Leviticus extends the concept of ethical monotheism begun in Exodus. If there is only one God, and that God is an ethical being, how does he expect humans to behave?
Many people who intend to “read the Bible through” get bogged down in Leviticus, but I think it’s important to read the whole book, especially when prominent religious figures quote verses from it, generally in order to condemn people not of their tribe. At first glance, it’s not as interesting to read as Genesis and Exodus because there aren’t many stories, or at least not stories in the way we generally think of stories. A great deal of attention is given to proper ceremonial worship involving animal and vegetable sacrifices that are seem quite alien to our world today. Although Leviticus describes some rules that lay a good ethical foundation for living in community with other human beings (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat) there are others that seem quite strange.(don’t wear clothing made of mixed fibers, don’t sow two kinds of grain in the same field, don’t cut the corners of your beard)
The first ten chapters give detailed instructions for different kinds of sacrifices: burnt offerings, meat offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings for sins both intentional and accidental. Different kinds of offerings have different rules regarding what is to be sacrificed and how it is to be done. There’s a disturbing little story in Chapter 10 about what happens when the instructions aren’t followed exactly. God sends down fire from heaven and incinerates two of Aaron’s sons for not observing the correct worship protocol. If that weren’t disturbing enough, Aaron and his surviving family members are forbidden from any outward expression of mourning, lest they befall a similar fate.
The next chapters detail various prohibitions and commandments, mostly regarding “eat this not that” dietary constraints, hygiene practices, and sexual taboos. Pork and rabbit are merely forbidden foods, while shrimp and lobster are called abominations. It’s okay to eat grasshoppers and crickets, but not worms. Not only must “unclean” foods not be eaten, they must not even be touched, and if they are touched accidentally a complicated cleansing ritual is prescribed. Cleansing rituals are also prescribed for menstruating and childbearing women, and for men following any kind of emission of semen, including but not limited to intercourse. There are two whole chapters on dealing with leprosy, which seems to be a broad term applied not only to various skin diseases, but also to mold and mildew problems in clothing and buildings. Certain sexual practices are forbidden, including “lying with a man as with a woman” and having sex with a menstruating woman. Tattoos and certain kinds of hair and beard styles are forbidden. Blasphemers and children who curse their parents are subject to the death penalty. A fair amount of space is given to economic justice issues, including a prohibition against charging interest on loans and the establishment of the Year of Jubilee, when all loans are forgiven, slaves are freed, and property returned to its original owners.
The last chapters of Leviticus command the observance of various religious observances and festivals, including the Sabbath, Passover, and the Day of Atonement, and gives detailed instructions for how these are to be observed. Leviticus concludes with a list of consequences: good things will come to the people if they obey all God commands, and bad things will happen if they don’t.
So what are we to make of Leviticus? I know some people who would say toss the whole thing out, but I’m not one of them. Although I am not a Biblical inerrantist or literalist, I do have a fairly high view of the Bible in that I believe God inspired the people who wrote it, and God guided the choices of the people who selected which ancient writings should comprise our sacred scriptures. If it’s there, there is a reason, and I will generally emulate Jacob by wrestling with God until I have found an explanation that makes sense to me. As far as Leviticus is concerned, I try to understand it in its historical context, and to look for the principles behind the rules. I think that’s what Jesus taught. He repeatedly made comments like “you have heard it said…but I say“ with reference to commandments dealing with murder, adultery, false witness, and lex talionis. I think that’s what he meant when he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”
I see the overriding principle of Leviticus as holiness: “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” I understand “holy” to mean “set apart for a purpose”, and that purpose is to demonstrate love: love for God, and love for our fellow human beings. The principle doesn’t change, but the application of the principle as expressed in rules might differ in different cultures and different times. The Israelite people weren’t to live like the cultures surrounding them, whose practices were often deplorably exploitative and cruel. They were to be different in a good way, so that other people would see that there was a better way to live, and perhaps be drawn to it and to God.
If we think of principles rather than rules, and the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, we will begin to appreciate Leviticus in a new way. Here’s what it says to me:
Sin is whatever separates human beings from God and their fellow human beings in a bad way, one that causes harm. Sometimes we do hurtful things on purpose and sometimes we don’t mean to cause harm, but get it wrong and hurt people anyway. God takes sin seriously because he wants us to have shalom- peace and harmony and wholeness and connection. God is smart enough and loving enough to figure out ways around our tendency to break things, and fix them. God wants us to be holy-not to be different in weird, arbitrary ways, but to be different in positive, practical ways- from all that is wrong in the world around us. By so being, and doing, we show hurting people the way to shalom. And I think that’s good news.