March 31, 2007

Leviticus 26-27: Why are we doing this, again?

Today's reading is Leviticus 26-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers rewards for obedience, punishment for disobedience, and how to redeem things given over to the Lord.

Today we're going to talk about one of the main reasons Christians and Jews can never seem to understand each other.

The book of Leviticus is, essentially, a law code. Throughout the book, we are told about things to do, things to avoid, and the specific punishments that will descend upon those who don't follow particular rules. The punishments thus far have tended to be severe, generally death or excommunication. However, they have also tended to relate to specific sins: death for blaspheming against God, for example.

Leviticus 26, however, presents us with a summary of the rewards given to the obedient and the punishments received by the disobedient. It talks about the laws in general, not any one in particular. It is almost as though God, in the form of a mafia capo, put a hand on the Israelites' collective shoulder and said, "here's how this is gonna work."

If this chapter were written by a Christian, this is where we would expect to see a discussion of salvation and damnation. For the obedient: salvation in heaven, angels with wings, and eternal bliss in the presence of God. For the sinner: fire, brimstone, and rivers of molten lava. Even from its earliest days, Christianity was focused on the world-to-come and the afterlife. Christians focus on the first and second comings of Christ and the world that awaits them after their deaths. In short, Christians would expect Lev. 26 to be all about the afterlife.

This is a shame, because Lev. 26 contains nothing of the sort.

Like the Christian conception, Lev. 26 is a carrot-and-stick argument: rewards for those who follow God's laws, punishments for those who don't. But the content of these rewards and punishments is entirely different.

The rewards are listed first, in verses 3-13. Among them: long growing seasons (verse 5), no attacks by wild beasts or enemies (6), military conquest over enemies (7-8), many children (9), and abundant crops (10). The punishments, listed in verses 14-39, are equally worldly: disease (17, 25), poor crop yields (17, 19-20), conquest by enemies (18, 25), attacks by wild beasts (22), destruction of temples, cities, and land (30-31), diaspora among the conquering heathen nations while Israelite land lies desolate (33-35), and cowardice in battle (36-37).

Looking over this list once or twice, we realize that all these consequences are fundamentally this-worldly. They are consequences that the Israelites would understand well. In addition to being Pharaoh's servants in Egypt, they were likely also farmers, and understood the necessity for abundant crops and long growing seasons. As a nation about to conquer the nations in Canaan, they wanted swift victories and courage. Every pre-industrial society needed to be on guard against wild animal attacks and disease outbursts. (Some would say that even modern societies are similarly afflicted.) In short, all these consequences were perfectly understandable, even to an ancient nation. "Follow my laws," God says, "or I will bring about consequences that will affect you now, in this life."

This is a capsule summary of the Jewish attitude towards reward an punishment. Jews follow God's laws in expectation of this-worldly rewards. They do as the Bible commands, not in expectation of basking in God's presence after death, but in the hopes of material rewards in this life. In fact, the entire Jewish concept of an afterlife is poorly developed and of little importance.

To Christians, this entire attitude is antithetical to their own opinions about universal justice. Christians, especially beginning the Middle Ages, were told to view economic hardships as a test of endurance. If they could live in their peasant status under horrid conditions, exploitation by their lords, and poverty, they would be all the more accepted into heaven. The Christian values of humility, meekness, and submission to those in authority are all ways of anticipating the afterlife. Things may be bad now, but they'll be wonderful in the world to come. On the other hand, Christians often view those with great material wealth with suspicion, taking as a guide Jesus' proverb that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to attain the kingdom of God. (paraphrased from Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25)

In Judaism, just the opposite is true. Material wealth means that the individual has followed God's laws and thus received his material reward. Job, when he finally submits to God and reaffirms his commitment to follow God's laws, is given massive wealth. (Job 42:10-17) Poverty, far from being a test of endurance and faith, is a sign of failure to follow God's commandments.

More importantly, however, in Judaism material wealth or lack is not seen as a sign of things to come, but a sign of things that have already been. They are a consequence of previous actions, not a trial for eventual rewards. To reiterate one more time: Jews focus on this life; Christians focus on the afterlife.

This is probably the second-biggest difference between Christian and Jewish attitudes. (The first, of course, is that Christians believe Jesus was the son of God who died to redeem the souls of mankind, while Jews do not believe this.) It is the reason so many Christians are faced with blank looks when they ask Jews about their conception of heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Quite frankly, it doesn't really matter to Jews. Jews work for success in this world, not the next one. It is also the reason most Jews aren't phased by the idea of fire, brimstone, and rivers of molten lava. Jews, at least those who have read Lev. 26, know what awaits the sinners, and they don't need to wait long to get it, either. Perhaps, after a few decades of famine, plague, and conquest, a boring afterlife would be a welcome change for sinners. And Jews were confident knowing that God lived among them in this life (Lev. 26:11-12); they didn't need to wait until the next one.

