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.