I’ll be honest. Moving from the familiarity in the Old Testament of Exodus to Leviticus (we read through the Book of Acts in between) in this week’s reading scared the “ebi-jibies” out of me. I read the first few chapters in Leviticus and had to stop — not because I wasn’t comprehending it or that it was boring and tedious. I had to stop because I could not shake the scene with the “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch” from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” out of my head. It’s the scene where a scribe of the priest of the village is reading the instructions from the “Book of Armaments” on how to detonate the “Holy Hand Grenade”. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sorry. For those that do know the scene, I’m sorry for the memory. YouTube has the scene if you’re inclined to understand what’s going through my brain.
It’s a funny scene that hearkens back to the basics of what to do with something that is supposed to be completely self-explanatory. The priest reads from the scroll: “You shall count to ‘three’ and pull the pin from the hand grenade. ‘Three’ shall be the number, the one that succeeds ‘two’ and comes before ‘four’. ‘Three’ shall be the designated number to pull the pin. You shall count thusly, ‘One, two, three’ and pull the pin. You shall count to ‘three’ in succession, without skipping a number. You shall start with ‘one’ and end with ‘three’. You are not allowed to start with three and count backwards to one. That would be a violation…” (I got carried away.) This scene goes on for a few minutes with great repetition and humor.
Here’s another moment of straight honesty — I haven’t spent much time in my life reading Leviticus. I’ve read it. I just don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on it. In order to provide some serious insight to this week’s reading (I’m not sure Monty Python counts as serious or as insight), I consulted The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary. The introduction to Leviticus provided me with some initial fruits for understanding what we will be reading this week and next.
First, the name “Leviticus” comes from the Greek Leuitikon (meaning, “the Levitical book”). All Israelite priests were members of the tribe of Levi. In the Hebrew Bible, the name translated from Hebrew to English is “instruction for the priests” — rules and regulations by which priests will conduct their services — and “instruction of (or by) the priests” — teaching and guidance offered to the people by the priests. The double dimension of the rabbinic title allows us to understand the dual focus of Leviticus: the priesthood is instructed in proper rules for officiating, observing purification, and administering at the sanctuary; but the priests also teach the people what God requires of all Israelites.
According to the introduction to Leviticus from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, the simple structure of Leviticus as a “Priests’ Manual” falls into six parts:
1) laws dealing with sacrifices (chapters 1-7)
2) the consecration of the priests to their offices (chaps. 8-10)
3) laws setting forth the distinction between clean and unclean (chaps 11-15)
4) the ceremony for the annual day of atonement (chap 16)
5) laws to govern Israel’s life as a holy people — called “The Holiness Code” (chaps 17-26)
6) an appendix on religious vows (chap 27)
The New Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to Leviticus continues, “Through the various rituals and laws there breathes the conviction that the holy God ‘tabernacles’ in the midst of the people during their historical pilgrimage (Ex. 40:34-38). The nearness of God not only accentuates the people’s sense of sin but prompts them to seek God in sacrificial services of worship. For, according to the priestly witness, God has provided the means of grace whereby the people, forgiven and restored, may live in the presence of the holy God, avoiding those things that contaminate their health and well-being, and doing those things that make them a holy people, separated for a divine service in the world.”
Given the things we know today about the health of the human body, it is conceivable that “Leviticus for Today” (LfT) might read something like a pamphlet or public health notice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and/or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given Americans’ penchant to become obese, LfT might encourage more exercise, less alcohol consumption and smoking, and a balance of the health foods God provides, and less McDonald’s prepares. If Leviticus is giving direction to the people of Israel about how to avoid those things that contaminate their health and well-being, LfT might give us direction in how to live our lives and help us understand at a deeper level that we are a holy people (collectively and individually) and that God has provided that means of grace by which we might live — forgiven and restored — our whole lives.