When Leviticus begins, Moses has just led the Israelites out of Egypt in one of the most exciting adventures of all time. Burning Bush. Amazing plagues. A march through the sea. Meeting God on a mountain.
So after all that, there's only one thing a red-hot writer can do when folks are begging for more. Give the people what they want—twenty-four chapters filled with lists of laws, along with a couple blink-and-they're gone stories where people die because they sinned.
At first glance, Leviticus would seem to be The Phantom Menace of the Bible, just with purity rules and animal sacrifice instead of the taxation of trade routes. And you know what? Our response to Leviticus isn't just a modern one. Way back in the 2nd century CE, an influential Christian theologian named Origen wrote:
Provide someone with a reading from Leviticus and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices! (Source.)
The thing is, unlike Jar Jar Binks, Leviticus was indeed what the people wanted. It was a way for people to make sense of everyday life. Violence, community, money, power—even if the Bible doesn't always match our own sense of what's right, it definitely provided answers for the masses back in the day. Remember, this was a world where sacrificing animals taught the importance of respecting animal life. A ban on tattoos helped curb slavery. Being fair in business meant forcing people to give back what they've bought. And laws on sexual intercourse—well, those might not have actually been about sex at all.
So as you roam around Leviticus, remember to check your preconceptions at the giant curtain that is the Tabernacle's door. These boring laws are biblical Transformers—much more than meets the eye.
Why Should I Care?
Gay rights. Immigrant rights. Atheism. And yes, even vampires and child sacrifice.
Leviticus might have been written for goat herders and farmers more than 2500 years ago, but in recent years, it has moved from the margins to the mainstream in pop culture and political debates.
Yet for all the t-shirts, internet memes, magazine essays, and YouTube videos using quotes from Leviticus to make their point, how all these verses fit together can be as hard to figure out as why God thinks it's an abomination to wear a polyester-cotton blend.
Sure, it's a steep mountain to climb, but it's worth it.
Leviticus is a treasure trove of rich ideas that are all the more valuable because only a clever few dare to find them.
- Books from Dracula to The Hunger Games have built on images from Leviticus to create compelling (and not-so-compelling) worlds.
- A co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook used insights from Leviticus to build a billion-dollar empire and promote social change.
- Long before Xbox and smart phones, Leviticus used virtual space and gaming to map out new strategies for day-to-day life.
- New generations of readers are discovering that what Leviticus says about ethics, community and scientific progress may not be as archaic as it seems.
So come on. Let's crack open the doors of this sealed chamber and light up the place with a little strange fire. Pretty soon everyone will marvel at your level-12 literary intelligence when you show them that the so-called most boring book of the Bible is actually more than just a bunch of dusty old rules about cows and pigs and sacrifices and why sex is eeeeeeeevil.