Sunday, August 05, 2007

Leviticus 19-22: Guess What! More Laws!

[New Look for the Second Year! I'm not crazy about it, but it fixes some formatting problems I've been having.]

I have what might kindly be called a “penchant for organization,” as my new co-workers have been finding out to their amusement. Sorting through jumbled binders of information about various social service programs, I recently found three that were labeled “Seniors,” “Disability,” and… wait for it… “Seniors & Disability.” My head nearly exploded on the spot.

I bring this up because the lack of any overall structure to all of this this Biblical law is kind of wearing on me. The laws are not noticeably inconsistent, really, and they are organized into short lists of ordinances that all more or less address the same sorts of issues. But then these lists are all jumbled together, with the result that there is a lot of jumping around and also a lot of repetition. I want to rewrite them in an more orderly format. Call it the Book of Laws. Chapter One would be Violent Crimes and their punishments, Chapter Two would be Property Law, and so on. However, I can’t think that this rewrite, no matter how much it clarified things, would be popular with the religious community.

So instead, we will have to forge ahead with the laws in the order in which they are given. I will continue as your guide to good behavior as explained by the God of Moses.

Leviticus 19: More Do’s and Don’ts

Many of these we have already seen elsewhere.

  • Respect Your Mom and Dad.
  • No idols.
  • Follow the sacrifice rules to a “T”.
  • Don’t harvest all of your land; leave bits at the edges for the poor and for people passing through.
  • Also, don’t pick your grapes too thoroughly; leave some for the poor and for strangers. (It strikes me – and I’m not trying to be snide here – that this is a tough mindset to achieve when farms and everything else are governed by corporate hierarchies.)

Lev. 19:11-18 lays out the essentials of decent social behavior, very clearly and without frills.

  • Don’t steal.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Don’t deceive.
  • Don’t swear falsely on god’s name.
  • Don’t rob or defraud.
  • Pay your employees on time.
  • Don’t mess with the deaf or blind.
  • Take the justice system seriously, and take care.
  • Don’t slander.
  • Don’t endanger your neighbor.
  • Don’t hate.
  • If you see someone screwing up, talk to him about it instead of implying your silent assent.
  • No revenge.

Lev. 19:19 – 31 is much different. The rules here are far more specific, for one thing. And while the 11 – 18 set could be agreed on by almost any human society, the 19 – 31 set is much more peculiar. Several of them insist on the separation of unlike things, to an almost autistic extent.

  • Don’t mate different kinds of animals. (No mules?)
  • Don’t plant two kinds of crops in the same field.
  • Don’t wear clothing woven from two different materials.
  • If you have sex with somebody else’s slave, you don’t have to be killed (i.e. it isn’t rape as such) but you will need to do some sacrificing just the same.
  • If you plant a tree, its first three years of fruit are forbidden. The fourth year, the fruit is for sacrifice. After that, bon appetite!
  • No meat with blood.
  • No practicing magic.
  • No cutting the hair on the side of your head, and no trimming your beard.
  • No tattoos.
  • No forcing your daughter to become a prostitute.
  • Observe the Sabbath.
  • No consulting magicians.

And then, Lev. 19:32 – 36 winds up with more generally agreeable exhortations to good behavior:

  • Respect old people. Get off your butt when they enter the room.
  • Don’t mistreat foreigners. Don’t distinguish between immigrants and native-born.
  • Don’t scam customers with crooked mismeasurements.
  • Follow the laws!

Stretch Break: What About the New Covenant?

Several people have asked me why I am interested in Old Testament law, since the coming of Jesus Christ in the New Testament renders it all irrelevant. The first thing I’d say about that is that I don’t know yet if the Bible really says that. It sure hasn’t said anything about it yet. So here I am, reading the scriptures of Christianity – which many, many people believe to be divinely inspired, infallible, and incapable of improvement – in the order in which they are presented.

Here, still in the early going, I encounter the rules of behavior that God decrees should govern individual behavior and social organization. Why would that not be interesting? To say that there is some problem with the way I am understanding the big picture, when am I have just been plugging away from page 1 to, um, page 89, would suggest that there is either a structural problem with the Bible itself, or a problem with the textual focus of many Christians. Maybe that’s true. I dunno. I’m sure I’ll have a stronger sense once I finish page 923.

OK, let’s get back into it.

Leviticus 20: Crimes & Punishments

So far, the laws have presented without much in the way of teeth. But now, God laws down some mandatory sentencing guidelines. Many seem kind of draconian by modern standards.

