Leviticus isn’t a book that most people rush to read first. I have rarely heard it preached because I think many people believe it to be irrelevant. So I came to it again expecting to have a struggle concentrating. In fact, on the contrary I found it quite fascinating and enlightening.
For a start, its main theme is holiness, which isn’t a popular subject these days but is most certainly a great challenge – one to sort out the men from the boys and the women from the girls! Much of it has ritual and symbolic value which was to constantly remind Israel, in every part of their daily lives, of God’s holiness and their holiness as a nation. It was particularly concerned with worship, the way in which Israel could relate to God through the Levitical priesthood.
Here, holiness embraces various related concepts. God is holy because he is righteous, pure, just separate from and above the “gods” of the other nations, and so on. Israel is holy because she has been chosen by God as his own people for the special purpose of witnessing to the world about him and being a blessing to others (11:44-45). Holiness is reflected in what might be termed normal and by “normal” I mean, “as God intended things to be”. Thus everything associated with worship had to be as perfect as possible, whether the sacrifices or the priests who carried them out. In the text it gives rise to the expressions “clean” and “unclean”. This “separating out” of a holy people, Israel, and the selection of whole and perfect things becomes an expression of God’s Kingdom, and it is ratified through the Covenant (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then at Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments).
So the Law is instituted to keep this special relationship in focus by ritual and by behaviour – by ceremonial and by moral law.
Despite its unpopularity I have come across references to Leviticus more recently in the debates by atheists and with relation to homosexuality. The first lampoon the book because of its draconian punishments and incomprehensible instructions (in the sense that they find it hard to discover the reasoning behind many of them). With regard to the expressions of homosexuality, Levitical proof texts have been used by those both for and against its normalisation.
I have mentioned this topic already. Israel is at a fragile time in her formation and there is a great deal at stake. She is surrounded by nations whose religious practices were absolutely abhorrent. They were hard times and the discipline reflected that.
I am reminded of an occasion in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19) where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not the way from the beginning.” Jesus gets to the purpose of the law and promotes the next step.
It takes some reading to understand the relevance of some of the laws, even as they applied back then. This is where it’s important to distinguish between those that had ceremonial or ritual significance and those that affected God and human relationships. The fact that they are often written up side by side shouldn’t make the distinction too difficult. For example chapter 19 gives a list of various laws. Respecting father and mother relates to stable families. Do not steal, lie and deceive establishes a stable society, as do respecting the disabled and elderly, loving one’s neighbour and practising justice and honesty. “Do not wear clothing of two kinds of material” obviously has to do with a symbolic expression of purity, to remind the wearer that he or she is set aside for one God – Yahweh! Australia has State of Origin rugby matches between Queensland (maroon) and New South Wales (blue). The supporters show who they belong to by wearing the colours of one or the other – but not both!
Laws against homosexuality?
There is no doubt that chapter 18:22 states, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” One argument goes that this is not relevant because other laws such as the clothes woven of two types of material are no longer directly binding, and they all come as a package – take it or leave it. But it should be noted that the law about homosexuality is part of a chapter that also deals with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice and, as I have already mentioned, I believe that we can discriminate between a ritual and a moral law.
On the other hand it is not quite the knockdown argument against all homosexuality that some Christians claim it to be. In the first instance it addresses homosexual practice, not the condition of being homosexual. But also many argue that what is on view here is homosexual excess, temple prostitution and the like, especially with reference to 18:24 where the debased practices of the nations are on view.
There are other arguments associated with these verses and indeed other verses in the Bible which deal with this extensive subject and there is not space to deal with them properly here.
What’s Good about Leviticus?
Where do you start? Chapter 19 (already mentioned) is full of good and relevant commandments. But here’s another: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner”
“Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” (24:17-22 – it included the foreigner) sounds as if it’s advocating revenge but actually, for that time, limited it, in a world where vengeance usually escalated out of control. However Jesus would later refine it further.
Allowing the land to rest (25) was to ensure that soil could regenerate and/or as reminder of the Sabbath principle, while the Year of Jubilee meant that families would not be permanently dispossessed.
It has been said that the direct relevance of Old Testament laws for Christians is determined by whether they are reaffirmed in the New Testament. However the principles behind the ritual laws do still apply. Christians are still called to be a holy people in the sense that we are to live for God’s Kingdom and reflect the moral character of God in what we say and do. These are not a once-on-Sunday phenomenon but everyday expressions in the way we live and relate to God and to others.