Notes on Leviticus

Contemporary Biblical scholarship holds that the Torah was assembled by priestly writers sometime during the sixth century after the fall of Judea in 586 BC. Perhaps in Leviticus, the third and shortest book of the Torah, we see an obsessive almost Egyptian need to catalogue and document appropriate rituals. The key verb in the book is hivdil, a Hebrew word for “dividing.” In contrast to Exodus and its relatable narrative that climaxes with the culmination of the ten “words,” or commandments, Leviticus reads like a long list of the Lord restating the phrases to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites” or “Speak to the sons of Aaron”.

The book begins with the Lord speaking to Moses from the “Tent of Meeting.” Later in the book he speaks from Mount Sinai. He details specific propitiations that must be made with regard to sacrifices, so long as they are fragrant to the Lord. Guilt sacrifices, communion sacrifices, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and other offerings are detailed by the Lord to Moses. Then Moses performs a ritual before the Israelites, and the Lord consumes the offering in a fire. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer an unpleasant sacrifice to the Lord and thus are immediately and curiously consumed by fire in Leviticus 10. Their death is a warning. More legal requirements follow for appropriate foods, such as forbidding animal skins, female menstrual cycle impurity, skin rashes, garments, sexuality, and sacred convocations.

Here are several verses for reference (of course using Robert Alter’s excellent translation):

“And should a person touch anything unclean through human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean abominable creature and eat of the flesh of the communion sacrifice which is the Lord’s, that person shall be cut off from his kin” (7:21).

“And all in the seas and in the brooks that have no fins and scales, of all the swarming creatures of the water and of all the living things that are in the water, they are an abomination for you” (11:10).

“And you shall not put your member into your fellow man’s wife to spill seed, to be defiled through her. And you shall not dedicate any of your seed to pass over to Molech, and you shall not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. And with a male you shall not lie as one lies with a woman” (18:21).

– the key with this prohibition is that the Hebrew verbiage implies strictly prohibitions on homosexual intercourse, though it leaves open the possibility for other forms of homosexual activity. Curiously, lesbianism is not addressed. The rationale for this prohibition is the paranoia of wasting seed. Women and men are also prohibited from engaging in sex with beasts. Also in this section the Lord prohibits men from giving over their seed to Molech, likely a rival deity that implies a prohibition on child sacrifice, as is evidenced in the recovered graves of many children sacrificed through the region at the time.

The Hebrew title for the book is Vayikra coming from the opening words of the book: “And He [God] called…” The title of Leviticus comes from the Greek reference to the priestly tribe of Israelites, or “Levi.”

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

Notes on Numbers

The traditional Hebraic title for the book of Numbers is “Bemidbar” meaning “In The Wilderness.” It is titled to honor the census that takes place in its opening chapters, followed by a reiterating of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness following the embodiment of the Lord in a cloud.

Eventually, at Chapter 11, the Israelites complain – at least in their slavery in Egypt they had food and shelter. Continually throughout Numbers, the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, who fall on their face before the people, and God proves himself to them. For example, he utterly destroys the Amalekites in Chapter 14, however still the Israelites complain about a lack of food. Thus, the Lord decides to condemn them to wander in the wilderness until a new generation can be brought into the promised land. Eventually even Moses disobeys God by not speaking to a rock, thus he is forbidden from entering Canaan. On the steppes of Moab after crossing the Jordan across from Jericho, Balaam betrays the Israelites. Joshua is appointed as Moses’s successor. As with the opening of the book, Numbers closes with a census of the Israelites.

