Please forgive me if I take a moment of personal privilege to publicly pat myself on the back for – finishing Leviticus! I have spent the past three hours on a lumpy couch in my local coffee shop, plodding through the text, verse by verse. Yes, it was tedious. Yes, it was discomforting and disturbing. Yes, it was enlightening. Yes, it was exhilarating! But, please, please, please, do not quiz me on what I just read. While I have a drastically improved sense of the book, I could not tell you, with any confidence, the difference between an offense offering, a communion offering, or a votive offering.
If you have three hours to devote to coffee-shop couch-sitting, I highly recommend it. If you do NOT have three hours, let me offer you a shortcut. I offer this shortcut because I do not want you to be deterred from this project. Or, if you are stopping by this blog for the first time, I do not want to hit you with any guilt about what you ‘must’ read in Scripture to be considered a well-informed, faithful Christian. I just don’t think it works that way.
Here it is:
Read Chapters 19 and 26. Chapter 19 is devoted to issues of social justice, and much of its content will sound familiar to you. It is interspersed, be warned, with some difficult text. Overall, it will give you a sense of the ethical imperatives of the Israelite community.
Though Leviticus has 27 chapters, chapter 26 makes more sense as a conclusion to the book (many interpreters consider chapter 27 to be an appendix). Chapter 26 addresses the blessing and curse of God’s covenant with the people Israel. If God’s people do as God commands, life will overflow with blessings. But if the Israelites should forego the covenant, life will be miserable. However, even in the midst of the atrocities rained upon an unfaithful people, there is God’s promise to restore them if they turn back to God. This theme of covenant broken and restored will resurface as our reading continues.
Remember that Leviticus was constructed, in some ways, as a cultic manual for the priesthood. And for the priestly circle, boundaries were of the utmost importance. So it is that we have so many lists and prohibitions, separating clean from unclean, and pure from impure. Creation itself was seen as the process of making order out of chaos. Without rules and restriction, prescriptions and proscriptions, the covenantal community might too easily resemble the communities which had NOT received a covenant with God; might even be assimilated with other communities and lose their identity. And here is another central theme of the Old Testament- the Israelite people are decidedly NOT like other people. And the differences were highlighted, codified and enforced. We modern people get ourselves into lots and lots of trouble if we read Leviticus without a commitment to understanding this important context.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the verses most commonly cited from the Old Testament of “proof” that God, or The Bible, condemns homosexuality. That is a presumptuous and inaccurate conclusion. For those who would like to read more about this particularly difficult issue, I will refer you to some well-regarded resources that can be found here.