Leviticus overview: impossible rules


I started with one anti-Leviticus bias and ended with another. When I was younger I found it the most boring book of the bible.  But this time I was confronted and disturbed by the things offensive to my 20th century sensibilities, and the overall impossibility of the Israelite religious and cultural system. I got quite despairing and questioning of God reading it.

Its God’s rule book for the Israelite religion and society.  When Moses got the 10 commandments, this was the other stuff, the fine print.

Jesus called it “the law”, the thing he came to fulfil and replace. It was the old wineskin which would be burst if his new wine, his message, was poured into it. We’re free from it. You gotta almost pity god’s “chosen” people, given this impossible system to fail against.

That said, there is much beauty in these rules, themes of grace and compassion, justice and fairness run deep and strong. It created social conditions that were far more progressive and fair than the surrounding countries.  Commentators said that Israel became a magnet for immigration among the oppressed, marginalised and poor – which is the background of the story of Ruth, part of the line of David and Jesus.

I took from it that sin matters.  God is very very holy. These impossible rules for a perfect life, adapted to that specific ancient time and place, still show us how impossible we look from God’s perspective: stained, dirty, ruined, failed and dead from the moment we are born.  It is indeed profoundly shocking.

Read Leviticus, if you can stand it, to treasure grace.  Your desperate need, its harsh cost.

Section 1: Types of sacrificial offerings

1 Low expectations: anticipating the bible’s most boring book.
2 Grain offerings. No particular comment
3 Meat offerings. Less nice than grain
4 the value of thinking of sins as bad things we do… means we consider the practical consequences of our actions
5 Sin requires death
6 In which I forgive God for Leviticus
7 Summary of six offering types: burnt, grain, sin, guilt, fellowship, and ordination. Clean is a strong metaphor for holy.

Section 2: Highs and lows – the sacrificial system put into action

8 Something happens: Aaron is made priest (profound forgiveness there)
9 It all comes together: first sacrifice with priest and tabernacle, joy!
10 It goes horribly wrong.  The harsh consequence of God’s holiness helps us understand the size of his love

Section 3: Rules for clean/holy living.  And rules. And rules

11 Dietary rules. Literally serving suggestion only, feel free to ignore.
12 Things that make you unclean = normal life. I fail to understand.
13 Practical rules about infectious skin diseases. Meh.
14 My theory that “unclean” is a metaphor for needing grace
15 Genital emissions, diseased and normal …well at least we’ve moved on from infectious skin diseases. More about grace.

Section 4: Rules for Israelite society – some for now, some forever

16 The scapegoat festival. So much about grace in a book of rules!
17 Kosher meat. I get that the whole system is actually about respecting the meat they are eating. Sacrificial system is not gruesome, its mindful. 
18 Distinctive sexual morality, in which I write and write in circles and give the last word to a transexual woman
19 In love with Leviticus, treatment of the poor and immigrants a picture of practical love that makes our society look primitive
20 Hate Leviticus – treatment of sinners, aka, everyone, brutal and cruel. Aaargh! Leviticus!

Section 5 Rules for priests

21 Rules for priests. This system is designed to fail. By this point, I’m losing it.
22 Contemplating that the levitical system is a form of heaven/garden of eden on earth, perfectionism. My birthday. Ask God to understand. 

Section 6 Festivals, the future, failure and forgiveness

23 Special days like sabbath, and festivals.  We’ve been created to love these!
24 The lamp of God’s presence and stoning blasphemers
25 Jubilee year and fallow fields… progressive approach to property
26 Long term consequences of obeying vs disobeying these rules
27 Redeeming vows… forgiveness and paying the price of failure other ways




Leviticus 27

Redeeming vows.  This whole chapter deals with vows made to God.

So if I got cancer and prayed to God “heal me, and I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to serving you”, and then I was healed, but I didn’t want to actually quit my job and go into full time christian ministry, I could make a prescribed payment to the temple for the value of my life and the vow would be regarded as kept in God’s eyes.

The value calculation is functionally discriminatory, though its pragmatically reflecting a societal fact: the elderly and women have lower economic value to an agrarian society than a fit young male, so are worth less. There is also the gracious provision for financial hardship that runs through all of Leviticus.

This was pretty useful because in ancient Israel, the priesthood was not open to anyone not in the Levite tribe, and people often made vows.

Ditto if you ended up needing an animal that was dedicated to sacrifice, you paid the value of it plus 20% to the temple, and you kept the animal but were right with God.

Ditto promises of land, houses, etc.

They make it quite clear you can’t redeem what is God’s anyway: he owns the harvest tithes and the firstborn livestock. This is totally about voluntary additional tithes

These vows were very common in their culture – we are far more circumspect in my culture, though the passion and emotion these vows demonstrate in their relationship with God is confronting to my own relative coolness. And, we do often do we hear “over my dead body”! and similar things.  I don’t know how many hats I am now due to eat.  Its so accepted that our vows are meaningless they have just become just colourful figures of speech.

Its using economic sanctions to teach the people to be careful with their speech. Don’t promise bigger than you can deliver. Words matter.