  • Sacrificing your child to Molech = death by stoning..
  • Consulting magicians = exile (which, in the Hebrew context, we can assume was a death-unless-you-get-really-lucky penalty).
  • Cursing your mother and your father = death penalty. (I am really curious on how “cursing” is defined for this one.)
  • Adultery = death penalty for two.
  • Having sex with your mother or step-mother = death penalty for both of you.
  • Having sex with your daughter-in-law = death penalty for both of you.
  • Male homosexual intercourse = death penalty for both of you.
  • Marrying both of a mother-daughter set = death by fire for all three of you.
  • Sex with an animal = death for both the human and the animal.
  • Sex with your sister or half-sister = exile for both of you.
  • Sex while a woman is menstruating = exile for both parties.
  • Sex with an aunt or sister in law = “they will die childless.” (I’m not sure how this is supposed to work.)
  • Don’t act like the neighboring tribes.
  • Pay attention to the distinction between clean and unclean animals.
  • Practicing magic = death by stoning.

Leviticus 21 & 22: Special Rules for Priests

As with last time, we round things up with some special laws for the priesthood. Many of the priestly regulations laid down after the unfortunate deaths of Aaron’s gung-ho sons are reiterated and summarized. And again, since I am pretty sure that none of the gentle readers are planning on joining the Hebrew priesthood, which has been defunct for about 1940 years, I will spare most of the details. Except for a few luridly interesting ones:

  • Priests can’t marry widows, divorcees, prostitutes, or other non-virgins. It’s a cleanliness thing.
  • Priests’ daughters who turn to prostitution, because of the shame this brings on their fathers, are to be killed by fire.
  • No one with a serious physical disability, defect, or disease can approach the sacred alter. He can otherwise participate fully in religious life, but no presenting offerings. It’s a cleanliness thing.
  • Dependant members of a priest’s household may, like the priest, eat the “holy food” of sacrifices. Anybody else who eats holy food by accident must pay the priest a restitution of 120% of the value of the food.
  • Sacrifice animals need to be healthy and unblemished. None of this getting rid of the sick and deformed animals by sacrificing them. No way! Only the best animals are appropriate for sacrifice.


Next Week: Whew! Finishing Up With Leviticus!


Rebel said...

Well, clearly God (or at the very least the Council of Trent) should have contacted you about the organization of the Bible before publishing it! ;)

Seriously though, I think it's a bit of a mistake to apply modern American ideas of organization and interpretation to ancient texts written half a world away in a completely foreign culture. So in that respect, yes I think there is a contextual problem with the way (some) people read the Bible today.

I understand what you're doing though, and I know you're kind of taking Christians at their word that they believe the Bible is the divine & infallible world of God. It's just that you don't have to read the entire Bible to figure out that that position has some serious flaws in it.

While many Christians do take a hardline on the infallibility of the Bible, most Christians just kind of pick & choose which parts to believe in and/or apply to their lives. Which of course presents a whole different set of questions to think about. Who decides what's important & relevant today? etc.

I'm interested to see what kind of insights / questions you come up with in your reading. But it's important to recognize that a straight through reading of the Bible from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation as a non-fiction instruction book on "How to follow God" is only one way to do it. And it won't necessarily answer the question of why American Christians believe what they do.

And yes, I'm taking this waaaaay too seriously. I'll step off my soapbox now. =)

Michael5000 said...

@Rebel -- I so totally agree with you! The Council of Trent DEFINITELY needed me on board! On the bus to work this morning, I had a rough outline all worked out for the new, improved version of the Bible (or the 1/8 of the Bible that I know about so far, anyway). But, I think I missed the window of opportunity to tidy things up in this particular instance.

I don't think you're taking anything too seriously at all. I am, though, a little steamed that you've managed to articulate the spirit of the project here so much better than ~I've~ ever been able to do.

There are lots of good reasons that a person could read the Bible. As you suggest, one of my top motivations is a kind of crash test of fundamentalist belief. Another is to just know what's in there, so I can better evaluate the Bible-based claims that get tossed my way. Another is the challenge and rewards of reading a particularly thorny Great Book (you know I'm into the Great Books). Another is the exploration of my own Christian background, both cultural and more-or-less religious. And another is the sneak peak inside a very old, often (but not always!) very alien culture's way of thinking about the world.

I happily admit that this blog is not necessarily the best way to do any of these things. But it is a way of getting at all of them. And, I'm enjoying it, and I've waded in too far to turn back now. So onward.

Thanks for reading and for commenting. Keep me honest, and really, feel free to tell me when you think I'm full of shit. I appreciate your thoughts.

Rebel said...

Well, as they say, I've been there, done that, got the T-shirt (it said - Simon Peter's School of Surf, who needs the board when you're riding with the Lord - I kid you not!). But I haven't read the entire Bible, I skipped a few of the prophets.

I do admire your willingness to jump into the Bible to see what it says. It is a Great Book and obviously has had a huge impact on the world, so it's one of those any educated person should at least be familiar with.

Michael5000 said...

"Simon Peter's School of Surf"?!?


chuckdaddy2000 said...

No forcing my daighter to be a prostitute? Ah man, Leviticus is totally no fun.

Michael5000 said...

@Chuck: You've done it. I'm speechless.