It only takes a spark to get Leviticus going. The book opens with an overview of five types of sacrifices that had been going on in Israel for years:
- the burnt offering (a.k.a. the sacrifice-an-animal-to-respect-life offering)
- the grain offering (a.k.a. the dry pancake offering)
- the peace offering (a.k.a. the I-can-haz-burger offering)
- the sin offering (a.k.a. the oops-my-bad offering)
While it may be tempting to skip over this stuff, don't—instead, try to imagine you're there, as if you were immersing yourself into a game of Halo II or an all-day Lord of the Rings marathon. When the ancient Israelites are hearing about these rituals, they are also living them—and as they experience them, they sense how the images, motions, and—ugh—smell connect to daily life.
Next comes the first of our two stories, as Aaron and his sons create the priesthood in order to manage the Tabernacle and keep Israel going through its shared rituals. However, disaster soon strikes when two of Aaron's sons get careless about their work.
Then we get a series of rules about ritual cleanness and uncleanness—food laws (the kashrut, or kosher laws), rules about skin diseases, and rules about leaking bodily fluids. Um, what?
That lovely interlude takes us to some of the most well-known and least understood parts of the book: the ritual for community atonement (including the scapegoat) and the rules for personal conduct and what some call the holiness code, which includes the notorious rules against same-sex intercourse and the mixing of fibers.
From there the book moves to
- what it means for a priest to be holy
- Sabbaths and festivals
- Tabernacle design, the meaning of justice, and a story about the importance of respecting how the different groups of Israel come together as one
- practical laws for economic justice, including the 50-year Jubilee.
It's all very thrilling.
The book finally closes with a summary of Israel's sacred covenant and some practical rules for people dedicated to God, such as the need to wipe out every foreigner you've vowed to kill in God's name.
Make Me an Offering I Can't Refuse
- Leviticus begins with God instructing Moses to give the people of Israel instructions. Moses better get used to that, because it's going to happen a lot.
- The first set of instructions concerns the burnt offering, which is also known as the whole offering. Why? Because the whole animal goes up in smoke.
- Well, except for the skin. The priests get to keep the skin to use as leather for their man-purses and knockoff Prada shoes.
- The burnt offering rules don't actually command people to perform burnt offerings. God assumes that people are already bringing burnt offerings—what the Israelites have to learn now is how to do it right.
- The Hebrew word in verse 2 for the "man" bringing an animal to sacrifice is kind of weird. It literally says "a human," or adam. Sound familiar? If not, here's a little reminder: it's a callback to God's killing an animal and using its skin to cover the nakedness of the first Adam in chapter 3 of Genesis.
- The purpose of the burnt offering is to make an "atonement." What a coincidence—one of the core meanings of the word atonement is a covering.
- Note to self: Leviticus likes puns. These aren't the last ones.
- It's actually a triple-pun, referring to God's covering the first humans with animal skins, the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant, and the roof covering a building—such as, hmmm, whaddaya know, a Tabernacle.
- In Genesis 3, God cast the first humans far away from his presence. The word "offering" in Leviticus literally means "drawing near" or "approach" (source). Come back to God, peeps.
- The animal being offered has to be a male without a blemish. In Leviticus, God hates blemishes with a fiery wrath—yea, verily. To be fair to God here, the Hebrew word that is translated as blemish often refers to an injury.
- Long before Bon Jovi sang "Lay Your Hands on Me," the people of Israel were laying hands on animals being presented as offerings of atonement.
- Leviticus has a lot of rules about putting things in order, starting right away in chapter one. Stand over there, arrange the wood, wash various animal parts, remove the fat and blood—God at a sacrifice is a lot like a type-A dad at a BBQ.
- Another thing that God starts giving directions about is, well, direction. The burnt offering takes place on the north side of the altar. That's another way of saying the left-hand side—the Tabernacle runs west-to-east, and the people of Israel are facing the entrance and looking east.
- If someone can't afford to offer cattle, they can sacrifice a goat. Can't afford a goat? Then bring a couple of birds.
- But what if you have so many rabbinical student loans that even birds are a bit of a stretch? And what about vegetarians?
- Don't let the word "meat" in the King James Version fool you—this sacrifice is all about grain offerings. The word "meat" in the King James Bible is a general word for food, which means it can refer to stuff that even Anne Hathaway would eat.
- Unlike the burnt offering, the grain offering really is food: God lets the priests eat part of it.
- Toasted grains, flour pancakes, little wafers—like many modern cereals, the grain offering in Leviticus comes in several varieties. Grain offerings aren't as sickeningly sweet, though. And God doesn't allow adding honey.
- The pancakes and wafers are flatter and crispier than anything you'd find in IHOP or the cookie aisle. God forbids the use of leaven, which gives baked goods their floof.
- A grain offering does have an ingredient you won't find in today's pancakes and cookies: frankincense. And check this out: scientists have found that burning frankincense can give a nice little buzz. Hmmm, religion as the opiate of the people? (Sorry, we couldn't restrain ourselves.)
- The grain offering does require a helping of salt, a preservative that symbolizes the permanent covenant, or contract, between God and the people of Israel. Salted grain offerings may be long gone, but salted matzos, like the covenant, are forever!
- The book of Shmooperonomy has a great explanation of all this talk about sacred covenant and giving stuff to God. And we quote: "I scratched your back, now you scratch mine. A lot of the covenant language in the Bible resembles language of the Suzerain-Vassal treaties of the time period. These were agreements with more powerful states for protection and money in return for servitude and loyalty."
- Practically, for the harvest, this means that when God follows through on his promise to make the Israelites' fields fertile with abundant crops, they acknowledge the source by giving part of it back.
- When God gives more cattle or goats, it's time to turn to the rules for the next kind of sacrifice.
- Depending on the translation, the sacrifice in this chapter might be called the peace offering, well-being offering, fellowship offering, shared offering or, for Wall Streeters who don't have time to look at a Bible, initial public offering.
- Wait, why so many choices?
- In Hebrew, the word here is the shelamim offering. If this word looks a little familiar, that's because it's from the Hebrew root sh-l-m, from which we get shalom, or peace.
- If anything, it makes for a cool t-shirt.
- Remember that contract with God mentioned in the last chapter? (2:13) That's the kind of shalom going on here.
- God promises to keep the Israelites safe and give them fertile livestock, and they acknowledge this by giving God mad props when he sends good stuff their way.
- To keep things simple (ha!), from here on out we're going to go with the folks who call this a peace offering. Please don't tell other translators, or they might get their feelings hurt.
- While the burnt offering allows only the sacrifice of males (1:3, 3:1), both male and female animals are okay for a peace offering.
- Now it's time for priests to use the surgical skills they've learned by playing Operation. The only parts of the animal that get sacrificed in the peace offering are the kidneys, the lobe on the liver, and certain kinds of fat.
- The last verse of the chapter warns everyone not to eat any fat or blood. Does that mean that the rest of the animal can be eaten?
- SPOILER ALERT: Yes, and not just by priests.
The Oops Offering
- The Torah has a lot of rules; 613, in fact, if you follow the count of the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. Depending on who's counting, 246 or 247 of them are in Leviticus.
- What is an Israelite supposed to do after breaking these rules? Present a sacrificial offering, of course!
- With so many rules to keep in mind—not to mention their complex explanations over centuries of rabbinical debate—the Israelites can't help but break a few by accident, and maybe they're not even sure if what they've done breaks any laws. What are otherwise faithful followers to do?
- No problem—Leviticus has them, ahem, covered.
- The focus of chapter four is the sin offering, which is the offering that priests make as atonement for sins committed in ignorance.
- The first words of the chapter are, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses," a sign that the book is moving on to a new subject.
- The offerings in chapters 1-3 are voluntary. The offerings described here and in the next chapter have to be done after Israelites have done something wrong. Or after they didn't think they did anything wrong but found out they actually did. Or after they think they might have done something wrong. You get the point.
