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Leviticus has an edifice complex.

Reflecting the architecture of the

tabernacle, the book is much more than a stern recitation of the dangers
of impurity. With chapter 19 as its apex, Leviticus is about justice and
love in the community of faith. Indeed, its relevance in Jesus' ministry
may surprise Christians.
Justice as the Cornerstone
An lnterpretation of Leviticus 18-20
Mary Douglas
Professor of Social Anthropology
University College London
LEVITICUS IS OFl'EN READ SOCIOLOGICALLY as if the dangers of impurity were the main
interest of its editors. When it is read, however, as a specimen of an ancient literaiy
genre its focus shifts to the tabernacle and Gcid's justice expressed in the covenant.
Read in this way, the book appears. to be much more in sympathy with the other
books of the Pentateuch and with the Psalms. Such an interpretation requires some
prefacing about literary styles and literary problems.
Narrative unfolds in space. A clear spatial setting roots and relates the characters
that inhabit it. It also affords scope for movement and time. A closed space gives
closure to a story, within which there can be a beginning, a middle, and an antici-
pated end. In this sense, the journey of the people oflsrael from the Red Sea to the
Jordan holds together the diverse episodes recounted in the books of Moses. Well
known in antiquity was the literary tradition of plotting a composition on a building,
or parts of a building. The entrance and compartments evoke a s ~ s of journey: one
enters and passes from room to room; the exit or closed walls prepare the ending.
Similarly, the idea of an organism provided a favorite metaphorical framework for
conveying a complex set of literary relations. The Song of Songs, for example, draws
vivid parallels between geographical and anatomical features,
as poets have always
clone between bodies and landscape.
-------------------------- Interpretation 341
Pedimental composition
Not necessarily a whole building, but certain architectural elements helped to
provide the layout of an elegant literary structure.John L. Myres has identified such
a literary form, which he calls a "pedimental composition," in the works of Homer,
Hesiod, and Herodotus. A pediment in classical architecture is the triangular shaped
portion of the wall above the comice, which formed the termination of the roof
behind it. It corresponded to the gable in Gothie architecture, and in Roman
architecture the pediment decorated the tops of doors or windows. "Pedimental
composition" slopes up to .a high point, the climax, then slopes back clown again to
the same level as the first. Myres wrote that, "whether in narrative or sculpture and
painting, the climax is central and episodes are arranged on either hand-or in
narrative, before and after-to prepare for it or to reveal its consequences. Th<e)
pediments of the temple in Aegina, a war-memorial from the years after Salamis,-
display the Greek victory by setting triumphant Athena in the midst of a convergent
mele ofGreeks and Persians."
Pedimental composition shows up in heraldic grc;mpings on engraved seal-
stones, on the "Lion Gate" relief at Mycenae, in early bronze reliefs c;ind vase-
paintings, and in the description of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad xviil, and the
Hesiodic "Shield of Heracles." Whereas the pedimental style puts the climax in the
middle, the frieze-another style of composition-follows a linear layout with one
episode after the next. Sometimes the frieze is combined with the pediment, resulting
in a serial presentation of successive episodes climaxing in the central image and
then repeated with variations in the other direction.
My forthcoming study shows that the Book ofLeviticus displays important
elements of pedimental composition, but also that the book as a whole has a more
specific architectural framework.
It is designed on the proportions of the desert
tabernacle, which itself was made accofding to the instructions given by God to
Moses on Mount Sinai: "According to all that 1 show you concerning the pattern of
the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it" (Exod 25:9). Exodus 37
says exactly how the sanctuary is to be furnished, with the lampstand, the table for the
showbread, and the incense altar, and even where each article of furniture has to be
placed. In Exod 40:22-25, the positions are repeated as Moses does what he has been
told to do. The positioning of the furnishings is evidently as important as the ground
plan itself. As 1 read Leviticus, the book parallels the architecture of the desert
tabernacle in its own literary design.
