Kudos to anyone who has ever sat down with the Book of Leviticus, intent on reading the entire thing, start to finish. Whoah! But first, an admission of my frailty- I have only just begun. I’m speeding up quickly and expect to be back on track with the ‘Bible in a Year’ group within a week, but the build up to Ash Wednesday, and the nuttiness that is January/February at the church, simply overcame me.
That said, I am pleasantly surprised by my own experience of this particular discipline- reading the Bible from front to back. I feel like I’ve had my nose up to the canvas of an important painting and now have now stepped far enough away to be able to contemplate the entire picture, not simply the brush strokes and detail work of a tiny square of the painting.
As I’ve said in earlier posts, it may seem the obvious way to read the Bible, but it’s not like starting a novel on page 1 and moving onwards. The Bible, as Peter Gomes puts it, is not a book so much as it is a library of books. There is some narrative continuity, of course, but then there are the roadblocks, the concentration killers like Leviticus, that make us question this entire endeavor. What the heck is Leviticus talking about? Why is it important to us? And why is it smack in the middle of the Pentateuch, the beating heart of Hebrew Scripture? (And perhaps, most importantly- can’t we just skip it?)
Well, let me try to answer these questions with as much expediency as possible (because you and I both need to get our heads back in the Bible). You would be correct to call the Book of Leviticus a priestly instruction manual. It was written by and for the priestly cult practicing early Judaism in Babylonia, after the destruction of the Temple and great exile from Jerusalem in the middle of the sixth century BCE. Their world had been destroyed, uprooted, transplanted. The Temple, the place of God’s dwelling, the central location of their religion, had been smashed to bits. Judaism, at the time, was still centrally focused on animal sacrifice- burnt offerings to God for just about every human condition and every human season.
Now in Babylonia, the priestly cult set about infusing the slowly evolving book that has become Hebrew Scripture (or the Old Testament, though these are not exactly interchangeable terms) with their cosmic view. It’s already happening in Genesis (the orderly Creation narrative) and Exodus (the detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle), and now it’s in full force. In the middle of the Pentateuch, we have a manual of cultic instruction that lifts up the Priestly concerns about order, division, and purity.
We’re not going to turn to Leviticus in moments of despair, looking for a message of hope. We’re not going to read it much in worship, either. It will take a back seat to other biblical books. But it is important. For one thing, certain verses have been used by particular communities as ‘proof’ of how God thinks about certain things (I will address this in a separate post). So, it is in our best interest to understand broadly what is going on in this book, even if we will never understand much of the minutiae. Even if Leviticus does not come into our normal rotation of favorite passages, it’s worth reading all the way through, at least once.
Here is my favorite paragraph about Leviticus from Robert Alter:
There is very little scholarship that “really mitigates the sense of strangeness that people of our own era are likely to feel in reading Leviticus. The preoccupation with dermatological conditions, genital discharges, mildew, the recipes for fritters and breads used in the cult, and the dissection of animals and the distinctions among their various inner organs does not correspond to modern assumptions about the content of great sacred literature.
“Nevertheless, all these regulations are reflections of a pervasive spiritual seriousness grounded in a comprehensive, coherent conception of reality… Holiness could be achieved, and had to be protected, only by a constant confirmation of hierarchical distinction, by laying out reality in distinct realms and categories separated by barricades of prohibitions.”