* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rewriting Leviticus, the Little Book of Legalism that No One Really Likes

The book of Leviticus gets its name from the descendants of Levi, who had special religious and political responsibilities among the Israelites. While there are certainly spiritual lessons to be gleaned from the Bible, the book of Leviticus has a very legalistic message that largely has little bearing on modern life. There are a few verses here and there which have merit as sage advice, as we’ll see, but even within the overall context of the Bible, the legalistic approach didn’t work. That’s the whole point of the New Testament, actually.

Which is a point worth mentioning, since there are those apologists who promote the concept of biblical inerrancy and insist on using the Bible as proof of its own veracity. A large portion of the book of Leviticus deals with the appropriate way to handle blood sacrifices: which animals are appropriate for what kind of sacrifice, how the sacrificial animals are to be handled, and how soon it has to be eaten by the priests. If the Bible is absolutely true and without contradiction, then these regulations (from God, mind you) have to be addressed. Most Christians would say that all the business with sacrifices was nullified by Jesus, and that’s all well and good. Except that it means a portion of the inerrant, infallible scripture has been improved upon and rendered obsolete. Which is not to say that the New Testament has it “right” either, but merely to point out an obvious discrepancy.

Another large portion of the book of Leviticus is about cleanliness, as in what kinds of things make a person clean or unclean and what a person must do to regain purity. Among the things that make a person “unclean” are: leprosy, menstruation, having a discharge of any kind below the waist, giving birth (especially giving birth to a girl), touching certain animal carcasses, or eating a creature found dead. Ritual washing after a waiting period is typically enough to cleanse a person from those impurities. Mold is also unclean, and if washing moldy clothing or walls doesn’t get rid of it, a priest can order the moldy object to be destroyed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We still have issues with mold in our homes today. Some of the ideas about what makes a person “unclean” reflect a certain level of ignorance within the culture, however.

Of particular interest are the regulations about what can be eaten. Orthodox Jews today still follow many of the prescribed dietary laws of Leviticus, if not all of them. Americans will be disappointed to learn that fat is prohibited, along with pork, rabbit, shrimp, monitor lizards, and “flying insects that go about on four legs.” The laws even go so far as to dictate something of a “resting period” for fields, years in which nothing is harvested so that the land will continue to be bountiful. That part’s not actually a bad idea. Most people wouldn’t have a problem giving up bats and weasels from their diet, although they may not be keen on adding grasshoppers to the menu. The biggest problem with this whole topic (aside from the idea that what a person eats can make them innately impure) is once again with regard to the issue of inerrancy.

In the New Testament, it is proclaimed that all food is clean. Peter reportedly had a vision about it, and Paul wrote explicitly that all food is clean and people should stop getting hung up on such insignificant issues. I’ll just come out and say that I agree with this point of view. It bears noting, however, that the same Bible that declares all food to be clean also declares that, according to God, eating some things will make you unclean and could get you kicked out of the community of chosen people. Both statements cannot be true. And if God is infallible, then how can he have changed his mind on the subject? Since the Bible obviously holds contradictory information, it doesn’t make sense to cling to the concept of a completely inerrant body of scripture. And, truth be told, most self-proclaimed Christians use a certain amount of personal discernment and judgment about such things anyway.

The last big topic in Leviticus is sexual impurity. We don’t really need divine guidance to tell us that we shouldn’t sleep with our close relatives, but it’s understandable given what we know about Abraham’s family tree that this was important information for the Israelites to clarify. And it is clarified in great detail. It is spelled out exactly with whom (and what) a person should not be having sexual relations. Punishments for disobedience range from being ostracized or childless (which their god could obviously determine), to being burned or stoned to death. If nothing else, it certainly offers some insight into how the Israelites were tempted to pass the time as they were wandering in the wilderness.

Leviticus also records some very wise advice, though. For instance, it recounts the commandments about not stealing from each other, not deceiving one another, and not lying about people. It commands employers to deal with their workers honestly and justly, and it instructs people not to hold grudges. One of my favorite lines urges people to confront people directly and earnestly instead of sugar-coating things or just standing by and watching someone’s unhealthy behavior. In fact, it is here that the Bible first admonishes, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a shame that these tidbits of wisdom are scattered in and amongst rules about not trimming the sides of your beard. It can be easy to lose sight of what’s important when confronted with the legalism of exactly how a purification sacrifice has to be done and exactly which of your family members you can’t sleep with.

