Monday, August 13, 2007

Leviticus 23 - 27: If you thought there might be more laws, you are on the right track.

Today's reading brings us to the end of Leviticus, which means we are a whopping 60% of the way through the Pentateuch! Or, um, 1/13 of the way through the books of the Old Testament. Or, slightly more optimistically, 10.4% of the way through the Bible by page count. An exciting landmark by any measure. Or maybe not.

Leviticus 23: Holidays

God reaffirms yet again the importance of the Sabbath -- remember, we are still in the middle of God's long dictation of rules and laws to Moses -- and then lists the official holidays that he wants people to celebrate. These include some I've heard of, like Passover and the Day of Atonement, and several I haven't, like the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles. There are also some instructions about what to do at each feast. For instance, the Feast of Trumpets is to be celebrated with trumpet music. And sacrifices, of course.

Leviticus 24: Oil, Bread, and Stones

The first half of this chapter directs that the lamp of the Tabernacle always be tended, full of olive oil, and burning, and that bread always be laid out on the Tabernacle table, for God but to be eaten by the priests.

The second half of the chapter breaks off of God's dictation to tell a short story from life in the camp. During a fight, a young man "blasphemes the Name with a curse." He is brought to Moses. God tells Moses that "anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death." He is to be taken out of the camp, everyone who witnessed his transgression is to put their hands on his head, and then the entire community must stone him. ("Stoning" has such a quaint old-fashioned ring that it is worth considering its nature. It involves being rendered helpless and then having a large group of your neighbors and acquaintances throw rocks at you until you die. It's not a nice way to go.)

This is another instance where I find the familiar but shapeless language of the Bible quite maddening. This business of blasphemy is clearly a very important issue. But what exactly does it involve? Are we to consider that the utterance of the phrase "Goddammit!" warrants the death penalty? That seems pretty goofy from my perch in 2007's North America, but it's a reasonable interpretation. Or, is the crime to break an oath that has been sworn on the name of God? Or the actual invoking of a curse, as one might with a different deity say "May you rot in hell, Odin!"? The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that this is an important subject, but doesn't really give us the detail we need to act on the news.

Leviticus 25: More bad news for the Real Estate market

God tells Moses that, in addition to the Sabbath Day, there is to be a Sabbath Year. Every seventh year, the land is not to be worked. You can harvest whatever grows on it naturally, but you can't plow or plant.

Now that's pretty standard agricultural practice, leaving land fallow occasionally to replenish its nutrients. But there's something more, something I have never heard of before, something that I am not surprised that conservative Christians downplay: The Year of Jubilee.
Jubilee year comes after every seventh Sabbath year; i.e. every fiftieth year. It is another Sabbath year, but God enjoins Moses not to worry about going two years without planting; he will make the year before the seventh Sabbath year so fruitful that they will be able to put aside three years worth of food.

During Jubilee year, all property is restored to its original owners. If you sold your land ten years after the last Jubilee, you get it back now. If you sold it last year, you get it back now. Which means that, according to God's law, YOU CAN NOT BUY OR SELL LAND. All you can do is contract a lease of between one and 49 years, from now to the next Jubilee.

There are exceptions. You can sell lots in a walled city permanently, or lots in the towns of the Levites, one of the 12 Hebrew tribes. But otherwise, land stays permanently in the ownership of a single family. Interesting, isn't it! And directly counter to the very foundation of modern economies! And almost never mentioned!

During the Year of Jubilee, people who have declined into poverty over the previous decades get a fresh start. Hebrews who have had to hire themselves out in servitude to other Hebrews -- Leviticus 25 prohibits either keeping another Hebrew as a slave or its modern equivalent, loaning money to them at interest -- get their land back, and their independence as well. The slate is wiped clean for another 50 years.
Leviticus 26: Why to be Good

In this chapter, God tells Moses what will happen to a society where people follow his orders, and what will happen to a society where people don't. This is one of the first points at which I have really been impressed with the oft-cited poetic language of the Bible, so I'll give you a few samples. First, here's what will happen to a people who obey God's dictates:

3 'If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.
6 'I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove savage beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. 7 You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.
Now, here's what will happen to people who don't, as a kind of warning shot:

14 'But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15 and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it.
17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.
18 " 'If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. 19 I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. 20 Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.
And if they persist in their disobedience, things really get rough:

27 'If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. 31 I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. 32 I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. 33 I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.
This puts me in mind of the late Jerry Falwell's pronouncement that the attacks of September 2001 were America's punishment for homosexuality and what-not. Dr. Falwell was being speculative at best, but such an equation would not be wildly out of line with the laws and actions of the Old Testament God.

