Sunday, October 17, 2004


I just finished reading the book of Leviticus (in the Bible) just because I thought I ought to every once in a while, not because I find it particularly enjoyable, it being essentially a list of regulations, some of which have a logic that is completely opaque to me.

But some things about Leviticus did strike me as interesting. One was its detail. In it is described with far more detail than I'm sure most of us would care for, various kinds of offerings, animals that can be offered, flaws that make them unaccpetable, exactly how much grain is to be used in offerings. How the offering is to be cut apart, what is to be done with it after it is offered. Etc.

I wondered about some of the regulations. Why was God so insistent that these sacrifices be done in such a particular way? And then, a little further on, I read the threats against those who offer up their children as offerings to Moloch, and I thought, "Okay, maybe that's why."

I suspect that all worship, whether Christian or Jewish or whatever, is to a some extent similar. Even those who offer up sacrifices to the Devil ... well, they offer up sacrifices. I can imagine that if the Israelites were offering up whatever sacrifices they pleased and the followers of Moloch were offering up the sacrifices they pleased, the Israelites might be inclined to say, "Hey, why don't we try giving our children as burnt offerings, like the Caananites are doing?"

Maybe that is the reason for many of the precise regulations in the Old Testament. Perhaps they are intended to make clear to the Israelites that the worship of God is not to be confused with the worship of false gods offered by neighboring peoples, whatever the superficial resemblances may be. God may have demanded differences in their service simply (or partially) to separate the worship of God more completely from the practices of Israel's neighbors, which, if adopted in part, might be adopted in their awful, sinful whole.

Or maybe - entirely likely - God simply has reasons about which I have no clue.

Another curiosity that struck me is "uncleanness." Throughout the book people and things are either clean or unclean. It seems to be a negative for whomever is unclean, but it does not necessarily imply any sin on their part. Even a moldy house or clothing can be unclean. Sexual relations cause you to be unclean. Burying a body makes you unclean.

If you're unclean it appears people were supposed to avoid touching you until you are clean again, and priests weren't supposed to be involved in service to God if they were unclean.

It almost seems like a combination of health regulations (and it was easy to see the health value of some of the rules) and, to put it in modern terminology, "Wear good, clean clothes to church." In other words, you wouldn't want to see your pastor walk up to the pulpit, setting aside a plumber's plunger with which he'd been unclogging his toilet, wipe his grimy hands on his shirt, and then with those same filthy hands open his Bible and begin to preach.

Nothing wrong with fixing a broken toilet. It's a good thing to do. But most people regard it as pretty filthy work, and I think Leviticus suggests that we should not associate things that disgust us with God.

Another thing that struck me is what seemed to be the needless complexity of regulations regarding sexual relations. Why doesn't Leviticus just say, "Limit your sexual relations to your husband or wife?" Well, at that time men could apparently have concubines and slave women with whom they could have sexual relations. (This is suggested in some of the regulations.)In thinking of this, I was reminded of Jesus' comment that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the people's hearts.

I wonder if some of these Levitical regulations were because the people had hard hearts. Jesus said a man should have one wife, in which case the command I suggest in the previous paragraph might be appropriate, but if, because of men's hard hearts, they insist on having multiple wives, or wives and concubines, or wives and slave women, or whatever combination, then life becomes much more complex and the rules of sexual behavior become much more complex.

It occurs to me that ideals are often simple, whether it is for marriage or something else. But when the ideal needs to compromise with people's hard hearts, things can get messy. But it is interesting that God - for a while - was willing to make that compromise while leading people more firmly toward monogamy. But the compromise was accompanied by fierce penalties for those who wanted to be even harder of heart. God drew a line, not where he wanted, but where he would temporarily accept.

The final thing that occurs to me is what I will call the "unscalability" of the sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus. As we would say in the software business, "It doesn't scale," meaning that some things can be done easily if you're only doing it a few times, but it becomes extremely difficult to do it thousands or tens of thousands of times over.

While offering the complex and numerous sacrifices detailed in Leviticus was possible for a limited number of people, it would appear to be increasingly difficult to do as the number of people increased. Also, as I recall, the tabernacle (and later the temple) were of a very precise size, and simply would not accomodate sacrifices for tens of millions of people.

Either God did not anticipate this, which seems rather unlikely, or it was his intention that this not be a permanent arrangement, and that perhaps his intention was that the sacrificial system of Leviticus be seen as a foreshadowing of Christ's all-sufficient sacrifice.

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