In seminary they called it the P source. P stands for priestly. The P source is a body of written material layered into the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Pentateuch, or the Torah, are a composite work of many different sources. If you think of these books as a giant tuna casserole, then the P source is the peas—but not the pasta, not the tuna, not the celery, and certainly not the mayonnaise.
Really smart people believe that the P source comes from the post exilic era—meaning the time after the Israelites experienced the Babylonian captivity. During this time the Persians held power in the ancient world, and the Jews returned home to Judea to rebuild their homeland and national identity. The P source wanted to help that process along, so it found its way into the sacred writings to offer its assessment of Israelite uniqueness, and Israel’s relationship to God. So what did the P source emphasize? What were its contributions? What were its great concerns?
As the name implies the Priestly source was concerned about priestly things: ritual laws, the origin of holy days and ritualistic practices, genealogies, and order. This is to say that the P source was concerned about things pertaining to holiness (the ways we are set apart in our service to God). Order was important because everything had a place in the world, the way God made it, perfect, and holy. The first creation account in Genesis 1 is P source material. It is the story of seven perfect and balanced days in which God brought order to chaos. The genealogies were important because Israelite identity as the chosen people of God was passed down the family tree like a hitchhiker’s thumb or connected ear lobes, as was the Levitical and Aaronic priesthood. Genealogies kept Israel pure as a priestly kingdom, a holy nation. The origin stories of holy days and rituals were important because the Israelites needed to know how their religious observances were connected to the great acts of God—this was what set these events apart from the ordinary. It was what made them sacred, holy. The ritual laws were important because in following them the Israelites gave witness to who God was. These were God’s laws, and as such they opened a window into the heart and mind of God and what it meant to be holy.
The way the Israelites came to know the holiness of God was another important emphasis for the P source. The priestly writers did not take knowledge of God for granted. They knew they did not come to know God by looking into the sunset, or being lulled by the rhythm of breaking waves, or cuddling a soft cooing baby. They believed looking for God in these ways would be like asking your dog, who couldn’t learn to roll over, or shake hands, to play Shakespeare. God was too majestic, too splendid, too dangerous, too holy—God was beyond anything the Israelites could see, or experience, or feel. They did not come to God—God came to them and said, “Know me.” In the P source God revealed God’s-self in stages. First God was Elohim (a Hebrew word meaning simply “god”), then to Abraham God became El Shaddai (usually translated as “God Almighty”—a title unique to the P source), and finally to Moses God revealed his unique name Yahweh (I will be, what I will be—the great I Am). Each stage of revelation accompanied covenant and law. As humanity entered into covenant with God, and lived by the laws of that covenant, God became more fully known. Apart from covenant and law God was transcendent (beyond humanity) and therefore too separate (too holy) to comingle with creation.
To join God in covenant was to join God in holiness. The P source had a mantra. Over and over again the priestly source recorded this divine imperative: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Out of all the books in which the P source inhabits the book of Leviticus is especially taken with what it means to be holy like God is holy. 72 times the word holy appears in the chapters of Leviticus, more than any other book in the Bible. It appears so frequently in chapters 17-26 that scholars refer to this section as the “holiness code.” In the holiness code the P source lays it all out—if you want to know how to be holy, as God is holy, here it is. The code is meticulous, careful, strict, prescriptive, and dire. It is laborious reading, and at times discouraging. It is law after law, ritual after ritual, offering after offering. This is what it means to be holy? God help us!
I want to stress that the P source is one theology, one understanding of God—one articulation of God. There are others that set up tent right next to P’s camp in the pages of the Torah. Let’s be honest, at times we prefer these other tents. It’s hard to warm up to the P source with its laws, rituals, and dangerously transcendent God. Who wants a nine chapter holiness code? It doesn’t help that some of the stuff P comes up with is just plain strange: make sure you properly trim your beard, no wearing polyester (or any other garment made of more than one kind of fabric), don’t you dare get a tattoo, and be careful not to mix the veggies you plant in your garden. All of these laws (and more) are P source material. Of course we reason that such laws had a shelf life, and are hardly appropriate for our day and age. But the Bible isn’t getting any new updated editions. The P source is here to stay.
I can make the P source sound all the worse by throwing a few pedantic words at you. Did you know the P source is divided into two kinds of strange laws—the apodictic and the casuistic? Did you know there are all kinds of different apodictic and casuistic laws? It’s true; the stodgy old professor makes you memorize them in seminary. It’s the divinity school’s educational equivalent to eating your vegetables—even your peas. I don’t blame you for wondering if P holds any value for us.
But in much the same way as we need the unique witness of each of the four gospels, so too we need the distinct witness of each source informing the Pentateuch—even peculiar P. It’s easy for me, I happen to think that tuna casserole isn’t as good without the peas. I’m okay with the Priestly source (professional courtesy–us clergy need to stick together). I eat my vegetables. I think it was how I was raised. It comes natural to me. Shannon doesn’t touch anything green. Sshh, her parents read this!—but I think it was how she was raised! There are no peas in our family’s tuna casserole. It might be that the P source comes harder to her, or to you. I understand.
You might not warm up to P, but P is a significant part of the whole. The priestly source reminds us that God is not to be taken lightly, that purity is a goal, that origins are important, that community ritual is heart shaping, that there is knowledge of God in keeping the commandments, that God reveals God’s-self over time, and that to be a people of God is to participate in who God is.
Jesus can help. Jesus never preached from a blank slate. His formative years were immersed in the Law, the writings, and the prophets. They formed him. He knew the P source—he blamed Moses. So be it. But when a lawyer came and asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, immediately a text from the holiness code—the heart of the P source—came to mind: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Granted, it was the second greatest commandment—behind “You shall love the Lord your God”—but it still got the top chef award for the best tuna casserole. The commandment to love your neighbor is found in chapter 19 of Leviticus. The chapter begins, in typical P fashion, with the oft repeated: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. When you love your neighbor, you are holy.
Chapter 19 says a few other things as well. It reminds us that alongside the strange, foreign and time bound laws found in Leviticus are also found enduring laws which offer striking insights into God’s being: when you harvest your crops don’t harvest the edges, but let them be free food for the poor and the alien (19:10), do not defraud others or withhold fair wages (verse 13), care for the blind (verse 14), do not show partiality in law (verse 15), do not hate or take vengeance (verse 18), care for the elderly, rise when they come into your presence (verse 32), do not cheat (verses 35-36), and love not only the neighbor but also the alien among you as oneself (verse 34).
None of the P material is easy. Sometimes it’s like eating your vegetables. It’s downright hard to be holy like God is holy. Often it takes a community (a church) to help you. They load up all those peas on the spoon and tell you to open up the tunnel for the choo choo train, or to clear the landing strip for the prop plane. It’s natural to wonder what they are having for dinner in the next tent over—it smells like prime rib. But don’t you forget that this priestly stuff, this holiness stuff, is packed with the nutrients you need to fill that God shaped hole in your heart. This is who God is. Be holy, like God is holy. And remember, when Jesus had the chance to fix you the perfect meal he served you up a big helping of tuna casserole, and it what chalk full of peas. So close your eyes, and swallow hard, and imagine you’re eating apple pie. It won’t help, but do it anyway. It will be a great example to the kids. Love God, and love your neighbor and because God is holy, why don’t you give it a try.