Originally posted at Livejournal 7th October 2010
Leviticus. Your first reaction might be to yawn. If there are two books that every person who reads the Bible is going to struggle with it’s going to be Leviticus and Numbers. They’re not up there in terms of accessibility, or on the face of it have any direct relevance to the twenty first century Christian – other than by perhaps reinforcing the stereotype that Christianity is just a lot of rules about what you can’t do. By chance, my readings at the moment find me in Leviticus and yes, I struggle too. Shall we struggle together?
Let’s tackle the misnomer that Christianity is an endless set of rules to follow. Yes, there are rules, but there are only ten of them – it’s hardly a long list. I think you’ll find the Highway Code rather more unwieldy . The ten rules go by the more familiar term of the Ten Commandments and I believe they made a film about them in 1956 starring Charlton Heston, which I’ve never seen and actually don’t want to.
Here’s the Ten Commandments, this is from The Message version
1-2 God spoke all these words: I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery.
3 No other gods, only me.
4-6 No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.
7 No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.
8-11 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.
12 Honor your father and mother so that you’ll live a long time in the land that God, your God, is giving you.
13 No murder.
14 No adultery.
15 No stealing.
16 No lies about your neighbor.
17 No lusting after your neighbor’s house—or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don’t set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.
They are all pretty self-explanatory.
The thing is, Leviticus contains a whole other bunch of stuff and it’s easy to get bogged down in all this and fail to see the wood for the trees.
Leviticus is primarily a ‘How To’ book. This is God laying down the standards to the people of Israel and spelling out exactly how He’d like things done. It contains comprehensive instructions on how to sacrifice things, what to sacrifice, when to do it and the penalty if you decide that you’d like to do it another way – death, (naturally) – see Leviticus 10:1-2.
There’s bad news for vampires, eating blood is strictly forbidden and so is – interestingly – eating fat; so that’s one in the eye to all you Atkins devotees out there… 😉 God wants you on a low-fat diet… which, if you’re carrying around a bit of extra poundage, makes Rosemary Conley your new best friend! How deeply convenient that she’s a Christian. Quite what that other raving Christian Delia Smith is doing chucking around the double cream and full fat whatnot, I don’t know. I guess God’ll have words with her in due time…
For a book of the Bible, Leviticus has a lot to say about sex, an awful lot to say about it – mostly who you can’t have it with (chapter 18) and when you can’t have it. And there are some downright oddities in there too. I really can’t quite get a grip of what exactly the reason is behind Lev 19:19b (do not plant your field with two kinds of seed) – other than a bit of a sticky problem for the growing band of allotment holders. But I do have an inkling of what’s behind Lev 19:19c (do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material), as God clearly has first-hand experience of the oddly shrunken mess that can come out of the tumble-drier at times.*
There are also large sections about cleanliness and personal purity, especially when it came to skin rashes and bodily discharges. While these may seem onerous to the reader, you have to marvel that there’s a lot of good advice in the book for keeping down the spread of infectious diseases and about safe food handling. Anyone who thinks food hygiene practices originated around 1982, clearly hasn’t read Leviticus. God was the original Health and Hygiene Inspector.
What we need to take away from all this, is the notion that God designed the Israelites to be set apart from other nations, to be doing things differently because they were His holy people. He wanted them physically, spiritually and emotionally fit and healthy. He was quite well aware what was going on in other places and didn’t want His people to be falling into the same traps and grubbing around in the dirt of life like other people were. This didn’t all pass away at the birth of Jesus, these sentiments are clearly reflected in the New Testament when Jesus said he came to fulfil the Law not abolish it. While we may not be bound by the same restrictions and practices as the Israelites were, we are certainly still called to be a holy people set apart for God. Just like the Israelites, God wants us physically, spiritually and emotionally fit and there are things that are going to get in the way of that:
- Abusing your body with drink, drugs or food.
- Emotionally compromising yourself with the baggage from bitterness, guilt and rage etc (and a pile of exasperating ex boyfriends)
- Getting yourself sidetracked by dodgy spiritual practices (consulting mediums, living your life based on a horoscope etc)
and so on…
So while the New Testament may have little to say about the RULES, there is an awful lot in there about making WISE CHOICES.
Compare Leviticus 20: 7-8 (Old Testament) Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God. Do what I tell you; live the way I tell you. I am the God who makes you holy. (The Message)
with 1 Peter 1:15 (New Testament)
Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy. (The Message)
The standard of holiness is still there, but it no longer comes from following a set of rules. This New Testament holiness comes from the sea-change that has taken place within a person’s heart. They don’t need a set of rules to follow, the true Christian will WANT to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God, making choices about the way they live their lives based on that internal desire. It’s no longer about pleasing the world and living to its standards; but pleasing God and living to His standards.
Which is why society gets its knickers in a twist about Christians teaching their children to leave sex until they’re older… and married.
Which is a discussion for another time…
Take another look at Leviticus, read all the sacrificial stuff and then work out how many animals might die based on your average day of sinful blunderings! Then give thanks that because of Jesus’ once-for all sacrifice, no more innocent animals need to die because you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head.
*proper theologians are most welcome to comment on exactly what’s going on here. I just have an ‘O’ Level in RE, I’m not an expert. But if you are…
Rachel J Lewis | 7th October 2010