Do’s and Don’ts
Today we are going to look at an entire book of the Bible instead of an individual verse or story, and that book is Leviticus. Leviticus is likely one of the least-read books of the Bible; anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible from cover to cover can tell you that Genesis and Exodus fly by – it’s when you get to those endless laws that the reading gets slow. Leviticus (and its even less popular companions, Numbers and Deuteronomy) contains the bulk of Jewish law, including laws about food, tattoos, foreigners, fabric, sex, and an entire nausea-inducing section of various bodily fluids and how to deal with them.
For the people of Israel, these laws were of paramount importance: in Joshua 1:8, God commands, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (NIV). For many contemporary Jews, these laws are mandatory. For example, Jews who keep kosher never serve meat and dairy in the same meal – using separate dishes, utensils, and sometimes even kitchens. This practice is based on Deuteronomy 14:21, which says “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (NIV).
For Christians, however, approaching the Old Testament and it's laws can sometimes be confusing. Some people, like author Trevor D. Richardson, argue that the inconsistency and cultural distance of these laws demands they all be thrown out: “How can we pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow? One thing is God’s will and another is just cultural differences? What if it’s all cultural?”
Though Richardson is not a Christian, his criticism raises a legitimate question: how do we decide which laws are situational, and which are for all time? Why are many Christians okay with a woman having sex on her period (Leviticus 18:19) but not gay sex (18:22)? What about laws forbidding tattoos (19:28), mixed fiber fabrics (19:19), or bacon (11:7)?
In Jesus’ day, religious leaders made hundreds of rules that were meant to help people keep the whole law. When secular Jewish writer A. J. Jacobs decided to attempt and obey the Bible for a year, he made lists of rules to follow: he had to attach fringes to the bottom of his clothes, stop trimming the edges of his beard, and yes, avoid mixed fibers. Even then, he constantly fell short of perfect adherence to the law. Reflecting on his experiences in The Year of Living Biblically, he writes, “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion…But the important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se…the key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.”
If we do accept that we have to pick and choose which parts of the law to keep, however, how do we choose? Should we even think of it as choosing, or can we learn how to read the Bible on its own terms? Can Leviticus speak for itself today if we let it speak on it's on terms?
• It's easy to get bogged down in all the details of Leviticus and to think it's just a random collection of laws. The centerpiece of Leviticus is chapter 16. Read through all of Leviticus 16. What is going on here in this chapter? Why is it important? Can you think of other parts of the Bible that might be related to the Day of Atonement?
• Leviticus has a structure. The Day of Atonement in chapters 16 and 17 are the center, while laws about ritual purity, sacrifices, and the priests of Israel make up the other man emphases. Watch this video from the Bible Project. What does this tell you about the purpose of Leviticus?
• RJ Grunewald is one of many writers and theologians who divide Levitical law into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Civil laws (about how to run and govern society in Israel) and ceremonial laws (about how to relate to the rituals of the Hebrew Temple) are specific to time and place, he argues, but moral laws (such as those found in the Ten Commandments) are for all time. How would you determine which laws are ceremonial, civil, or moral?
• That last question may have been tricky and vague, so here is an exercise. Read through Leviticus chapter 19. Do you see civil laws, moral laws, and ceremonial laws contained in here? Can you sort all of them into those three categories, or are there some that don't fit any of them? Are there some laws presented that fit possibly more than one category? How do the laws in Leviticus 19 relate to the 10 commandments? (See Exodus 20 for those)
• How do you respond to people who claim that if you enforce certain rules from Leviticus and not others that you’re being a hypocrite?
• Adventists do not eat the animals listed as unclean in Leviticus 11. Read through the list of these animals. Do you see any reasons in the text as to why certain animals are clean or unclean? If so, what are they? If not, can you think of any reasons?