Its also a nice element of practical non-perfectionism to end the book on.  Its been all about God’s absolute inflexible standards.  Here, there is a recognition of the ups and downs of passion and regret that humans experience.  The old testament even often talks about God’s vows this way, like people can have him reconsider after he has burned with anger. Noah and Jonah bargain with God over his vows.  Prayer is like this.

Its setting the stage for the big redemption of course. There is a way out.  A debt owed to God can’t just be forgotten, but it can be paid for by another.

Leviticus 26

This chapter talks about the consequences of the Israelites’ behaviour.  The blessings that will come if they are obedient, and the progressively worse disasters that will befall them if they are not. Its pretty much the story of the next 10 or so books of the bible.

I like that the blessings are instant, and repentance is always within reach, but the curses come as a series of ever more serious consequences… slow to anger and quick to bless.

I still practically subscribe to this punishment and reward model in quite a literal way.  Its probably superstitious, theological balderdash.

If I feel guilty about something I have done and have a setback, I think its God punishing me.  I don’t think so much good things are a reward though.  I get that more the other way around: I try do the right thing because I have been blessed. And when they happen unfairly, I say “why god why”.  So every outcome is covered by my spiritualising.  Is such a simple cause and effect real?  Is god real?  If the second question’s answer is “yes”, why not the first, eh?

Anyway from this prediction the sadness and glory of the Old Testament flows.  They will have high highs of gods revelation and blessing, and low lows of his suffering for their ignorance of him.

They will take the promised land, make it great, watch it get corrupted, be thrown out of it and return. They are the chosen race – chosen to exemplify god’s character, and to provide the ancestry for god in human form.  As an earthly imprint of the heavenly pattern they were always an imperfect copy, but the messiah did come through the line.


Leviticus 25

The concept of leaving fields fallow one year in 7. Plus the concept of a jubilee year one year in 50.

These are both systems for breaking down the sense of entitlement that wealth brings over time.

The Lord promises extra harvest in year 6 to cover no harvest in year 7.  Its described as a sabbath for the land. It lends spiritual significance to good agricultural practice.

This is a trust thing and an anti greed thing.  Its acknowledging that it is the Lord who provides wealth, and trusting him to provide because of our obedience, not our efforts. A modern company would have the instinct to treat the extra yield in year 6 as a windfall, and year 7 as an opportunity for growth, but this philosophy is one of sufficiency and sharing, not exploitation of advantages to get ahead.

The Jubilee year has a detailed system that allows a reset of wealth and inequality.  Wealth breeds a sense of entitlement over time, but God’s people are to understand that it comes from God.  This rule breaks the tendency of inequality to increase and become entrenched over time.

I liked the reference by the Lord back to the slavery of Egypt. He’s not going to deliver them from slavery to slavery.  Ingrained social inequality is a modern slavery.

Many rules in Leviticus seem primitive or harsh from the modern perspective. This flips that, we have no modern equivalent of the jubilee year to redistribute property every 50 years.  Property belongs to God. Tell the landed gentry, the real estate investors that.


Leviticus 24


Oil lamps and temple bread. Oil burning is like the spirit of God, his presence… a hang over to high anglican churches which often have lamps in the holy end of the church.

The stoning of a blasphemer. Cursing god is still the unforgiveable sin in jesus teaching, but the stoning bit is gone, fortunately.

I suppose its related to how the system, the religion of Israel is a model of god’s perfect system. The wages of sin are death, jesus said.  For adam and eve, that meant leaving the garden, the presence of god. For the Israelites here it means literal ending of life.

A brutal lesson.

Leviticus 23


Finally a somewhat more sunny chapter, even if it is still all just legislation, rules rules rules. These are the ones about times. It sets up the sabbath, day of rest, and festivals.

Interestingly some of these are called rules forever… an acknowledgment that many of the specific levitical rules will pass away over time.  I was reminded of this hearing Ivanka Trump’s praise of her adopted practise of sabbath. These are some of the rules that have stayed.

I miss not working on sundays, I must say. It was a thing when I was young, but then theology came through that the day of rest was like heaven or something, not literal.  But I used to like the special day idea. I did get nervous and legalistic about it a bit though, I recall as a child worrying about the limits of what I should do.

I wrote a song about colour, about God making the colours and us losing them.  The creation of special moments in our existence is a very spiritual thing, a very human thing, to be cherished. I think the buzz wordy mindfulness movement is a yearning for this spirituality.

Harvest is a time to remember gods goodness. They are reminded to offer the first to god, and leave some in the field for poor and immigrants.

Festival of reconciliation, sounds like the scapegoat day.  Fasting and prayer and a communal meal.

Festival of booths. Seems to be an end of harvest one week holiday.  The booths are little huts they make and stay in for the duration, to remember the time in the wilderness and delivery from egypt.

Gotta love festivals. I was in a cathedral choir when I was young and we always sang this jolly anthem for harvest… still comes to mind.  You visit the earth and bless it, you crown the year with goodness. Simple moment of gratitude from created to creator.


Leviticus 22

Lots more rules about super holiness for priests.  There is an interesting blend of pragmatism and perfectionism.  The ideal is re-creation of eden, no blemishes, no contamination with things deemed unworthy.

