Study Guide

Leviticus Community and Covenant

Community and Covenant

The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the Lord, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. (NRSV 1:1-2)

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. (KJV 1:1-2)

God, like any good Shmooper, knows the value of starting with a short summary. Pretty much everything in Leviticus is right here in the first two verses. God's commands to his people. Sacred ritual in the holy Tabernacle. Drawing a line between what's permitted and forbidden. The rest is just details.

You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (NRSV 2:13)

And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt. (KJV 2:13)

Like many people cooking on a grill, God goes heavy on the seasoning. Why salt? A preservative used to keep food from going bad, it is an ancient way of symbolizing God's lasting contract with Israel. Of course, if Leviticus had been written more recently, God probably would have told to Israel to skip the salt and use ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid instead.

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning; it shall not go out. Every morning the priest shall add wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat pieces of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out. (NRSV 6:12-13)

And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out: and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn thereon the fat of the peace offerings. The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out. (KJV 6:12-13)

A callback to the burning bush and God's pillar of fire, the eternal flame represents God's everlasting covenant with Israel. The symbol remains powerful today, as evidenced by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the grave of President John F. Kennedy and cover versions of this song by The Bangles.

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (NRSV 12:2-3)

Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (KJV 12:2-3)

Nothing says eternal covenant like lopping off part of a penis. The ritual is so powerful, in fact, that it washes away a mother's ceremonial uncleanness. If she gives birth to a girl, she's stuck at home being unclean for fourteen days—for a boy, only seven.

Thus he shall make atonement for the Tabernacle, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (NRSV 16:16)

And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness. (KJV 16:16)

Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom calls this "the priestly Picture of Dorian Gray." In Oscar Wilde's classic novel, Dorian Gray keeps looking young while his portrait becomes ugly. Here, sinning may not make the Israelites physically dirty, but it pollutes the holy Tabernacle. And who better to clean up this mess than the high priest?

But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (NRSV 18:26-28)

Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you. (KJV 18:26-28)

Does this command apply only to Israel, or is it a law for all nations? The answer would seem to depend on whether the land in question has a habit of throwing people up. Whether God still enters into covenants with nations has been a long-debated question in American history but it's also kind of gross.

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (NRSV 23:42-43)

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (KJV 23:42-43)

In the Festival of Booths, the Israelites commemorate their journey out of Egypt by living in tents for a week. It's a lot like Burning Man, except in the Bible the festival takes place after the Exodus.

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. (NRSV 25:35-38)

And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. (KJV 25:35-38)

Land is a big deal in Leviticus. When a fellow Israelite is so poor that he no longer has any real estate, he's basically just a foreigner or tourist. Still, God says, everyone in Israel is a traveler in the land he gave them, so be nice.

As for your Israelite sisters? Well, in ancient Israel the average woman doesn't own real property—she is property. This is why the tenth commandment lists a man's wife as one of his belongings, along with his house and his donkey.

I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. (NRSV 26:9)

For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. (KJV 26:9)

The promise of God's contract is that he will be Israel's Oprah. "You get a cow! You get crops! You get children! Everybody gets a cow and crops and children!"

But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors, in that they committed treachery against me and, moreover, that they continued hostile to me—so that I, in turn, continued hostile to them and brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (NRSV 26:40-42)

If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land. (KJV 26:40-42)

Remember the eternal flame on the altar way back in chapter six? God says that even if the Israelites wear a polyester blend, he'll fulfill the promises of his covenant after they confess their style snafu on What Not to Wear. Which is awfully nice of God, even if getting a circumcised heart sounds rather painful.

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