Leviticus: Like Reading A Legal Textbook, Only Somehow Worse

Leviticus: Like Reading A Legal Textbook, Only Somehow Worse July 31, 2016


My front-to-back journey through the Christian Bible continues this week with Leviticus, nobody’s favorite book of the Bible.  Indeed, Kugler and Hartin opened their chapter on it by stating that it is “routine” to begin discussions of Leviticus with an apology to the reader because of the dull and esoteric nature of the book; then they pulled the football away by saying they would offer no such apology because Leviticus should be interesting to anyone reading the Bible.

Well, I disagree.  I want my retroactive apology.

Anyways, Leviticus is usually brought up nowadays because of its proscription of same-sex relations between men; some Biblical fundamentalists use it to argue against same-sex marriage.  This argument has been refuted to death, and even many homophobic Christians won’t use Leviticus (they have Paul to fall back on, which is more complicated), but it bears repeating that it would be hilarious to ask Christians who do use Leviticus their opinions on wearing garments made of mixed materials (Lev. 19:19).

The most fascinating things about Leviticus are not its actual contents, by and large; rather, what interested me most was the composition.  All you’d need is a basic description of the documentary hypothesis and a cursory glance at the topics Leviticus deals with to know that it is the product of the Priestly tradition (or you’d just have to know that the priests of ancient Israel were all supposed to be of the tribe of Levi), and in it we begin to see very clearly that the Bible is the product of human beings with distinct agendas.  Leviticus grants incredible power, authority, and honor to the priests and an equally incredible level of responsibility, and the dishonor and punishment that comes with failing to live up to that responsibility, to the laity.

At the same time, when read right after Exodus, in which God almost wiped Israel out completely for worshiping the golden calf, Leviticus is an immediately noticeable theological development:  now the covenant between Yahweh and Israel is truly bilateral, and the laws contained within organize almost every aspect of daily life for the Israelites, from what food may be eaten to which sexual activities cause uncleanness, all within the general framework of the people’s relationship to God, mediated, of course, through the priests.

Because given the extent of these laws, it is literally impossible to completely avoid uncleanness.  Much more than dietary restrictions, things like bodily discharges and handling the dead made people unclean, and often a sacrifice at the temple was required to overcome this uncleanness.  So uncleanliness and “sin” were never things to be completely avoided; they were to be “made up for” as part of Israel’s fidelity to God.

I expect this tendency will continue through Numbers at least, although if I remember correctly Numbers is not the composition of a single writer like Leviticus is.

Leviticus also strengthens the sense I’m getting that P’s material is post-Exilic, i.e. dates from after the end of the Babylonian Captivity, when the Temple was being rebuilt and the Jews were putting their society back together.  With the possible exception of the Holiness Code (17-26), which shows heavy strains of Deuteronomic theology (especially chapter 26) and may be an older collection that was added later to “correct” the forgiving nature of Leviticus’s prescriptions for offerings, the third book of the Pentateuch shows signs of a writer concerned with maintaining a Jewish identity in the face of a troubled past and uncertain future.

Sorry for the lack of witticisms or unique insights on this one.  Leviticus is just…Leviticus.

Next week:  Numbers!

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    I read Leviticus as a sort of weird OCD expression of faith. Whenever the final edit it only makes sense if one envisions that the bulk of the material was collected and preserved in exile. Their nation was destroyed, the temple in ruins and they themselves imprisoned in exile in Babylon by the then most powerful nation on earth. There was no reason to suppose they would ever return or that this was nothing but the end. Yet the whole period in exile they meticulously recorded, learnt, repeated and studied in meticulous detail every sacrificial ritual for when, in accordance with God’s promise, Israel and its temple were restored. That to me is faith.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      That’s a beautiful way of looking at it. I guess I’d been so wrapped up in the “post-Exilic” nature of some of it I failed to consider that even if the final composition was post-Exilic much of the material probably came from either before or during the Captivity. Thanks for the insight!

  • Charlie Rivers

    I always found Leviticus to be a super difficult read, however I think the whole takeaway from the book (for me at least) is that it makes me very, very, VERY grateful that Christ died for my sins bc it is literally impossible to keep the Old Testament Law (ironically I am eating bacon while I write this). While I don’t believe this was the original intent of the book, I always felt that it inadvertently shined a light on the sacrifice of Jesus because without Him we would still be trying to follow seemingly impossible rituals, rules, and regulations in an attempt to atone for our sins. Just my .02 cents…

    • Mattie

      “Seemingly impossible rituals, rules, and regulations”

      Of course, technically we Jews aren’t supposed to be following the Leviticus of the Old Testament in the English-translated King James Bible, but rather a different version of Leviticus with centuries of equally important rabbinical commentary on what its words actually meant at the time and today, which I would argue we are encouraged to debate.

