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Translating זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים in Leviticus

December 15, 2011

At his Catholic Bibles blog, Tim raises the question of the best translation of זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים (for example, at Leviticus 3:1):

Tim asks:

This brings me to Leviticus 3, which describes the third offering prescribed by God through Moses. (Please note that Leviticus 7:11-36 goes into more detail about the three different types of this offering.) Depending on the translation, the Hebrew word shelamim may be translated in a number of different ways. Often, it is referred to in English as the Peace Offering, which is followed most notably by the RSV. Some scholars prefer this due to the closeness to the Hebrew word shalom. However, the NRSV and [N]JPS translations prefer to go with Well-Being Offering, which is connected to the idea of peace. Lastly, the NABRE [the new edition of the NAB] (and the NJB) went with Communion Offering. So which one is better?

In this offering, a herd animal was brought to the sanctuary, divided into several parts with the fatty portions being placed on the fires of the altar and given to God. A choice portion was given to the priest, while the remainder was returned to the offerer and his family to be eaten. It seems that his type of offering was the most common. The note in the NJB gives a good indication as to why it was so popular: "In early times, this sacrifice was the most common and formed the central rite at festivals, being the most perfect way of expressing the communal life, covenantal bond and fellowship existing between the worshipper and his God." In addition, the note found in the JSB [Oxford Jewish Study Bible] points out: "Well-being offerings are thus the natural expression of gladness, the worshipper celebrating by feasting in the presence of God in acknowledgment of His loving-kindness (210)." Finally, Fr. Lawrence Boadt, who died last year, insisted in his introduction to Leviticus in the CSB [Oxford Catholic Study Bible] that our understanding of the Eucharist is greatly enhanced by what we find in Leviticus.

So, with that brief background I provided, both of the Hebrew term and the ritual of the shelamim offering/sacrifice, which English translation better captures the intended meaning?

This is a chance to discuss the differing interpretations of two marvelous commentaries on Leviticus:  Baruch Levine’s (NYU) one-volume JPS commentary and Jacob Milgrom’s (deceased, UC Berkeley) three volume Anchor Bible commentary.

Levine argues:

The word shelamim is difficult to define precisely because the Hebrew verb sh-l-m, from which it derives, has many related yet different connotations. The translation “sacrifice of well-being” reflects one of these meanings, based on the rendering of shalom as “well-being, wholeness.” The preferred rendering “sacred offering of greeting” reflects, on the other hand, the particular role of this sacrifice in the Israelite cult.

In time, shelamim became the term for a general category of sacrifices and was virtually interchangeable with zevaḥ itself. It had several uses, including the thanksgiving offering (todah), the voluntary offering (nedavah), and the payment of vows (neder). Often the shelamim sacrifice was combined with other sacrifices, especially with ʿolah, in celebrating important events in the history of the Israelite people. It also served as part of the public celebration of the Shavuot festival (23:19). It was offered most frequently, however, as a personal sacrifice.

The Hebrew term shelamim is better rendered “a sacred gift of greeting” as will be explained in due course. The noun zevaḥ produced the verb zavaḥ, which is usually translated “to slaughter.” Although in practice a biblical zevaḥ consisted of slaughtered animals, it is more accurate to explain this term as “food offering” and to understand the verb z-v-ḥ as “to celebrate a sacred meal.” The Akkadian cognate is zību, which may designate any offering of food. Both Ugaritic and Phoenician texts indicate that other foodstuffs, aside from meat, could be termed z-b-ḥ/d-b-ḥ. The widespread circulation of these Semitic terms testifies to the importance of this type of sacrifice, from earliest times, in any number of religious cults.

The most detailed description of the zevaḥ sacrifice, apart from the priestly legislation in the Book of Leviticus, is found in 1 Samuel 9:12, 14, 19, 22–25. There participants are referred to as keruʾim, “invited guests.” A priest presided over the celebration—in that instance the prophet Samuel himself, who functioned as a priest on many occasions. Samuel blessed the sacrifice, offered it up, and then distributed portions of it to the invited participants, who partook of it in special rooms. What was eaten by the priests and the invited guests was boiled in pots, whereas the portions offered to God were burned on the altar. Some further details may be deduced from the story concerning the sinful sons of Eli, the priest of Shiloh, as related in 1 Samuel 2:12–16. It was forbidden for the priests or the participants to eat the meat of the zevaḥ before God’s share had been offered to Him on the altar. That account also makes reference to the kinds of pots and forks that were used.

The term shelamim has puzzled commentators since antiquity. The Septuagint gives it no fewer than three different Greek renderings, and midrashic interpretations likewise vary greatly. The usual translation, “peace offering,” merely echoes the Latin of the Vulgate, pacificus, and the Greek eirēnikos, one of the Septuagint’s renderings. Both mean “that which relates to peace.” Presumably, this translation expresses the peaceful, or harmonious, relationship between the worshiper and God, brought about and reaffirmed by the sacrifice itself. In a similar vein, some scholars have taken their cue from a statement in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem included in 1 Kings 8. On that occasion, shelamim offerings were sacrificed, and verse 61 states: “And may you be wholehearted with [shalem ʿim] the LORD our God.” In the view of these scholars, this statement, in the context of the dedication ceremony, establishes the meaning of the word shelamim as a sacrifice intended to reaffirm the covenant between God and the Israelite people. Still another interpretation, also based on one of the connotations of the verb sh-l-m, is preserved in Midrash ha-Gadol. There shelamim is explained in quantitative terms: she-ha-kol shelemim bo, “for all are ‘complete’ in it,” that is, all receive a portion of the sacrifices—priests, participants (or donors), and God. The New English Bible seems to have adopted this view, because it translates shelamim as “shared offering.”

