Leviticus 16-18

Good morning! Today’s passage (Leviticus 16-18) begins with a description of an annual atonement ritual, then continues to describe divine laws for the Hebrews to follow. In so doing, Leviticus lays the groundwork to justify later violence against non-Hebrews who break these laws. It proceeds from the assumption (shared by the entire sacrificial system) that violence against creature or human being is appropriate and God-blessed so long as it upholds a distinction between the righteous “us” and the sinful “them”.

Chapter 16 describes the Day of Atonement, one of the most important holidays to Jews even today (though the practices are different now). This is the annual ritual by which all that which is unholy and unclean in the people (separating them from God) is gotten rid of, and unity with God is once more assured. Imagine the awe of Aaron and later high priests, creeping into the Holiest of Holies, fearful of even looking above the altar of the covenant, feverishly putting incense onto coals, so that smoke fills the space and protects him from accidentally seeing God and dying. His responsibility includes actually *touching* the front of the Ark of the Covenant (with God supposedly directly above), so as to anoint it with blood. People gather in silent awe outside, waiting to see incense and other signs that the atonement ritual was going okay (rather like the white smoke that goes up from the Vatican, signaling the election of a new pope). The goat who is left alive but carries all the sins of the people into the wilderness for Azazel (which means “absolute removal”) is where we get the term “scapegoat”, for one who bears the guilt of others.

Leviticus 17 attempts to enhance the importance of tabernacle/temple sacrifice by forbidding the ritual slaughter of animals anywhere else. Centralizing the sacrificial system (and thereby increasing the influence of the priests) is an effort to reduce unsanctioned sacrifices that could be to deities other than the Hebrew God. This will be an ongoing process, and we’ll see debates about the proper places to make sacrifice throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The prohibition against eating blood continues a covenant first established with Noah in early Genesis while reinforcing that blood is sacred and mysterious, thereby heightening the impact of what happens at the tabernacle (and nowhere else).

Laws around sexual relations in Leviticus 18 begin with a clear statement of purpose. These laws are given so that the people will be distinct from the Egyptians, the Canaanites, or anyone else. For this reason, observant Hebrews are to maintain modesty rather than nakedness. Leviticus 18:18 prohibits a man taking two sisters as wives—opposing what Jacob did in Genesis with Leah and Rachel, for instance. This reveals evolution toward what will later be a preference for monogamy. Brief prohibitions also follow against idolatrous child sacrifice, male homosexuality, and bestiality. All these commands exist to set the people apart from “the nations”. “We” behave in such-and-such ways, while “they” anger our God when they do thus-and-so. According to this worldview, the people of Canaan who will be supplanted by the people of Israel (through divinely-sanctioned slaughter of men, women, children and animals) deserve their fate because they break commandments such as these.

I understand the attraction of “us”/”them” theology, particularly for a people who feel oppressed and isolated. Having emerged from Egypt with divine help but with little sense of themselves other than as ex-slaves, the Hebrews may well have needed clear distinctions to help define what it meant to follow this God and no other. Behaviors that are followed or forbidden form clear and visible boundaries which unify those on the “inside”. Such dynamics are natural to human existence. Every group from the Amish to the Irish has insider-outsider distinctions, which help to create identity even as they cast some level of suspicion on those who are “not us”.

That said, God continues to draw the circle of belonging ever wider, eventually embracing all the world. Leviticus is not the final word when set alongside other parts of the Bible, where God claims foreigners as also God’s people, and works salvation through “outsiders”. Those stories of the Bible continue to resonate for me as true and God-inspired Scripture, while this thread of theology feels more like a cautionary tale of what happens when the boundaries of holiness take on more importance than the humanity of those on the “outside”. Furthermore, misplaced reverence for this way of thinking remains dangerous, as we see when Leviticus 18:22 is used to justify capital punishment against LGBT people in Uganda and homophobic violence in the United States. Such foul and deadly behavior seeks to maintain “us”/”them” distinctions today as it did in ancient times, but this is not the will of the God who gives us loving examples of David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi, and who appears as Jesus Christ to declare (quoting the Torah) that the whole point of the commandments is love for God, neighbor and self. I’m glad that most Jews and Christians today have found better ways to define our faiths.

We consider such passages of the Bible in order to understand rather than to agree. Our wrestling—like that of Jacob’s throughout the night—continues until we receive blessing. In this way, the struggle for authentic knowledge of God remains dynamic and alive. Happy reading!

Read Leviticus 16-18.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Leviticus 19-20. Thanks for reading!

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