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Friday, July 28, 2017

A closer look at the book of Leviticus

In my previous post, a critical part of my thesis was that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should not be regarded as eternal and universal spiritual principles. In that post (and as part of my response to the comments which it provoked), I expressed my belief that they are best understood as being applicable to the people of ancient Israel and as components of the covenant which YHWH made with them.

Gordon's comments, however, make clear that many Christians do regard these two scriptures as binding on both themselves and all of humanity. Of course, Gordon is not alone in this view. Indeed, it would seem that a majority of Christians favor this view of these two scriptures which clearly forbid sexual relations between two men.

This is part of a debate that has been raging since the founding of Christianity as a religion:  Just how much of the Law of Moses is still applicable to people living in the 21st Century? And, more specifically, how much of that law applies to Christians?

However, rather than revisiting this as part of that larger theological debate, I thought it would be more instructive to look at the particular context of these two verses in determining whether or not they should be regarded as binding on us. In short, lets take a closer look at the book of Leviticus and see just how much of it is actually applicable to the people of our time.

Consider the following outline of the book's contents by chapter (based on both the New Living Translation and King James Version of the Bible):
Leviticus
1: Burnt offerings
2: Grain offerings
3: Peace offerings
4: Sin offerings
5: Sin and guilt offerings
6: Further instructions about offerings
7: More instructions about offerings and the portion of the priests
8: Ordination of priests
9: Aaron's and his sons' performance of their duties as priests
10: The failure of Aaron's sons and instructions about priestly conduct
11: Clean and unclean animals
12: Purification for women after childbirth
13: Instructions about skin diseases and contaminated clothing
14: More instructions about skin diseases and how to treat contaminated houses
15: Male and female bodily discharges
16: Detailed instructions for the observance of the Day of Atonement
17: Regulations regarding the consumption of blood
18: Prohibited sexual behaviors
19: Various prohibited behaviors
20: Punishments for various offenses
21-22: Priestly conduct and acceptable offerings
23: Festival observance
24: Oil, holy bread and appropriate punishments
25: Sabbath years and Jubilee observance
26: Blessings for obedience and punishments for disobedience enumerated
27: Redemption of things dedicated to the Lord

Now, looking over that list, how much of that material do you regard as carrying forward to us?

I think that most of us would agree that offerings and the ordination of priests are not applicable to us - that eliminates the first ten chapters of the book! A small minority of Christians and many Jews still adhere to the dietary restrictions (clean and unclean) found in Chapter 11, but the vast majority of folks have no problem eating bacon and shrimp. Most of us would agree that the instructions about purification rituals for females, the treatment of skin diseases and contaminated houses, and the instructions about bodily discharges don't have any applicability to us - that eliminates four more chapters! Even the small number of Christians and Jews who attempt to observe the Day of Atonement DO NOT follow the instructions given in Chapter 16. Jehovah's Witnesses and a few other fringe groups claim to follow the instructions regarding the consumption of blood in Chapter 17, but most folks don't have any religious objections to eating a rare steak or receiving a blood transfusion. Once again, most of us would disregard the instructions about priestly conduct and the acceptability of offerings - there goes two more chapters! For those Jews and Christians who still attempt to observe the festivals, it should be noted that they do not strictly follow the instructions given in Chapter 23 (dates, attendance at the central sanctuary, associated offerings, constructing temporary shelters out of tree branches, etc.). Most of us would agree that the instructions concerning oil, holy bread, Sabbath years, Jubilees and the redemption of things dedicated to the Lord don't have any applicability to us - three more chapters gone! I suppose we could make a philosophical case for the importance of the blessings and punishments which are enumerated in the book, but most of us would agree that these were meant to specifically apply to the Israelites.

That leaves most of us with THREE chapters to consider (18-20). Lets take a closer look at them:
Chapter 18 makes clear that YHWH expected the Israelites to NOT act like the former inhabitants of the Promised Land or the nations which would surround them there. It goes on to enumerate specifically prohibited sexual behaviors like incest, intercourse with a menstruating woman, man on man sex and bestiality.
Chapter 19 gives instructions for "the entire community of Israel." There are numerous proscriptions in this chapter which most of us would not have any problems with (e.g. not disrespecting parents, no idolatry, no stealing, no cheating, no mistreatment of the deaf and blind, etc.). Nevertheless, there are also a great many proscriptions in this chapter which most of us disregard (e.g. not harvesting the borders of fields, not mating two different kinds of animals, planting fields with two different crops, wearing blended clothing, no tattoos, etc.). In addition to these, there are instructions regarding sex with female slaves, trimming hair and harvesting fruit which most of us would regard as irrelevant.
Chapter 20 enumerates many sins/offenses which are regarded as capital offenses (things that most of us no longer regard as capital crimes). Moreover, most of us no longer regard burning, stoning and childlessness as appropriate punishments for anything.

Hence, for most of us, we are left with a few items from three chapters which we would characterize as being applicable to us today! Does that indicate to you that the principles and instructions found in the book of Leviticus were intended to have universal applicability? In fact, doesn't it make more sense for us to regard the fact that we can extract a few passages which we consider as still having applicability to us today as a fluke/coincidence?

It sure seems to me like the overwhelming weight of the evidence suggests that the book of Leviticus was intended for a specific time, place and people. What do you think?

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