- As anyone around during the summer of 1153 BCE remembers, the official chant for the sin offering is the irresistibly catchy Sin? Me? Maybe.
The Altar of Dorian Gray
- The rules for making the sin offering get rather fancy.
- Some people think the sacrifice was cooked up (ouch!) some time after the much simpler offerings in the first three chapters.
- One highlight: the priest dips his finger in blood and sprinkles it seven times in front of the entrance to the Tabernacle.
- Another reason for the Cullen family to take a time machine back to the 5th century BCE: the priest pours the animal's blood on the base of the sacrificial altar in the Tabernacle courtyard and the altar of incense inside.
- God gives rules for several types of sin offerings, including rituals on behalf of ordinary people, rulers, and all the people of Israel.
- Laying hands on the head of the animal being offered for atonement pops up again, too.
- This chapter introduces yet another issue that comes up again and again: if you take any actions that aren't in keeping with the way things are supposed to be, you can pollute the Tabernacle itself.
- Leading Leviticus scholar Jacob Milgrom calls this "the priestly Portrait of Dorian Gray" (source). In this Oscar Wilde novel, a corrupt young man stays good-looking while his portrait gets more ugly.
- Speaking of which, isn't it ironic that Wilde inspired one of the most influential images for understanding sin and atonement in Leviticus?
What Not to Swear
- Chapter 5 opens with a few more examples of common mistakes, after which it shifts to the book's fifth type of offering: the reparation offering.
- The chapter continues with a few more examples involving the delay of a d'oh. Touch an unclean person or animal carcass and don't realize it until a while afterward? It's time for a sin offering.
- Don't have no idea of what being unclean means? Just wait. (This is what's known in the lit biz as foreshadowing.)
- If an Israelite swears that he'll do something but ends up getting delayed, sin offering time.
- Failing to testify in a legal matter is also something that Leviticus doesn't like, although it leaves the matter in the hands of God, not the district attorney.
- The sin offerings here are stripped down versions of the rituals in chapter four. This section is a little less blood and a little more explanation.
- P.S. In verse 14, we get "the Lord spoke unto to Moses, saying" again. To make reading about sacrifices more fun, every time this phrase pops up, eat an M&M. Peanut butter, preferably.
Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!
- Hey, Leviticus moves to a new topic: the guilt or reparation offering.
- This could also be called the payback offering, because in addition to sacrificing an animal, the rules involve compensating any harm done.
- The first example involves corrupting something that's holy. An Israelite kid is playing baseball near the Tabernacle and accidentally hits a ball through the window? That calls for not only an offering of a ram, but enough shekels to pay for the damage along with a 20% penalty.
- Okay, so the ancient Israelites don't play baseball and the Tabernacle doesn't have glass windows. Sheesh. Vampires don't play ball in forests either and Hollywood made a whole movie about it.
- Robbery and unscrupulous financial dealings also require a reparation sacrifice and shekel payback, especially when these financial dealings involve sworn false statements.
- And don't forget the rams without blemish.
- The payback rule for business sins is once again full payment of the amount lost along with an additional 20% penalty.
Chapter 6:8 - 7:10
A Case of Déjà Vu
- Next, Leviticus discusses the phenomenon of déjà vu, that strange feeling we sometimes get when we've lived through something before.
- Oh. Wait. That's not Leviticus. It's a Monty Python sketch.
- Let's try this again.
The Ten Instructions
- Beginning with chapter 6 and going through chapter 16, new sections are described with the phrase "This is the set of instructions for..." There are—wait for it—ten different sections, or torot.
- As Jacob Milgrom notes, these ten sections are like a second Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. They likely refer to ten separate scrolls, each containing its specific set of instructions.
- These Ten Instructions provide a handy way to break down the next eleven chapters, which otherwise can seem confusing and random.
- There are two sets of five torot.
- The five torot of sacrifice: (1) burnt offering, (2) grain offering, (3) sin offering, (4) reparation offering, and (5) peace offering.
- The five torot of impurity: (1) animals, (2) giving birth, (3) the identification of skin disease, (4) the purification of skin disease, and (5) genital discharges.
Burn, Baby, Burn
- In chapters 6 and 7, Leviticus examines the procedures for the first five torot: the burnt offering, grain offering, sin offering, reparation offering, and peace offering.
- Why the do-over? Like the rituals themselves, Leviticus does things over and over again, with a little extra learned on each repeat.
- In other words, the medium is the message—the offerings shape how Leviticus talks about them.
- For the burnt offering, grain offering, sin offering, and reparation offering, this time the camera focuses not on the person who brings one, but on the priests.
- Verse 12 of chapter 6 has a little ceremony for bringing firewood to the altar. In a land without pick-up trucks and Home Depot, getting firewood to the Tabernacle is a Big Deal.
- The timing of the burnt offering here is different from the burnt offering in chapter 1. The first burnt offering in the book is voluntary and can be made at any time.
- But the burnt offering in chapter 6 is required to be made every morning and evening. It's what priests used to do before they could start and end each day by checking Facebook.
- The dress and showmanship are also somewhat different. Here, the burnt offering ritual is a lot like a Nicki Minaj concert, with the priest making costume changes as he goes.
- After burning the animal, he takes off his ceremonial garb and puts on linens to collect the ash and put it besides the altar. Then he takes off his dirty linens and puts on other clothes for taking the ashes outside the camp. He closes wearing the charred meat and a green wig. (Not really—we don't think.)
- Oh, and the fire on the altar must never go out, which is a lot harder to do in a land without .gif files.
- Next, we get the rules for the grain offering, including one that the priests have to make every day and night. We could call this one the whole grain offering, since the priests have to burn it all up without eating any of it.
- The grain-offering pancake goes to the priest who bakes it. Any priest can have the other less tasty grain offerings. Moral: get to work early on sign-up day for the peace offering schedule.
- The sin and reparation offerings also get filled out some more, especially in regard to what the priests get to eat.
- Leviticus notes that the meat from certain offerings is to be eaten only by the priests—not their wives or daughters, just the men. There's probably a deep spiritual explanation for it, but wow, that's harsh. Girl's gotta eat.
- One thing God emphasizes in all four of the above offerings is that eating or touching them makes a person holy.
- So why doesn't every Israelite get in on the holiness action? Could there be… danger? Cue the dramatic chipmunk.
Chapter 7:11 – 7:37
I Can Haz Peace-burger?
- Unlike the first time at the sacrificial rodeo, the instructions in chapters 6 and 7 put the peace offering last. That's because it's special.
- The big news: the person who brings a peace offering can eat it.
- There are, of course, conditions. For example, the offering must be eaten on the day of the sacrifice or the day afterward. Eating leftover sacrifice on the third day is not cool—or in the language of Leviticus, tamei, which is usually translated as unclean or an abomination.
- Also, ixnay on the eatmay if it touches anything unclean or if you happen to be unclean at the time yourself.
- So again, what's unclean? Patience, young Padawan, all shall be revealed. Sort of.
- Don't eat the fat or blood. Seriously.
- The fat from animals that die on their own or are killed by other animals can be used for other purposes besides eating. That said, using animal fat for stuff that touches the body, such as soap or perfume, remains the subject of heated debate.
- Peace offerings can be made for various reasons: giving thanks, making a vow, and of course, giving a contribution to the priests.
- The priests also get dibs on the breast and right shoulder meat from every peace offering. The breast is waved and the shoulder is heaved, which sounds more like a scene from rated-X Leviticus het than an actual law.
- Well, God says, I AM outta here. The end. Roll credits. This is the law of the offering of this and the offering of that, which Moses commanded in Mount Sinai on an extra-special day. No extra scene. Lots of animals were hurt in the making of this production.