The tabernacle is a structure of three compartments of unequal size, the first
opening on the next, and the second opening on the third. Two screens separate
them. Leviticus also has a clear three-part structure. Two narratives that separate one
part from the next correspond to the two screens in the ground plan: Lev 8-10 (the
death of the sons of Aaron) and 24: 10-23 (the death of the blasphemer). Grouped in
each of the three parts, th laws that comprise Leviticus deal with the actions or
Justice as the. Cornerstone
furnishings proper to the corresponding part of the tabernacle. The first compart-
ment of the book (chaps. 1-7 and 11-17) deals with the sacrifices of atonement that
take place in the court of sacrifice in the first part of the building. The second part,
(18: 1-24:9), which deals with the conditions, rights, and duties of the priests,
corresponds to the sanctuary to which only the priests have access. The third and
smallest compartment-the holy of holies-which con tains the ark of the covenant, is
matched in the book by three chapters strongly focused on the covenant, its mean-
ing, and the consequences ofkeeping or breaking it (chaps. 25-27).
ln short,
Leviticus is a book projected upon a building. Reading it in this way not only
resolves many puzzles about the order in which the laws appear in the book, it also
leads to a different interpretation of the laws.
In this essay, 1 want to show how certain readings change when particular verses
are seen as elements in a pedimental composition. This is not a new discovery. In
biblical scholarship, the same form is frequently called chiastic and shown to be very
common, ifnot ubiquitous. But to make use ofMyres's insight, one needs to focus
particularly on the middle part and be fully prepared to look for the main message of
Leviticus there, its climax. 1 propose that the trilogy of chapters 18, 19, and 20
reflects a pedimental structure in whih chapter 19 forms the apex-the climax-the
place at which God'sjustice is explained.
Cultic laws
The trilogy of chapters 18, 19, 20 opens with a general injunction to the people
of Israel not to follow the statutes of Canaan and Egypt:
Say to the people of Israel, 1 am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the
land of Egypt where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan,
to which 1 am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall dq my
ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. 1 am the Lord your. God. You shall
therefore keep my ordinances, by doingwhich a man shall live: 1 am the Lord (18:3-5).
The laws that follow are commonly taken to be Leviticus's teaching on marriage
and sex. But 1 would argue that in this chapter the reference is not primarily to sexual
behavior in the everyday life of the people of Israel, but to sexual irregularities as
known in foreign cults.
The opening verses mean literally what they say. The text does not refer to the
immorality, sexual misdemeanors, or other bad behavior of the foreigners, but to the
evil statutes of their gods, which are to be contrasted with the good statutes of the
God of Israel. The Lord's ordinances are to be contrasted with those of the gods of
Egypt and Canaan. Then after this preface, chapters 18 and 20 follow symmetrically,
like two matching sets of prohibitions. There are slight variations in their sequencing
but great overlap in content. When it cornes to the endings of each chapter, the same
threat that the land may vomit them out is repeated. There could hardly be a stronger
--------------------------- Intrpretation 343
framing of the central chapter at the apex of the pediment.
We start by taking chapters 18 and 20 together because they echo each other in
obvious ways. Between their paralleled repetitions lies chapter 19, which must be
considered to be central and of prime importance if only because of the way it is
framed by them. Chapters 18 and 20 are like a song chorus, chanting the same
anathemas against the same evil things that are clone in the religions of Egypt and
It is worth pausing to notice how they recall the ceremony required in Deut
27: 11-14, in which the twelve tribes are to be divided into two groups. Six of them
are instructed to stand upon Mount Gerizim (Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, !j
and Benjamin) to bless the people, and the remaining six (Reuben, Gad, Asher,
Zebulun, Dan, and NapthaU) to stand on Mount Ebal for the curse. Traditional
commentators have reconstructed the deuteronomic text and the scene in slightly
varying ways. Following Tigay's construction,
the Levites first face Mount Gerizim to
call out a specific blessing, to which all the assembled tribes answer, ' ~ e n . Then
they turn around to face Mount Ebal to call out the curse, which is the converse o ~ the
blessingjust given. The people again answer, "Amen," which is taken to constitute an
oath not to commit the named offences. Deuteronomy 27 does not provide the text
for the composite blessings and curses, but only gives twelve curses. Cursed is the one
who makes a graven image, who dishonors his father or mother, who removes a
neighbor's landmark, who misleads a blind man, who perverts justice, who lies with
his father's wife, who lies with any kind ofbeast, who lies with his sister, who lies with
his mother-in-law, who slays a neighbor in secret, who takes a bribe to slay an inno-
cent person, andwho does not keep this law (vv. 15-26).