But it isn’t all threats of punishment from on high. There is a short passage in which God expresses what the reward will be for following all of the laws. He’ll send rain to nourish the earth, and he’ll make their harvests plentiful. He’ll make the land peaceful, eradicating all the wild beasts and keeping invaders out. In fact, he’ll make the enemies of the Israelites fall by the sword before them. He’ll increase the Israelites in number, and he won’t hate them. If they just do everything properly.

These sorts of promises seem somewhat problematic. How many people have to do things right in order for the harvest to be plentiful? If it doesn’t rain, how do we know whose fault it is? And if it does rain, does that mean that we’ve been perfect? If our numbers increase, does that mean we’ve done everything right? Or right enough, at least? Or is it only the actual number of Jews that we should be keeping track of? While there are some people who still believe that natural cycles are a direct measure of God’s satisfaction with humanity, most people understand that weather patterns are not based on whether my neighbor eats fat or sleeps with his aunt. The abundance of our food supply depends on a lot of factors, but none of those factors has to do with whether we have properly put our community’s sins into a goat and set it free in the wilderness.

The book of Leviticus reminds us how ludicrous we can be sometimes when we start trying to control every detail and ensure perfection in how we orchestrate our lives. For those who are Christian, the book shows the need for a savior, since it would be impossible for anyone to do everything precisely according to the law. From another standpoint, perhaps it is worth looking at the few rays of insight that shine through the legalism. Which basically boil down to one thing. Respect people. Just respect other people. Not for any particular reason. Just because they are human beings. We don’t need magical rituals to purify us, and we don’t need to stone people or burn them when they make mistakes. We have done and will do some things that we’re not proud of. We’re all in the same boat as far as that goes. If we could just cultivate a little respect for other people, we might eventually even be able to make a few more laws obsolete.

So, the book of Leviticus rewritten? Respect people. All people. And if you fail to do so, forgive yourself and go back to respecting people again.


  1. There is so much to say about Leviticus that I don’t even know where to begin !

    It is a mistake to dismiss the majority of the contents of the book and boil it down to “respect people.” So many people, Christians perhaps most of all, dismiss Leviticus as boring and irrelevant, and let their prejudices get in the way. But there is so much richness to be had!

    The laws about relating to one another (“respect people) are a decent place to start. Throughout the Old Testament, God demands that the Israelites, as his chosen people, reflect God’s holiness. All of Israel’s actions should reflect the integrity and purpose of God, and as recipients of his divine compassion (e.g., leading them out of slavery in Egypt), they must always act with a similar compassion for others. Time and again God demands this from them, and time and again they fall short (just as we do today).

    Understanding Leviticus requires understanding the perspective of the Israelites. God had revealed himself as their divine creator, and shown his power by, among other things, overcoming the might pharaoh of Egypt. Being a witness to the ten plagues alone must have been awe-inspiring. They didn’t have scriptures, they didn’t have traditions, they didn’t have thousands of years’ worth of societal wisdom to refer to. They couldn’t go to the local library and read up on this whole God thing, the way we can. Monotheism was revolutionary, and this newly revealed, singular God was flexing his muscles in greatly intimidating ways.

    So from their perspective, God exists, and his authority and power are to be respected. In Judaism and Christianity, the transcendence of God is the foundation for the entire belief system. There is a profound gulf between us, the creatures, and God, the creator – we must humble ourselves before God. He is holy, or set apart. There is nothing casual about this relationship.

    Leviticus, then, is a handbook for how to approach the gulf between God and man, and how to live the life of holiness that God demands. The laws are intended to delineate the sacred from the ordinary; the clean from the unclean. Certain aspects of our humanity are intrinsically holy, such as sexuality, birth, and death – they are part of the mystery of our creation, and are to be treated with special reverence. Certain aspects of our humanity are intrinsically unholy, namely sin: greed, lust, and so on.

  2. As for the clean and unclean foods, the reasoning behind these laws has been debated for centuries. One theory is that they represent a primitive kind of hygiene, in which the unclean animals were potentially carriers of disease (pigs, for example, were bearers of trichinosis). Others point out that these laws seem to reflect an idealistic view of God’s creation. Only fish that swim, birds that fly, and animals that graze are fully part of God’s plan; flightless birds (ostriches), sea creatures that walk (lobster), animals that crawl close to the ground (insects) seem to be not quite perfect. And since God calls us to lead holy lives, we shouldn’t eat imperfect things.