All of the aforementioned interpretations are possible, of course, but there is now comparative evidence to suggest that the term shelamim originally meant “tribute, gift of greeting.” In a Ugaritic epic, Keret, the king of a besieged city, offered shalamūma to the commander of the attacking forces in an effort to induce him to withdraw the siege. In Akkadian texts we find a cognate term, shulmānu, that literally means “a gift of greeting,” such as was presented by vassals to their suzerains when they visited them or by emissaries on a mission to their allies. This meaning reflects the word of greeting, which is shalom in Hebrew and is expressed by similar words in Ugaritic and Akkadian. The shelamim is offered when one greets another by saying “shalom!” In the cult, the shelamim assumed the form of an animal sacrifice offered to God when one came before Him to greet Him at a sacred meal. It was adopted as the name of a particular sacrifice because it expressed the fellowship experienced by the worshipers and priests in God’s presence, as they greeted their divine guest.

On the other hand, Milgrom argues:

šĕlāmîm has been translated here “well-being offering.” This is but one of many suggested translations but all are, at best, educated guesses. Based on etymologies, they never leave the realm of conjecture (Janowski 1980), for example: (1) šālôm ‘peace’, because the offering “effects peace among the altar, the priests, and the offerer” (t. Zebaḥ. 11:1), for “the suet is for the altar, the thigh and breast for the priest (see 7:30–35), and the skin and meat for the offerer” (Sipra, Nedaba 16:2); (2) šālēm ‘whole, sound, harmonious’: “Rabbi Simeon says: he who feels wholesome brings šĕlāmîm but a mourner does not bring šĕlāmîm” (Sipra, Nedaba 16:3; cf. Philo Laws 1. 1.212)—thereby yielding the rendering “well-being offering” (NJPS); (3) W. R. Smith (1927: 265) maintains that the šĕlāmîm effected a mystic union between the offerer and the deity, citing the fact that the sacrifice was eaten “before the Lord” (e.g., Deut 27:7; cf. 1 Sam 1:18–19; 2:13–16) as a shared meal (Gen 31:50)—yielding “communion offering” (Jerusalem Bible; however, see below); (4) šillēm ‘repay’, that is to say, the sacrifice repays God for his blessings (Rashbam on 3:1; cf. Prov 7:14)—yielding “recompense offering” (Moffatt 1922); the Akk. cognates (5) salīmu ‘covenant’ (Schmid 1964; Munn-Rankin 1965; Fensham 1979) or (6) šulmānu ‘gift’ (Levine 1974: 16–17); (7) the LXX provides three translations, two corresponding to (1) and (2), above, and sōtērios ‘salvific’.

The main function of the well-being offering is to provide meat for the table. Assumed is that nonsacrificial slaughter is illegitimate (except for blemished animals and game; see the NOTES on 22:19–25 and the COMMENT on chap. 17) and that whenever an Israelite craved meat he would first have to offer his cattle, sheep, or goat (the only permitted domesticated species except birds, which, however, would be considered game, 17:13–14) as a sacrifice (see chap. 11, COMMENT C). Such an occasion perforce was rare, for only kings and aristocrats could afford the depletion of their flocks. For the commoner, the occasion had to be a celebration—and because the meat was probably too much for the nuclear family, it had to be a household or even a clan celebration—hence the joyous character of the sacrifice.

That this sacrifice implied a mystic union with the deity must be categorically rejected. First, the sacrifice is eaten “before the Lord” (e.g., Deut 27:7), not “with the Lord” (Ehrlich 1908–14). Then, Scripture takes pains to relate—indeed, in early narratives—that the angels who confronted Gideon and Manoah refused to eat their offering but insisted that it be offered up totally as an ʿōlâ (Judg 6:19–21; 13:15–16). Moreover, that the suet of expiatory offerings was burned on the altar surely does not imply that God partakes of them (Snaith 1967 on 4:8). Finally, in contrast to the Greek and Canaanite sacrifices, whose meat was burned on the altar, all of the meat of Israelite sacrifices was eaten by men, and the suet alone was assigned to the deity (de Vaux 1964: 80). Even for the Greeks, as J. Harrison cautions us, “In the Homeric sacrifice there is communion but not the mystical kind; there is no question of partaking of the life and body of the god, only of dining with him” (1922: 56). Furthermore, in Mesopotamia, the gods did not even participate in a shared meal; a king might serve a banquet and invite the gods to it, but he would prepare a separate banquet for himself and his nobles (Charbel 1970).

