A Talk about Leviticus and being selective about what you read.
Recently I have heard a number of people citing the Old Testament book of Leviticus as the source of this or that idea. When these people are questioned, however, almost none of them have actually read Leviticus all the way through. They are being selective in citing only passages which support their pre-conceived ideas. So, I decided to talk about Leviticus. But first, I read it all the way through.
Leviticus is the third book in the Old Testament, part of those first five books which collectively are called the Pentateuch, or the Torah, or the Laws of Moses. This is what is meant by law when we came across the phrase “the law and the prophets” in the Gospels. According to tradition, these five books were written by Moses, who probably lived around 1200 B.C. However, scholars tell us that Leviticus reached its present composition some time after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Captivity, probably around 400 B.C. There are eight hundred years between Moses and the present composition of Leviticus, so how much, if any, was actually written by Moses is very much an open question.
With this background, let’s take a look at some of the laws laid down in Leviticus. Chapter 1 tells us how to slaughter and immolate sheep and calves. This is not exactly very useful information today. Chapter 4 tells us that if you sin through ignorance, you make up for it by offering a calf. In the next chapter we find that if you even hear anyone swear, you are unclean, and must offer sacrifice (5:1), and furthermore, if you swear to do something, whether something good or evil, and don’t do it, you must offer sacrifice (5:4). Skipping ahead, we find that if you eat blood you shall perish (7:27). So much for rare steaks, much less blood sausage. Moving into the realm of ritual, we discover that two guys named Nabad and Abin used the censor, or thurible, without permission, and were struck dead. (10:1-2). Warn the altar boys.
Chapter 11 contains laws concerning diet. We are told not to eat camels, rabbits, or pigs (11:1-8). Anything that lives in the water but does not have fins and scales is an abomination (11:10). Any flying thing which has four feet is an abomination (11:20). If you touch a dead beast, you are defiled until evening, and have to wash your clothes (11:24-25). Lizards, crocodiles, and other kinds of reptiles are unclean (11:29-31). Snakes and other creeping things are an abomination (11: 42).
Now, since these terms “unclean” and “abomination” keep popping up, it will be well to take a pause here and consider what they mean in Leviticus. Essentially, the two terms mean the same thing. An unclean person or thing, or an abomination, means you are ritually impure. You cannot take part in any religious ceremony. You cannot enter the Temple in Jerusalem. As the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., that one does not bother me.
Leviticus like almost the entire Old Testament, is very male oriented. For example, we find that after giving birth to a child, a woman is unclean for seven days if the child is male, but for two weeks if a female. She may not touch anything holy for 66 days (12:2-6). A leper is unclean, and has to live separated from everyone else (13:passim).
In Chapter 15, we get to some sexual laws. If you have a nocturnal emission, you are unclean (15:2). If you get spit on by an unclean person, you are unclean (15:8). After sex with a woman, you are unclean, and must wash all your clothes (15:16). A woman is unclean during her menstrual period, and anyone who touches her is also unclean (15:19). If a man has sex with a woman during her period, he is unclean for seven days, and every bed he sleeps in is also unclean (15: 24). A woman with a hemorrhage is unclean, and so is anyone who has sex with her (15:25). “Take heed of uncleanness, that you may not die in your filth” (15:31).
According to Chapter 16, the way to get rid of sin, is to confess it to a goat, and send the goat out into the desert — this is the scapegoat.
More sexual laws are found in Chapter 18. Incest is prohibited (18:1-18). Sex with a woman during her period is forbidden (18: 19). Sex with another man is forbidden (18:22). Sex with a beast is forbidden (18:23). All these things are abominations (18:25).
Chapter 19 gives us some social laws. Speaking ill of another is forbidden (19:13). Making fun of the deaf and blind is forbidden (19:14). Seeking revenge is forbidden (19:18). Sowing a field with two types of grain is forbidden, as is wearing a garment made of two types of cloth (19:19). Cutting one’s hair ‘roundways’ is forbidden, as is shaving one’s beard, and tattoos are forbidden (19: 27). Consulting a fortune teller is forbidden (19:31).
In Chapter 20, we come to the punishments for various kinds of forbidden acts. Anyone who curses his mother or father shall die (20:9). Anyone who commits adultery shall die (20:10). Any man who lies with another man shall die (20:13). If you marry your mother-in-law, this is an abomination, and you shall be burned alive (20:14). If you have sex with a beast, you shall die (20:15). Those guilty of sibling incest shall be publicly executed (20: 17). If you have sex with a woman during her period, you shall die (20:18). Anyone who proclaims oracles shall die (20:27). Obviously, Leviticus approves of capital punishment. If Leviticus were enforced, there would be a lot of dead people.
In Chapter 22 we are told that a priest must marry a virgin, and he cannot be blind, lame, have a crooked nose, or be hunchbacked.
Chapter 24:16 orders that blasphemers be stoned. (Sounds like Islamic fundamentalists.)
Finally, in Chapter 25 we are told that one must not work every seventh year (25:3). No sale of land is permanent (25:23), and if you sell a house you can reclaim it within a year (25:29). The real estate agents will be surprised to learn of this. Finally, we are told that slavery is okay, as long as you don’t enslave another Jew (25:44).
Now, brothers, I admit I have selected only those verses which might cause us to stop and think “Huh?” There are some positive things in Leviticus. But the point is, anyone citing Leviticus is being selective, paying attention only to those verses which back up his argument, and ignoring the rest. When I was a student at Flaget High back in the 1950s, one of the brothers mentioned in a Religion class that as far as matters of Faith and Morals are concerned, everything of value in the Old Testament is repeated in the New Testament. The Old Testament contains many familiar stories — Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Exodus, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lions’ Den. We can read it for edification. But my advice to Christians is to stick to the New Testament for important things.
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