    Perhaps it was a little of both, or perhaps they were thinking something else altogether. There’s no way of knowing.

    (Side note: when you think about our Food and Drug Administration and all its regulations… or our tax code…. We put the Israelites to shame! The 613 commandments in the Jewish faith looks like a flimsy pamphlet compared to the laws and rules of our society… and the lofty aspiration of attempting holiness isn’t even our explicit objective.)

    I could go on and on -- I find Leviticus fascinating. But essentially, when studying Leviticus, we need to explore the insights and meanings of the various laws and practices. These laws were progressive in their day, believe it or not, and they reflect major improvements in many areas. This can be difficult to appreciate in our modern area of sterile hospitals and safe food preparation practices. We also should look at the religious themes presented, and what they tell us about God. Sacrifice is obviously a huge theme in Leviticus, for example – without knowing the huge role it played in the Israelites ability to approach or relate to God, the true meaning and significance of Jesus’ death would be lost.

    And speaking of Jesus, we actually believe that he *fulfilled* many of these laws, not that he *nullified* them. There’s a big difference! That specific detail is why the Bible does not, in fact, contradict itself.

    God’s plan is infinite in its wisdom – it is we humans that fall short. Jesus instituted a New Covenant, because the previous covenants between God and man had been broken… by man.

  3. As I’ve said elsewhere: We are not ancient Israelites. The rules and laws of ancient Israelite culture are not any more transcendent or holy than the rules and laws of any other culture. It is for this reason that I didn't want to get bogged down in a book of Jewish law.

    What you say makes sense to a certain point. The history of the Israelites was not written as it happened. The first five books of the Old Testament were assembled, added to, and changed over hundreds of years by the leaders of the Israelite community. I know that church tradition attributes all of this to Moses, but the research just doesn't support this notion. The archaeological evidence doesn't even support the story of an Israelite exodus from Egypt or an astounding series of plagues. So, it does indeed make sense to view this as the Israelites searching over a very long time for ways to establish their monotheism and to determine how to appropriately treat matters they considered to be sacred. And those sacred things you mentioned -- birth, death, and sexuality -- are given special treatment in every culture.

    So, Leviticus may be a fascinating look at Israelite culture, but these laws do not have real value for us in our culture. We need to find our own ways to set apart sacred things and to deal with the things that separate us from ourselves and other people. However progressive Leviticus was in its day, it isn't progressive today.

    Regarding Jesus' fulfilling the law and not nullifying them, this becomes a matter of semantics at a certain level. The end result was that animal sacrifices were removed from Jewish religious culture. The laws in Leviticus and elsewhere regarding sacrifices were nullified, whatever the reason. That's not even part of Jewish worship today. So, whether one points to Jesus as "fulfilling" this requirement for all time or one points to a shift in culture, the laws of Leviticus are historical artifacts.

    I absolutely agree that it's important for Christians to understand the cultural significance of sin sacrifice in order to grasp the significance of the New Testament, but from my perspective the entire premise of Leviticus is flawed. Here is the point at which our beliefs diverge, and since I am as convinced of my beliefs as you are of yours, what follows is more an articulation of perspective than any attempt to win you over.

    There is no gulf to be bridged. There is no divinely orchestrated plan to be followed. There is no obligation for us to sacrifice things we value, although it is rewarding to offer something of ourselves to other people or to the betterment of our world when we freely choose to do so. Humility before an all-powerful supernatural entity can be replaced with authenticity about one's self. There are still things in life that are worth being set apart -- sacred things -- but there is no reason for us to conclude that the way these things were acknowledged in one faith tradition thousands of years ago is any better than what we may find meaningful today.

    The connection that matters is the connection we build and maintain with ourselves and with other people. And those connections come easily when we are able to look at what matters most to us, at who we are at our core, without the judgment and the shame and the lies we have been told about who we are or what we have to be afraid of... When we can find that source of knowledge within ourselves that gives us certainty about our worth as human beings and certainty that everyone we share this planet with has value as well. Our quest to connect with something above us often blinds us to the real beauty and simple truth of our existence.

    That is my perspective, and although I don't expect everyone to share it, it is the heart of why I write and share and explore in this venue.