Aaron Levels Up
- Anyone who has read The Return of the King can spot a false ending a mile away. Still, what follows is truly a surprise:
- An honest-to-Robert-McKee three-part narrative.
- Really, no foolin'. Story. Characters. Plot. Special effects. Throw in a talking animal and it's like we never left Genesis.
- It starts, like all hit movies, with a quick introduction of the characters. God tells Moses what to do. This time, though, instead of disappearing behind of a pile of rules, Moses goes to work on a flashy ceremony to get the people to respect the authority of Aaron and his descendants as priests.
- First things first: Moses tells brother Aaron and his sons to get all their priestly props together for their inauguration as priests. The precise details of this backroom scene have been lost to history, but it was probably a lot like the time on Glee where Sarah Jessica Parker helps Rachel get a style makeover in the samples closet at the offices of Vogue.
Time to Put on a Show!
- "This is what THE Lord told me to do," Moses proclaims to the assembled nation of Israel. Can't argue with that, can they?
- Since this is gonna fly by real quick—no Hobbit in three parts for the producer of Leviticus—we jump straight to Aaron's public makeover montage. It's Princess Diaries meets Pretty Woman in the desert, with Moses playing the role of the fashion-savvy stylist.
- Aaron gets out of his scrubs to transform into Israel's majestic high priest. Ephod—who knows what it is, but it sounds cool. A spiffy belt adorned with a flashy gold design. The breast-plate adorned with the twelve gems of the mystical Urim and Thummim. And, of course, the crown.
- The swirl of colors, fabrics, and designs leaves no doubt as to who's set to take charge of the Tabernacle. Moses's anointing Aaron's head with oil (olive, not crude) seals the deal.
- The King James Version says that Moses then dresses up Aaron's sons in girdles and bonnets. Assuming, as some assert, that the KJV is literally true in every detail, it would seem that the subordinate priests looked something like Mad Men's Harry Crane at his baby shower.
- Sacrifices! Blood sprinkled on the altar! Heaving thighs and swaying breasts! Oh my!
- It's the ultimate bar mitzvah: Aaron and his sons are about to make the transition from ordinary people to Israel's holy priests. The main difference between this and modern day traditions is that instead of watching a video of their childhood and dancing to I've Got a Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas, Aaron and sons have to hang out in the Tabernacle for the next seven days.
- As The Encyclopedia Judaica notes, the Hebrew phrase for ordaining a priest in Leviticus 8:33 "is literally 'to fill your hands'" (v. 12, p. 737). In ancient Near Eastern lingo, this refers to right of religious leaders to get money and sacrifices. Hmmm.
Don't You Just Love It When a Plan Comes Together?
- When last we left Aaron and his sons, they'd gone into the tent of meeting to stay for seven days.
- Besides sending the message that they are holy men separated unto God, it also gives them plenty of time to catch up on their Hulu queue.
- On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons come out of the Tabernacle and see their shadows. Looks like forty more years of wandering in the desert.
- They also perform their first official sacrifices as Israel's authorized priests.
- By now you know the drill. Burnt and purification offerings to make atonement for themselves and for the people. A grain offering, y'know, for thanks. A peace offering to commemorate the sacred contract between God and his people.
- And then somebody turns on the light. When Moses and Aaron bless the people, everybody sees the light of God (the glory, kavod, of YHVH). What's more, flames! God's light shoots out fire that burns up the offerings on the altar, this time with no Nazis in sight.
- Remember the command in chapter 6 never to let the altar fire go out? Now it really means something.
- Just when the Israelites thought it was safe to go back to the rules for holy water, the initiation of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood takes an unfortunate turn.
- Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two oldest sons, offer "strange fire" that isn't in keeping with God's instructions.
- God sends out fire to burn them up and they die.
- If the story of Nadab and Abihu were a spec script, a studio would probably reject it for being too on the nose. After all, it's pretty convenient that after nine chapters emphasizing the importance of following instructions, two guys get fried for not following the rules.
- Leviticus expert Jacob Milgrom notes that one of the main points in this story is the importance of ritual purity, which sets up the book's next few chapters.
- In Hebrew, Nadab and Abihu take "coals from an outside place"—that is, not from the holy altar but from a not-holy-fied area such as their uncle's beat up George Foreman grill.
- Afterward, God tells Aaron and his remaining sons that if they don't want to get killed, priests must never drink wine or other fermented drinks when going into the tent of meeting. Despite all the frankincense, God is earning a reputation as a serious buzzkill.
- God also orders them not to mourn, but to carry on with the remaining sacrifices as required. Worst. Boss. Ever.
- The chapter ends with an argument between Moses and Aaron. It turns out, after their brothers got zapped, Aaron's remaining sons don't eat the goat meat from the sin offering.
- Moses gets ticked off over the fact that they don't appear to be respecting his orders, especially since the whole point is for the priests to eat this meat as part of the sin offering's process of atonement.
- Aaron gets the better of him, however, by noting that after what happened, God wouldn't be happy with him eating the sacrifice.
- Ritual purity also seems to be why Aaron is able to layeth the smacketh down on Moses. The corpses of Nadab and Abihu made the Tabernacle unclean.
- Eating sacrificed meat in a polluted Tabernacle without additional cleansing could have sparked more fatal cleansing fire. As the old saying goes back in Tarshish, fool me once, shame on me—or something like that.
- The subtext, though, is the superior authority of priests, or at least those that God hasn't chosen to burn. Not only does God speak directly to Aaron after an impressive inauguration ceremony, but the story shows Aaron to be smarter than Moses when it comes to interpreting God's law.
Strange Things Afoot With the Kashrut
- The writer of Leviticus sure is smart. Right when everyone is hooked by flawless CGI and snappy dialogue, he reels them in with a gripping overview of kosher laws.
- Come to think of it, that's pretty much what George Lucas does when he starts The Phantom Menace with trade route taxation.
- Be not afraid. The writer sums up the food law in the last verse of this chapter.
- The whole point here is "to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten" (11:47).
- In a weird way, this kind of makes sense as a sequel to the previous chapter.
- No, really. Nadab and Abihu just died because they used something that wasn't holy in a holy sacrifice, and the leftover priests didn't eat the sin offering leftovers because the brothers' dead bodies polluted the Tabernacle.
- Everything else in the chapter is just details. Easy peasy.
Two by Two
- The writer starts with certain kinds of land animals.
- Here's the first big kosher law: the Israelites can eat a land mammal that has a split hoof and chews its cud.
- Split hooves = divided in two, like everything else in Leviticus. How convenient.
- What's chewing the cud? Well, for one thing, it's gross. The original Hebrew words get right to it—chewing the cud is literally "throwing up what was swallowed."
- The animal takes a bite of some grass or hay, chews for a bit, swallows, throws it all back up again and starts chewing it again.
- So the animal that chews and swallows the right way is one that does it twice. Even eating is split in two.
- By the way, the modern scientific word for an animal that re-chews its vomited food for better digestion is a ruminant. Think about it.
- What a coincidence—cattle, goats and sheep have split hooves and chew their cud. They're the supermodels of domesticated animal style.
- God has no problem with giving other animals a body image complex. In kosher fashion, you're in or you're out.
- For example, camels fully digest their food with an alluring two-part chew sequence, but their feet are ugly because they just have single paw. Sorry, camel, you're out.
- Pigs have perfectly split feet but are unclean anyway. Why? It has nothing to do with rolling around in the mud. Rather, it's because they don't throw up in their mouth a little.
- This explains why the bacon meme is missing from ancient Jewish scrolls.
- The uncleanness of animals isn't a moral thing—it doesn't mean that pigs and camels are evil. It's a taboo, sometimes referred to as ceremonial or ritual uncleanness.
- Besides not being allowed to eat these ritually unclean animals, an Israelite is not supposed to touch their dead carcasses. This rule pops up again later in the book, because hey, who isn't tempted to go around touching dead animal carcasses.