      Still, if I never hear Christians dismissing the books of the Torah as archaic and meaningless “rules and regulations” etc. again (especially given that historically, there’s some academic writing now that suggests Jesus would have been extremely Torah-observant in his own life, and just basically hung out with people who weren’t), I will die a happy person. Especially when they think Jews can’t hear them, but we can.

      Also, I’ve heard some Jewish thought that non-Jews and people who don’t follow the Torah can still go to whatever type of good afterlife/Jewish Heaven we have, which text-wise, isn’t much of one anyway. We were never really the people who got hung up on Heaven and Hell.

      (Also, given that Jesus would have had both Jewish and goyish followers, there’s an excellent chance that even “back then,” no, you would NOT be trying to keep the Torah, because you might not have even been Jewish in the first place. “Jewish” does not just mean “Christian but without/before the Jesus.”)

  • Michael Corey

    > ask Christians who do use Leviticus their opinions on wearing garments made of mixed materials (Lev. 19:19).

    Leviticus is not my only reason for opposing homosexual actions, but for the sake of discussion here goes. Most commentators believe the “mixing” prohibitions were designed to prevent the Israelites from falling into superstitious habits, and copying the pagan practices of their neighbors, some of whom had magic traditions that included mixing of seeds in a field. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary also points out that this particular mix (wool and linen) can cause blistering and fever in hot climates.

    That aside, you are approaching this book with completely the wrong attitude. Leviticus is God establishing relationship with Israel when they had no right to it. It is the undeserved blessing, the freely given gift of holiness if only they will accept it.

    Check out chapter 26, and see the loving Father wanting what is best for his children, ready to welcome them home as soon as they are ready.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Actually I did touch on that when I mentioned that the covenant had become bilateral and Israel’s relationship with God had evolved somewhat.

      I also mentioned that Leviticus was not the primary reason most conservative Christians oppose homosexuality. I’ll get to Paul, don’t worry.

      Also, the fact that you can admit the anthropological reasons behind the prohibitions on “mixing unlike kinds” but still see Leviticus’s proscription of homosexuality as legitimate is astounding.

      • Michael Corey

        > I’ll get to Paul, don’t worry.

        And you’ll probably rehash the same old “but muh feels” arguments that attempt to bend scripture to your political leanings there as well.

        > Also, the fact that you can admit the anthropological reasons behind the prohibitions on “mixing unlike kinds” but still see Leviticus’s proscription of homosexuality as legitimate is astounding.

        You are misinterpreting. I am saying I can see a very real reason for God to prohibit those things. This, along with the bulk of scripture, tells me that he has a very good reason for his repeated, very clear prohibitions on homosexual activity.

        • Christian Chiakulas

          So there’s a good reason I can’t mix linen and wool? What’s God’s “very real reason” for prohibiting that? I’m dying to know.

          And no, my answer to Paul has more to do with “why should I honestly care what Paul thinks about anything, much less something that he had absolutely no understanding of?”

          And before you accuse me of cherry-picking the Bible (as if that’s something to be ashamed of) I’ll just say that I actually greatly admire Paul. But that’s because I’ve studied him and I understand where he was coming from. This allows me to discard the parts of his teachings that are completely irrelevant to life in the 21st century.

          I agree with Paul that pederasty is bad, though. He was spot-on there. Also that sexual relationships based on a hierarchical honor-shame dichotomy (which is how he understood homosexual relationships) are antithetical to the Kingdom of God.

          What that has to do with a modern, consensual, loving relationship between two people of the same sex, you’ll have to explain to me.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I had an uncle who I thought was incredibly wise and good, basically because he bothered to spend time and talk with me. All the advice he shared with me at ballgames, parks, funerals, marriages, parades, barbecues, bars, and so forth has past the test of sixty years and remained mostly true most of the time. Well, nearly all: Maryann Moffet was not the girl for me. It was a little shocking to learn after he died when I was thirty that he was not the perfect sage, and far from it. I have come to look at all the writers of the books of the Bible in much the same way. Well-intentioned humans doing the best they could with what they had. Or not. Leviticus is well-intentioned–but almost entirely self-serving. And I am certain they thought it was for the best of reasons. ORDER! Okay.

    As someone noted a while back, if we want to post the Ten Commandments on court house walls, we need to add the punishments. Problem: the familiar Ten Commandments is not what God called the Ten Commandments. But that is for another discussion. What is important is a bunch of writers trying to make sense of life and the beyond in their epoch. Trial and error. Best approximations based on experience, desires, and ideals. Errancy is vital to the Bible. We are meant to grow in our experience of God, not simply copy others in their experience and ideas. Having the eyes to see means discerning soul from spirit. That is our job. Not all authors wrote with such discernment and it is up to us to identify where they did not. To me, this takes absolutely nothing away from the Bible as a vital source of spiritual development; no, it adds to it.