Real Bible Studies: Leviticus


If the Ten Commandments were the basis for “the law” as defined by the ancient Israelites, then Leviticus is the nuts and bolts description of how to carry out the law. Like most law books, it’s a very tedious book to read, spelling out, sometimes in minute detail, what each infraction is, and what sort of sacrifice is needed to atone for such infractions, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the various inhabitants of the tribe in atoning for their sins against God. Leviticus also provides guidelines for establishing the Sabbath, and the festivals and holy days the children of Israel are to observe. Leviticus gets it’s name from the Levites or descendants of Levi, from whom the priestly class is derived. The priests are frequently referred to as Aaron and his sons within the text. Many of the rules spelled out in Leviticus were undoubtedly refined by later commentary, and rulings by priests and pharisees, but I shall restrict the bulk of this discussion to the text of Leviticus itself, except whenever additional references are necessary for clarification.

Several chapters in Leviticus establish the priestly class as the main conduit between the children of Israel and their God, and specify rules and regulations for the priests. It also provides specific instructions on how the priest is to handle each offering, prepare it, slaughter it, deal with the blood, what gets burned, and what each offering means. It also sets down the type of animal to bring as an offering, and what to substitute if the particular animal is not available. For those wishing to make the case that much of the Bible is obsolete, Leviticus provides a perfect example, since the remedy for just about every infraction is a blood sacrifice, or burnt offering, and neither modern Judaism, nor Christianity practices animal sacrifice any longer.

The action of Leviticus centers around the tent of meeting. This is a portable tabernacle described in Exodus 26 and 27. It contains the ark (Exodus 25:10-22), the altar of burnt offerings (Exodus 27:1-8), and Aaron and his sons, who’ve been appointed as priests, presumably by God. Exodus provides pain-staking instructions on the dimensions and construction of the tent of meeting, and who’s authorized to inhabit each section. Leviticus goes into even greater detail on which sections are off-limits to anyone other than Aaron and his sons, and what happens to anyone who violates these restrictions, including two of Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Much of Leviticus concerns itself with what’s clean and unclean, and prescribes purity rituals that the children of Israel are to follow to cleanse themselves, when they become unclean. Several centuries later, Jesus will be taken to task by the priests and pharisees for proclaiming individuals “clean” without having them perform the designated rituals. Cleanliness is defined in both physical and spiritual terms. For instance, touching or wearing something that’s been deemed unclean, eating an unclean animal, dealing with a dead body, or inhabiting a dwelling that’s been pronounced unclean pollutes both the body and spirit, and while washing the body is prescribed for most situations, it does not always go far enough to cleanse the spirit. Chapter 11 deals with what’s considered clean and unclean, and sprinkled throughout Chapters 1-10, and 12-15 are specific instructions on what the person has to do to become clean again, as well as rules on what causes a building, or one’s clothing to become unclean. In some cases, atonement involves waiting for sundown, but in other cases, this involves presenting a particular type of animal to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting which is ritually slaughtered, and dealt with in the manner prescribed.

Leviticus 18 concerns itself with various types of sexual improprieties the children of Israel should not commit, and, as such, tends to get the most attention in the modern era, particularly among conservatives intent on justifying restrictions on the behavior of others. Chapter 19 lists other infractions the Israelites are not to commit, such as mixing different types of fibers in fabric, and Leviticus 20 deals with the punishments for the actions described in 18 and 19. In most cases, the punishment is banishment from the tribe, or death, though sometimes the punishment is a bit obscure.

Here is the comprehensive list of people one should not have sexual relations with according to Leviticus 18: a close relative; one’s mother; the wife of one’s father; one’s sister, either father’s daughter or mother’s daughter regardless of whether or not she was born in the same house; son’s daughter, or daughter’s daughter; daughter of father’s wife, born to one’s father; father’s sister; mother’s sister; father’s brother’s wife; daughter-in-law; brother’s wife; both a woman and her daughter, or the woman and her son’s daughter, or daughter’s daughter; wife’s sister while the wife is still living, even if one has married the sister as a second wife beforehand; a woman during that time of the month; neighbor’s wife; a man as one would with a woman; an animal, and also a woman must not present herself to an animal with the intention of having sexual relations. Most of these are worded in such a way to make it clear the intended audience for these instructions was comprised of men. For instance, it doesn’t state a mother should not have sexual relations with her son, but that the son should not have sexual relations with his mother.