The Scales of Ceremonial Justice
- Fish gotta swim, which for an Israelite means they'd best have fins and scales.
- As for sea critters that don't have fins or scales, Leviticus treats them as defective and taboo. This makes Jewish lobsters very happy.
- The rest of chapter 11 draws dividing lines between other types of animals. The three big categories are birds, flying insects, and "swarming things," which includes creeping critters from mice to geckos.
- The kosher laws go into picky detail about carcass touching and what to do with pots that come in contact with certain carcasses. Ick.
- Looking for the infamous no-cheeseburger law, which prohibits boiling a baby animal in its mother's milk? That's not here—it's in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
- Pop quiz: suppose an Israelite marooned on a desert island has only read the Book of Leviticus. If he survives by eating cheeseburgers but learns about the no-cheeseburger rule after he's rescued, what is his required offering: (a) sin (b) peace (c) Wilson?
- Yes, the kosher law does include some rather conspicuous scientific mistakes. Rabbits don't actually chew their cud—they just look like they do. Winged insects don't have just four legs.
- Why is chewing its own vomit part of what makes an animal clean? Beyond better digestion by the animal itself, Leviticus has a thing about vomit.
- Not coincidentally, in the original Hebrew of verse 45, God tells the Israelites to keep kosher because "I am the Lord, the one who vomited you up out of the land of Egypt."
- Once again, a double pun: the land of Egypt is unclean, while Israel, the land of the clean, gets vomited out of it.
- This knee-slapping one-liner also explains why some of the ancient manuscripts add, "Yea, verily, I shall be here through Friday. Thou shalt remember to tip thy waitress."
Birthin' Babies Are Disgusting
- In chapters 12 through 15, the author moves from the ceremonial purity rules for animals to the ceremonial purity rules for people. Chapter 12 starts with the bête noire of Honey Boo Boo: birthin' babies.
- The writer doesn't pull any punches: when a woman gives birth to a child, she's unclean.
- As with the kosher laws, this kind of uncleanness is not defined literally as being dirty. Leaking and mixing bodily fluids are a big obsession over the next few chapters.
- The author starts by saying that becoming a baby-mama makes a woman just as unclean as when she is having her period. Hmmm.
- That goes for her and anything she touches. She can't go to the tabernacle or touch anything that's holy. The only thing she can do as a certified cootie carrier is stay home and watch The Real Housewives of Mount Sinai.
- The timing of a woman's release from tent arrest depends on whether the darling little angel is a boy or a girl.
- If it's a girl, mom is unclean for 14 days and has to sit out an additional 66 days before she can be pure.
- If it's a boy, she is unclean for just 7 days and only has to wait an extra 33 days more.
- Wow, what an amazing coincidence. A boy gets circumcised on the eighth day. Getting snipped makes him part of the covenant. That speeds things up for mom.
- If she has mixed multiples or a hermaphrodite, she makes a creative rabbinical scholar feel quite useful.
- When her purification time is over, the new mom has to get a priest two—count 'em—sacrifices as atonement: a burnt offering and a sin offering. What's up with that?
Get the Skinny
- Next up on the Leviticus parade of horribles is everyone's favorite topic of casual conversation: skin disease.
- Old translations use the word leprosy, but modern leprosy doesn't hit Israel until long after Leviticus becomes a bestseller.
- Scaly flakes. Itchy blotches. Bald spots. Open sores. That's what these rules are talking about—basically every symptom that has ever appeared in ads for medicated creams and ointments since 1953.
- At this point, the Israelites are probably hoping that the reason for all these mucky details is to show how God can heal them.
- Nope, not happening.
- The whole point of this chapter is to help Israel (a) identify troublesome skin conditions and (b) make fun of the people who have them.
- Most of the chapter describes how a priest should go about determining whether a person has the sort of skin disease that makes folks unclean.
- If a person does have such a disease, the priest does not do anything to try to make go away. No prayers. No spells. No soothing anti-itch relief.
- Instead, ways of dealing with skin disease include making the person stay at home for seven days or forcing him to tear his clothes and get out of town while shouting "Unclean! Unclean!"
Those Pants are Sick
- Chapter 13 ends with a discussion of a problem that frankly sounds kind of weird in English—what to do if your clothing develops a skin condition.
- The basic rule here is that you should burn your clothes if they get moldy and it doesn't wash out. Not bad advice for a society that doesn't have bleach.
- House arrest. Exile. Public humiliation. The only thing missing is Nelson Muntz pointing his finger at someone with a skin disease and saying, "Ha ha!"
- Things don't get much easier if your blotchy flaky skin clears up. When a priest decides that things are all clear, that means—surprise!—sacrifices galore.
- Sin offering. Burnt offering. Grain offering. Reparation offing. In short, a lot of offerings because getting a skin condition is a Big Deal, especially right before the ancient sacred ritual known as Prom.
Burn, Baldy, Burn!
- Part of the purification process involved shaving off all body hair. On the one hand, it symbolizes total cleansing and renewal. It also gives purified skin condition swim team a real competitive advantage.
- Another part of the purification process involved getting two birds. One bird was sacrificed. The priest then dipped the living bird in its blood and sprinkled the blood seven times on the person being purified. At the most basic level, this taught that becoming ritually clean could be just as gross as having a skin condition.
- Remember how the last chapter said that clothes could have a skin condition? Now it's a house. Today we would call this a mold problem and sue someone for a million shekels. Back then, they removed the moldy stones. If the problem continued, say goodbye to your house.
- The purification ritual for a moldy house also involves the dead-bird/live-bird dip-and-sprinkle. The living bird is then let free to fly to the nearest animal psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder therapy.
That's Not Funny—That's Sick!
- Once again, puns galore. For ancient Israelites, this chapter is the symbolic equivalent of buying a tube of Dead Sea Salt Psoriasis Cream.
- The Hebrew word for a skin condition is a pun on the term for someone who talks smack about another person. In the book of Numbers, God turns the skin of Moses's sister Miriam white after she disses her brother for marrying a black woman.
- One big reason for all the fooferah in chapters 13 and 14 is that skin conditions and household mold remind Israelites of rotting flesh. The purification ritual is like shooting a zombie in the head—a triumph of life over death.
- The kill-and-dip pigeon twins are a way of telling sick people that, well, stuff happens. Israelites read this ritual as a reminder that only God knows why bad stuff happens to one bird while the other gets to live.
- It's like the punchline of the book of Job, which, by the way, has even more sores and rashes than you get here.
Not Safe for Worship
- God tells the human race to go forth and multiply, but when Israelites do it, it's time to break out the spiritual Purell.
- The writer opens this chapter with a fairly graphic description of how stuff flowing from a guy's penis can make a place unclean.
- Got a—ahem—leaky faucet? Any bed, chair, or saddle you touch becomes unclean, not to mention folks who touch you.
- They have to wash up and do laundry. You have to wash up and do laundry. After seven days of washing up and doing laundry, your friendly neighborhood priest gets to sacrifice a couple of birds.
- The above rule applies to all sorts of penis leaks, such as masturbation, nocturnal emission, and the pus from gonorrhea. In short, men are gross.
- God may be all-knowing, but at this point he's being rather coy about penicillin. Oh, wait, that's mold, isn't it? Wouldn't want that now, would we? Might make something unclean.
- When a man and a woman are making sweet romance, they also become unclean. This means they both have to take a bath, which as purity rules go would seem to have an obvious loophole.
Do You Ever Feel, You Know, Not So Fresh?
- The rest of this chapter has purity rules for dealing with menstrual flow.
- A woman having her period is unclean for seven days. Everything she touches is unclean for the day, such as her chair and bed.
- A guy who lies with her (wink, wink) during this time is unclean for seven days too.
