Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reflections on Leviticus

Today I finished reading the book of Leviticus. I haven't read through this book in years. Reading it again reminds me why I don't read it more often and why we don't hear too many sermons preached from this book. The rules and regulations are presented in a mind-numbing parade of ordinances and, probably more significantly, don't seem particularly relevant to our modern world. In fact, most Christians really don't know how to relate to the laws laid out in this book. In case you are hoping that I will resolve this problem for you, let me disappoint you right now. I don't have the “key” to Leviticus. In fact I came away from reading it with as many or more questions than I began with. Let me share a few reflections with you.

Leviticus is about holiness. The principle idea is that because God is holy he demands that his people be holy as well. In order to accomplish this, he laid out a number of rules and regulations to govern the lives and behavior of the Israelites, so that they would clearly be distinct and different from the peoples around them. This basic principle can be summarized with part of verse 11:44: “Be holy because I am holy.” I get this concept. But I struggle with many of the regulations God laid down to accomplish this.

I find it hard to accept that God rejects people for things they have no control over. Women are unclean and effectively outcasts for a good portion of each month simply because of their natural biological activities—functions that God created in them. Similarly, I realized that due to a particular medical condition I have I would very often be ceremonially unclean. I could not have contact with other members of the community and would essentially be cut off from both human and divine fellowship. The constraints on me place me in the same position as the women around me, which makes me that much more sympathetic to their marginalized status. Why should I be unclean because of a medical condition I do not choose or desire to have and why should a woman be unclean because of the natural flow of blood she has each month? This strikes me as a repudiation of God's own creation. Given the different behaviors or conditions that can make a person unclean, I think a lot of people would be unclean at some point in their lives, perhaps on a regular or perpetual basis. I understand that God wants to emphasize his holiness, but how does marginalizing so many of the people in his community accomplish this?

I also chafe at the different values placed on men and women. We read in chapter 27 that the value of a man ranges from 33% to 50% higher than that of a woman, depending on the age of the individual. In general this book and others in the Pentateuch really marginalize women and I struggle to reconcile that with a God who created both men and women in the divine image.

The simple answer, of course, is that this book represents the Old Covenant. In Jesus we have now a New Covenant and the laws and regulations of the Old Covenant are now fulfilled in him. Certainly I embrace this—in fact I welcome it with joy. I can see clearly how the rules of the Old Covenant demonstrated effectively that we as humans cannot live righteous and holy lives. Israel never fulfilled this covenant and neither could any of us today. Perhaps that is the main take-away from this book. But I still struggle with a God who in seeking to purify his people created rules that marginalized or excluded so many of them from his community. To be honest I'm not comfortable with this, although I still don't know how to resolve the internal tension I feel.

I also struggle with the fact that many Christians would still maintain some of the rules and laws in this book. While acknowledging in principle that we are saved by grace through the redeeming work of Christ, many still insist on upholding some parts of the old code. This may be a legitimate exercise, but I wonder how we determine which parts are still valid and applicable and which have been superseded in the New Covenant. Most of us don't try to follow the dietary rules (for which I am thankful every time I enjoy bacon and ham, among other delicacies), nor do we tear down someone's house because it develops mold. I've not heard anyone seriously suggest that we try to implement a Year of Jubilee in contemporary society. I'm not sure whether it could be instituted at this point in time. There's no evidence that the Israelites ever celebrated it. I don't think most of us are overly concerned if any of our clothing is made of a blend of fabrics (19:19).

However, many people would uphold the sexual mores laid out in Leviticus and opponents of homosexuality often cite the two verses in chapters 18 and 20 related to this behaviour. The same people would not, in my estimation, condone the killing of adulterers, as advocated in 20:10, nor have I heard of anyone considering it an act of impurity for a man to marry his brother's wife (the text doesn't make it clear whether after death or from divorce), although I watched a movie not long ago based on a true story in England in which a woman married a man who eventually died. After his death she and her deceased husband's brother fell in love and wanted to marry, but apparently the laws of England forbid this. I imagine this law was based on verse 20:21 It was not overturned until after World War II. I mention this because when I heard of this situation and saw the connection to this Levitical law, I recognized the absurdity of trying to implement the rules and regulations of this book in our New Covenant era, much less in our post-Christian, multi-cultural society. I think we do not have a clear framework for determining which, if any, commands in the book of Leviticus or other parts of the Pentateuch still have validity and apply to us as Christians under the New Covenant. I am not arguing that we can simply ignore the book of Leviticus, but I do wonder what we are to make of it and, if we believe that its rules are still valid, how we determine which of them are. At the moment this book seems to me primarily to represent the Old Covenant and the impossibility of being holy and righteous through our own efforts.

I'd like to hear what others have to say on this topic. How do you understand this ancient book? What hermeneutic would you follow in determining which, if any, of its commands and laws apply today?

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