March 30, 2007

Breadcrumb: A whole year off!

According to Lev. 25:1-7, every seventh year the land must lie fallow. In other words, the Israelites were not allowed to sow the fields or prune the vineyards. They could eat whatever the land produced naturally, but not actually plant anything. But don't worry about food: God assured the Israelites that despite the minor setback of not actually planting any food, the food would be there anyway. (Lev. 25:20-22) Somehow, I suspect if I were an Israelite, I would not necessarily feel reassured.

Breadcrumb: Glad it wasn't me

Lev. 24:10-23 describes a man, the son of an Israelite woman but Egyptian father, who cursed God while fighting with an Israelite man. The Hebrews put him in custody and, after a brief consultation with God, stoned him. Furthermore, God insists that all blasphemers must be stoned, both strangers and those of their own country. (See yesterday's essay for more on this.) All I can say is: I'm glad we live in more enlightened times, when I can swear in the name of the lord as much as I like. If we still stoned blasphemers, we shortly wouldn't have any North Americans left to do the stoning.

March 28, 2007

Leviticus 24-25: Double standards

Today's reading is Leviticus 24-25 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers instructions for the oil and bread given to God; an account of the stoning of a blasphemer; and rules for sabbath years and jubilee years.

Those tight-fisted, usurious Jews! They'll lend you money and then expect a pound of flesh in return, just like Shakespeare's Shylock! Outrageous! Do they really think they're allowed to do that?

The short answer is, frankly, "yes, so long as the borrower isn't a Jew."

Lev. 25 introduces us to a double-standard that exists within the Bible, and one which might be worth considering for a few moments. The long answer to the question above is somewhat more complicated and deserves elaboration. Lev. 25:35-38 exhorts the Israelites to help their brother Israelites who have fallen on hard times, and commands them not to exact usury from them. Some would say this is a noble and fine sentiment, and I would be inclined to agree with them.

However, the corollary to this commandment is that there is no such commandment against non-Israelites. The text is at least tacitly allowing Israelites to exact usury from members of other nations.

I have mentioned in previous essays the Biblical exhortation to be kind to strangers living among the Israelites. Ex. 22:2, 23:9, and Lev. 19:33 command the Israelites not to vex or oppress strangers. Lev. 19:10 and 23:22 tell them to leave the gleanings of the vineyard and field for the poor and strangers. Finally, what seems to be unequivocal proof of this statement is in Lev. 19:34: "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (KJV)

Furthermore, there are many instances in the text where strangers and those who are native-born must submit to the same laws. Ex. 12:19 relates that the commandment not to eat leavened bread during the passover must be obeyed by both "stranger, or born in the land." Ex. 23:12 insists that everyone, even the stranger, must rest on the Sabbath. According to Lev. 16:29, both the strangers and "one of your own country" (KJV) must obey the Day of Atonement. Lev. 18:26, speaking about sexual crimes, also applies to both strangers and "your own nation" (KJV). There are other, similar examples throughout the text.

Yet Lev. 25 suddenly brings in a double-standard. Verses 35-38 imply that Israelites may exact usury from non-Israelites. Verses 44-46 insist that any slaves (NIV) or bondmen and bondmaids (KJV) must be from other nations, not Israelites. Israelite servants go free during the Jubilee year, every 50 years, even if they are sold to non-Israelites. (Lev. 25:39-43; 25:47-55) Non-Israelites, however, may be perpetual, inherited slaves. (Lev. 25:46)

How can we reconcile the difference between the command to treat strangers well and possibly even by the same laws as Israelites, but at the same time shows less respect for their property and even their lives? We have a few options:

First, we can assume that the strangers referred to throughout the text are, in fact, Israelite strangers. Certainly some Hebrews must have moved between cities or tribes, and thus would be considered a stranger in their new home, even though they were of the people. A stranger need not be a foreigner.

While this interpretation is compelling and solves many problems, there are a few hints within the text that it might not be true. Lev. 16:29, quoted above, contrasts strangers to those born "of your own country." It seems to me that "country" consists of all Israel, not just an individual tribe. If the laws for obeying the Day of Atonement include both Israelites and non-Israelites living within Israelite borders, then "strangers," used elsewhere, may also include these people.