- If a woman's flow continues for more than seven days, she stays unclean until seven days after it stops.
- On the eighth day? Birds, sacrifice, you know the drill.
Another Fine Mess
- The chapter ends by zooming out to 30,000 feet to look at the bigger picture. Well, technically they don't have planes, so at best it's about 7,500 feet.
- The reason for these rules? Once again, uncleanness anywhere in Israel makes the holy Tabernacle unclean: "thus shall they separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness: that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is in the midst of them."
- Or in the words of nagging parents everywhere, a messy room means a messy life—not just for you, but the whole family.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
- After the yuck-filled tedium of the purity laws, the writer loops back to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu to at least pretend he's telling a story.
- God tells Aaron that if he and his leftover sons don't want to die, Aaron has to make atonement for his whole family. It's a lot like the end of the last chapter, except instead of bodily fluids at home, there are dead bodies in the Tabernacle.
- Do you see what he did there? The book so far has been going on about how unclean and sinful things at home also pollute the holy Tabernacle. Well, hey, whaddaya know, it's exactly like having dead bodies pollute the Tabernacle.
- And Leviticus just happens to have the perfect ritual that will take all this away.
- In English, it's called the day of atonement, but its Hebrew name is much more famous: Yom Kippur.
It Was the Best of Goats, It Was the Worst of Goats
- The rest of the chapter describes a religious ceremony that is the basis of this important Jewish holiday.
- It also helps explain the ending of The Dark Knight. Except the hero of our tale is not a bat. It's a goat.
- Here's what happens. Aaron takes a young bull to the Tabernacle courtyard to be sacrificed. Then a goat wearing a cape rushes in and kicks the knife out of Aaron's hands before he can kill again.
- Well, not really. What actually happens is much more dramatic.
- First, Aaron brings to the Tabernacle a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. For the high priest, this is just like going to work with a briefcase and Blackberry, except in this case, they smell pretty bad.
- Then, he goes to the regular Israelites and gets a ram for a burnt offering and two he-goats for a sin offering.
- Confused? No problem. The most important thing to know here is that following Aaron's example, the high priest in the traditional Yom Kippur ceremony gets animals to atone for himself and animals to atone for all of Israel.
Luck Be a He-Goat Tonight
- But he doesn't sacrifice them right away. This ceremony is much more elaborate.
- Aaron—again setting the example for future high priests—takes out a couple of lots, which in ancient Israel can refer to flat stones, sticks, or dice a lot like the ones used today except with far less plastic.
- Whatever the lots look like, Aaron marks one "God" and the other, "Azazel" or "scapegoat," depending on which version of the English Bible he happens to be reading.
- What are Israelites talking about when they talk about Azazel? The dirty Levitical secret is that no one's really sure.
- Some think he's an old, forgotten demon who lives in the wilderness. Because he's not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, all we know about this Azazel is that he has a killer goat collection.
- Anthropologist Mary Douglas observes that "Azazel" can be translated as "the one that God (el) sent away." Which, by the way, is exactly what is going to happen in this ritual.
- The writer of Leviticus likes names that are punny. When death is poised to strike in Leviticus 24, he will pun four times.
- For our purposes, from here on out we'll just call the goat the Azazel goat, since that's the word in the original Hebrew.
- According to the long-lost rules of Bible Yahtzee, the roll of the dice decides which goat is the God goat and which goat is the Azazel goat.
- Guess which one of these two goats gets sacrificed as a sin offering?
- If you picked the Azazel goat, sorry. The God goat's reward for winning the atonement lottery is to get grilled and eaten.
Sprinkler of the Lost Ark
- But again, not right away. Aaron first has to purify himself, which he does by sacrificing his own young bull, which he's been careful not to name because then his sons would just want to keep it as a pet.
- Now that Aaron has been purified, he takes from the altar, goes into the Tabernacle, and burns so much incense that the smoke fills the whole place—so much so that the smoke covers the Ark of the Covenant.
- Remember how frankincense has psycho-active effects? At this point in the ceremony, Aaron is feeling gooooooooooood.
- Free from all his inhibitions, he takes bull blood and sprinkles it on the Ark's atonement cover.
- Now he's really stoked, so he sacrifices the God goat as a sin offering and sprinkles the goat's blood on the atonement cover to purify it from all the people's sins that have polluted it.
- As if that weren't enough, he spikes the ball by going back to the altar and using the blood of both the bull and the goat to cleanse it of all of the people's uncleanness.
- This part of the ceremony ends with Aaron, the father of all future high priests, high-fiving the Israelites in the front row and shouting, "Who da man?"
Carry on Our Wayward Goat
- Here's where the Azazel goat takes his heroic turn.
- Aaron lays his hands on the head of the Azazel goat and confesses all of Israel's sins.
- This puts all of the sins of the Israelites on the Azazel goat's head. Though none of these sins were his fault, he continues to be a trooper and doesn't bleat any complaints.
- Aaron's hand-picked Goat-Driver-Outer then, true to his title, drives the goat out to the wilderness and sets the plucky little fellow free to live on his own.
- That done, he goes back into the Tabernacle, takes off his clothes and settles in for a nice long holy bath.
- Once intermission is over and the congregation has a chance to visit the kosher locust crisps stand, Aaron puts on new clothes and heads back to his audience for an encore.
- Chanting the traditional hymn, "Bet you thought I forgot about the other two rams for the burnt offering," Aaron offers the other two rams as burnt offerings.
- The Tabernacle is pure. The people are pure. And every year on the tenth day of the seventh month, it's wash, rinse, repeat.
The Dark Knight Returns
- Don't feel too bad about the Azazel goat roaming around the wilderness. The upshot of this funky Day of Atonement ceremony is that the goat doesn't end up being altar blood. And since the ritual ended up being repeated every year by high priests for centuries, eventually there was probably a whole flock of goats out in the wilderness to greet the new guy with a hoof-shake and a welcoming smile.
- SPOILER ALERT: If this ceremony seems too alien to make any sense at all, re-watch The Dark Knight and pay careful attention to Batman's decision to make Gotham safe by taking the blame for the breakdown of law and order.
- Substitute Batman for the Azazel goat, Commissioner Gordon for Aaron, the Gotham police for the Goat-Driver-Outer et voilà, Leviticus 16 with skyscrapers. The police chase Batman out of town, and he takes all the city's darkness with him.
The PETA Principle
- The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus fit together in a neat little package.
- (1) Rules for offerings
- (2) A story about how not following the rules leads to impurity
- (3) Purity rules
- (4) A sequel to the story describing the most effective way to get rid of the Israelites' impurity
- Many scholars think the book originally ended there. Many students wish it still did.
- Nonetheless, the book goes on for eleven more chapters. The writer/editor who put these chapters together is often cited as "H." The H stands for the Holiness source, referring to the section's number one topic.
- By way of contrast, the editor of the first sixteen chapters is usually cited as "P." The P stands for Priestly, in honor of the actor who played Brandon Walsh in the original Beverly Hills 90210.
- Chapter 17 starts with some more déjà vu. God speaks to Moses and tells him to give orders to Aaron, his sons, and the children of Israel.
- The topic? Sacrifices, of course!
- As a friendly nudge to any readers who think that Azazel is not a goat-demon but just a clever word for the escaping scapegoat, God tells the Israelites not to make sacrifices to goat-demons. There, that's covered.
- God states that no Israelite can eat meat from cattle, goats, or sheep unless it has been sacrificed at the Tabernacle. Unless at the time Israel has officially franchised sanctuaries all over the country, this would be the equivalent of requiring every American to get their burgers from the flagship McDonald's in Chicago.
- Also, no consuming blood. No exception, and putting fake blood on the corners of your mouth when offering a sacrifice is not funny, buster.
