Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Priests' Manual

Leviticus is often very boring, at times horrifying, and at certain rare moments satisfying. And that's no wonder: it's an ancient document about government. After the story of the Exodus, in which God leads the nation of Israel out of Egypt, declares them his people, and makes a covenant with them to be their king, a question remains: what is God's administration going to be like? There's no separation of church and state here; the priests are the ones who provide access to God, the king of Israel.

Caveat: Moses is not himself a priest, yet he is higher than all of them. The refrain of Leviticus is, "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying..." Although the priests are to minister more directly to God than the common people, there is yet a buffer even between the priests and God. The holiness of God is probably the key issue throughout all of Leviticus. Thus the writer is concerned with demonstrating how nothing tainted can come near him without following strict guidelines, not even the most holy of all the people of Israel.

Here's my outline:
  1. Sacrifices, part 1 (1-7)
  2. Ordination of the Priesthood (8-10)
  3. On Being Clean, part 1 (11-15)
  4. The Day of Atonement (16)
  5. On Being Clean, part 2 (17-21, 24:10-23)
  6. Sacrifices, part 2 (22, 24:1-9, 27)
  7. Festivals and Observances (23, 25)
  8. Promises and Warnings (26)
It's a bit out of order, I admit, and I make no claim to be able to justify this outline rigorously.

Here's the major theme in Leviticus that can't be missed: life. Life is what makes God holy; death is what makes things unholy. You don't eat blood, because the blood is the life of the animal. A woman is unclean during her period, and likewise a man is unclean when he has an emission of semen; both are examples of life coming out of the body, thereby making a person unclean. Sex and dead bodies both make a person temporarily unclean. Diseases make you unclean. Deformities make you unfit to enter God's meeting place.

Eating certain foods also makes you unclean, but who knows? Maybe the author saw some danger in eating those foods which would not be found in other foods.

And of course, the whole sacrificial system focuses one's attention to this fact: God had a claim on the very lives of the Israelites. The upshot was that blood was needed to make them clean. The blood was the life of the animal, so it couldn't be eaten; it had to be used to make atonement for sins. Even sins committed unintentionally had to be atoned for.

God is pretty frightening in this book. Just look at the story of Nadab and Abihu: their offering of "unholy fire" earns them holy fire in return, which promptly consumes them. Moses makes this cryptic remark to Aaron, who just lost two sons:
"This is what the Lord meant when he said,

'Through those who are near me I will show myself holy,
and before all the people I will be glorified.'"
Aaron's silence is profound.

Chapter 26:14-29 provides a horrible depiction of what will happen to the Israelites if they refuse to obey the commandments. The sobering thing is how many times God repeats, "If you continue hostile to me..." and "If in spite of these punishments you have not turned back to me..." Yet there is something quite remarkable in that, at the end of such a long threat of destruction, God promises never to fully abandon the Israelites. Their exile from the promised land will merely be a "sabbath rest" for the land. Eventually he will bring his people back.

The Year of Jubilee offers an interesting system for protecting the property of the poor. Essentially it protects the poor from having to give up all their land out of desperation. Although they may sell it, their nearest relatives are required, if possible, to buy it back. "But if there are not sufficient means to recover, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned." As far as I can tell, this doesn't put a limit on purely voluntary free exchange; it simply provides a protection for the poor who may be compelled to sell their property during times of great distress. I suppose very few of us think about this anymore because most of us don't own land.

Leviticus is full of commandments nobody likes to see, like stoning blasphemers, sorcerers, adulterers, people who curse their parents, etc. It forbids homosexuality, and it seems to make women worth less than men (see 27:1-8, also 12:1-5). And it also forbids things like making clothes with two kinds of cloth and sowing two kinds of seed in a field. On the other hand, it has laws protecting the poor, requiring farmers to leave behind crops to be gleaned, forbidding employers from withholding wages at the end of a workday, and so on. Leviticus is the source of that famous quote which Jesus calls the second greatest commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It forbids all partiality in justice, and requires total honesty in all dealings.

In short, Leviticus is complicated to deal with from a modern perspective, but whatever we make of it, it is an essential part of the narrative of scripture. Whatever we make of its various commandments, we do know that they were meant to be followed in the land in which the Israelites were destined to settle. Perhaps it's necessary always to keep that in mind. Leviticus, no less than Genesis and Exodus, is part of an historical narrative, one which continues for many more books to follow.

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