Notice that Deuteronomy does not classify the transgressions it names: prescrip-
tions against sexual sins are found among laws against taking bribes to pervert the
course of justice, moving landmarks, and misleading a blind person. This ceremony
is repeated in the next chapter of Deuteronomy, where six blessings give promises of
fertility and prosperity if the people keep the commandments (28: 1-14). After the
blessings follow the terrible curses that will fall upon them ifthey do not (vv. 15-68).
It is important to know that the curses and blessings constitute the standard covenant
formula for oaths concluding a treaty.
Leviticus almost repeats the deuteronomic formula in chapters 18 and 20, but
with two notable differences. For one, Deuteronomy draws the curses freely from the
decalogue: prohibiting molten images is in the same list with dishonoring father or
mother, incest, murder, bribery, and corruption. For its part, the Leviticus version
picks out the sexual offences from the rest. The focus of the laws in the two framing
chapters (18 and 20) is upon idolatry and sexual offences, as seen in the following
table. Is it not curious that Leviticus has rearranged the prohibitions? Or, since we
need not presume which came first, is it not remarkable that Leviticus has organized
all the sexual offences under a cultic rubric? Idolatry and sex are collected into the
two outer, corresponding chapters-the framing sections-sa as to separate and
Justice as the_ Cornerstone
enclose the laws of chapter 19 about honest dealings and fairness. Justice is the
corner or apex of the pediment, the conspicuous place ofhonor. Compared with the
comparatively haphazard list of curses in Deuteronomy 27, it must be agreed that this
is likely to be a very significant arrangement.
vv. 6-18 lncest with near kin and v. 11 Incest with father's wife
in-laws: father, mother, father's v. 12 Incest with daughter-in-law
wife, sister, son's daughter, v. 14 Sexual relations with a daughter
daughter's daughter, father's wife's and her mother
,daughter, father's sister, mother's v. 17 lncest with sister
sister, father's brother's wife, son's v. 19 lncest with mother's or father's
wife, brother's wife, a woman and sis ter
her daughter, wife's sister. v. 20 lncest with uncle's wife
v. 21 Incest with brother' s wife
v. 19 Menstrual uncleanness v. 18 Menstrual uncleanness
v. 20 Adultery with neighbor's wife v. 10 Adultery with neighbor's wife
v. 21 Devoting children to Molech vv. 2-5 Devoting children to Molech
v. 22 Male homosexual intercmi:t:se v. 13 Male homosexual intercourse
v. 23 Bestiality vv. 15-16 Bestiality
vv. 6-8 Mediums and wizards
v. 9 Cursing father or mother
vv. 24-30 "For all of these v. 22 "You shall therefore keep all my
abominations the men of the land statutes and all my ordinances, and
did, who were before you, so that do them, that the land where 1 am
the land became defiled; lest the bringing you may not vomit you out.
land vomit you out, when you You shall not walk in the customs of
defile it, as it vomited out the the nation which 1 am casting out
nation that was before you." before you."
This impressive pair of chapters is like a great proscenium arch for a proces-
sional rite, or more like two carved pillars on either sicle of a shrine. Leviticus
deliberately puts the laws of honest dealings at the center and the sexual sins at the
periphery. The laws on each sicle against incest, sodomy, and bestiality are backed by
twice-repeated warnings that the land will vomit the people out if they follow these
practices. Defilement is the common threat for them all; it results from cultic viola-
tion, which n:iakes the context inescapably cultic.
Let us confirm the argument by running quickly through the list. It was widely
understood that Canaanite cults had male temple prostitutes (Deut 23: 17).
Zeus lusted for the boy Gannymede. These would be the references for Lev 18:22 and
---------------------------- Interpretation 345
20:13 against sodomy. Asto incest, it is readily and correctly associated with the
religion of the Egyptian Pharaohs, so there is no difficulty in finding the reference
for 18:6-18 and the corresponding verses on incest in chapter 20. Sexual congress
with animais was practiced in foreign rites in the surrounding regions. Herodotus
said, "The he-goat and Pan are both called Mendes in the Egyptian language. In this
province, in my time, a monstrosity took place: a he-goat coupled with a woman,
plain for all to see. This was clone in the nature of a public exhibition. "
reserved about religious matters, Herodotus does not mention that the monstrosity
was a ritual in the cuit of Pan. Copulation with a stallion was part of a Vedic rite, also
as a public exhibition.