- Blood is life and life is God's. This rule also applies to everyone living in Israel even if they are not Israelites. Want to know the real reason the Cullens moved to Forks? There it is.
- Furthermore, sacrificing anywhere else besides the tent of meeting is a definite no-no for both Israelites and people from other backgrounds who live in Israel. You want to worship in your own way at your own family altar? Tough.
- If you hunt wild animals for food, you have to pour out the blood and cover it with dirt. In the words of High Priest Jesse Pinkman, these blood rules are serious, yo.
- A person who has eaten meat from an animal that died naturally or was torn apart by other animals must wash his clothes and take a bath. Technically this doesn't cover roadkill, but ack.
- Taken together, these rules tell Israel that killing animals for food is not something for the community to take lightly. Killing is serious business, even if the victim is an animal and not a human being.
- If the Israelites are going to use animals for food and clothes, the life of every animal they kill must first be offered back to God, the source of all life.
- Even a natural death undedicated to God is a source of ritual contagion.
- The sacrifice rules also serve to unify Israel by making everyone worship the same way under the priests' oversight.
- Which is mighty convenient, because it means whenever Leviticus gets too weird, it's always possible to save the day by tossing in a reference to Foucault and the institutionalization of power. Hey, if it works for Gossip Girl…
Let's Talk About Sex
- Now we get to one of the most controversial sections in Leviticus: the holiness rules in chapters 18 through 20.
- Chapter 18 starts with a couple reasons for the rules.
- For one thing, Israelites are the cool kids now. Don't be like other people. God has his own lunch table and they're not invited.
- Israelites also get something out of being part of the Israelite crew. They're really gonna live, baby, and living ain't just breathing.
- Of course, if the Israelites want good things to happen, they have to keep God's laws and show that they know where the good stuff is coming from.
They're Too Sexy for This Land
- The key word here is Israelites. The laws in this chapter are ways for the nation to thrive as a separate community in the land that God has given them.
- The first dozen or so rules are about not "exposing the nakedness" of certain family members. Pantsing other people is apparently okay.
- Precisely what these incest rules mean has been the subject of extensive debate.
- Because adultery is already established as unlawful, it would appear that the target of these incest rules are sexual relationships with women who are widowed, divorced, or otherwise not married to someone else.
- The emphasis on the wrongfulness of uncovering others' nakedness might be focused on keeping a strong male family member from exploiting women in his extended household, both in order to satisfy his sexual appetites and to exert his power.
- The incest rules also make it unlawful to have sex with combinations of women that could lead to social strife within a family, such as sleeping with two sisters, sleeping with a mother and daughter, or sleeping with a wife and her sister.
- Clearly God in his total knowledge of all space and time has seen every episode of Jerry Springer.
- Another forbidden sex-related act is adultery, which refers to a man sleeping with a married woman.
- Under biblical law, a man—whether married or single—is not committing adultery if he sleeps with a woman who is not his wife and also not married to someone else.
- For example, in Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele and Christian are technically not committing adultery, since Anastasia is not married to someone else. Hmmm.
- Don't dedicate your children to Molech. Stoning your kid to death if he misbehaves is cool, but sacrificing him to Molech is a big no-no even if he is acting like a spoiled brat.
- And then, here it is, verse 22, the big kahuna: an Israelite "must not lie with a man with the lying down of a woman."
- "Lie with a man with the lying down of a woman?" Who in the world talks like that? What does it even mean?
- Based on other biblical references, it would appear to refer to a man anally penetrating another man.
- Whatever it is, it's taboo.
- The word used to describe the lying-down-of-a-woman taboo is toevah, which is used for a variety of taboo things from unclean food, unclean birds, and dirty clothes to idols and intermarriage with non-Israelites.
- Verse 22 says nothing about any other form of sexual contact, such as a woman sleeping with another woman.
- The next verse is more specific, stating that neither a man nor a woman may have sex with an animal.
- The chapter winds up by circling back to the reasons for following these rules. The emphasis here is the purity of God's land. If the Israelites and the people who live among them pollute this holy land by engaging in such acts, the land will vomit them out.
- Again with the vomiting.
The Holiness Code
- The fear of vomiting land isn't exactly a winner when it comes to keeping people out of the sack. In chapter 19 the explanations level up.
- The result: what might very well be the most important chapter in all of Leviticus.
- Chapter 19 boils the reason for everything down to one core principle: "You shall be holy, because I, YHVH, your God, am holy."
- Practically, this means that Israelites should love their neighbors as themselves, thus proving that even Jesus reads Leviticus.
- The rest of the chapter is details, details, details.
Be Excellent to Each Other
- The first few laws are designed to keep Israel on the YHVH track.
- Honor parents, keep sabbaths, keep the altar pure, don't turn to metal idols—in other words, think different.
- Then come instructions for keeping the community together and strong.
- Don't exploit the poor, the weak and non-Israelite n00bs. For instance, let them have part of every harvest and the last peanut in every bag.
- Don't rig the law for the rich and powerful. As God puts it in verse 15, "If thou dost let the big guys take advantage of the small, yea verily, it's only a matter of time before the proverbial poopeth hits the faneth."
- Rigging the law for the priests—well, that's not okay either, wink wink.
- Don't take someone else's stuff. Pay employees promptly. Use accurate weights and measures, except for the scales at the gym.
- Israelites making an agreement have to stick to it, especially if they make a vow in God's name. Or pinky-swear.
- Israelites are not to raise money pimping out their daughters. Think twice about that reality show deal, too.
- God commands the Israelites to tell people what you really think and not act like a passive-aggressive gossiping jerk.
- Don't seek revenge, and for cryin' out loud don't take it out on a person's kids. Haven't you seen what happens in Liam Neeson movies?
Holiness Ain't What It Used to Be
- So far the rules are no-brainers.
- Don't mate two critters from different kinds of species, and don't wear clothes with different kinds of fibers. Don't mix different kinds of plants.
- No tattoos. Pagans wear tattoos. Slaves wear tattoos. Anyway, what would mother think?
- No psychics. No fortune-tellers. No more hokey Lifetime movies about spirit guides. Ghosthunters is okay, though, because, c'mon, really?
- The spirits of past family members are unclean, too, which is not good news for the Red Sea Island medium.
- Obeying parents and old people is one thing, but revering family spirits sets up worship in competition with Tabernacle and Israelite unity.
- Not stealing includes not sleeping with a female slave who's been set up to marry someone else so they can make productive little slave babies. Buy her owner a beer and offer a few sacrifices. See, it's all good.
- When an Israelite plants a tree, it is to grow freely for three years "uncircumcised," a command deeply appreciated by Israel's male Ents.
- For the tree, circumcision means that fruit from year four goes to God (that is, his trusty representatives) and in year five, you get finally get to chow down.
Sex and Violence
- The rules in chapter 20 are for the most part rules repeated from the last couple chapters, except this time with the addition of punishments. Yay!
- The arrangement of chapters 18 through 20 is a callback to Moses getting the law on Mount Sinai. Besides puns, the writer of Leviticus enjoys the interplay of words, repetition, and physical space.
- Climb the mountain in chapter 18. Face the holiness of God at the peak in chapter 19. Chapter 20 is the trip back down, learning what will happen when the rules learned on the journey are not followed. Modern readers aren't accustomed to visualizing a text like this, but The Price Is Right's cliffhanger game can be a big help.
- Another way to visualize this is as a mini-Tabernacle, walking through to the Holy of Holies and back outside to day-to-day life.
Everybody Must Get Stoned
- This scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian is brought to you by most of the penalties in this chapter.
- God tells the Israelites to set themselves apart from the people of other nations. Just because they're wearing Uggs doesn't mean Israel has to.
- Sacrifice kids to Molech? Stones. Thud. Dead.
- Have a reality show about your career passing on messages from dead people? Leviticus doesn't care how high the ratings are—to the rock pile, baby.
