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 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 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 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.


Leviticus 15

At the end of ch14 it said that it was the end of rules about infectious skin diseases, and I thought “well that’s a relief”.  So to genital emissions, male and female, normal and abnormal. Sigh.

There is a public health element blended with spiritual metaphors.  So we have periods of quarantine and cleaning where there are diseased emissions.  But we also have shorter and more minor times of uncleanliness for normal reproductive emissions, semen and menstruation.

I’ve been contemplating the element of equal opportunity here.  Both men and women are made unclean for God by reproductive emissions, but women are unclean longer. The rest of the day for men (and women if they get the semen on them) and 5 days for women (and men if they get the blood on them).

Thing is, men have emissions more often, multiple times a week.  So perhaps as a percentage of time being spent unclean, from a practical point of view, its about equal.

Some have argued the menstruation rule is an early recognition of women’s period pain and quite progressive in full social context… I don’t know about that.

On balance, it does blunt the misogyny accusation somewhat, particularly the parallel structure of the chapter, male and female rules alongside each other, its quite striking.

It also clear that none of it is individually blameworthy, Jesus said we are born into sin.  To me this is a recognition of that, by saying that human reproduction is not the way of producing rightness with god, only gods cleansing intervention can do that.

Rather than pointing fingers at groups: at foreigners, criminals, men, women, sick, well etc. its actually saying actually dramatically and emphatically of course you need God’s cleansing grace, all of you. None is right before God.   





Leviticus 11

And… dietary rules.  Rather a jarring progression from the death in the last chapter, but here we are.

There really isn’t much scientific basis to the rules, though the pork restriction, for example, it did protect them from some parasites that we don’t see much any more.  Careful cooking also can fix it.

I read the wikipedia article on the modern “leviticus diet” based on all this which appears to have been a sham scheme to sell branded supplements and viewed dubiously by nutritionalists.  Its not a bad diet, its just that a number of the restrictions don’t necessarily add to its health properties.

Its about obedience, being set apart, external and self discipline, pure and simple, I think. And of course for christians the idea of adopting a leviticus diet doesn’t really jibe with the vision of Paul where God invited him to eat all the “unclean” stuff, which he later turned into his “eat whatever, as long as you don’t offend people” advice.

Exodus 36

The construction work of god’s super fancy tent is described in living detail, every measurement, every material every design feature.

Plus the adorable story that they had to command the people to stop bringing materials for the project, there was an over abundance of generosity and enthusiasm for the project. It’s a community job of pure joy.

How well god knew the human psychology when he gave them this task.

Exodus 32

Devastatingly hard chapter. Aaron who was to serve the consecrated role of priest totally blew it. Made a gold statue of a calf for them to worship, a religious service that appears to have been an excuse for a raging debauched party.

And Moses’ response. 1000 people died that day, Israelites raising swords against each other. 

It’s hard to understand that god’s concerns for us are matters of life and death. Though we accept that everyone does die, for us to life is inevitably a prelude to death.  Not so god. 

For him it is not so much about the length of the span of years: 90 years merciful, 50 less so, 20 or less unfair.  But more removing the failure and sin that makes us need to die at all.

This is the merciful version. God wanted to destroy the lot and start again with just Moses, but Moses pleaded with him for mercy, and he relented. People got to choose. And a number choose not to repent, not to stand with Moses.

There is for me a black humour in the familiar lameness of Aaron’s excuses. The people made me do it? The golden calf just emerged from the molten gold; really?

But my sin, my sin, why don’t I deserve to die. I do. 

God is very very holy. Ashamed survivor guilt right now.

Exodus 17

 Victory over attackers – for precisely as long as Moses’ arms are lifted to God. Water from rock.

In genesis, after god did the biggest things: creation, the flood; he interacted on an intimate level, guiding and blessing individuals and families. Nurturing family trees.

In exodus he’s present daily, every moment forming a whole nation. You wince at their disloyalty when they complain of being thirsty, however they have given God 100% of their trust. They’ve wandered into the desert with no reliance on themselves for sustenance or planning. When do we ever do that? 

I remember Larry Norman once talked about how easy it is to say you have faith in God as long as you have enough for a big Mac in your pocket.

Every physical act God does doubles as a powerful metaphor of his character for the ages. Freedom from slavery. Daily bread. 

Today water from rock. One of my favourite phrases for God is “author of life”. The abundance, essential for life, flowing from dry stone at the touch of God. After a week of death, remembering that God’s is life.