This post reflects on Leviticus 16 – 27
They say there are 600 separate laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. I don’t think that’s right because I counted something like a million in the book of Leviticus alone. At least it felt that way when I (finally) finished reading it this week. Some of the Leviticus laws are just gross: When a man has a bodily discharge, the discharge is unclean (15:2). Ya think? Some of them are odd: Don’t eat Geckos, (11:30). Some, especially for guys like me, are comforting: When a man has lost his hair and is bald, he is clean, (13:40). Preach!
But some of the laws God gave Moses to give to Israel seem as relevant today as they must have been then. When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God, (19:33 – 34).
Before you post that command on your favorite social media site along with a snarky comment about President Trump, you should know that a part of treating aliens “as one of your native-born,” meant they were required to obey the laws just as if they had been, well, native-born (18:26). We strongly opinionated folks like to celebrate those Old Testament laws which put the divine stamp on our positions even as we ignore the ones that require or forbid behaviors we either embrace or reject.
Just reading through the Old Testament legal sections is a tough slog. Figuring out how to apply them is like attempting to follow the instructions for folding fitted sheets or assembling that really cool drop-leaf coffee table you bought at Ikea. It ain’t easy. Here are three questions that can help you make sense of this odd and ancient part of scripture.
What type of law is this? (Hat tip to John Calvin)
Leviticus, and other legal sections in the Old Testament, contain three types of laws: civil, ceremonial and moral.
- Civil Laws were intended to guide the lives of citizens (and resident aliens) of the nation state of Israel. Often, the principles behind these civil laws are instructive, but they are not applicable to us because we are not members of the ancient nation state of Israel. It’s like this – in France, it is illegal to name your pig Napoleon. Since I’m not French, I’m free to name my pig whatever I want. And as soon as my wife signs off on it, I am so getting a pig. I shall name him Breakfast.
- Ceremonial Laws were designed to illustrate the huge canyon between God’s holiness and human un-holiness. All of those detailed sacrificial regulations fall into this category. So, too, the odd grooming rules that prohibited priests from trimming their beards (Leviticus 21:5). Next time you see a rerun of Duck Dynasty, be thankful these laws have been superseded. Jesus is the final sacrifice, the most vivid illustration of the distance between God’s holiness and our lack thereof.
- Moral Laws set the bar for good and evil behavior. Unlike civil or ceremonial laws, these are timeless. Murder, for example, was wrong when Cain killed his brother Abel and that was centuries before Leviticus was written. It was wrong then. It’s still wrong.
What is this law intending to prevent or promote?
Take a look Leviticus 19:9 – 10. When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and alien. I am the Lord your God.
It seems pretty clear that this law was primarily intended to promote care for the poor and, in a less obvious way, prevent greed among the wealthy. Since most of us do not live in an agrarian based economy, it’s not possible to literally follow this law. But if we focus on what it was designed to promote and prevent, we can find ways to live up to its call.
Or how about Leviticus 19:14? Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. This law seeks to protect the vulnerable of society and promote compassion. I find it fascinating, too, that showing respect for people with disabilities is one way we show our reverence for God.
How does this law guide me to love God & others in a more complete way?
We are not the first to grapple with how to apply these ancient codes. In Matthew 22, an expert in the law asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” His answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In other words, every commandment is, in some way, pointing us to what it means to love God and neighbor. I think that’s what Paul had in mind in 2 Timothy 3:16 when he wrote that Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Scripture in general and the old laws in particular cannot make us righteous. But they can and do show us what it looks like.
Missing the Point
Critics of Christianity – and many Christians – miss the point of these old laws. Often, critics charge Christians with inconsistency because we pick and choose which Old Testament laws to obey. “Why do you condemn sexual sins but still eat bacon? Hypocrite!” And I can’t wait (cough) for that new TV sitcom about the guy who tries to follow the Bible as literally as possible. Because, really, who could possibly know more about how to read and apply the Bible than a bunch of people in Hollywood?
There’s a huge difference between reading the Bible in a literal way and reading it in a literate way. A literal reading can easily tumble into a lazy reading and application. It takes more work to read and apply the Bible in a literate way, but that way pays off in deeper understanding, a closer walk with God and greater love for neighbor.