- Disrespect mom and dad? Have sex with another man's wife? Have sex with your dad's widow? Each of these carries the death penalty.
- Meme-buster time. After the 2012 election resulted in gay marriage and marijuana being legalized in some states, the internet exploded with the following quote from Leviticus 20:13—"If a man lays with another man, as with a woman, he shall be stoned."
- Thing is, though, the bit about stoning isn't actually in Leviticus 20:13. The penalty is stated more obliquely as "shall be put to death," with an emphasis on death.
- For more details on the penalties in this chapter, check out the passages we've quoted in the discussion of the Leviticus "Sex" theme.
Priests Gone Mild
- God instructs the Israelites to be holy, sure, but the priests gotta be extra holy. But what does it mean when being holy involves being kind of a jerk?
- Like in chapter 8, God tells Moses to speak to the priests.
- Unlike in chapter 8, that's all Moses does. It's just a list of the commandments for priests all the way through.
- First there's the Big Boys Don't Cry rule. Priests can't mourn for the dead like ordinary people.
- In the ancient Near East, this involves shaving your head, trimming your beard, or cutting your flesh.
- God allows a priest to mourn certain family members, but the exceptions don't include his wife.
- Also, he can only mourn for his sister if she dies a virgin.
- Speaking of virgins, they're the only women a priest can marry. Women who have been divorced, raped, or been a sex worker are off-limits.
- The daughter of a priest who becomes a sex worker shall be burned alive.
- The daughter of a priest who stars on Preachers' Daughters shall get her own apartment.
- The strict purity rule also applies to who can perform services at the Tabernacle. Normally, male descendants of Aaron get to enter the family business. However, descendants found to be defective in some way can't be priests.
- That means no blemish allowed: no little people, no blind guys, no guys in wheelchairs, and no man with a skin problem, scoliosis, smushed nose or—everyone's favorite—crushed testicles.
- For such a man as this to enter into the Tabernacle would be to make a holy place ordinary, and God can't have that, can he?
Common is Not God's Favorite Rapper
- Just in case anyone was still wondering, no, God insists that priests can't do anything that would lower God's holy name to the level of the layperson or unclean.
- This chapter is a laundry list of rules telling priests when they can't eat or touch holy donations or offerings.
- Big surprise: if a priest is ritually unclean, he has to stay away from holy things until he goes through a cleansing routine. If he does that, he can eat holy food in the evening.
- Laymen in the priests' household—such as a tenant or hired servant—can't eat holy food.
- The same goes for any of his daughters married to a layman.
- But hey, a priest can give sacred food to foreigners that he has purchased as slaves. Um, so let's hear it for buying people as your personal property?
- The priestly holiness instructions end with God's instructions to both the priests and the Israelites regarding injured or otherwise blemished sacrificial animals. As a general rule, not cool.
- One rule illustrates how God's holiness is wholly inconsistent with imperfection. For the peace offering, an Israelite can use an animal with a leg that's too long or short when giving thanks but not when making a vow.
- Why? Because using an animal with an imperfect leg in swearing an oath to God would be like using an animal that chews its cud but doesn't have split hooves—its means of walking are defective.
- And yes, chapter 22 also bans animals with damaged testicles. Can't forget the damaged testicles.
- Here's a puzzler: it's not permitted to sacrifice an ox or sheep on the same day as its child. Next day? Okay. Day after that? All clear.
- Likewise, a newborn ox or sheep or goat can't be offered until the eighth day after its birth. Happy sacred covenant circumcision day?
Everybody's Lookin' Forward to the Weekend
- Deities love holidays, and Israel's God is no different.
- (Lightning. Panic.)
- Scratch that. Israel's God is waaaaaaay different. Not ordinary at all. None of that unclean other deity stuff. So let's put the holy-days back in the holidays to illustrate this very point.
- Chapter 23 starts with the Sabbath. Remember the Sabbath?
- Next follow several holidays that are also summarized quite nicely in Shmooperonomy 16.
- Passover—why is this day different from any other day? Check out Exodus 12.
- Next up—the harvest festival, a.k.a. the Feast of Firstfruits. This one involves sacrifices (Really? Imagine that.) plus a lot of enthusiastic lifting of harvested sheafs to God.
- Everyone's least favorite holiday is the festival of horn-blasting, in which the Israelites set off all of their car alarms at the same time.
- The tenth day of the seventh month… hmmm… sounds familiar. Could it be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?
- Why, yes it is! Hie thee back to Leviticus chapter 16 for the rules.
- The discussion of Yom Kippur here emphatically repeats God's command to "degrade yourselves" on that sacred day (source). And now you know the origin of karaoke.
- Now this is really slick: Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. It is what it says on the tin—to this day, folks live in temporary structures modeled after the tent covering (that word again!) the Ark of the Covenant as the Israelites travel from Egypt to Canaan.
- For pictures of how it looks in action, check out the gallery on Sukkot.com.
- Last of all, the special assemblies. These get called at times apart from the Sabbath and regular holidays, typically so the people of Israel can watch movies as a reward for selling fruit to pay for the class trip to Canaan.
Bread and Blasphemy
- At first glance, chapter 24 seems like a few random parts thrown together. It starts with a description of the menorah and bread arrangements in the Tabernacle, moves to the stoning of a man for blaspheming the name of God, and ends with a review of the famous formula, "an eye for an eye."
- Linking them all together, though, is one common theme: God's sacred covenant with his people.
- Recall the basic set-up of the Tabernacle, which, years after the time depicted in Leviticus, becomes the layout of the temple in Jerusalem: the altar area in front of the entrance; a thick veil entrance; a sacred interior room; another veil entrance; and the Holy of Holies containing the Ark of the Covenant.
- Pictures of a replica in Israel might help.
- Chapter 24 goes over the set-up of the sacred interior room the priests get to before the Holiest of Holies, which is reserved for the Ark and the High Priest.
- Centuries before Hanukkah, the Tabernacle gets a menorah. No dreidels, however, even though Leviticus does love a good roll of the dice.
- Then the author moves to what has been called the showbread: twelve specially made loaves representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
- There with the bread? Frankincense, which in chapter 16 is burned to smoke up the joint the way joints now smoke up the Hollywood Bowl.
- Amidst all the talk of interior decorating comes the tell, verse 8: "Every Sabbath day he (the high priest) shall set in order before the Lord continually; it is from the children of Israel, an everlasting covenant."
- What follows is a shift to another dramatic narrative—only the second in the entire book—that practically illustrates how the covenant unites Israel in its new land.
- The story involves the nameless son of a nameless Egyptian man and an Israelite woman named Shelomith, daughter of Dibri, from the tribe of Dan.
- Romeo and Juliet this intermarried couple ain't. The mixed marriage evokes the mix of cultures in God's promised land, with one always evocative of what the people of Israel are supposed to have abandoned.
- The Israelite woman's name has three puns in quick succession. As anthropologist Mary Douglas notes in Leviticus as Literature:
- (1) Shelomith can be translated as "retribution,"
- (2) Dibri evokes dibrah, or legal action, and
- (3) Dan is synonymous with judgment (Genesis 49:16).
- Trouble comes when the nameless son blasphemes the divine name, the name that binds all Israel together as one and gives them life in abundance.
- The people of Israel ask Moses what they do with the guy. God instructs Moses to have the nameless guy taken outside the camp, where the people will lay their hands on his head.
- The ancient Israelite reader immediately makes a couple connections.
- First, it's a callback to the ordination of Nadab and Abihu, who blaspheme by taking God's holy ritual lightly. This time, though, the people are standing in for God as the administration of justice.
- The scene also evokes the image of a bizarro goat from the Day of Atonement that purifies the Tabernacle after the corpses of Nadab and Abihu pollute it.
