Leviticus 10-11

Good morning! We have two more chapters of Leviticus today, and these are ones we may find challenging to keep as divinely-inspired “Scripture” rather than simply literary relics of an earlier time. Leviticus 10-11 confronts us again with the distance between (one version of) ancient Hebrew spirituality and our own understandings.

Chapter 10 describes the deadly divine retribution against Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu for their mistaken incense offering, and that occasion’s impact on the leadership of Aaron and Moses. The incident shows the importance of following the divine sacrificial formula exactly (as a chemist would) to avoid getting blown up, but elicits in me a major “UGH”. Those who first wrote this story may have intended that it elicit emotions “full of awe” at God’s power, but to us it sounds simply “awful”. The similarity between those words is a reminder that God will never be domesticated, and does not always act according to our wishes. That said, I’m worn out by stories where divine vengeance is such a disproportionate response to human error. Here’s when it’s helpful to remember that these are stories about how folks assumed God to act, not that God really acts in such a capricious way now (and I hope never did).

Moses seems absolutely uncaring to his brother-in-law, with a response that amounts to “I hope you’ve all learned a very important lesson by this”. Aaron’s silence speaks volumes. The whole people lament what’s happened to Nadab and Abihu, but by virtue of their profession Aaron and his sons have to maintain (literal) distance. Moses’ rigidity in obedience sets a troubling example for thousands of religious leaders over the ages who have chosen doctrines over people, even though he was perhaps trying to communicate a sense of the wholly otherness of God. Aaron’s explanation of why the sin-offering rules weren’t followed later in the day (because of grief) seems to soften Moses’ heart.

Leviticus 11 lays out various laws about clean and unclean animals. They seem arbitrary and culture-bound, although some scholars have proposed physiological reasons for some of these laws (pork spoils faster than beef, etc). In 11:13 we again have the term “abomination”, here used to describe birds that are not to be eaten. As in chapter 7, the term means something along the lines of “not clean” or “not something WE do”. As with all such laws, that which Hebrews once regarded as unclean or an “abomination” may or may not keep that status among people of faith today. We have learned (often through different parts of the Bible) to let our religious doctrines be informed by other human concerns alongside “because the Bible says so”. The various rules here give evidence of ancient assumptions, such as that waiting a certain amount of time can restore cleanness (consider it a reversal of “the ten-second rule”), or that earthen pottery held impurities more than bronze or other metal containers (quite possibly true). This may all seem arbitrary, but the chapter’s purpose is summarized at the end: “to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean”, so that by maintaining cleanliness and right order, the ancient Hebrews can maintain their sense of relationship with the Divine. As God commands in 11:45, “you shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Read Leviticus 10-11.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Leviticus 12-13. Thanks for reading!

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