These and similar stories would be the reference for 18:23
and 20: 15-6. Asto congress with a menstruating woman, forbidden in 18: 18 and
20: 19, use of menstrual blood was associated in Mesopotamia with pacts with demons.
The formality of the context cannot be overlooked. The contrast with
Deuteronomy 27 shows that the anathemas in Leviticus 18 and 20 are not laws about
everyday affairs. They say nothing about marriage, inheritance, divorce, or choice of
marriage partners. They are not concerned with wrong conduct in family life so much
as with breach of covenant. These are laws about faithfully worshipping only the Lord
God and about defilement by idolatry: The verses start with Egypt and Canaan,
referring with,loathing to Egyptian and Canaanite cuits. Both supporting chapters
mention Molech worship; the second one denounces mediums and seers. The effect
of using these unedifying sexual deviations to build a frame around chapter 19 is to
underscore the concepts of justice which are expounded in the middle. The pure and
noble character of the Hebrew God is contrasted with the libidinous customs of the
false gods. This does not mean that the sexual deviations are not counted as sinful,
but it does imply that they are less significant than sins against justice, false oaths,
stealing, cheating, and false witness.
Condemnation of homosexuality
Chapters 18 and 20 have regularly been cited to condemn homosexual inter-
course. The argument about their meaning has gained new interest in recent years.
"Homosexuality has emerged as a central issue in organized religion in America, and
most religious bodies have needed to examine their position toward it-often heat-
edly. Gay and lesbianJews have themselves entered this discourse."
J ews, grieved to find themselves excluded from their religion, have not only found
arguments to reconcile their apparently divergent practice, they have founded
thriving gay communities, with gay synagogues and other gay religious institutions.
Their communities are able to find common cause with the people of Israel wrong-
fully oppressed. One of their arguments follows the lines of that presented above: the
laws of Lev 18:22 and 20: 13 refer to temple prostitution. Following on this, the
expression, "Thou shalt not lie with a man as one lies with a woman," parallels the
prohibition against adultery with a neighbor's wife. Both are intended to protect the
married state.11 Furthermore, the idea of homosexuality as a condition of a person
Justice as the Cornerstone
was not envisaged: " ... what Leviticus forbids is not homosexuality as understood
today (in other words, a permanent orientation), but homosexual acts performed by
heterosexuals (for example, the molestation described in Genesis 19:4-5)."
But there is more to it than that. The analysis above provides two more reasons
against citing Leviticus to justify throwing a homosexual out of the community. The
first is the one given above, that particular sins are denounced in Leviticus 18 and 20
because they enter into the idolatrous cults of foreign nations. The second is that, in
a secular context, sexual deviance is immoral but not more heinous than other sins.
Another reason appears when we consider the punishments. Chapter 18 names the
sins and chapter 20 names the penalties. Chapter 20 allows the sins to be grouped
accordingly. Offering children to Molech is punished by stoning; wizards and
magicians are eut off; five sins are punished by death: cursing father or mother,
adultery, sex with father-in-law or daughter-in-law, homosexual acts, and bestiality.
Sex with a daughter and her mother is punished by burning.
In this list, homo-
sexual acts are set at the same level of gravity as adultery or incest, no more or less.
The opprobrium of sexual deviance, which starts in the reference to foreign cults, no
doubt includes the private behavior of members of the congregation. The effect goes
both ways; the judgment against sodomy in secular contexts enhances the insult to
the obscene foreign gods who include it in their rites. At the same time, it is salutary
to remember that a community thatjustifies its persecution ofhomosexuals by
reference to Leviticus can hardly tolerate an adulterer in its midst.