Another way we can try to reconcile the two attitudes is to accept that non-Israelites living within Israelite lands may have been second-class citizens. The Hebrews were told not to oppress them too much, and these non-natives would be forced to observe certain laws of the land in which they lived. However, there is a long way in the ancient mind between oppression and usury, and even between oppression and slavery. In the ancient Mediterranean, slavery was common. The Hebrews may simply have concluded that if they must have slaves, at least they shouldn't be from their own people.

Approached this way, the situation may have been similar to Christians and Jews living under some Islamic nations in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. These were "people of the book" and therefore not forced to immediately convert. On the other hand, they lived under Muslim law and needed to pay special taxes to their Muslim leaders. The condition of non-Israelites living in Hebrew Canaan in Biblical times may have been similar.

What does this mean, in the end? Perhaps to the ancient Israelites, borrowing a phrase, "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." The strangers needed to follow their rules, and wouldn't be oppressed too much. But when push came to shove, the Israelites knew where to look to make a little extra money. This might be one reason Jews got such a bad reputation during the Middle Ages, when practically every job was prohibited to them except lending money. And, of course, this is why the Jews now control the world, as conspiracy theorists never cease to remind us.

[author's note: Please keep in mind that I am, in fact, Jewish. All jibes against modern Jews are meant to be purely tongue-in-cheek. Please don't hurt me.]

March 27, 2007

Breadcrumb: This year with designer leaves!

During the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, the Israelites were commanded to live in booths for seven days (Lev. 23:42-43). While there are many rabbinic laws for what, exactly, constitutes these booths (or Sukkahs), the short version is that they are temporary structures with at least two and a half walls, and roofs made of a material that grew from the ground and was cut, like tree branches or sticks. Today, Sukkahs are often decorated, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve sticking pieces of fruit and other decorations to the walls of my family's Sukkah. However, living in Canada, we did not actually sleep in it. There is a fine line between religious observance and hypothermia.

March 26, 2007

Breadcrumb: Food for the whole family

In Lev. 22:10-13, we learn that a priest's entire family may eat of the sacrificial offerings. Hired servants could not eat it, but bought servants could. Daughters married off to strangers could not, but widowed or divorced daughters living in her father's house could. In other words, anyone permanently living with the priest was allowed to eat it. In an earlier Breadcrumb, I bemoaned the fate of the priest's daughters, who would undoubtedly starve because only the priest's sons could eat sacrificial offerings. I am glad here to correct myself and note that priestly daughters would not starve to death on a regular basis.

March 25, 2007

Leviticus 22-23: Once a week wasn't enough

Today's reading is Leviticus 22-23 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers further rules for priests, what constitutes an unacceptable offering, and a catalogue of the holidays the Israelites were expected to observe.

Pop quiz: what's the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar? If you guessed Chanukah, please pick up your Bible right now and flip to Lev. 23, which lists the holidays of the ancient Israelites. Note that Chanukah is not on the list. While Chanukah is the best-known Jewish holiday to gentiles, it is not one of the holidays passed down in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). In fact, we have a list here of five holidays which could all be considered more important than the "Jewish Christmas." (Another misconception, incidentally, as Chanukah has absolutely nothing to do with the Christ.)

What are these five holidays, I hear my readers asking. They are:
- the Passover (Lev. 23:4-8)
- the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-22)
- the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Hashana (Lev. 23:23-25)
- the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur (Lev. 23:26-32)
- the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot (Lev. 23:33-36 and 23:39-43)

Instead of devoting an entire essay to a glorified summary, I would like to look at two common features listed in all these holidays. The first is sacrifice. It shouldn't be a surprise, given how much space in Leviticus is devoted to laws regarding sacrifices, that each of the most important holidays on the calendar is marked by sacrifices and offerings. In fact, Lev. 23:37-38, summarizing the chapter, read as follows in the NIV:
(37) These are the LORD's appointed feasts, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies for bringing offerings made to the LORD by fire—the burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings required for each day. (38) These offerings are in addition to those for the LORD's Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts and whatever you have vowed and all the freewill offerings you give to the LORD.

It seems, reading this passage, that the holidays exist for the sole purpose of giving sacrifices to God!

Generally, the sacrifices are of grains or animals. The Passover has a burnt offering (Lev. 23:8), as does Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:25), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:36). The Feast of Weeks is even more precise, listing the required animals and grains: two loaves of flour, seven yearling lambs, one bullock, and two rams as a burnt offering; a kid goat for a sin offering; and two yearling lambs for peace offerings. (Lev. 23:17-19)

Living as we are in the days after the destruction of the Temple, Israelites today (ie: Jews) cannot offer these sacrifices. There is no longer a high priest of the Hebrews, and nowhere for him to receive them, even if there were. Despite the precision of the text, these laws are moot today.

