Why I Love Reading Leviticus

As someone who reads the bible regularly I have no problem saying that there are totally boring parts of the bible. There are parts that I am not ashamed to skim over when reading, because they’re a bit of a snooze fest.

However, I think that people are often wrong about which parts are the boring ones. My intuition is that people would probably say that the most boring parts are things like the minor prophets and Old Testament law. I think people think the minor prophets are boring because they’re just names they’ve never heard of; we don’t talk about Habukkuk, Obadiah, and Zephaniah very often. Of course, this is horribly wrong, because the minor prophets are wild, but that’s a topic for another time.

I’m here to talk about why I legitimately enjoy reading OT law, as found in books like Leviticus. I’m not merely saying that I recognize that this is God’s word to us and Jesus thought it was important, so we have some kind of pious duty to enjoy it or something like that. That all may be true, but that’s not the move I’m making. Rather, I enjoy reading OT law because I find it fascinating to see how OT law reflects the values and priorities of God and how he invited his people to move toward these values in their own unique cultural situation.

But Do These Laws Even Apply to Us?

Now, I’d also take the position that in the strictest sense, none of the laws in the OT directly apply to us, not even the ten commandments. Now this is not to say that we can do everything these laws prohibit, since much of the content of the laws of the OT is reaffirmed in the NT. For example, nine out of ten of the so-called ten commandments are affirmed in the NT (the 3rd commandment regarding this Sabbath is perhaps redefined, but I don’t wanna get into that here). This is why much of OT law is still helpful to us since much of it still happens to apply to us even if strictly speaking it was law given in the old covenant and we are now in the new covenant.

But what about all the laws that clearly do not apply to us?

Christians do not obey laws about food codes, sacrificial systems, work on the Sabbath, etc. This is not because, as many progressives claim, Christians like to cherry-pick the verses of the bible they actually listen to. Rather the NT explicitly claims that these laws do not apply to the people of the new covenant. For example, Jesus in Mark 7:19 declares all food clean (at least according to the evangelist) and Paul discusses issues of Sabbath and the like in Romans 14 and elsewhere. Of course, we can’t forget the huge disputes the first century church went through with regard to circumcision and other OT laws (see Galatians and Acts 15).

If These Laws Don’t Apply, Why Bother?

At this point it may seem that there’s no point to reading these laws at all. It may seem that you would be free to pull a Thomas Jefferson and cut these out of your Bible and you’d suffer no real loss.

I’d disagree.

We have to remember that while the exact form of these laws was certainly contingent on the circumstances of early Israelite culture, they are not arbitrary, rather they reveal God’s values and priorities as well as the values and priorities that he invites his people to have.

Think of it like this. The laws of the OT are not like the rules of backgammon when you’re playing chess, completely irrelevant and meaningless. If you want to know how to play chess well, looking at the rules of backgammon will likely not help you. OT law is not like this. Instead, OT law is more like how when a court makes a decision, they look to case law and see how previous courts have ruled in similar sorts of cases. The decisions of these cases do not determine the outcome of the current case. In this way, the old verdicts do not apply. However, they are relevant in having a coherent legal framework or philosophy for dealing with legal issues and disputes. Case law helps to identify things that are valued by a legal system.

In the same way, OT law helps us to see the sorts of things that God values. So while they do not speak directly to us, they bear witness to God’s priorities for human justice and flourishing.

Let’s look at an example:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am Yahweh your God”

—Leviticus 19:9–10

Here God commands his people to leave a bit of leftovers in their fields so that there would be food available at harvest time for the poor and the sojourner. You can imagine that if a community actually did this, it would be a wonderful blessing for the needy and hungry. Of course, if someone is a Christian farmer today, they aren’t required to leave some of their crop in the field. They certainly can, but that’s not the point.

Instead this law shows us that God invites his people to have a deep and active concern for the poor. It seems that the incongruity of God’s people reaping the abundance of their harvest while the poor sit by hungry is to God an absurdity of injustice (cf. Luke 16:19ff).

So again, while this exact regulation regarding harvesting practices does not apply to Christians today, the law provides a window into God’s values and priorities. And having seen this, we will find ways to live in harmony with these values in our own way.

But What About Cruel and Barbaric Laws?

Now, I’ll admit I picked a law from the OT that is rather tame and unobjectionable. But there are many laws that when we as modern westerners read them, we are repulsed by the apparent injustice of them.

Here’s an example:

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins”

— Exodus 22:16–17

To some this law seems to be mandating that a woman who is raped by a man must also marry that man, something that would definitely seem to be unjust.

This is a good example of how we need to learn to approach any part of the scriptures that trouble or confuse us. Oftentimes what we need to do is slow down and ask ourselves two questions: 1) Are we understanding what this text is saying rightly? 2) Are there cultural factors at play that may significantly change the situation?