It has generally been denied that the well-being offering served an expiatory function (but see point 4 below). Maimonides is certainly correct when he wrote, “It appears to me that no confession is ever made over the well-being offering (since it is not brought for wrongdoing) but only words of praise” (“Sacrificial Procedure” 3.15). The key expiatory term kipper is missing from this sacrifice but is found in four ostensible exceptions: (1) Ezek 45:15, 17, where, however, kipper probably refers to the burnt, cereal, and purification offerings in the list and not to the well-being offering. The fact that the latter is last named is significant: it points to a feast at the end of the sacrificial ritual. So too, as Harrison observes, with Homer’s Greeks: “Sacrifice and the flesh feast that followed were so intimately connected that one implied the other” (1922: 56; cf. Ody. 24.215); (2) 1 Sam 3:14, where, however, the term Zebaḥ ûminhâ is a synecdoche referring to all sacrifices (for minḥâ as a blood offering, see 1 Sam 2:17, 29); (3) Exod 29:32–33, but this expiation adverts to the priestly consecration offering, milluʾîm, which is not a šĕlāmîn (see at 8:34); and (4) in Lev 17:11, the šĕlāmîn is inherently expiatory; especially so, because it always ransoms the life of its offerer; yet paradoxically, it is brought on a joyous occasion (for the resolution of this paradox see chap. 11, COMMENT C).

The well-being offering is also present at covenant ratifications (e.g., Exod 24:5, 11), where both parties partake of it (Gen 26:30; 31:54). It is doubtful, however, whether the sacrifice was essential to the covenant ceremony (Levine 1974: 37–41). Rather, it may just have been the means of celebrating the covenant’s successful conclusion (see Ps 50:5).

Of course, this is a technical, defined term, but what do you think is the best rendering into English?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2011 4:03 pm

    My mentor taught that when one asks “How are you?” in Hebrew, one literally says, “How is your peace?” because the real question is, “How are your relationships?” If you were at peace with all the people in your life, then you had peace; if there was discord, you could never truly be peaceful.

    The first use of שְׁלָמִים in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis, where Jacob is negotiating an intermarriage pact with Hamor’s clan after Hamor’s son had raped Jacob’s daughter. Hamor and Shechem go back to their people and say, “These men are peaceable with us; let them dwell in our land and trade freely, and we can all have wild sex together.” (Okay, I paraphrased that last part.) Almost everyone translates שְׁלָמִים as friendly or peaceable, but it got me to thinking that it’s really that their behavior was not troubling, and what relationships they had formed (except for that pesky rape) were good ones.

    So I think שְׁלָמִים might be not so much a “peace offering,” which has come to imply a means to bring peace to a previously troubled relationship, and more of a fellowship offering. Or better, a community offering, since it is the only one shared by so many different parties. “Communion” sounds too overtly religious, when I think it really is about strengthening the bonds that already exist.

    Note how where the term is used in Exodus, both times it is paired with עֹלֹ֑ת (whole burnt offerings), as if to say, whole burnt offerings for God, and community offerings for the community. The second use—the forging and worship of the Golden Calf—is even more explicit, because they “sent up burnt offerings, and brought out community offerings; the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Not propitiatory or peacemaking, really: just good old communal revelry.

    So I’d start with “community offering” as a basic translation and then tweak it as the context might demand.

  2. December 15, 2011 4:07 pm

    How render such a term is always difficult. Recently I looked at a new Ugaritic letter that uses the root šlm in more than one way. In the salutation it uses the word to mean good health but in the body of the letter it uses it in a way that people coming to Ugaritic from Hebrew might find surprising. It uses it to mean “make whole” in what seems a very commercial sense (to pay a bill). Now, Ugaritic is not Hebrew and this letter is not a ritual text. So, one might want to look at passages like 2 Sam 3:39 and Prov 11:11 as Hebrew examples of a theological rather than a commercial balancing of the books. The same idea may occur in Arad ostracan 21 line 4. [. . .] May YHWH pay/reward (yšlm) [my] lord.” Too bad the text is broken. I really haven’t looked seriously at the Lev 3:1 expression for some time (at least 30 years) but I wonder if we might want to render it “sacrifice of compensation” or the like – just rather uncritically examined food for thought.

  3. December 16, 2011 4:49 pm

    Craig: interesting. I do not know the etymology of “Shalom”, only the folk-etymology based on Judges 6:24 and Babylonian Talmud Shabbos 10b that “Shalom” is a name of God. It is certainly the case that “Shalom” is widely used in the term “Shalom Bayis” to refer to ideal marital state.

    Duane: interesting — I will need to look up that Ugaritic letter. I must confess that s-l-m is such a loaded term in contemporary and medieval Hebrew that it is quite hard for me to understand it always in original context.

  4. December 16, 2011 5:34 pm

    Theophrastus: The specific letter I referenced (RS 94:2391) is as yet unpublished. Pierre Bordreuil presented it at the SBL meeting in San Francisco. He provided a handout with the Ugaritic text. But, you might want to look at yšlm and šlm the economic texts KTU 4.342:5 and KTU 4.398:6, 7.

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