Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Bible in a Year: Leviticus 1-22

Old postcard of my childhood church, where
I first learned about Moses and other Bible figures.
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. This week, I’ve been studying Leviticus 1-22.

Some folks will say, "Don't read the commentaries, read the Bible!" But commentaries clarify and explain the Bible content, and you still have the Spirit and your own intellect and emotions to help you gain insight. So I have six or seven of my commentaries and study Bibles on hand to help me with all these readings.

For instance, the Berit Olam series has a volume devoted to Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see note 1 below). The author reminds us that Leviticus is the heart of the Pentateuch, and is precious for Jews; yet Christians regard the book with less esteem, for instance, only nine verses appear in the three-year Lectionary (p. 4). I don't know how many books of Christian theology I've read that refer to "Jewish legalism," a misunderstanding of the Torah (see note 2 below).

If Christians could appreciate the Torah from the Jewish point of view, and then understand the Torah's significance in the New Testament, we could learn much and cherish these books, too. I'm reading the Jewish Study Bible this week; the introduction to Leviticus reminds us that the book is part of the long narrative, from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10, which could be called “When the Tabernacle Stood at Sinai” (p. 203). That period is less than a year, and Leviticus, though lacking much narrative material, is a critical part of that overall story. We saw last week how important the Tabernacle authorization and construction is, occupying the last 16 of Exodus’ 40 chapters. Following immediately from that material, Leviticus contains the mitzvot, the priesthood, the aspects of worship, and foundations for Israel’s and Judaism’s history (p. 203).

Purity and holiness are key concepts to all of the mitzvot of Leviticus, underlying our readings this week that relate to sacrifice, the priesthood, the Day of Atonement, kosher food, and other laws. Once the Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood ceased in Judaism, the dietary laws, certain festivals, family ritual, and other mitzvot remain aspects of ongoing Jewish life and are based on the same foundations of holiness. (Orthodox, conservative, and Reform Jews approach these mitzvot differently.) And rather than being “picky” laws, they are rooted in the Jewish concern to be in service to other people and to witness to God (p. 205).

I'm also reading Harper’s Bible Commentary this week, which discusses the three realms of being in the Israelites’ world view: the holy, the everyday, and the unclean. Think of being an Israelite: we live in the everyday realm. The unclean realm include things like dead bodies, bodily fluids that are now out of the body, non-kosher living things, and so on. We come into contact with the unclean realm but can perform ritual acts to clean themselves (Lev. 12-15, for instance) to make us able to approach and properly worship the holy. Although everyday people cannot fully enter the realm of the holy, people can worship the Lord, do the rituals, sacrifice, and honor the Sabbath, and those of the priesthood are set apart and ordained for divine service to the holy on behalf of the people. This three-level worldview is the foundation for the Torah mitzvot. To bring the unclean into proximity with the holy, without the sanctifying rituals, was dangerous, as shown by the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 (pp. 167-168).

Importantly, Leviticus also connects us back to Genesis, for as God sought friendships among the ancestors of the Israelites in the post-Eden world, God now defines a close relationship with the people and returns them, if not to Eden itself, to proximity to God through covenant and mitzvot. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible notes that the tabernacle, which Leviticus presupposes, has several symbols of creation, while Leviticus 11-16 "instruct in how to restore the created order in the tabernacle" (p. 153).

This material has additional relevance for Gentile Christians. The Berit Olam author shows that there are numerous allusions to Leviticus in the New Testament, some negative expressions of the particular law, others positive adoption of the laws and the imagery. Most of these apply to the chapters I’m reading this week (pp. 5-7). Leviticus is foundational for aspects of New Testament theology, in ways many of us don’t realize:

Lev 1:2, the first of several verses that uses the expression “bring near,” is echoed in Eph. 2:13, Heb. 7:19, James 4:8
Lev 1:4, the word translated “be acceptable” is alluded to in Rom. 15:16 and 1 Peter 2:5
1:9 and several subsequent verses has the expression “a pleasing odor,” which is echoed in Phil 4:18, Eph. 5:2, Rom. 12:1
Lev. 4:12, 21, 8:17, 9:11 — Heb. 13:11
Lev. 4:25, 34, 5:9, 6:30, 16:15, 27 — 1 John 1:7, Eph. 1:7, Rom. 3:25
Lev. 5:11 — Luke 2:24
Lev. 6:16, 18, 26, 7:61 — 1 Cor. 9:13
Lev 6:2 — Heb 7:23
Lev 7:20 — Rom. 11:22
Lev 10:10, 11:47, 20:24-26 — Gal. 2:12
Lev 11 — Acts 10:25
Lev 11:4 — Matt. 23:24
Lev. 14:1-32 — Matt 8:4, Luke 17:14
Lev. 15:25 — Matt. 9:20
Lev. 16:1-15 — Heb. 10:19, 9:12
Lev. 16:29 — Acts 27:9
Lev. 17:10-14 — Acts 15:20
Lev. 18:16, 20:21 — Matt. 14:4
Lev. 18:22, 20:13 — Rom. 1:27
Lev. 19:23-25 — Luke 13:7
Lev. 20:10 — John 8:5
Lev 21:1 — Luke 10:31
Lev 21:10 — Matt 26:65
Lev. 21:18 — Matt. 11:5
Lev 24:5-9 — Matt. 12:4
Lev 25:10 — Luke 4:19