If a priest’s daughter marries a non priest for example, she can’t come home for dinner any more because their food is offertory food, she’ll defile it. Perfectionism.

But if she is widowed or alone again, she can move back in. She’s got to eat. These little practicalities, merciful details run through it.

Apparently it was a very popular religion in the ancient world. Judaism grew and was attractive to the poor, outcasts and women – despite its sexist appearance from our perspective, it was a relatively good deal. The moral code was appealing. Its one of the reasons the romans finally destroyed the temple, it was seen as a threat to the empire.

I’m in a bit of a depressed, or at least transitional, state. Birthday. 55, Feeling like I’m facing the latter part of my life.

Father I do accept your law is good. Its hard work picking though these ancient, culturally strange texts. But you are good, I know that.


Leviticus 21

I have advice for young christians.  Don’t ever read Leviticus.  Just don’t bother.

Its not that I don’t get it on some level, this chapter is about priests super duper perfection rules.  Its an attempt to create eden, the pre-fall world, in the fallen world.

So it reads like outrageous discrimination against disabilities, no imperfections in priests – it literally is against short people.

So it reads callous: they are to not show mourning or have anything to do with the dead (some exceptions for family).

But it’s meaning the priests to be like adam, not knowing death, not knowing the curse of creation broken.

Its impossible. Why bother? is the question clamouring at me.  OK, its teaching us that we are fallen, that god is holy.  But why a system designed to fail?

The old testament is profoundly depressing.  It is impossible to read it and not conclude you are less holy than god, indeed you are not holy at all.  The story of it is told repeatedly in excruciating detail.

Humanity is corrupt.  We fail corporately, born into sin, its really not our fault, we don’t stand a chance.

Also, each individual is damned without grace. We personally fall short of God’s plan for us and deserve his wrath.  Sinners, all, through and through, every which way.


Leviticus 20

Aaargh, Leviticus, you are driving me crazy!  This was not put together by anyone with a sense of narrative.  It may have been put together by a rollercoaster designer. This is a really horrible chapter.

Its is full of many many capital offences.  Basically, you breath, you die. We’ve gone from sketching out an anachronistically enlightened society in ch19 to sounding like living under worse than sharia law in ch20.

The first is for giving children to Molech… infanticide and denying God. Sort of OK. Then other occult practises. Sadly as obvious as it sounds, worship of Molech continued. Solomon built a temple to it, and some of the kings gave children to Molech.

Then it goes through all the sexual prohibitions from ch18. And adds a few of the 10 commandments: cursing your mother and father, adultery (all parties executed), incest, homosexuality, bestiality, marrying aunts or uncles, sleeping with your wife while she is menstruating, marrying your brother’s wife (while the brother is alive, presumably? Because marrying a brothers widow was like a welfare obligation, key plot point in Ruth).  And so on.

There are different levels of punishment: sometimes executed, sometimes “cut off from the people” sometimes dying childless.

There is disagreement about what “cut off…” is.The sense of the original is a branch being cut off from a tree. May have meant stoning, may have meant excommunication or could refer to dying young without offspring (which happened to Jesus).  In practice it settled down to being shunned for a while until purification or atonement was done.

There is a vagueness between punishment by God and by people.  Dying childless, god’s doing, execution, done by human hands, cut off from the people, maybe either?

In a sense its saying that it makes no difference. Being god’s people was like being saved. Death at human hands and death by “natural” causes, the curse is death itself.

They are travelling to the promised land, which is already occupied.  Jericho and all that. There will be a lot of death. They won’t be up to the amount of killing required, they mix with the locals and that is their downfall. This is saying that differentiating themselves from the people they left in egypt and the people they will encounter in canaan is incredibly important.

Jews never literally implemented these rules. In practise execution was very rare.

Jesus of course encountered a woman being stoned for adultery, presumably under this law, and said “whoever is guiltless can throw the first stone”, then pronounced forgiveness for her sins.

The message is that we are dead in sin.  The detail is horrible, the theme is horrible. But everyone will face their death.  God is life. Reconciliation is our only chance.





Leviticus 19

Many of these rules are beautiful.

We’ve got equality, fairness, compassion, social welfare, kindness to the disabled, anti-discrimination rules, generally against hate and superstition.

This was radical. We were reminded in the last chapter of the deity Moloch for whom children were apparently sacrificed, this God is not like that. Similarly, it might seem obvious in this chapter to tell parents not to make their daughters prostitutes, but that refers to temple practises of the local religions and was seen as a religious thing to do.  These rules are dramatically different.

Its a picture of a really great society.  Jesus blessed and adopted all this stuff for us when he quoted this chapter and said loving your neighbour one of the two greatest commandments, along with loving god. Love love love, love is all you need. And he told a parable to extend the Israelite concept of neighbour to anyone.

The latter half of the chapter is about not mixing in with the culture, fashion and practices of canaan where they will be settling. This section has the often quoted example of a dumb Leviticus rule, the one about not wearing a shirt with two types of fabric. Those rules seem a lot more arbitrary to us now.  Though the gist of not being a slave to fashion, or taking your cues entirely from the society around you is still relevant to christians.