The cornerstone
Chapter 19 differs greatly. Both chapters 18 and 20 command the people to
keep the Lord's statutes and ordinances (18:4, 5, 26; 20:7, 8, 22) and to be holy
(20:7, 26), but only once do we find in these framing chapters anything about the
context ofthese statutes and ordinances (the exception is the reference to unclean
animals, 20:25). By contrast, chapter 19 shifts attention away from the cults of
foreigners to the cult of Israel by specific commands. To be sure, the general prescrip-
tions to be holy (19:2) and to keep the statutes and ordinances (19:19, 27) provide
continuity, but a large number of detailed, positive rules can also be found: revere
father and mother (v. 3); keep my sabbaths (v. 3); offer a sacrifice ofpeace so that it
may be acceptable, eating it only on the first or second day (vv. 5-6); leave gleanings
ofyour field and vineyard for the poor and sojourner (vv. 9-10); fear God (v. 11);
judge in righteousness (v. 15); reason with your neighbor (v. 17); love your neighbor
(v. 18); bring a guilt offering so that the priest shall make atonement (vv. 21-22); offer
to Godin the fourth year and in the fifth year eat the fruit of the young trees (v. 25);
reverence my sanctuary (v. 30); honor an old man and fear your God (v. 32); love the
stranger as yourself (v. 34); and have just weights and measures (v. 36). This chapter
says a lot about personal attitudes, loving, hating, respecting, fearing, and not
bearing a grudge, which again indicates that, unlike the preceding and following
chapters, it is directed to the individual worshipper.
--------------------------- Interpretation 347
Another major difference between chapter 19 and any other chapter in Leviticus
is the frequency of the refrain "I am the Lord," sometimes found alone and some-
times with "your God" added. It appears five times in chapter 18 (vv. 4, 5, 6, 21, 30),
and twice in chapter 20 (vv. 7, 8), but in chapter 19 it <livides the text fourteen
For Bible scholars interested in numerical indicators,
these two sets of
seven may be the most important index of the centrality of chapter 19.
If these words are used rhetorically as dividers of significant units, it is beyond
my skill to work out their significance. I suggest that they are scattered rather freely
throughout the text, as precious stones or ornaments might be scattered throughout
the tabernacle to indicate the holiness of the place. It is commonly recognized that as
one moves from the outer court to the sanctuary and from the sanctuary to the holy of
holies the materials of the tabernacle become richer and rarer. Perhaps Leviticus 19
needs this extra decoration, since compared with the anathemas of chapters 18 and
20, it is bound to seem tame. The connection with holiness is made in the preamble
to chapter 19, ("You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy," 19:2) and in the
ending of chapter 20 ("You shall be holy tome, for I the Lord am holy," 20:26), thus
forming an inclusio that encompasses' these two chapters. Thus, chapters 19 and 20
explain what holiness means.
Chapter 19 surveys and enlarges upon most of the laws that Leviticus has already
given. It starts off telling the people to honor their parents, keep the sabbaths, and
not turn to idols (vv. 1-4). Then in vv. 5-8 divine justice is combined with mercy: the
Lord's people are enjoined to be generous to each other as the Lord is to them. For
example, we have already read the doctrine of sacred left-overs in 7: 16-18, but have
received no explanation of what the law means. According to this teaching, the
partakers of a sacrificial feast must not hoard the food so as to have something left to
eat on the third day. Without 19:5--8, in which the law is reiterated, it would stand as
a mysterious offense. But here it is paralleled by the following laws on gleaning,
which require the farmer to provide deliberate left-overs ofhis harvest for the poor
(19:9-10). In this way, we learn that medical materialism does not explain the rule; it
has nothing to do with the way food goes bad in hot climates. What is sinful is
essentially the hoarding: The rule enforces wider distribution of the feast.
The lesson here is not that holiness is purely a matter of the cuit but that
holiness requires in ritual contexts correspondence to what God's people must do for
each other in secular contexts. The parallel between what people do for God and
what people do for each other is theologically rich. The ritual laws, in short, are
grounded in justice. Elsewhere, the judicial laws against stealing, lying, defrauding,
and swearing falsely are given in Leviticus 5-6 in connection with sin offerings and
guilt offerings. Where they are repeated in 19:11, the command not to steal, deal
falsely, or lie to one another is paralleled in the same verse with the command not to
swear falsely by God's name. The juxtaposition of truth to God and truth to others is
not incidental. In effect, the chapter makes the distinction between secular and ritual
irrelevant: everything that the people do, from day to day and sabbath to sabbath,
Justice as the Cornerstone
involves being obedient to the command to be holy. Holiness involves making their
lives a transparent enactment of God's law.
