Sunday, January 16, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Leviticus

This book is a stylistic departure from the previous two books of the Old Testament, because it was written for a different purpose. Genesis and Exodus are narratives, telling the stories of various people, but Leviticus is mainly a rulebook from God to the Israelites. In any society, there's always Things You Don't Do and Things to Deter You From Doing Them Anyway, so in Leviticus, God is building on to the ten commandments and setting up intricate laws to establish a certain lifestyle for his people. There's a complicated thing going on where the sacrifices and burnt offerings aren't just payment for wrongdoing (like a speeding ticket), but are a substitution of sorts where the animal being sacrificed symbolically takes on the sins of the person offering it. It's another one of those things I'm glad I don't have to do. Ever. The people who are assigned to perform these sacrifices are priests from the tribe of Levi, which is where the title of Leviticus comes from.

The interesting thing about the Levites is that, though they have a very special job and take care of the tabernacle and holy things like the ark of the covenant, their tribe had a rocky past. In the next-to-last chapter of Genesis, Jacob talked about what would happen to his sons and their descendants in the future, and Levi, the third son of Jacob, basically gets cursed along with his brother Simeon for their cruelty and anger. But then Moses, the deliverer, comes from the tribe of Levi, so that shows that the tribe is capable of producing great heroes. Still, the Levites being the people who have to butcher animals on a regular basis does seem to be connected with Jacob's words at the end of Genesis, so I'm really not sure if there's some sort of punishment element worked in there with the honor and responsibility of priestly duties.

The possible sacrifices are extensive: Burnt offerings (cattle, sheep, goats, doves, pigeons), grain offerings (flour and oil, raw or cooked), firstfruits offerings (corn), peace offerings, sin offerings, the offering if one person sins out of ignorance, the offering if the whole nation of Israel sins out of ignorance, and many, many more, all with very specific instructions for how the sacrifices work and what they involve. The first 7 chapters go over all of this.

Then Aaron (Moses' brother, and the new high priest) offers some of the sacrifices and in chapter 11, the food laws begin, detailing what is and isn't kosher, pretty much. The next chapters deal with how to handle leprosy, who can marry whom, establishing feasts and sabbaths, and plenty of other laws. God says if the Israelites follow these rules, he'll bless them and everything will go well for them, and if they don't, horrible things will happen. In the history of Israel, the latter seems to happen more often than the former. This is partly because the laws are so extensive, they're nearly impossible to keep, and partly because even if someone keeps the laws, their heart could still be harboring anger or unforgiveness, or other evil thoughts. Even at this point, its clear that the standards of holiness that God sets forth aren't anything that humans can live up to.


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