Numbers is an odd collection of reiterated prohibitions from Leviticus, as well as a long series of censuses taken, and in the middle it tells the story of the Israelites in their unfaithful acts toward God, and His routine demonstrations to them of His power and the need for their faith in the promise of Canaan, a land of their own.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

Notes on the Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish, or “when on high”, is named for the opening lines of the poem. It is a fragmented Akkadian poem that borrows from a number of earlier cosmogonies from the Sumerians and Semitic cultures. The Akkadian version, discovered among the ruins of ancient Babylon, exists on seven tablets and has sometimes been called the “seven tablets of creation.” Along with other Mesopotamian sacred writings, the Eunuma Elish was found at the famous library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (in modern Iraq), along with the Epic of Gilgamesh, among other ancient works. The text is nearly complete excluding major gaps on Tablet V. It was written in the Sumerian/Akkadian cuneiform script and each line forms a kind of couplet. We imagine elder scribes retelling and re-enacting the poem to families and children, perhaps in temples or marketplaces.

The Enuma Elish tells the story of “primeval” Apsu, the freshwater god, and Tiamat, the saltwater god. Together they formed the rest of the gods when their two waters intertwined. Apsu resides in Esharra (akin to the Christian concept of heaven). However, Apsu shortly thereafter plans to kill the new gods as they are loudly keeping him awake at night. When Tiamat hears of this she tells her son Enki, who then kills Apsu and uses his remains to build a home. However, Tiamat grows angry at the young gods for killing her mate, and vows revenge with Qingu, another god. Within the first four tablets, the young champion Marduk emerges. He shoots an arrow that slices Tiamat in two between her eyes, and her blood flows to form the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In Tablet V, Marduk, the creator-god, takes control and is inspired to build an earthly city called Babylon, or the “House of the Great Gods” (the original meaning of the word Babylon). He builds the city for the gods to pass through. Marduk explains his idea to create humans to the Mother goddess “Ea” (sometimes called Enkidi). When the earlier gods who were allied with Tiamat had rebelled, Marduk calls on them to reveal a leader in exchange for a pardon and they present Marduk with Qingu, who is then promptly sacrificed. His blood is used to create the race of men. Marduk consults Ea, the Mother goddess, who creates Lullu, the first man to be helper to the gods in maintaining order over chaos. He separates the gods into the heavenly and netherworld gods. The heavenly gods are to be ruled by Anu, the celestial sky-god, to whom a temple was dedicated in Uruk, the city made famous by the Epic of Gilgamesh. The gods then build Esagila, a temple to Marduk in Babylon. Marduk is named the supreme god.

The text emphasizes its sacredness. Like Hesiod, it self-consciously tells of the origins of the gods. It is a patriotic text that is intended to bring praise and holiness to the city of Babylon and its gods. It is also both a poem and a prayer intended to be recited to the many, not the few. The recitation element is particularly notable in Tablet VII. While the book of Genesis explores the origins of the Hebrew people under the rulership of The Lord and His chosen leaders, Moses and Abraham, the Enuma Elish is a celebration of the origins of Babylon under Marduk. It highlights the sacredness of one place, unlike the ancient Hebrews who were nomadic (prior to the establishment of Jerusalem). Both cosmogonies share some similarities, as well, such as in the origins of water, and light and darkness.

As far as we can tell, the creator-god Marduk gained prominence during Hammurabi’s reign (1792-1750 BC) in Babylon. During his kingship, he replaced many of the traditional female deities with prominent male gods, like Marduk. The rise of the cult of Marduk is intimately connected to the rise of Babylon – the religious and the political are not separated in the ancient world. The ‘noble lie’ of the Enuma Elish is in the need for the city to give preference to order over chaos, and to portray men as partners with the gods. In this way the city thrives under the values espoused in the Enuma Elish. In later translations, the god Marduk is replaced by Ashur, the patron god of Assyria.

For this reading I used two translations: Benjamin R. Foster’s translation in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, and also the W.G. Lambert translation in Mesopotamian Creation Stories.