Chapter 19 refers frequently to God's ordinances but not to the abstract noun for
justice. N evertheless, we can sum it up as a chapter about justice because the English
abstract noun connotes the very behavior that is exemplified. The idea of justice in
this chapter rests on the concept of fairness. A few chapters later, we read the law of
talion, "an eye for an eye," in a ruthless sense of tit-for-tat (24: 17-22). However,
before reaching that point, chapter 19 has already warned the reader that fairness
always needs to be taken into account. It is not fair to treat a blind man as if he could
see, an old man as if he were young, a lame man as if he could run, and so on. 1 am
tempted to include in this interpretation the much discussed laws against interbreed-
ing, sowingwith two kinds ofseed, wearing garments oftwo kinds offabric (19:19),
and sex between a free man and the slave woman (19:20-22).
The peroration of the chapter repeats the teaching about fairness: "You shall do
no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have
just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin" (19:35-36). This chimes with
Deuteronomy, "You shall not have in your bag different weights, a large and a small.
You shall not have in your bag different measures, a large and a small. But you shall
have a perfect andjustweight; a andjust measure you shall have" (25:13-16).
So also in Prov 11: 1 we find "A false is an abomination to the Lord, but a just
weight is his delight" (see also Prov 16:11; 20:10, 23). Leviticus explains what it is to
use a just weight.
Insofar as Leviticus is a literary model of the proportions of the tabernacle,
chapters 18-20 correspond to the first step past the dividing screen and the first view
of the sanctuary, the middle compartment of the tabernacle. On the principle of
pedimental composition, we should look for the maning of Leviticus in its middle
part, chapter 19.
And in the middle of chapter 19, we read: "You shall love your
neighbor as yourself" (v. 18). The rule that astonishes Christians who did not
remember that it came from the Old Testament is revealed as the cornerstone of
holiness teaching.
1. This article is based on my forthcoming book, Leviticus as Literature, Oxford University
Press, to whom thanks are due for permission.
2. R. L. Cohn, The Shape of Sacred Space: Four Biblical Studies, AAR 23 (Chico, Cal.:
Scholars Press, 1981).
3. J. L. Myres, Herodotus, Father of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953) 62-64. 1
acknowledge the help of Simon Hornblower for the discussion of pedimental composition.
4. M. Douglas, Leviticus as Literature. Again, 1 thank the Oxford University Press for
permission to publsh parts of chapter 11 in advance of publication.
5. The word for covenant is referred to eight times in chapter 26 (vv. 9, 15, 25, 42 [three
times], 44, 45). ,
--------------------------- Interpretation 349
6. J. H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: J ewish Publication Society, 1996) 252.
7. See also 1 Kgs 14:24,10, 22; 2 Chron 20:35, 37.
8. Herodotus, The History, 2.46.
9. W. Doniger, "The Tail of the Indo-European Horse Sacrifices," Incognita 1(1990)18-
37. .
1 O. M. Shokeid, A Gay Synagog;ue in New York (New York: Columbia University Press,
1995) 17.
11. Ibid., 132.
12. H. Maccoby, "Leviticus and abomination," Times Literary Supplement (11 September
1998) 17.
13. According to a profound analysis of ancient ideas about incest by the French anthro-
pologist F. Heritier, for the same man to have sex with two women related in the first degree
(i.e., with a woman and her daughter or with two sisters) was generally considered the most
heinous form of incest. See Heritier, Les Deux Soeurs et leur Mre (Paris: Odile] acob, 1997).
14. "I am the Lord your God" appears in this chapter seven times (vv. 3, 4, 10, 25, 31,
34, 36). "I am the Lord" also appears seven times after sets of specific laws (vv. 12, 14, 16,
18, 28, 30, 32). Finally, at the end of the chapter, it appears again in the general peroration in
v. 37, "And you shall observe all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them, 1 am the
15. W. Warning, Literary Artistry in Leviticus, Biblical Interpretation Series 35 (Leiden:
Brill, 1999).
16. Chapter 19 fulfills another structural function, that is, to balance and support
chapter 26. Between these chapters the principle of God's covenant with the people is