So here, if we ask question one, we see that this text is not referring to rape. If you were to look up other instances where the word translated here as “seduced” (פתה) is used, then you’d see it definitely seems to refer to consensual sex when it is used in a sexual context (cf. Hosea 2:16, Judges 14:15, and 16:5). Furthermore, it is not automatically the case that the woman must marry the man. The next verse explicitly allows that the father of the woman may object to the marriage. It’s not unreasonable to think that if a woman thought that the man she just slept with is too much of a sleazebag for her to marry that her father will likely agree and that he’d also listen to her in making the decision.

This brings us to the second question. We have to understand that these laws are given in a completely different cultural context and we cannot impose our own cultural values and assumptions on a culture that is not our own. It’s not unlike if you go to a country where the native language is not English, and you insist on speaking English while everyone else is speaking their native language, you will rightly be labeled an obnoxious tourist.

Likewise we have to be sensitive to the cultural values, assumptions, and customs in the ancient world. So here, we have to understand that in this context it would have been extremely difficult for a young woman who was no longer a virgin to find a respectable marriage. Furthermore, for numerous reasons, a woman needed to be married to be able to support herself financially unless she were going to resort to prostitution. This is partially due to the patriarchal structure of this culture, but also due to the economic reality that most industry was either skilled handcrafts or agriculture. Both of which required significant amounts of capital. This is unlike our societies where you can always get a job working at McDonalds or in a factory. Thus, a woman’s best bet at financial stability was to be married to a man with access to such capital and the ability to perform the hard physical labor required to be productive. We may argue that this is unjust, and we may even be right, but this is the cultural reality that the laws of the OT have to deal with.

We often think that the laws or rules in the scriptures are supposed to be a blueprint for setting up a perfect utopian human society. I mean, these laws or instruction are from the Word of God, right? And the Word of God is supposed to be perfect, right?

But this isn’t how it works. Jesus himself points out us much in his discussion with the Pharisees regarding divorce (see Mark 10:1–12). He says that laws permitting divorce were only put in place because of the hardness of heart of people. In other words, the law was not enacting a perfect set of laws, but was trying to stem the tide of human evil to limit the damage that it would inflict, especially upon the marginalized like women, the poor, orphans, widows, sojourners, etc. This is a pattern you can consistently see in OT law. Within its original context, and especially when compared with other law codes of that time and place, these laws were deeply concerned with the welfare of the marginalized and powerless.

What If I Still Don’t Understand?

Now, you may take all of this into account, do all sorts of research and still not understand why a law exists in the OT or how it could even be considered just or fair. That’s okay. Our faith is not about laws and rules and the Bible is not primarily a rulebook.

If you still don’t understand, trust that there is probably more going on that you are aware of and move on. Remember, the main point of studying the scriptures is not so that we can master it, but so that we might be drawn into a reflection on God’s mission to recreate humanity and the world and how we fit into that. Unlike most contemporary books, the scriptures are not written so that you might completely understand them on the first read through. Rather, they are written with the intention that you would come back to them over and over again throughout a whole lifetime of reading and reflecting within the community of the people of God.

And in all this study of law, we ought to remember that the OT points out time and time again that laws were unable to make the people just. The law on its own was utterly powerless to soften human hearts which were invariably turned in on themselves. As Moses and the rest of the prophets say, humanity needs new hearts, hearts of flesh instead of our hearts of stone. We need to be remade into a new sort of humanity.

This is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to push the reset button on humanity, to be humanity 2.0. And he does this not merely by setting an example for us. That would only be a new law for us to follow. Rather he comes to snatch humanity out of the jaws of sin and death through his own death. So that now we have the promise of being remade into a new humanity that is conformed to the image of this new and perfect human. And this is a process that has already begun now since the Spirit of God is alive and at work in all believers, and will ultimately be completed on the last day when we are given new and perfect spirit-empowered bodies (1 Cor 15) that truly love God and our neighbor and finally reflect his values and priorities perfectly.

This is how Jesus completes what the OT law was never able to do in the first place. And for that we thank God.

See also:
What’s Wrong with the Pharisees?
Do We Even Need All This OT History?
How NOT to Read the Bible Part 6: Proof Texting

 

Image: from Darelle

 

One thought on “Why I Love Reading Leviticus

  1. Hi, question for you: Why did James decide, 18 years post-resurrection that the gentile pagans who were coming to faith immediately forsake four pagan practices AND go to the synagogues to hear Moses (the Torah) being read?
    Why did Peter tell his visitor that 10 years post-resurrection that he had not eaten any unclean thing? And then made a point to explain, not once, but twice that his vision had to do with gentiles?
    Why did Paul hurry back to Jerusalem for the feasts?
    Why did the Bereans not find anything amiss when they consulted the scriptures to confirm Paul’s teaching? (No apostolic writings existed so they were checking the Torah).
    Why did “Jesus” (his true name being Yahshua–Matthew 1:21, the greek transliteration ieosous) say to pray in the end times that escape not be on the Sabbath?
    Why are the commandments being taught in Zechariah and Isaiah–in the Kingdom age, with feast of Tabenacles being so important that they that don’t wouldn’t receive rain?

    Like

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