Learning why this book matters
by Jennifer Ginn
WHO LOVES THE BOOK OF LEVITICUS? Given the challenge to study an Old Testament book, most people of faith would skip Leviticus every time. It’s legalistic, full of the blood of sacrificed animals being spattered on altars (on purpose) and brimming with divine judgment and punishment. Then there are the dietary restrictions of Leviticus, the prohibitions against all kinds of brushes with uncleanness and the clear brutality of the punishments God inflicts on those who disobey. It’s about as off-putting a read as an updated investment prospectus, albeit a lot more colorful.
I’ve always avoided Leviticus, even in seminary where I did a fast skim rather than the careful read that was assigned. Who are these primitive and violent people? How could their god be mine, too? What kind of god would permit, even command such behavior?
And yet, there it is, Leviticus—tucked in neatly between Exodus and Numbers (two books that in some circles are as unpopular as Leviticus), nestled among the stories of God’s ancient people that scholars and teachers and—gulp—pastors are known to recommend as good for us to read. Tradition holds that it was written by Moses at the Lord’s instruction. And it is held in high esteem by our Jewish sisters and brothers, whose faith gave birth to our own. A solid recommendation, I’d say. So Leviticus, anyone?
I started reading it during a pastoral sabbatical, when the hours I would ordinarily devote to sermon preparation, administrative work, pastoral care and teaching fell suddenly open to me—simply, I had the time to explore Leviticus. Add to that the guidance of a daily lectionary calendar that included several weeks of Leviticus readings which, little by little, began to catch my interest and imagination.
How could I make sense of this ancient culture of God followers who were constantly faced with and pulled toward the worship of many gods that were not the God? How could they hold firm in this faith of Abraham, Moses and Aaron, when all around them were hostile to it? I wanted to understand the how and why of Leviticus.
Believe me, I’m still working on that. I’m no Hebrew scholar, and the amount I know about the ancient world could be told over fewer than four sips of a good Cabernet. Even so, I am reading Leviticus. I am trying to learn why this book matters.
LEARNING TO MOVE WITH GOD
Leviticus is found within the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and many scholars see it as the story of a God who moves from outside and above the chosen community to a position within it. No longer does the community have to find God somewhere “up there,” as Moses went up the mountain for the Commandments. Now God has moved in, into their everyday lives, in a major way.
The rules and regulations of contact with others, of sacrifice to God, of worship together and of respecting strangers among them—all these are ways for God’s people to align their lives more closely with God’s movements among them. Together with God, then, they become partners in turning their world toward the wholeness God desires for it. That movement is finally enfleshed in Jesus, born into their midst and ours.
That’s why Leviticus matters. Aside from its ultimate value as a historical account of God’s ancient people as they change and move with God, it’s also full of practical, godly wisdom that made their everyday lives safer and more orderly.
PARTS WE WRESTLE WITH
Though some pieces of Leviticus still speak to us in our day, others make us squirm. Here are just a handful of the topics addressed by Leviticus, along with specific examples of ways these topics are still a struggle for worshiping communities today.
The life of worship:
Worship is important and guided by rules that may have proven inconvenient and unsettling for the ancients and are no doubt unnerving for us (see chapters 8, 17 and others). We no longer ask our “priest” to dash the blood of a goat against the altar. That would certainly be a church deal breaker for most pastors! However, we do make a claim at the communion table that causes some folks (even some Lutherans) to have misgivings: that the wine we drink is truly the blood of Christ.
Punishment and promise:
Our rebellion against God isolates us from God’s goodness and initiates calamity in our lives. Such calamity, understood by the ancients as God’s punishment, continues to challenge even our modern views of God. For example, many people wonder (and ask): Does God send the troubles we face as a punishment for sin? As a pastor, I answer: “No.”
A different way to wonder about such troubles is to suppose that sometimes God allows the earthly consequences of our sin to play themselves out in our lives. We cannot know for sure, so I try not to press God for the answer (though I’ll admit that I sometimes do!). Yet even in our wondering, even in our doubt, God’s promise remains firm: “I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (26:45). God remembers. God keeps God’s promises. And God never stops loving us.
Caring for the poor:
Laws are given to protect the whole community, including those unable to feed their families. From those who can plant and harvest their own grain, the Lord requires generosity. At harvest time they are not to reap to the very edge of their fields, but to leave some grain for the poor to collect (19:9-10; 23:22).
I’ve not harvested grain lately—have you? Nevertheless, my life has offered a plentiful share of good fortune. Maybe yours has as well. Might this law move us to offer to others a larger share of the gifts we’ve been given? The writer of Leviticus won’t let us forget that the love of God necessitates the love of neighbor (19:18).
Just as God’s ancient people were once themselves aliens in a foreign land, hungry for welcome, now the shoe is on the other foot! Aliens in their own land should now be like fellow citizens to God’s people (19:33- 34). That “should” goes to the heart of today’s challenge for us to receive immigrants and refugees as neighbors. When you try it on for size, how does it feel?
Temptations from the beyond:
Do not be pulled away from your God by the lure of mediums, wizards or fortune tellers (20:6). Could it be that even Moses was tempted to listen to these popular wisdom merchants of old? Even now, “spirit voices” other than the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit easily attract us. How often do advice columns or daily horoscope predictions draw your attention?
THE OPEN DOOR OF LEVITICUS
I’ve not yet finished that careful read of all of Leviticus—and I admit that some of it makes me squeamish. But when I picture God’s ancient people embedded in a very different culture—one that understood natural disaster, illness, obligation to others and even cleanliness practices in ways we do not—this question comes to me: Do we truly understand any better than they did how to live faithfully? For many Jews today, the words of Leviticus continue to guide their living and offer hope for their dying. My husband remembers how, years ago, a fellow seminarian, an Episcopalian, described an encounter they had during his summer of hospital chaplaincy. At the bedside of an elderly Jewish woman who was suffering alone, with no family members present, this seminary student asked how he might be of comfort to her in that moment. She answered resolutely, “Read to me from Leviticus.”
Confident that the God who leads us today—the God of love and promise and provision—also led the ancient believers, I’m warming up to Leviticus. So for now, I’ll keep reading. As for its confusing, off-putting pieces, I’m content to let them sit outside the puzzle frame until God makes all things whole. And God will.
Thank goodness for persistent holy nudging that we can count on. Thank goodness for God’s patient love, the open door that receives all our feeble human understandings into the wide arms of grace.
THE REV. JENNIFER M. GINN is a retired ELCA pastor who enjoys writing, coaching and serving as an interim pastor. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two furry children, one a Jack Russell terrier and the other a yellow cat with a temper.
This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.
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