Leviticus roots itself in the Priestly tradition that craves order, structure, and ritual in experiencing God’s presence by humans. Leviticus seeks to create a process by which unholy humans can gain access to the Holy we know in God. This book of the Bible is focused on holiness. It seeks to say that if humans can follow these steps, we prepare our hearts, minds, and lives, to encounter the holiness of God and we can experience holiness too. However, this order, structure, and ritual gets passed along as rules, regulations, and laws that inhibit humans from being free to develop the relationship with God we crave even more.
It seems that all of us have a love/hate relationship with rules. Rules maintain order and structure in society; they keep us safe, so rules are good. Rules restrict us from things we think we should be able to do, but others should not; because we are restricted, rules are bad. Leviticus is filled with rules we love to ignore — don’t eat pig (11:7), eat anything from the water, but only if it has fins and scales (11:9), don’t trim the edges of your beard (19:27), don’t get a tattoo (19:28), stand up when someone older enters the room (19:32) — to name a few.
The purity rituals found in Leviticus 11-15 may seem absurd to us today. I was in a conversation with a colleague when she mentioned that many authors, including Anita Diamant, author of the Red Tent, have explored these ancient rituals. The purity of the community, especially in relationship to performing religious rituals was of utmost importance because the ancient Israelites viewed the body and its relationship to the community much differently than we do today. We see ourselves as individuals first and members of a community as secondary. In many ancient cultures, however, there was no distinct self apart from the community, so that when one person was “impure” they were putting not just their own relationship with God in jeopardy but the whole community’s relationship with God at risk. In this way the body was seen as a very important part of the religious life and ritual. In our tradition today the most obvious way we express the importance of the body in religious ritual is through baptism and communion.
In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus the author makes a shift. As the note in the commentary explains, the shift to festivals emphasizes natural and agricultural information. With the precise number of weeks and days mapped out between and during festivals, it’s almost as though the religious community was creating their own kind of Farmer’s Almanac—interfacing the ordinary tasks of an agrarian culture with the mystery of God. How do we celebrate the extraordinary presence of God in the ordinary?
Pay special note to chapter 25, where the author of Leviticus ascribes a system for balancing economic disparities. Redistributing land and setting free slaves every seven years was one way that the Israelites were called to remember their own landlessness in Egypt, keeping the story of captivity and liberation alive in their culture. I believe that captivity and liberation are relevant themes today. In the middle of this presidential election cycle, how are the candidates talking about balancing the disparities we have today in this country? Are these positions consistent with Leviticus or other aspects of the Jewish/Christian tradition? Other than economic disparities, what imbalances shape our world “order” and what suggestions might arise from Leviticus to balance our communities and bring them closer to holiness?