Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Five: Exodus 33-Leviticus 13
I’m going to be honest and say that I probably won’t have much to write as we work our way through the Book of Leviticus (the Third Book of Moses). The same will probably be true of Deuteronomy, too (although, if I remember correctly, some interesting things happen in the next book, Numbers, so let’s hang on for a few days!) Leviticus is essentially the rules, laws, and instructions of the priests, written by post-Exilic priests for future generations of priests. The book is incredibly detailed, often repetitive, and downright boring, for the most part. We get a few brief and fleeting glimpses at “story,” where Moses interjects some order from god to be given to Aaron and his sons (two of whom, to their serious detriment, are not paying close enough attention); otherwise, the majority of time is spent on what colors certain draping should be, how an altar should be built, what candelabra should be made of, and where to place them, how priests should distinguish themselves from other men, what clothes they should wear, etc. It’s really a snooze fest.
Giving: One of the more interesting bits left in the Book of Exodus comes near the end, in Chapter 36. The narrator has described how the Israeli people have given whatever they can of themselves, their fortunes and, most importantly, their talents, in order to help create the first physical church (tabernacle). Each man is called to do what he can, and no more. Indeed, in Exodus 36:6-7, we learn that, when enough has been given so that the tasks can be completed and there is surplus for the future, god has Moses tell the people to stop giving. In other words, “enough is enough.” I respond to both lessons, here. In the first place, be charitable with your time and talents in efforts meant to benefit the greater good, one’s neighbors and community, etc. In the second place, know when enough has been given and be content (and honest) enough to say so. Do not continue to ask too much of others when there is no longer a serious need.
Rules, Rules, Rules: Each book of Leviticus so far focuses on a set of rules. Leviticus 1 outlines rules for sacrifices; Leviticus 2 outlines rules for offerings of meat, bread, and fruit; Leviticus 3 gives rules for offerings of peace (as well as a permanent ban on eating fat or blood); Leviticus 4 contains the rules for “sin offerings”; Leviticus 5 outlines the rules for “trespass offerings” and Leviticus 6 does the same for atonement for lying and thievery. Leviticus 7 tells priests how to accept offerings of Thanksgiving and essentially describes the way that priests are to be fed and maintained, which is to say, by the congregation. Significantly, a lot of the rules outlined in all of these chapters seem to do with the actual cooking of foods so as to avoid illness or disease, although that is never explicitly stated. It seems some common-sense rules for hygiene are here steeped in the language of mythology, perhaps to get people to embrace clean eating habits without question. There are also plenty of rules for which animals are “clean” and which are “unclean,” but in this case the language is referring not to literal cleanliness, but what is pure or not, worthy or not, of god’s favor. It’s likely that these rules were designed to distinguish the Jewish people from neighboring tribes and to give them customs of their own, to create a permanent sociocultural identity.
Leviticus 8-10 deal specifically with priestly practices and orders, giving Aaron and his sons as examples of what to do and what not to do. Leviticus 11 lists all the animals that can be eaten (are “clean“) and those that cannot (“unclean”) and, again, the rules seem rather arbitrary. Perhaps nearby tribes liked to eat cows, so the new Israeli priests decided they would do the opposite. Leviticus 12 outlines what women should do after giving birth, and Leviticus 13 explains how priests should treat people who come to them with different diseases.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS:
The Women: After giving birth, women are to be treated as “unclean” for a rather lengthy bit of time. If the child is a boy, the mother is unclean and secluded for 33 days. If the child is a girl, the mother is unclean and secluded for 66 days. In either case, after she’s done her time in seclusion, she then needs to sacrifice an offering to god in order to rejoin society. Who says gender prejudices haven’t been deeply, culturally ingrained for millennia?
Bad Priests: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu decide they are going to honor god in their own way, rather than following the lists and lists of rules they’ve just been given by god via their Uncle Moses. They approach his tabernacle fire with a censer of incense, which is not a sanctioned practice. Their punishment? Execution. Turns out, priests better be sure to know the rules, and follow them!
Funny Food: There are so many rules about animals (for sacrifice and for eating), it seems almost impossible to keep it all straight. This is probably why so many people today, who follow the bible religiously, basically eat whatever they want. Who can keep track? The rules probably were rather arbitrary, as I mentioned above, but here are some stand-outs: Some things that are okay to eat include locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers! Yum! (Lev 11:22). You’ll want to avoid eating tortoise, lizard, and snail, though. Sorry! (Lev 11:29)