Leviticus 27: Redemption

I still haven't figured out what the hell "redeeming" is all about. The word seems to be used differently in different places. The gist of the thing seems to be that every first-born animal belongs to God (through his agents in the priesthood), and that a tenth of all crops, herds, and so on are to be dedicated to God as well. That much, and various technical footnotes explained in this chapter, I can understand. But then, every firstborn human son is apparently supposed to belong to God, too, and I'm not sure how that works. Also, this chapter talks about how much it costs to dedicate adult men and women to the Lord, without explaining what that means. So, the language here is a little fuzzy.

Leviticus Roundup

Leviticus offers some surprises and frustrations. Among the frustrations is the jumbled and often repetitious presentation of the law. It is on the whole coherent and consistent, but there is no discernable organizing principle. Also, it sometimes seems to count rely on the reader already understanding the specifics. We're apparently supposed to already know what constitutes blasphemy or redemption, for instance. In other instances, though, we are given far MORE detail than a modern reader needs. "Don't have sex with your immediate relatives" doesn't require as much detailed elaboration these days as it gets in Leviticus. On the other hand, considering the various intramural hijinks in Genesis, maybe an itemized list made sense at the time.

For me, there were four main surprises in Leviticus:
1 - The preoccupation with sacrifice. I knew that sacrifice was important in the Old Testament, but not THIS important. What to sacrifice, and exactly where, when, and how it should be sacrificed, is without exception the greatest preoccupation of God in his conversations with Moses. It is given far more elaboration, specificity, and sheer length of discussion than any other element of law. It is certainly given more attention than, say, the Ten Commandments, back in Exodus.

(One can't help noticeing, as an aside, that the sacrifice system guarantees a rich diet of the best available foods, along with other luxuries, to a priestly class. In return, the priests perform rituals that are too complex and elaborate to be carried out by the uninitiated, but which are much less taxing than any other form of work in the community. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable.)

2 - The elaborate system of cleanliness and uncleanliness. Again, I knew it was there, but I didn't know it was so important.

3 - This whole "Year of Jubilee" thing, with its unambiguous hostility towards private land ownership -- in many ways the basis of the modern way of life.

4 - How much of what is said to be God's direct instructions to Moses regarding how human beings are supposed to live is completely ignored today. And I'm not just talking about mainstream Christianity here. There is virtually no one, no matter how extreme a fundamentalist Christian or Jew they claim to be, who is practicing the proscribed rites of the Tabernacle, or who observes the practice of the Jubilee year.

This fourth point is very interesting. It implies that God's instructions to Moses are considered null and void. But if that is the case, why is the Book of Leviticus considered part of the Bible? Are people who choose to support arguments against (for instance) homosexuality by reference to Leviticus just whistling Dixie? Or, is some of Mosaic Law still in effect? And if so, which laws? And how do we know which laws?

Maybe this will all become clear as I keep reading.

Next Week: Time to do the Numbers!


Rebel said...

It is really inconsistant which parts of the bible people choose to adhere to, and which they ignore. Conservatives will denounce homosexuality - but do you think they even know if their clothing is woven of two different fibers?

I think it was the job of the Levites, the priests, to explain which of the rules were important & why, they would be the ones to teach what redemption meant, and exactly what counts as blasphemy.

FWIW I think g- damnit is the most offensive swear to a Christian. There's a scene in the movie Saved (which you should totally watch at some point) where a character is testing God by saying swear words. That one comes after shit & fuck... and it looks like she really thinks she's going to get struck down if she says it.

Ruth said...

Hey this is cool. I actually tried to do this once...

Aaron said...

Hey Michael, I beleive you made this article a couple of years ago so I don't even know if you will get this but after reading Leviticus I felt that the God I read about seems different than the God I go to church and learn about. Granted I new to reading the Old Testament and the problem isn't the church I go to, I'm talking in general. I'm wondering how I should peice all of this together, one person I talked to said that there is a good reason it is called the "Old Testament" and there is one called the "New Testament". Anyway if you have any comments I look forward to hearing them.