Book Reviews

Book Review: Leviticus 17-22 (AYB), Jacob Milgrom


Jacob Milgrom taught at the University of California, Berkeley and headed the Department of Near Eastern Studies. He was most known for his research on Biblical purity laws and was a (or ‘the’) leading expert on Leviticus (according to Longman). Milgrom died in June 2010. He was an American Jewish Bible scholar and a Conservative rabbi. He wrote the Leviticus volume for the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series, which turned into three volumes:

  • Leviticus 1-16 (1184 pages, Vol 3)
  • Leviticus 17-22 (656 pages, Vol 3A)
  • Leviticus 23-27 (848 pages, Vol 3B).

This volume picks up right where Vol 3 left off, so there is no page 1.


Milligram provides a brief Outline and Translation of the whole book of Exodus. He then covers the Structure, Vocabulary, Extent, and Date of Leviticus 17-22. He believes that these chapters are part of Holiness (H) Source. They are distinguished from the first 16 chapters which are part of the Priestly (P) Source. Though I don’t agree with his source-critical views (which are found all throughout the commentary), Milgrom is quite conservative in his stance on Scripture. He insists that (P) was written much earlier than its usual date (ca. 500 BC). Milligram argues that both (H) and (P) are pre-exilic sources (1362). He gives a list of Chiasms, Inclusions, and uses of the Number Seven found in six Levitical chapters.

Next up is the Theology section. This portion covers topics like the Sinaitic and Patriarchal Covenants, Holiness, Ethics, Land, Sabbath, Jubilee and Redemption, Israelites, The Missing King, Crime and Punishment, and more. Despite the fact that Milgrom takes a source-critical reading of Leviticus, his comments on theology are incredible. Under B. Rationales Are Theology, Milgrom, in explaining separation and holiness, states,

“Thus adherence to the dietary laws, namely, eschewing contact with the world of… ‘impure’, forms an indispensable step in Israel’s ascent on the ladder of holiness…. Israel’s separation from the nations is the continuation (and climax) of the cosmic creation process. Just as YHWH has separated the mineral, vegetable, and animal species to create order in the natural world, so Israel must separate from the nations to create order in the human world. Israel is this charged with a universal goal” (1371, emphasis original).

After this we come to the exegesis of Leviticus 17-22, The Slaughter and Consumption of Meat (Lev 17), Illicit Sexual Practices (Lev 18), Ritual and Moral Holiness (Lev 19), Penalties for Molek Worship, Necromancy, and Sexual Offenses (Lev 20), Instruction for Priests (Lev 21), and Instructions for the Priests and for Lay Persons (Lev 22). In each of the exegetical chapters there is a repeated Translation of the text, the Composition of the chapter (only with Lev 17), Notes (covering the terms and phrases of the text), and Comments (covering broader issues within the chapter [like ‘Holiness’ in Leviticus 19]). The Bibliography and Index are not included here in 3A, but are found in 3B.


As thick as Milgrom’s commentary is, there isn’t always the theological explanations I wish there were. When discussing ‘Horticultural Holiness’ in 19.23-25 (1677-1684), Milgrom reviews ANE literature, interpretations of the Jewish rabbis, Qumran literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and contemporary commentators and discusses the various interpretations of the text here (and throughout the rest of the commentary too, a big plus!). Though stating that waiting a few years to eat the fruit of the land had practical implications (the roots sink deep into the soil, giving the trunk the strength it needs to bear up the amount of fruit [1684]), there’s no discussion on why Israel would be commanded to do this. This would be an important aspect to shed light on given the emphasis on holiness in Leviticus 19, “[T]his chapter is of such extreme importance that Moses was commanded to recite it ’to the entire Israelite community’… The rabbis also stress this fact: ‘Holiness… was not only given to priests but to priests, Levites and Israelites’….” (1602).

In Leviticus 19 we see “the importance of the prescriptions that follow: the are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation” (1603). What is so ‘holy’ about waiting five years to eat of the fruit of one’s tree? It will increase it’s yield for them, but how does this separate Israel from the rest of the nations?

However, be sure to read Milgrom on Leviticus 19.19, “You are to keep my statutes. Do not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material.” Mixture is kept to the divine realm (e.g., the cherubim were mixed creatures). Rather than trying to enter the divine realm, to be holy (19.2) Israel was to obey God’s commandments and practice the prescribed ritual and ethical behaviors. Part of that was leaving to the divine realm what belonged to the divine, such as mixtures of cloth.

Yet I understand that Milgrom can’t cover everything. Perhaps he does give an explanation somewhere within his commentary, but with no index until Vol. 3B, I can’t lookup other discussions of Leviticus 19.23-25. Yet even still, one should not think that Milgrom doesn’t care about the text in the daily life of the ancient Israelite. He goes to great lengths through out the commentary to show the why’s and the how’s of a law or command. To quote Milgrom again, after talking about the four possible states of being (holy, common, pure, impure), he says,

“Thus… biblical impurity and holiness, are semantic opposites. And as the quintessence and source of [holiness] resides with God, it is imperative for Israel to control the occurrence of impurity lest it impinge on the realm of the holy God. The forces pitted against each other in the cosmic struggle are no longer the benevolent and demonic deities who populate the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, but the forces of life and death set loose by man himself through his obedience to or defiance of God’s commandments” (1721-22). Israel is “to cleave to life and reject death” (1722).


To the serious student and pastor who know a good deal of Hebrew and to the OT scholar who will certainly have knowledge on Hebrew, ANE studies, and the methodology of source criticism, these three volumes (though I’ve only reviewed the second, 3A) would be important to own since, as Longman has expressed, Milgrom was “clearly the world’s leading expert on Leviticus” (OT Commentary Survey, 33). However, as previously stated, the source criticism (regardless of how conservative Milgrom was) won’t be favored by many. While Milgrom treats both the different Sources of Leviticus and its final form, wading through seemingly endless notes about ’J’, ‘E’, ’D’, ‘P’, (and ‘H’ too) may wear on you, especially if you think these are foreign (or illegitimate) conceptions of treating Leviticus. Pastors may not have the time to get into the deep details of this book, especially since their congregations probably won’t be interested in the same ‘deep details’. But for those who have the want and the time to go into Leviticus (like PhD studies or seminary teaching), then Milgrom’s volumes are a must-have, as he is a brilliant scholar when it comes to the strange, often-disregarded, yet incredible book of Leviticus. As Mulberry Sellers said, “There’s gold in them thar hills” and “there’s millions in it.” One simply needs to start mining.


  • Series: The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (December 5, 2000)

Buy it on Amazon!

[Special thanks to Yale University Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book].

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