Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Six: Leviticus 14-Numbers 2
99% of what happens in this part of the bible is simply a listing (and re-listing, and then some rephrasing, plus more reminders, and then some emphasis of the same) of rules, laws, and commandments. There is a whole lot of repetition, possibly because the priests are working from multiple source documents and possibly because they think the important rules really bear that much repeating. Who knows? There are also subtle differences in the way the repetition occurs. For example, the first occurrences tend to be simply lists of laws; then, the second occurrences are reminders of the laws plus what happens when someone breaks a particular law (Death? Ostracizing?). Finally, there are a couple of chapters that reiterate the most important of all the laws, which is to say the commandments, with a last segment reminding the people that, hey, if they cannot get their society to follow through, god will abandon them all, make them weak, turn them into cannibals, and other neat and interesting punishments. I’m all for listing as a rhetorical device, but some of these books are just out of control.
Molech: Why does this name sound familiar? Ah, yes, MOLOCH! “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (Ginsberg, Howl, 1955-56). Anyhow, in the biblical story, Molech isn’t a demonic personification of capitalism. God is pretty clear about this Molech dude. Who is he? It seems he was a particular pagan god, one who required the most personal and difficult sacrifices from his followers: their children. So, when god commands his people not to spill their seed for Molech, he is telling them to cut it out with the child sacrifice, already. Some folks listened, some didn’t. The priests who wrote this section were probably concerned about misunderstandings about the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Perhaps people, especially new converts to monotheism, used the story of Abraham to justify their continued practice of this ridiculous ritual. The Israeli priests, however, make it clear multiple times in this book that the point was Abraham’s willingness to obey god; after all, the sacrifice never actually happened. God intervened at just the right moment to save Isaac’s life. Burning children at the stake? No good. (But witches and wizards, on the other hand… hop to it!)
Troublesome Laws: This second half of Leviticus continues with its list of laws, rules, and commandments. Some of them are guidelines for the priests, including how to “treat” leprosy and other ailments (the treatments for which sound a lot like witchcraft, which is ironic, considering). There are also a lot of rules regarding fasting, keeping various Sabbaths, treatment of strangers and debtors, etc. Some of the most recognizable are the ones we still talk about today, though, like Leviticus 18:4 & 20:13 which forbid man from laying “with mankind as with womankind.” This is often cited, along with the passages from Genesis’s story of the angels in Sodom, as proof that god forbids homosexuality. I read it differently, though. In the case of Genesis, the violation seemed to be against an ancient custom that protected house guests. In this case, my reading suggests this is less about homosexual relationships than it is about disrupting gender normatives. For man to submit as if he were a woman seems much more in line with other gender rules and customs outlined in the Old Testament. In other words, I see nothing about same-sex love or relationships per se, and instead see a law that reinforces patriarchal social systems. This section also deals with that law that bans wearing clothes of mixed fabrics (Lev 19:19), shaving one’s head, carving one’s skin (tattoos), killing witches, and others which have been largely abandoned. Some that continue to be treated as moral misdeeds include: incest, bestiality, bigamy (or at least the kind that deals with holding relationships with members of the same family simultaneously), and sacrificing children.
Strangers, Debtors, and Neighbors: Some of my favorite philosophies from the bible are reiterated in Leviticus. They coincide with many of the primary moral and ethical laws reflected by the Ten Commandments (which are retold/rephrased multiple times in this section). These include “love thy neighbor as thyself” and do not hold grudges (Lev 19:18), loving strangers as thyself (Lev 19:33-34), and acting charitably to all, including servants, debtors, and the poor. Leviticus 19:10 explains that at each harvest, a portion is to be left to the poor, and the customs of the 50-year Jubilee explain that debtors are to be regularly forgiven and society “refreshed” twice every century. What a thought!
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Papa Priests: In this part of the bible, which essentially is written by and for priests, we see regular references to priests’ children. This means they have families. So, what is it with the Catholic law requiring priests be celibate and single?
Scapegoats: The origin of “the scapegoat” is reveled in Lev 16:26. Essentially, two goats are brought to temple for sacrifice. One is actually sacrificed, while the other, the “escaped goat” is returned to Azazel, the demon of the wilderness. Essentially, the goat that escapes is the one that takes man’s misdeeds with him back to the origin of sin, where they belong.
Culture-Building: Much of what happens in Leviticus is more evidence that the priests are outlining rules for establishing a clear and separate culture. These laws about what to wear, what to eat, when to worship, when to relax, and how to care for one’s self (e.g. avoiding tattoos, avoiding shaving one’s hair) reflect opposition to other cultures’ traditions. The Egyptians, for example, did often shave their heads and “curve” their beards. Other nearby people marked their skin with tattoos, cuts, and piercings. Like circumcision and other traditions, choosing not to do these things is an active way to create societal customs for themselves and their descendants.