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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


Leviticus, is probably one of the least read books of the Bible.  Except for perhaps the now infamous sentence of death for homosexuality, even devout Christians are unlikely to know much about it.  Leviticus is a book of laws for ancient Israel.  The name of the book comes from the Levi tribe of priests.  In rabbinic literature Leviticus is referred to as “The Regulations of the Priests.”  Judaic priesthood having ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Leviticus is of interest these days to few people apart from rabbis and yeshiva students studying Torah and scholars seeking to understand ancient Hebrew religion.  

The use of several sources is apparent in duplications and abrupt shifts in topic.  Elements of Exodus’ ten commandments appear mixed in with other commandments (19).  In The Old Testament, A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, Richard Hess describes a number of interesting parallels between cultic practices and laws described in Leviticus and those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.

Leviticus has only three narratives.  Chapter eight is an extended account of the priestly ordination of Aaron and his sons by Moses.  The other two narratives describe the result of failure to abide by the law given by Yahve.  One tells of how two sons of Aaron offered “unholy fire” (not from the perpetual flame in the tabernacle), for which they were themselves consumed by fire.  Aaron and his surviving sons then failed to eat their portion of the sin offering made in atonement.  Moses was distressed by his brother’s failure to do as told, but “was content” with Aaron’s explanation of his distress at “such things as have befallen me” (10).  In the third narrative the sin of blasphemy was punished by death.

The first verse of Leviticus describes Yahve speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting to convey instructions for sacrifices.  Leviticus is much concerned with sacrifice, providing detailed descriptions of the several kinds of sacrifices prescribed by Yahve and how they are to be preformed.  There are both animal and “cereal” (grain and baked goods in which salt was to be added but not leaven) offerings for specific situations and occasions which are described in detail.  Judging by the procedures for butchering sacrificial animals and throwing their blood around the altar, the tabernacle/temple (most biblical scholars believe that much of Leviticus depicts post-exilic temple practices projected back into the time of Exodus) would seem to have more resembled a slaughter house than what we think of as a place of worship.  Strict adherence to Yahve’s commands would seemingly have produced non-stop slaughter and burning of flesh on the altar.  I wonder how closely the laws of Leviticus were actually followed.

Sacrifices were offerings made to Yahve.  Some, “holocausts,” were completely burned up.  Others were only partially consumed on the altar.  What was left was eaten by the priests who had to consume all that had been made holy via sacrifice within a certain timeframe.  Fat and blood, the latter of which was regarded as “the life” of the sacrificed animal, were not to be eaten but were Yahve’s portion.  Sacrifices were only to be offered in the tabernacle, not in the fields as in the days of the Patriarchs as that was the location of offerings made “to satyrs,” i.e. gods other than Yahve (17:7).

There is a lot of focus on holiness and its opposite, uncleanness, both of which were regarded as objective non-materialistic energies that could be transmitted via contact.  It was dangerous to touch or even be in the presence of a holy object or person.  Likewise, contact with an unclean object, animal, or person made one unclean.  There were regulations for the care of holy objects along with details as to how the priests were to stay safe when in the holy tabernacle and extensive directions for decontamination of uncleanness.

As an Adventist my only real association to the rules found in Leviticus was the list of clean and unclean animals, which in contemporary language was reduced to “don’t eat pigs or shellfish.”  As my family were vegetarians, that didn’t have much practical application for me.  But when I finally got around to reading the biblical text, I wondered why Adventists ignored the rest of Leviticus’ dietary code, which for observant Jews constitutes kosher.  Interestingly other ancient Near Eastern cultures like the Hittites also made a distinction between clean and unclean animals.  But for the Hittites pigs were clean (Hess, p. 85-86).

As an apparent visible sign of uncleanness, leprosy, which seems to have been a generic term for any skin disease and even mildew in dwellings, gets a lot of attention in Leviticus which is responsible for the common usage of  “leper” in reference to someone who has been banished from society.

There were a great many rules regarding sex, most having to do with whom one could not have sexual relations.  The penalty for many sexual violations was death.  Women were regarded as unclean during and for a while after their period as well as after childbirth.  In general there wasn't much positive regard for women in the laws of Leviticus.

A sacred calendar is described along with rules for observing the sabbath and several annual festivals, some of which other biblical texts seem to indicate actually originated after the Babylonian exile.  Every seventh year was a sabbath year in which fields were not to be cultivated or crops harvested.  This seems to have involved an act of faith that Yahve would provide a large enough harvest in the sixth year to ensure survival until harvest in the eight year.  There was also a fiftieth Jubilee Year in which the prohibitions on sowing and harvested were repeated, leases expired and people returned to their family homes, debts were forgiven, and indentured servants freed.  As the fiftieth year would follow a sabbath year, that meant two years in which tending and harvest crops was forbidden.  I wonder whether these seemingly impractical injunctions were ever actually followed.

There are rules for ethical conduct, including the “Golden Rule” in a text quoted by Jesus (19:18), debt and business transactions, property exchange, and everyday life.  Only non-Hebrews were to be enslaved in perpetuity; Hebrews could be indentured to pay off debt but were to be freed when either the debit was paid or the Year of Jubilee occurred.  The poor must be provided for.  The regulations for sacrifice make provision for when someone was too poor to be able to make an expensive offering.  

Chapter 27 is a sort of appendix describing the procedure for setting the monetary value of persons, animals, and property that have been “vowed” to Yahve, apparently to redeem the pledge.  A lesser value was assigned to females.  Pledged animals suitable for sacrifice were not redeemable but had to be sacrificed.  A tithe of virtually everything was to be given to Yahve.  Agriculture tithe could be reclaimed by paying its valuation along with an additional fifth, but the tithe of animals could not be redeemed.  

Leviticus ends (except for the appendix) with a promise of prosperity conditional on obedience followed by a longer threat of punishment for disobedience:  “You shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up” (26:38).  But even then “I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God; but I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers” (26:44-45).

© 2021 James Moyers