Monday, October 25

Thoughts on Leviticus

Several posts (like this) I've seen in the last few days have pondered how to read Leviticus. Given today's political climate there is much sound and fury over the two verses declaiming homosexuality as an "abomination". One side declaims that this is to be obeyed and is perfectly clear. The other that, since we (as Christians) don't eat Kosher or perform animal sacrifice, golly, why don't we feel free to ignore all of Leviticus. This last position ignores the fact that the two verses they are anxious to toss straddle the verse from Leviticus they most want to keep, namely love thy neighbor. Commonly as well, "separation" is pointed at as the main thrust of the dietary and other practices in Leviticus. This, according to Milgrom in his Anchor Bible volumes, is wrong. I will disclose at the outset that I am largely indifferent to this issue, in that it is not a sin (if sin) which personally affects me. I am not tempted by it and my children are both pre-adolescent and as such I don't have the parental wrestling to do that may be my fate. However, it is a current issue in the modern Church so I choose to consider it briefly here.

At any rate, Christians have been taught that it is permissible to ignore some of the teachings of Leviticus. It is instructive however, to examine how this process works. I believe that before a we decide to "discard" a directive from Leviticus, we must understand the motivation for the law and why it may or may not apply to us today.

For example:
  • With regard to the sacrifices we (as Christians) believe that Christ the Lamb was our perfect sacrifice. We in fact, remind ourselves of this every time we participate in Holy Communion. In fact, the Israelites today do not perform the sacrifices as the temple has been destroyed and not rebuilt.
  • Take many of the "kosher" dietary laws which involve separation, e.g., wool from flax, different grains, or dairy from meat. Why were these practices asked of the Hebrews? Recall that Leviticus (and the Torah) call the Israelites to be a "Priestly people". By following these Laws, the daily practices of the Israelites reflects theology. The separation which is written in Genesis 1 is mirrored in dietary practice. Just as God separates night from day, heavens from earth, and dry land from water, the people remind themselves at their table. Kind of like, for the Christian, in Lent we remind ourselves of our relationship with Christ through fasting (or at least giving something up). Much of the message of Genesis 1 was one of monotheism and that God was Creator. However, in today's world, unlike when Leviticus and the Torah were given to the people, we don't fight the pull of polytheism. We don't need the constant daily reminder (as much?) that God created the universe and that there is only one God. So we ignore these laws. Perhaps, in the last century, the reminder that God is Creator is warranted, but this was not the case during the Early Church which had decided on disregarding these precepts.
  • Incest is warned against in Leviticus. The "reason" this Law would have been given would be that in Genesis we are told, that "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Gen 2:24)".This law we retain, because the reason it is in place has not changed in our time. With incest, we never leave.
  • Sacrifice to Moloch is an abomination. We are told this was child sacrifice to the pagan deities. Modern analogies of this sacrifice to abortion have been made, and I don't know of any strong reasons to disagree with this. Even if pro-abortion (I hate the phrase pro-"choice") advocates claim the fetus is not a "human" it certainly is analogous to a germinating "seed" of one. As such, I can't see how its "sacrifice" could be sanctioned either.
  • Homosexuality follows much the same argument as incest. However, it occurred to me that the reason for disregarding this law is different. We are no longer a patriarchal society. In fact, one could argue that in modern times, this stricture in an age of abundant population and a low infant/child mortality rates that we should be able to take a pass on this law. However, we still have a need for strong families. Thus this could be in dispute. Also this does not explain why the author of Leviticus uses the phrase "abomination" (a strong phrase indeed) instead of the weaker phrase like "thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of XX" which was used for incest.
The point I am trying to make is that, yes we as modern Christians ignore some of the laws given to us in Leviticus. However, before we do so, we should remind ourselves what the original theological reason those laws served and from that decide how relevant to our life they might be.