All these improprieties are described as having been done in the lands into which God is leading the Israelites, and apparently this caused the land to vomit up the inhabitants, which sort of makes one wonder why they had to kill so many people once they got there. Also, Leviticus instructs the Israelites not to sacrifice their children to Molek. Elsewhere, at several places in the bible, Molek is identified as “the detestable god of the Ammonites” and placed in the same league as Baal, who’s apparently not important enough to warrant mention in Leviticus. Leviticus goes further in Chapter 20, stating that not only are the Israelites forbidden from making such sacrifices, but no foreigner residing with the Israelites may sacrifice his children to Molek either. Leviticus 19 forbids such activities as placing blocks in the way of blind people, eating fellowship offerings on the third day, or getting tattooed.

I would venture to guess that very few people who quote the infamous passage involving males lying with males from Leviticus 18:22, know anything else about the book. As I say, it’s a rather complicated book, that’s not easy to read, and targeted toward a culture that ceased to exist many centuries ago, though the descendants are still around. Leviticus 11:7-8 designates pigs as unclean, and not to be eaten, and Leviticus 19:33-34 contains passages that tell the Israelites not to mistreat foreigners living among them, and quite a few modern individuals who otherwise identify themselves as Biblical purists ignore these statues. It’s highly doubtful that anyone who quotes the restriction on males lying with males in Leviticus 18 has a tent of meeting set up in his or her back yard inhabited by a descendant of Aaron, where he regularly sacrifices bulls, lambs, or doves as offerings to the Lord, and yet, these requirements are as much a part of Leviticus as that one line from 18 is.

Leviticus does not, at any point, state that any of it is optional, or to be ignored. In fact, it states, constantly, that these are the words of the Lord as given to Moses, and as such, should be taken very seriously. If Leviticus 18 is the inerrant word of god, then so is Leviticus 11, and therefore, eating pork makes a person unclean and should be avoided, as it says there. The counter to this is, usually, that the dietary restrictions only apply to Jews. Here’s the deal, every single word of Leviticus is directed only to the children of Israel and no one else. We know this because many chapters including Chapters 11 and 18, start with God commanding Moses to direct his words to the Israelites, and throughout Leviticus, a distinction is constantly being made between the Israelites, and those of the countries the Israelites had inhabited, and will inhabit. The very reason the dietary laws, and instructions on cleanliness come up so much in the Gospels, is because the people debating them were Jews, including Jesus. One of the earliest debates in the emerging Christian church in the first century was whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to adhere to Jewish law, observing the dietary restrictions, and being circumcised. Paul didn’t think so; Jesus didn’t offer a clear ruling one way or the other, though Jesus did, at times, dismiss other requirements covered in Leviticus.

Christians will point out that Jesus superseded the authority of the high priest, and the purity rituals, by forgiving people of their sins without having them jump through all the ritualistic hoops. Given that much of Leviticus establishes the authority of the high priest, and designates the purity rituals needed to atone for sins, it could then be argued, at least by Christians, that Jesus superseded all of Leviticus. In other words, if Jesus superseded Leviticus 1-15, then Jesus superseded 16-27 as well. Leviticus 20 sets the punishment for adultery as death for all involved, yet when confronted by the Pharisees with an adulterous woman who was about to be stoned to death, Jesus’ reply was, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and once the Pharisees had gone away, Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. He didn’t condone her actions, but didn’t condemn her for them, as the law said he should. It’s highly likely his attitude toward other issues raised in Leviticus 18-20 would have been the same.

What I find most fascinating about the restrictions on behavior in Leviticus is that someone actually felt the need to sit down and write these things up. Most restrictions are put in place to prevent someone from committing acts someone else has deemed to be offensive. Whoever wrote Leviticus either observed people doing these things, or believed that people were doing these things, and wanted to warn the Israelites or their descendants from doing the same. If no one’s having sex with his sister, there shouldn’t be a need to warn people against it, or set consequences for doing so. Apparently, in Egypt, it was common for a Pharaoh to marry his sister, since both were considered gods, and humans and gods could not mix. It paints a rather disturbing picture of the ancient world, with people running around, having sex with their parents, and making blood sacrifices of their children to Molek and other deities. Since Leviticus was included in the Jewish scriptures compiled during the Babylonian exile, one must assume that the practices described there continued into that era, otherwise, there would be no need to remind people not to do them.

It should be pointed out that by the time of the Babylonian exile, the events predicted in Leviticus would have been in the distant past. The land God was leading the Israelites into in Leviticus, had already been occupied by for many generations, only to be lost when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. History suggests that not everyone who had been residing in Jerusalem had been carted off, mostly just the ruling class and their followers, so those in exile would have been among the most educated and most privileged. When the Persians conquered Babylon, those in exile were allowed to return to their homeland and reestablish themselves. With them they carried the law, including Leviticus, which would govern their people until 70 CE, when an even greater power than the Babylonians and Persians, that of Imperial Rome, would once again sack Jerusalem, destroy the temple for the last time, and set in motion the Jewish Diaspora.

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