1921 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton


The title of Edith Wharton’s most famous novel is most likely derived from a popular painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The painting was created sometime between 1785-1788 (see above). Note the child’s bare feet, her bonnet, and the way the wind ruffles through her hair. She sits casually in a pasture, with a vast, open countryside behind her. Both hands are cupped loosely over her heart. She seems pensive as her gaze focuses off into the blurry distance. She is clothed in a billowy white dress caught by a particular light. We know very little about the painting – who is the main character? Why did Sir Reynolds’s decide to paint over his original Strawberry Girl with this work? The mystery of the work persists. Sir Reynolds did not actually title the painting, as the name was given to the work after his death. It was first presented to the public National Gallery in 1847, and then to the Tate in 1951 where it remains today. It was a popular painting in its day, reproduced numerous times over.

At any rate, Wharton captures a certain degree of the mystery of this painting in her magnum opus, The Age of Innocence. She presents a complex glimpse of the past: one that is neither glamorous nor nostalgic, yet it is also not embittered or tragic. Wharton simply presents an epoch for our consideration, an aristocratic age which was later destroyed by the Great War and the passing of the Gilded Age generation. This was the epoch in which Wharton was raised. She was a child of immense privilege, preferring to spend much of her time studying and touring Europe. In adulthood, she lived the lavish life of a socialite, being well-connected to some of the most influential men of her day (she much preferred the company of men to the idle chatter of women). She was fiercely conservative and a defender of the European way of doing things, which was different from the prideful upper-crust of Manhattan. She was erudite, witty, and always curious. It has been said of Edith Wharton that her only downfall was simply that she was not a pretty woman. She was married once, into a less than happy partnership, and the marriage eventually crumbled. It was even called a “sexless” marriage, an accusation which Wharton did not deny but which she blamed on her own mother’s rigid code of morality foisted upon her as a child. Wharton took one additional lover after her failed marriage, but otherwise she lived an independent life. Her one lover was a famed bachelor, Walter Berry. No one knows the extent of their relationship because after his death Edith Wharton burned most their correspondences. However, what remains of their communication reveals a passionate love affair. Today, Edith Wharton and Walter Berry are buried beside one another at Versailles in France.

Published in 1920 following the death of Wharton’s close friend, Theodore Roosevelt, and amid the fresh scars of World War I, The Age of Innocence takes place in the 1870s during the Gilded Age of old New York City –a city ruled by a cohort of elite families and their Victorian aristocratic values. It was the milieu in which Edith Wharton, herself, was raised. Wharton writes the novel in the twilight of her life, as a reflection upon her upbringing. In a curious way, Wharton longs for the virtues of the old order, the way things were before the Great War. However, she does not truly wish to return to the Gilded Age as she is not a nostalgic simpleton. She merely captures the epoch now that it has passed. Her novel is an exploration, not a polemic.

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In the novel, we see Edith Wharton reflected in part by the role of the Countess Ellen Olenska, a woman seeking a divorce from her European husband. Olenska lives an independent life, which brazenly flaunts the customs of old New York. She represents a new shift –a woman freed of her husband. In some ways, Edith Wharton splits herself between this new woman, the Countess Olenska, and the main character, Newland Archer, a man who longs to transcend his stale social status in the hopes of finding a world alive and full of color again. Both characters seek to push beyond their moral confinements, however only Ellen succeeds, while Newland becomes entrapped in his own social duties and entanglements. Newland is forced to choose familial duty, convention, obligation, safety and security instead of a love for Ellen that would, no doubt, have caused great turmoil and public scandal.

