times’ we shall praise the Lord. But what are the implications of the commandment, to act ‘not’ all times? At least two explanations are given. The first one can be found in the verses 29-34 of the Chapter, where the regulations are offered for a yearly ‘Day of Atonement’ in the tent (393) – an ordonnance that will find an impressive shaping in later Judaism. But another answer than the ritual one is to be found in Scriptures, too. One can say: this verse looks for an eschatological priest, one that will accomplish actual atonement for the people. This priest could be Aharon himself, as he is sketched in Num. 17,13 (=16,48), making atonement, standing between the living and the dead (Vol. I, 293), after the terrible crisis of the people, murmuring because of the end of Korach and his company. But also, in a canonical perspective (534), we can look at Jesus Christ as the High Priest, sketched in the letter to the Hebrews as acting eph-hapax, ‘once for all’ (Heb. 7,27 etc). That is the other explanation: ‘Not all times’, meaning: ‘once for all’, at the eschatological moment of the cross.

In conclusion, for me Moses is a teacher of (Christian) doctrine in his own economic ordering: Creation – Covenant and Law (395) – Atonement (present and future). Certainly, it is extremely important to ask for the ‘inner life’ of the Living God, to avoid that the enduring divine inaugurating, preserving and consummating opera ad extra dissolve in relations that are dipleuron. But its our theological task to articulate the right sentences in this respect, taken from the dogma as well as thought through with new means of thinking (such as set theory). In contrast, Sonderegger borrows her sentences on the inner life of the Triune One directly from the Torah, while she in the first two Volumes of her Systematic Theology (e.g., 394) time and again postpones the economic order, promising its later unfolding.I am hearing here the voice of Calvin, who in the first book of his Institutes (in its last edition) repeatedly adjures that here, he is not yet (nondum) able to speak of Redemption.[xi] And, as you know, when I am comparing Sonderegger with Calvin, that only can be interpreted as an appraisal of her work!

*I add a remark on the relationship of the Books of Exodus and Leviticus here. In Sonderegger’s perception, the third book of the Torah echoes the second one; both witness ‘the great movement of Scripture, from defilement to atonement, from bondage to freedom, from sin to release and redemption’ (395). I hesitate, to telescope these two perspectives of liberation and atonement. The feasts of Passover (Ex. 12-13) and of Tabernacles (to which the eight days of Lev. 8-9 allude) tell their own story, and the Passover Lamb (Ex. 12) and the Scapegoat (Lev. 16) are not the same animal for sacrifice – although there exists a biblical tradition that already is inclined to identify both (Ez. 45; the Gospel of John[xii]). Sonderegger refers to Mary Douglas, who stresses that ‘the scapegoat is not destined to die but rather set free into the wild (Lev. 16, 10.21-22) as is the second bird of the purification rite (Lev. 14,1-8)’ (395).[xiii] However, this enactment of ‘setting free’ is not quite the same as the liberation from bondage. Rather, it relates to the predestinarian tendency of all the laws on pure and ‘impure’ in Wajikra’: the pure is destined for sacrificing (itself), the ‘impure’ is freed from this burden of election. Such as the people of Israel understands its election as a calling and a commission, to go its way as a representative or even as a substitute for all the nations that live on the earth and under the heaven, created by Israels God, in this way the ‘pure’ animals in their sacrifice substitute the other animals that therewith are set free. In the economy, as sketched by the Torah, this theological motive has its own dimension, that is to distinguish from the motive of the Book of Exodus, i.e., that only a people that in freedom can appear for the One God, is also able freely to serve God as a covenant partner.

Amsterdam, Rinse Reeling Brouwer

[i] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 2: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.

[ii] R.H. Reeling Brouwer, ‘Het onderwijs van Mozes en het onderwijs van de ekklesia. Rede ter gelegenheid van het afscheid als universitair hoofddocent Theologiegeschiedenis en bijzonder hoogleraar op de Miskotte/Breukelman-leerstoel voor de hermeneutiek van de Bijbel’, Amsterdam 2019.

[iii] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

[iv] Rinse Reeling Brouwer, ‘Introduction’, in: K.H. Miskotte, Biblical ABCs. The Basics of Christian Resistance, Translated by Eleonora Hof and Collin Cornell, Lanham etc.: Fortress Academic, (xv-xxi) xix-xx.

[v] Martin Kessler & Karel Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis. The Book of Beginnings, New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2004, 33-34 and 84-85.

[vi] Johannes Wollebius, Christianae Theologiae Compendium, Basiliae 1626, Libri primi, Cap. III § 2.

[vii] Jonathan Sachs, Covenant & Conversation. A weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible – Leviticus, the Book of Holiness, Jerusalem: Koren Publish, 2015.

[viii] Martin Buber, ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible’ (1926/1936).

[ix] U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967, 468-485.

[x] Ben Hemelsoet, ‘Niet te allen tijde – de grote verzoendag’, in: Verwekkingen. Aangeboden aan Frans Breukelman bij zijn zestigste verjaardag, Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1976, 126-131.

[xi] Joannis Calvini Opera Selecta, ediderunt Petrus Barth & Guilelmus Niesel, Vol. III (München: Kaiser, 1928), OS III 61 r 10 (‘nondum loquor de propria fidei doctrina’), 20 and 22 (Inst. 1959; 85 r. 16 (‘nondum attingo peculiare foedus’; Inst. 1559 I.x.1).

[xii] Dirk Monshouwer, The Gospels and the Jewish Worship, Vught: Skandalon, 2010, 253-284.

[xiii] Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 248; cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2, 357-366.

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R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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