The Christian name of the book (which means, pertaining to the Levites) is misleading, because he Levites only appear in two verses, and even the priests are not the only focus of the book (Berit Olam, p. 3), for the book is addressed to Israel as a whole. The Hebrew title is the first word of the text, Vayikra, “He [God] called [Moses].” Although there are only a few stories in the book, the whole book can be thought of as a kind of narrative, as it looks to the past (Israel’s salvation from Egypt), stresses obedience in the present, and sets up conditions for the future faithfulness of the people (p. 12). It is also a kind of narrative because numerous laws set up a problem, which in turn is addressed and solved by the mitzvah (see pages 3-44 for an in-depth discussion).

As I also said in last week's post, the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) is one of the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile. The Priestly Code, another pre-canonical collection, is spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; in Leviticus, the code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Here is an outline of this week's chapters:

The primary offerings (chapters 1-7)
The burnt offering (chap. 1)
The grain offering (chap. 2)
The fellowship offering (chap. 3)
The sin offering (4:1-5:13)
The guilt offering (5:14-6:7)
Other regulations concerning offerings (6:8-7:38)

The ministry of Aaron and his sons (chapters 8-10)
Their ordination (chap. 8)
Their ministry (chap. 9)
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu, and other regulations (chap. 10)

Cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 1-15)
Food (chap. 11)
Purification after childbirth (chap. 12)
Skin diseases (13:1-46)
Midweek (13:47-59)
Skin diseases (14:1-32)
Discharges (15)
Day of Atonement and the scapegoat (16)

At this point, the "narrative" of Leviticus shifts from the Tabernacle to the land. Although chapters 21-22 concern the priesthood, the section 17-26 focuses overall on the land and the importance not to introduce uncleanness to the land via unholy actions, lest the Lord eventually expel the people from the land.

Holy living (17-26)
Prohibition of eating blood (17)
Unlawful sexual relations (18)
Other laws about holy living (19)
Punishments for sin (20)
Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
Acceptable and unacceptable Sacrifices (22:17–33)
… and I’ll continue with the remainder of this block of laws next week.

Interestingly, the sacrifices of chapters 1-3 are voluntary responses to God’s goodness, while those of 4-6 are required.

Chapters 8-10 concern the consecration of the priesthood of Aaron. But the story ends with the death of the two sons Nadab and Abihu, who brought pans of burning incense into the holy place and the fire of God’s presence consumed them. The Jewish Study Bible explains, “[T]he sin of the two brothers was not simply that they went too far in their misguided super-piety. Rather, they acted in utter disregard for the deity. God intended that the manifestation of His Presence would ignite the altar fire, marking His acceptance of His people’s devotion. Their intent was for the divine fire to ignite their own pans; that is, they were attempting to arrogate control of the deity to themselves” (p. 227).

Chapter 11 are the famous laws of kosher (acceptable) food. The Judaism 101 site has a wonderful explanation: Interestingly, no plants are considered non-kosher.

That site also explains the significance of Yom Kippur,  In Leviticus 16, the day is a cleansing of the Tabernacle to remove the effects of impurity and unintended sin, and then the day is named in Leviticus 23:27, 28, 25:9.

Chapter 18 concerns prohibited sexual unions, which are also “abominations of the Canaanites” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 249). Lev. 18:22, regarding homosexuality, addresses not the sexual orientation that we understand today, but forceable intercourse that degrades and humiliates (p. 251). When people cherry-pick this verse to condemn gays, they ignore the underlying assumptions and context of the verse.

Chapter 19 addresses individual holiness. The Ten Commandments are echoed throughout 19:1-18, culminating in that verse 19:18, which many rabbis, and Jesus as well, regarded as one of the greatest commandments, implicitly summarizing all the others.

Lev. 19:33-34 has been cited a lot in recent days, with President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees. God commands hospitality and care for the stranger among Israelites, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (vs. 34).

Chapters 20-22 address other issues of holiness and concludes with God’s admonition not to profane God’s name so that God may be sanctified among the people—-the people whom God rescued from Egypt 22:31-33).

In synagogue readings (according to the Judaism 101 site), the parshah and haftorah readings are:

Vayiqra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26, Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-9:23
Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47, II Samuel 6:1-7:17 (Sephardic: II Samuel 6:1-6:19)
Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-13:59, II Kings 4:42-5:19
Metzora: Leviticus 14:1-15:33, II Kings 7:3-7:20
Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30, Ezekiel 22:1-22:19  (Sephardic: Ezekiel 22:1-22:16)
Qedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27, Amos 9:7-9:15  (Ezekiel 20:2-20:20)
Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23,  Ezekiel 44:15-44:31


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

2. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible has this: "One may recall how the book relates to what comes before in Exodus. Leviticus is part of the Sinaitic covenant instruction. The book is a gift from God instructing in the structuring of this covenant community. It is not legalistic in the sense that it provides the people with a means of earning God's favor; rather, it is a multi-faceted response of the people to God."

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