Newland Archer, the complicated main character of the novel, is an upper-crust New York attorney, soon to be engaged to the pretty but predictable May Welland. However, upon the entrance of Ellen Olenska, Archer is immediately enamored. All throughout the book, he attempts to balance his dutiful public courtship of May Welland with his amorous passion for the new and independent woman, Ellen Olenska. In the end, his commitment to the old world wins. He marries May Welland, while still captivated by Ellen Olenska. He hopes that his marriage will close the door on his yearning for Ellen. However, what ultimately forces him to commit fully to his wife is her unexpected pregnancy. From this moment on, Newland Archer never sees Ellen Olenska again. We see vague glimpses of his young and boring marriage as he slowly loses all interest in his wife, May Welland, even though she was once clearly the proper choice according to old New York standards. The last chapter of the book is perhaps the most significant. It takes place many years later. Newland Archer’s wife, May, has passed away from an infection that developed into pneumonia and Newland is now in his 50s. His son is engaged to a daughter of the Beaufort family -Julius Beaufort was, at one time, one of the more disreputable people courting Ellen Olenska. Since Newland and his son are now together in Paris, Ellen Olenska receives them both to bestow congratulations on the young Archer’s pending nuptials. However, when they arrive at her flat in Paris, Newland Archer decides not to go upstairs and visit her. Instead he sits on a bench outside. “It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he tells himself. He prefers to keep the fantasy of Ellen Olenska alive in his head –only the memory of his love and their bygone era will remain. He sits on the bench for a while and then he walks back home. Perhaps he once loved nothing more than the idea of Ellen Olenska those many years ago.

A great deal of time has been spent critiquing the particular virtues and vices of old New York, and to some extent this was Edith Wharton’s intent. Early chapters in the book are painstakingly long and filled with absurd details about social faux pas and endless gossiping between well-to-do families. Every piece of minutia, no matter how insignificant, is studied and discussed by someone. The modern reader longs for transcendence from this Gilded Age –if only the era would have allowed people to authentically confront their hopes and fears directly with one another, then perhaps Newland and May’s marriage would have been a greater success, rather than another “stay together for the children” situation. If only they could have transparently discussed Newland’s worries about boredom and his infatuation with Ellen Olenska, rather than speaking in vague references only to mask the true conflict –anything to avoid an alarming and confrontational scene. We begin to sense this tension building into an explosive release in the coming world war. Throughout the old aristocracy, everything is designed to appear perfect at all times. Is it Newland’s fault? The Countess Olenska? May Welland and her family? We cannot find one person to blame. Rather than putting the values of an entire age on trial, it is convenient to search for a villain in the novel –the story of an ‘almost affair’ that never actually unfolds. We look to blame someone for wrong-doing in the story –perhaps Newland, himself, the man who marries a woman for political purposes while at the same time trying to bury his attraction for a more adventurous woman– though, in truth, it is the age and its invisible yet impenetrable customs which hold sway. “The age of innocence” was not as innocent as we might have been led to believe, though it may seem naive in contrast to present troubles.

Perhaps the image most beautifully invoked in The Age of Innocence, is the feeling of nostalgia. First, we are brought deep into the political strife and conflicts of the old New York aristocracy, yearning to be free of these constraints; and yet, many years later, we become sober as the Gilded Age has ended, and we are left with a sacred feeling of melancholy. The novel concludes on a somber and reflective note as the flame of an old generation has been snuffed out, never to be reignited again.

The 1921 Pulitzer Controversy
In closing, there is an odd story about the 1921 Pulitzer Prize decision for The Age of Innocence. It was only the third book to ever receive the prize, Edith Wharton bring the first female winner. The Pulitzer Prize Jury had actually favored Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a satire of provincial American life, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board overturned the decision, a coup which was most likely led by Nicholas Murray Butler, the controversial conservative President of Columbia University. He, among others, helped to usher in a revision to Mr. Pulitzer’s bequest to Columbia which changed the criteria of the award from capturing the ‘whole’ of the American experience to the ‘wholesome’ American experience. This shift in values did not go unnoticed. Sinclair Lewis, while irate, wrote to Edith Wharton and congratulated her on the victory. In response she wrote the following:

“When I discovered that I was being rewarded — by one of our leading Universities — for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. Subsequently, when I found the prize should really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had ‘offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,’ disgust was added to despair.”

