What is Leviticus all about?
Out of all the Books of the Bible, the book that is perhaps most confounding and perplexing (apart from Revelation) is probably the book of Leviticus.
I am sure that there have been countless numbers of people who have made a very noble resolution read read through the Bible from cover to cover and have very quickly found themselves stuck in a quagmire of strange laws and practices upon reaching the book of Leviticus ending their resolution in failure..
If one had to boil the book down to it’s essence, the central concern of Leviticus revolves around the question of holiness. If God is Holy, what does that mean for those who wish to draw near to God and walk in God’s ways?
And what exactly does that word “Holy” actually mean? Holiness is a very difficult concept to define. Literally it means that something is different and separate. The word also conveys a sense of mystique as well as a sense of the sacred.
All ancient cultures have had some conception of that which is holy or sacred. For many ancient cultures the concept of holiness has particularly had to do with taboos surrounding religious ritual. In the ancient mind, when dealing with the world of the spirit and the world of the Divine, it was believed that one was dealing with dangerous unseen powers and forces, greater than ourselves and therefore it was necessary to tread carefully, rather like working with live wires at a power station. When approaching the world of the spirit, most ancient cultures therefore had certain rules and taboos that were to be followed in order to help a person to tread carefully in the presence of the Divine. This I believe was true of the ancient Israelites as well.
In my understanding of the book, Leviticus therefore represents some of the early Israelite wrestling with the question: What it means to be holy? And how does one come into the Presence of a God who is Holy?
In the book you will find a whole array of ideas (at times one might be inclined to call it a hodge-podge) that were supposed to help the people of Israel live in right relationship with the Divine, with Yehovah Elohim. Some of these ideas have to do with cultural taboos around death and dead bodies, as well as certain bodily fluids that could make a person clean and unclean as well as regulations around mould and mildew.
Part of the idea of God’s holiness for the writer of Leviticus was the intuition that there is a purity about the Divine that somehow needs to be honoured and respected. And so one of the themes in Leviticus is about keeping things separate as an expression of this idea of purity. In the book therefore the Israelites are therefore exhorted not to plant two kinds of seeds in the same field (19:19). They are also exhorted not to wear clothes made of two different kinds of fabric (19:19)… which would mean that most of us here today would be in breach of these holiness laws.
There are also many cultural taboos around some animals, birds and insects being clean and others being unclean.
From a modern perspective, there are also some rather distasteful and abhorrent laws about people with physical deformities and disabilities, that in the minds of the ancient Israelites left people unclean and therefore unholy, and therefore unfit to come close to the Divine.
The book of Leviticus also contains lists of rituals and sacrifices that were to be performed in order to make people clean and therefore holy once again.
At the very centre of the book is the idea of the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, where once a year, in order to restore the people of Israel’s relationship to Yehovah Elohim, the high priest would pray over two goats laying the sins of the people upon them. One would then be sacrificed and the other would be sent away into the desert, which is where the term ‘scapegoat’ originates from.
As I have said, the book is a real mixture of ideas covering purity laws, ritual sacrifices, regulations for priests and regulations for the main Israelite religious festivals. Some are cultural taboos about ritual cleanliness and ritual uncleanliness that just seem foreign and alien to us today. Others are just plain abhorrent to us today, like instructions for the daughter of a priest who becomes a prostitute to be burned in a fire and the permission to have slaves from other nations. Also the idea that a man is valued higher in monetary terms than a women, a male between the ages of twenty and sixty having a monetary value at fifty shekels of silver, and a female’s value being set at at thirty shekels of silver.
Now many would read the book of Leviticus as though it were the words of God dictated directly to Moses and then written down. But if one were to read it in that way, one might well ask: What on earth was God thinking? Why these strange, and often distasteful taboos? Why some of these primitive and barbaric practices?
For me, the words in the book of Leviticus were not dictated by God and then written down by Moses. For me, the words of Leviticus represent the ancient and often primitive people of Israel wrestling with the question of what it means to be holy, what it means to live in relationship with the Divine and how they could restore their relationship to the Divine when it felt like that relationship had been broken or disrupted in some way.
Despite all the strange and weird cultural taboos contained in the book of Leviticus, and despite the many downright primitive, distasteful and abhorrent ideas that are contained within it, one also has the sense that in the midst of all that wrestling with questions of what it means to be holy, there were some real shafts of light that were beginning to shine through within the thinking of these ancient and primitive people. It is certainly not all weird and distasteful.
Within the book, as with the book of Exodus, there are also the stirrings of a very real social consciousness, a deep concern for the poor and the dispossessed and especially widows and orphans, and treating other people justly and with fairness. And these elements seem to be connected with the experience of having been slaves in Egypt and recognising that no human being should be treated in that way, but somehow the dignity of our common humanity needs to be honoured, although these ideas in the book are clearly not always consistently applied. Along with these, there are also profound social laws, like the concept of the year of Jubilee. Every 50th year, those who had lost their property and found themselves in debt, poverty and even slavery, should have their debts wiped clean, their land and property restored to them and be set free. Holiness for the people of Israel was not only about ritual holiness and ritual purity, but also had social implications about how people lived together and treated one another.
And so, in the midst of some very strange, sometimes primitive and even distasteful ideas, it would seem that some very real spiritual light and awakening was beginning to take place as well amongst them. Signs of the stirring of God’s Spirit one could say.
For me, apart from the fact that I just cannot imagine the God revealed by Jesus ordering prostitutes to be burned in fire, the evidence that the words of Leviticus were not dictated to Moses by God, lies for me in the fact that in the New Testament, Jesus clarifies the true meaning of holiness and in effect sweeps away many of the laws, taboos and requirements of the book of Leviticus. For example he dismisses all the dietary regulations of Leviticus when he says in Mark 7:15 “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
For Jesus, holiness is a matter not of outward observance or outward ritual or outward purity, it is a matter of the heart. And so Jesus says in Matthew 5 Blessed are the Pure in Heart, for they will see God. It is the pure hearted, those with pure, undivided, unselfish motives, those with loving hearts who are able to ‘see’ God.
While in Leviticus, the disabled and infirm are regarded as unclean and therefore unacceptable to a pure and holy God, Jesus draws near to them and affirms their human dignity and humanity. He also reaches out and touches a man with a skin disease, which is against the holiness rules of Leviticus.
And yet, despite cutting through and dismissing huge portions of Leviticus, Jesus extracts one line of it as distilling the very essence of his teaching: When asked what the greatest commandment is, part of Jesus answer is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 You shall love your neighbour as yourself. It is the punchline that comes at the end of a long list of instructions in Leviticus 19 on how one should treat other people with fairness, justice and care.
Finally, in the book of Leviticus, twice the reader is instructed to be holy as God is holy. Very interestingly, in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes this verse, but each time with a twist.
In Luke’s Gospel (6:36), instead of using the word ‘holy’, Jesus uses the word compassion. Instead of saying ‘be holy as God is holy’ he says instead ‘be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’, suggesting that compassion is at the heart of holiness. For Jesus there is no holiness without compassion.
And in Matthew’s Gospel (5:48) he says: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’, and immediately after clarifies that he is actually instructing his followers to emulate God’s perfect Love, who makes his sun to shine on good and bad a like, and sends his rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. It suggests that true holiness has everything to do with growing in love.
Leviticus is a mixed bag, and just as Jesus used it with discernment, extracting the light that is to be found within it and discarding the rest, so I believe we too are invited to read it in the light of Jesus and to do the same.
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