LEVITICUS 10-20; PSALM 10
In the next eleven chapters of Leviticus (10-20), the modern reader is likely to find mysterious, baffling, and maybe even tiresome the lengthy and detailed passages of purity regulations, often called “The Holiness Code.” The Christian reader will have at least two questions: 1) why are there such purity regulations around animals, food, clothing, bodily functions and issues (including sex and death)? And 2) what of this applies to us today, as Christians?
The second question first: These regulations do not apply to Christians. And they do. They do not apply in detail, but they say something to us in their spirit. In fact, the Apostle Paul warns us that if we seek to obey them, especially in order to justify ourselves to God, then we will have put our salvation in jeopardy. “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal. 5:4). The Orthodox and observant Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, turned his Orthodox and observant disciples in a new (but old) direction regarding the purity regulations by saying “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15: 17-19). In so saying, Jesus moved us toward freedom from all the sacrificial and purity regulations, while upholding the truest, deepest meaning of purity, morally and spiritually speaking. Murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander, and more are also addressed by the Law of Moses.
To grasp his point, we must make the distinctions that Jewish rabbis have always made, back to and before Jesus, between the ceremonial/ritual law, the civic law, and the moral law. The latter, such as the Greatest Commandment (To love God and neighbor, Ex. 3: 6 and Lev. 19:18), and the Ten Commandments, apply in any time, culture, place or people. To them we are bound, for the well-being of our souls. Disobeying them does not disqualify us from salvation, but it could, if persistent and willful, “shipwreck our souls”(I Timothy 1:19). These distinctions are not always easy to make. Among the minute details of the holiness code we also find statements of deep and universal moral and spiritual reach, especially Leviticus 19: 18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So don’t be too quick to skim over the Holiness Code and dismiss it all as quaint or irrelevant. Sometimes even the seemingly oddest ceremonial detail expresses some universal truth.
Still, the civic and ceremonial laws, such as what we’re reading now in Leviticus, existed in a time and place, as the Rabbi Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) put it, “when we were children” (Galatians 4: 3). Then, “we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba,Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Gal. 4:3-7). So the details of these regulations no longer apply to us. Join me, if you wish, in a warm pork brat with sauerkraut, or a shrimp cocktail salad, after giving thanks to God, of course.
But reading and pondering these purity regulations is still of some value to Christians, at least to know the world and the scriptures from which Jesus was operating, and in which the church of the New Testament was working out the relationship between Gentile and Jewish believers. Read them also in order to understand and identify with the universal human concerns that these regulations address: shame, uncleanness, defilement and alienation, often through no fault of our own. As tolerant and accepting as we should try to be of all people and of their weaknesses and troubles, these purity matters are still basic to the fears and feelings that drive and divide us. In Israel’s sacrifices and purity regulations were daily reminders of the defilement, shame and separation that still afflict and estrange us for reasons of moral defilement (as sinners and the sinned-against), or even for worthless reasons of status, appearance, fashion and wealth. In them were also reminders of the grace and acceptance of God, and the cost of which, which would be born by Christ himself, who endured the most shameful of ritual impurities, to die and hang, as a cadaver, on a tree (Deut. 21:23). Christ died for our sin and our shame, to redeem us and to cleanse us. “He became sin, who knew no sin…”
There are other reasons for these laws, and functions which they serve. Check out the 2000 online Journal of Evangelical Theological Studies at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_200012/ai_n8922535/?tag=content;col1 for a full list of reasons and rationales given. The most convincing to me are: 1) to provide cultural barriers between Israel and her pagan neighbors, in effect, speed bumps against cultural and religious assimilation; and 2) to flesh out aspects of social justice and re-distribution of accumulated wealth; and 3)to reinforce the holiness (“otherness”) of God, of God’s people, and of God’s sanctuary, whether the Tabernacle or the Temple (Lev. 15:31). In the costly shedding of blood to redeem the firstborn sons or even the messes of the most ordinary aspects of life (sex and childbirth), there are reminders of the supreme value of the gift of life, and of the supreme otherness and exaltation of God, the giver of life. Finally, they give visual pictures, in the flesh or on the walls, literally (Lev. 14) of the effects of the greatest and most universal defilement, sin. Think about this a while and see if it doesn’t start to make your breath catch or your spine to tingle. If so, you are beginning to experience something that Dr. Rudolf Otto, early in the 20th Century, called “numenous,” the mysterium tremendum, the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The ancients called it “holy fear,” or “the fear of God..” Reading and thinking about these purity regulations and sacrifices reminds me of the words of the hymn, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”Life, bounded by such purity regulations, and re-balanced as needed by sacrifices, would have many daily symbolic reminders that “you are my chosen people.” Therefore, “you shall be holy [separate, other] because I am holy.”