Friday, July 6, 2012

Simon Says Christians Don't Actually Read Leviticus: A Survey of the Book of Leviticus

The book of Leviticus is an explanation of the priestly laws for the people of Israel. Today, there are people who think the Leviticus text has little to no relevance for the Christian faith life (after all, it’s a Hebrew text written for a specific people, and a specific occasion). However, taking such logic to its natural conclusion would lead most if not all scripture to be irrelevant (which ought to be a concern for people of faith).

The contexts of the Levitical Laws are not as irrelevant as some might think (myself included, at one point in time). The Levite priests held authority over the people of Israel religiously, medically, and judicially. They were the governing tribe of Israel before the time of the Judges. What makes this relevant to a modern culture? If your priest was your doctor, your lawyer, your judge, your educator, and your religious authority, wouldn’t you pay attention to what they were communicating to you?

The point is there’s more to the book of Leviticus than most people know about and it’s all right there in the text. Perhaps, my background in biblical scholarship allows me to catch things most readers don’t (but I think there’s more to it than that). Context is everything. The book of Leviticus is known for prohibiting same sex relations (18:22; 20:13) but contextually it’s not talking about “homosexuality.” Those famously prooftexted (pulled out of context, misused, eisegetical) verses are talking about things done in the practice of idol worship to other gods. The law of the Lord was for the people of Israel to be set apart from other nations and devoted to their God.

Idolatry was the crux of Original Sin – it’s what makes us sinners – it’s the most alienating and relevant aspect of human nature. No matter what we keep or trim out (all Christians do this with one biblical text or another) the book of Leviticus is super relevant. In it we are told to love our neighbor (19:18), to respect the authority of the Lord (18:30), not to oppress immigrants (19:33-34), to engage in religious celebrations and services (23:4-8), to share our provisions with the poor (23:22), and to remember what the Lord has done for the people of God (20:23-24).

Remembering the work of God is central to the Pentateuch (Torah) and to the Leviticus text, as the text indicates how exile in Babylon 586 BC/BCE affected the people’s appreciation for the work of God (26:34). It’s also a great reminder that whether it’s Jesus in the New Testament or the priests in the Old Testament someone is reconciling the people to God because we are unable to redeem ourselves (Lv. 15:30).