LEVITICUS – Book of Rules
– MOSTLY OUT DATED BUT SOME ARE STILL PRECIOUS –
Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself,” and called it as the most important law of our faith. It is a quotation from the Book of Leviticus. (19:34) But the abomination of homosexuality also comes from Leviticus. In fact, many of the rules in Leviticus are outdated and impractical. If all the commandments are strictly followed today, a large percentage of the world’s population, at least among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, will have to be put to death. How many people would survive if those who spoke against their parents and those who engaged in sex outside of marriage are to be stoned to death?
Leviticus was written as the manual for the priests who were known as Levites. They were custodians of the correct form of worship and the standard of moral ethics. The source of its content is known among the Biblical scholars as “P” for priest. Not only P is the main content of the Leviticus, it is also often quoted in other books of Torah – Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. However, in this paper I am not touching on the first 10 chapters for the sake of time, because it is all about rituals and contains an entirely different category of subject matters from what I decided to discuss.
The basic motif of Leviticus is that God is holy therefore we have to be clean to be acceptable to God. (19:2) What then do the words “holy” and “clean” mean? Simply put, holiness equals cleanness. To be clean determines our action towards God and towards fellow humans and other creatures. The notion of “holy” was actually nothing uniquely religious originally. It simply meant ‘special’, ‘different’, or ‘unique’ as oppose to ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’. It was in later years religious institutions made it a religious notion, hence adoption of the word like ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ to distinguish it from secular sounding adjective.
It seems that the idea of ‘holiness equals cleanness’ has a lot to do with health and procreation. Basically it derives from a concern for our well being and secure future. But to determine what is clean seems to be dependent on subjective, aesthetic, and emotional reactions, no way objective or scientific. So there can be difference of opinions depending on different cultures, places, and even on climate. So we who live in different circumstances from the Middle East often don’t understand some peculiar rules. How can an animals with divided hooves and eat cud are clean, but that do not eat cud are unclean? We who live in different places and times have no idea why such distinctions were made. I suppose it is totally contextual and/or subjective judgement.
Granted some rules have survived the test of time and geography and are still valid; e.g. prohibition of mildew or incest. (13:47 & 18: 6 ff.) However, many ethical decisions were made according to cultural and/or aesthetic bias. Anything that looks yucky, disgusting, and slimy looks unclean, therefore is bad for your health and bad for your spirit. The logic is, “It looks disgusting and unhealthy so God must hate it.” Liquid and solid discharge from any orifice of the body is deemed to be disgusting according to the cultural bias therefore determined to be unclean. Of course, some rules stand the test of geography and time. But most passed expiry dates and are obsolete, such as rules against eating certain animals like shrimps and pigs.
As for the rules against male homosexuality (18 ff), it is interesting to note that lesbianism is not mentioned. It shows that the prohibition of male homosexuality has to do with the need for preservation of seeds for future offspring, hence abomination of male masturbation as well. Preservation of the blood-line in a harsh desert climate and in the hostile neighbourhood was the primary concern. In milder climate and/or more civilized less violent societies, like ancient Athens, male homosexuality was thought of as natural and positive. In fact, in ancient Athenian society attraction between men was considered to be the most beautiful emotion, and is an ubiquitous theme in literature.
We must not forget that in ancient times people died very young and in large numbers especially in the harsh condition of the Middle East. Tribal wars were common. Death was ubiquitous. Survival of species was of utmost importance. The rules against waste of blood and semen were very much in keeping with this spirit. Scholars speculate also that the reason why male homosexuality is particularly detested has also to do with sensation of disgust about anus, a source of uncleanness.
At the same time, you must discover and recognize the positive aspect of Leviticus. You will find many precious gems that last forever. “Love your neighbour” is one. Love should be a criterion to weed out obsolete rules. There are other gems also that should be more strongly emphasized such as the notion of Jubilee. ( Chapter 25 and following) I often wonder why we have ignored those wonderfully humane commandments.
What I particularly think precious is the idea of Sabbath – sacred seven; after seven days taking time off to restore health and sanity in your body and in your relationship. The notion of seven is extended to seven years, and seven times seven years (forty-nine years). On the seventh day, you stop working to bring physical strength back and get together with family and friends to restore relationship. After seven years, you stop planting in order to give soil rest allowing time to recover richness of soil, and do not charge interest on the loan so that the poor people have a break. After 49 years (7 x 7), all debts must be forgiven, and all slaves must be freed. If anyone was forced to sell the house or land in the past 50 years, it has to be returned to the original owner. In the year of Jubilee – the 50th year; all must be forgiven out of love and welfare of community, nature, as well as of yourself.
It is such a companionate and humane idea. It’s such a radical idea that human race never had courage to follow the commandments of “sacred seven.” Seven is God’s time therefore it should mean love, restoration and salvation. Human race never followed it because it is bad for business. Leviticus spends many pages how the concept of Sabbath (Sacred Seven) should be implemented compared to relatively minor requirements like taboo on male homosexuality.
No matter how we screen out some of the obsolete and outdated rules, Christ’s primary “love” command is supreme and forever lasting. All others must be judged according to the supreme commandment, and be preserved or be allowed to expire. In conclusion, Leviticus has to be examined carefully to be applied in our life and time.