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The Columbia University trustees praised The Age of Innocence for portraying the “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Several Pulitzer Jury members protested in strongly worded articles that were published in the New Republic. Wharton invited Sinclair Lewis to her home and they developed a budding friendship out of the ashes of the Pulitzer controversy. So much so, in fact, that Lewis dedicated his next book Babbit to Edith Wharton (feel free to read my review of Babbit here). It, too, would be nominated by the Pulitzer Jury, but again overturned by the board of trustees. In 1926, Lewis finally won the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith (read my reflections on the novel here), a convoluted satire of American medicine, but he declined the prize, noting his distaste for the Pulitzer Board’s employment of the word ‘wholesome.’ Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but eventually their relationship soured.

The Age of Innocence was made into a memorable film in 1993 directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. To read my review of the film click here.

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Notably, less than ten years after winning the Pulitzer, Edith Wharton mocked the award as the “Pulsifer Prize” in her 1928 novel, Hudson River Bracketed. Satire and mockery of sacred, prestigious institutions remains a time-honored tradition in American culture.

I close with a passage from the final chapter of The Age of Innocence:

“…His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in his lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died – carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child – he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.” (Book II, Chapter 34).  

Who Is Edith Wharton?

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born “Edith Newbold Jones” on January 24, 1862 into a well-to-do Gilded Age family who made their money in real estate. In fact, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to refer to her family. In fact, Edith could trace her lineage back to the original land grants of the Dutch colony of “New Netherland” prior to the British acquisition of Manhattan. In the mid-19th century, the Joneses lived in a lavish three-story brownstone at 14 West 23rd Street in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood of New York City. The Fifth Avenue Opera House sat a mere block away, and the palatial Shakespearean Booth’s Theatre opened just around the corner on Sixth Avenue. In Edith’s day, this was a cultural hub for high-class New Yorkers until the family left this stately brownstone in the 1870s. Over a century later, it has since been transformed into a string of retail chains. Today, a Starbucks Coffeeshop sits on the ground floor of Edith Wharton’s childhood home.

In her youth, Edith was educated by a string of tutors and governesses. She led a well-cultured life, spending summers in France or Italy, befriending well-known socialites, and learning several languages. However, her mother forbade young Edith from reading novels until she was much older and married. Nevertheless, she proceeded to write short stories and poetry. She was a keen observer of New York social customs and came forward publicly as a debutante in 1879. She was engaged to Henry Leyden Stevens, but her family did not approve, so the marriage was called off and Edith married a Bostonian gentleman named Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton. They bought a house dubbed “Land’s End” in Newport and a home at 884 Park Avenue. However, Teddy soon suffered from severe, crippling depression which forced them to relocate to their vast estate which was designed by Edith dubbed “The Mount” in Lenox, Massachusetts. The estate has since become a public landmark in the United States.

Around this time, Edith Wharton began an affair with Morton Fullerton, an author and foreign correspondent for The Times of London. In addition to publishing her well-celebrated novels, Edith Wharton was regarded as a respected guide for high-brow tastes at the time, particularly with regard to interior design, art, fashion, and gardening. In her later years, following her divorce from Teddy, Edith relocated to Paris where she rubbed shoulders with notable writers like Henry James and Joseph Conrad. When World War I broke out, Edith refused to flee the city of Paris and remained an ardent supporter of French imperial efforts. She was celebrated as a French war hero for her efforts. It was here in France that she wrote The Age of Innocence in 1920. She returned to the United States only once after the war to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1923. Along with her Pulitzer Prize, she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize three times in 1927, 1928, and 1930.

In 1937, she collapsed due to a heart attack at her home in France. Throughout her prolific writing career, Edith Wharton’s bibliography was rife with great novels like The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), as well as classic short stories and novellas like Ethan Frome (1911). She wrote extensively about home, garden, and fashion trends and she even published a notable collection of poetry and ghost stories. She never again married and had no children.

Wharton, Edith. Three Novels of New York: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence. Penguin Classics; Deluxe, Anniversary edition, February 29, 2012 (originally published in 1920). 

Remarkable efforts have been made to digitize Edith Wharton’s private library at “The Mount,” her home in Eastern Massachusetts:

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.