- The nameless blasphemer is removed from the camp like the Azazel goat was taken to the wilderness and the bodies were removed from the Tabernacle. Moreover, the Israelites lay hands not to hand off sin but to pass collective judgment.
- God delivers the coup de grâce in with the story's killer fourth play on words. In verse 16, God states that the person who strikes a hole in his name shall be struck to death with stones.
Let's Talk Lex Talionis
- Next is an image of how God connects the traditional "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" of the Lex Talionis to covenantal justice.
- One twist comes in the call back to the blemishes—injuries or defects—that make a person or animal ritually unclean. The person who makes someone else defective will proportionally mirror that defect himself.
- The key to how this works in practice appears in the references to payback, compensation, and making the victim whole. In Hebrew the word is sh-l-m, the exact same root word used for the peace offering.
- In a nutshell, this ties a bow on the theme of covenantal recompense that has been popping up throughout the whole book. When God gives you abundance, you acknowledge the covenantal relationship by giving some back. Conversely, if you make someone or something imperfect, you pay the appropriate price.
The Jubilee Jive
- Leviticus closes with another three chapter Mt. Sinai or Tabernacle structure, focusing squarely on contract, exchange, and collective responsibility.
- Chapter 25 sets out instructions pertaining to such matters as property, household management, and provision for the disadvantaged.
- Chapter 26 is the summary of divine covenant in the traditional form of blessings and curses found in Near Eastern pacts.
- Chapter 27 elaborates upon people and property pledged to God through the priests and the Levites.
Bono Meets the Bible
- Chapter 25 starts with a subtle reminder that the best path toward abundance is not to try to exert total control.
- The Israelites are to work the land for six years and let it rest for the seventh.
- The year after the seventh such sabbatical is the Jubilee, Israel's reset button for people and property. One advantage of this approach is that the Israelites could stop trying to make time go backwards by running really fast.
- Every fifty years, most real estate purchased over the previous forty-nine years is returned to its original owner. This helps prevent the rise of an Israelite Donald Trump and reality plays about firing bondservants.
- Slaves also go free, a feature that centuries later does not go unnoticed by opponents of slavery in the U.S.
- In one blow, the Jubilee tries to rollback the concentration of property in a small number of wealthy landowners, which is one reason why archaeologists have never found evidence of an Occupy Canaan.
- However, the legal framework also reflects a growing split between traditionally agricultural society and the shift toward urbanism. While the Jubilee mandates returning land outside walled cities to its original owners, owners of property in cities can keep theirs indefinitely.
- Leviticus 25:10 summarizes the Jubilee in words that have come to represent concepts of freedom beyond their original focus: "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you: and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family."
- If it sounds familiar, that might be because "Proclaim liberty through the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" is on the Liberty Bell.
The Fairest Deals of the Land
- The rest of the chapter provides a range of rules to maintain proportional dealing and to provide for the poor.
- Property purchased between Jubilees has its price adjusted to reflect the remaining years until the next one.
- The poor and foreigners (strangers and travelers) are often linked because, like the poor, the foreigners in question do not own land.
- Israelite landowners cannot use their stronger financial position to exploit poor Israelites. Israelite cannot enslave Israelite, nor can an Israelite exploit his employees. Moreover, an Israelite cannot charge interest to or profit off of a poor Israelite.
- The reason for such rules, as before in Leviticus, is the relation between God and Israel: "For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God" (25:55).
Trick or Treaty
- The beginning of this chapter is about as up-with-my-people as a God can get. He promises to give Israel the best life any nation could imagine—perfect weather for its crops, victory over its enemies, scads of gifted adorable children and free cable, including all of the premium channels.
- However, if Israel doesn't obey all the laws in Leviticus, the nation turns into the Near Eastern version of The Walking Dead. Everything's there except a small band of plucky survivors: desolate roads, brutal violence, epidemic disease, and people who are so desperate for food they will even eat the flesh of their children.
- Still, it's not all bad. The good life returns if the people of Israel confess their wrongdoing—along with their fathers' wrongdoing, because even God blames all your problems on your parents.
- The stated basis for God's giving Israel life or death is the eternal covenant between them.
The Arc of the Covenant
- The language here is typical of a vassal treaty between a nation and a more powerful sovereign. That's sort of like the legal relationship between Native American tribes and the United States, except God plans to honor the terms.
- The language of ancient vassal treaties was quite different from treaties today. For one thing, the legalese back then was pretty emo.
- Blessings and curses are part of the standard routine. If the treaty works, the heavens will sing, flowers will bloom, and your breath will always be minty fresh. But if one side doesn't do what it is supposed to do, the covenant calls for their crops to fail, their teeth to fall out, and their children to major in Sumerian poetry instead of something practical.
- God isn't exactly subtle about the blessings and curses in this chapter being part of covenant. Good things happen when the covenant is honored. Bad things happen when the covenant is broken, with the problem getting progressively worse the longer Israel refuses to obey.
- God throws in a little gibe about how breaking the contract is the sign of an "uncircumcised heart." Oooh, burn.
- This really stings, since circumcision a few inches lower is the sign of Israel's acceptance of the contract with God—more painful than a handshake but harder to deny that it took place.
- Finally, God reminds Israel that he honors his agreements. Over. And over. Again.
- He helped Israel get out of Egypt.
- He made a covenant with Jacob.
- He made a covenant with Abraham.
- He remembers his covenants.
- He does what he says.
- Not like some people he knows.
- Okay, God, we get it. Yeesh.
Waiting for the After-Credits Scene
- After this dramatic announcement of promises and threats, the last verse of the chapter once again sounds like the final end of the book.
- Sure it does.
On Second Thought…
- This chapter wraps everything up with even more details on these offerings and vows—as well as how you can get some of your gifts to God back.
- Giving a gift to a religious group today is pretty easy. Dollar bills and credit cards are both okay, and apparently it even gets rid of any ethical obligation to tip the wait staff.
- Now imagine a faithful Israelite donating his cows, crops, farmland, house or, um, slaves—and realizing afterward that without them he's going to go bust.
- The writer of Leviticus provides some basic guidelines.
- The 10% donation rule: Israelites have to give the Tabernacle ten percent of their cattle, flocks and harvest. The Torah calls this a tithe. Others might call it a tax. Any way they cut it, it's hard to carry.
- The 20% buyback rule: an Israelite who changes his mind about a donation that can't be sacrificed can get it back by paying the priests what it's worth plus 20%.
- God is so predictable.
- Of course, the priests set the base price, and since they're the ones who benefit most for the transaction, it's probably not going to be cheap.
- The technical term for this buyback is redemption, a word that will get a lot of play in the New Testament.
- In addition, there's the nice 100% rule: there are some things you give to God that you can never buy back. For example, animals that can be sacrificed—sorry, they're toast.
- And the naughty 100% rule: if you vow to crush, kill and destroy in God's name, no takebacks—even if Israel's sworn enemy leaves behind a sweet condo with an indoor pool, killer views, and a conscientious doorman.
Bringing It All Back Home
- On the surface, these rules might seem kind of random, but the author really does use this chapter to call back to themes from the rest of the book. Here are a few of the big ones:
- Promises and agreements matter. Messing up means having to make things right. Sometimes it's with a sacrifice or a 20% penalty. Other times God turns everyone into cannibals.
- Economic justice. The 20% buyback rule can be lowered for poor people. Then again, not many poor people have stuff to donate or vow so it's a bit of a wash.
- Priestly power. They sacrifice. They set prices. They get a cut of everything you make. It's good to be the priest.
- Holy separation. Setting things apart keeps the community together, even if the rules don't always make sense.
The Never-Ending Story
- The sacrifices are over. The key themes wrapped up. It's finally time to get to the book's true last verse.
- Surprise! Once again, it's a callback to the beginning.
- Did you know that Moses received these instructions from God near Mount Sinai to give to the people? What happened goes something like this…