On the other hand, there is another unifying feature of the holidays, which is that no Hebrew could do work during them. This is a common commandment and applies to the first and seventh day of Passover (Lev. 23:7-8), the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:21), the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:25), and the first and eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:35-36). The laws regarding the Day of Atonement go so far as to say that anyone who does work during that holiday, "the same soul will I destroy from among his people." (Lev. 23:30, KJV) Clearly, this was not the sort of law a prudent Israelite should ignore.

This commandment not to work should be familiar to anyone who knows the laws of the Sabbath, which also outlaws working. In fact, there is a reminder in this very chapter that the Israelites must not work on the Sabbath, either. (Lev. 23:3) What this meant, therefore, is that in addition to their weekly rest days, the Israelites also had seven extra feast days every year. Decadent! Compared to their servile existence in Egypt, this calendar of holidays must have seemed the height of luxury.

To this day, observant Jews do not work on the aforementioned holidays. Unlike the requirement for sacrifices, which can no longer be applied, the proscription against work can still be upheld today.

However, the two commandments -- to offer sacrifices and to abstain from work -- were clearly meant to complement each other. On the one hand, the Israelites did not work to further their own position. On the other, they brought sacrifices to glorify God. They were, essentially, neglecting their own estates to enhance God's. They had a weekly reminder during the Sabbaths, and an occasional further reminder during the holidays, that everything they had was due to God's intervention. A Christian might say they were shifting their focus from the material world to the celestial one, from the transitory to the eternal. Of course, Christians do not celebrate these holidays, but the sentiment remains.

What can we learn from this chapter? First of all, be grateful if you happen not to be a farmer and therefore don't have a plentiful supply of animals for offerings. Next, rejoice that if you follow the Bible, you have so many holidays in which you can relax. And finally, once more for good measure, Chanukah is not an important Jewish holiday.

March 19, 2007

Breadcrumb: No vacation plan

It turns out that according to Lev. 21:10-12, the high priest of the Israelites was not allowed to leave the sanctuary of God. While he had a great job, full of prestige and responsibility, there was no chance to go explore the world beyond the courtyard. It's almost as if the U.S. president needed to live in the whitehouse for his entire life once he was sworn in. On the other hand, while the Israelites were travelling in the desert for 40 years, the high priest may have seen quite a bit, provided he liked sand.

March 18, 2007

Breadcrumb: You call that a punishment?

We've established in previous Breadcrumbs that many people in the Bible considered their children to be their most valuable possessions. In Lev. 20:20-21, we read that the punishment for sleeping with your uncle's wife or your brother's wife is that you will both die childless. Apparently children were so important that to die without them was considered a punishment worthy of putting in a chapter where three-quarters of the sins result in death, and the rest result in excommunication. And to think that today, some people are childless by choice.

March 17, 2007

Leviticus 19-21: It didn't fit anywhere else

Today's reading is Leviticus 19-21 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers a whole bunch of random laws; punishments for breaking some (mostly sexual) commandments; and the beginning of rules for priests.

There have been times, when I have been writing essays, that I come to the end and find myself with a mish-mash of random notes I'd intended to use but for various reasons couldn't. Usually when I reach this point, I shove the notes into an unused file on my computer and promptly forget about them. If I'm feeling particularly industrious, or if I think that the notes are particularly important, I might create an appendix and put them there.

This is relevant because Lev. 19 reads like exactly such an appendix.

Lev. 19 is a collection of laws, mostly short and not elaborated, with no visible structure and no unifying theme. It's as though the redactors were left with a collection of notes after a long day's cataloguing and finally decided to toss them all together into a chapter and go have dinner. On the other hand, they must have considered these rules important enough to include somewhere, so let us take a few hundred words to examine some of the left-over laws of the ancient Israelites.

One of the most obvious features of this chapter is that many of the laws have been encountered before. We have a re-iteration of many of the ten commandments, such as:
- fear (KJV) or respect (NIV) your parents (Lev. 19:3)
- keep the Sabbath (Lev. 19:3, 19:30)
- don't make idols (Lev. 19:4)
- don't steal (Lev. 19:11)
- don't lie (similar to not bearing false witness; Lev. 19:11)
- don't swear by the Lord's name or profane it (Lev. 19:12)

But those are just the obvious ones. Many of the other laws in Lev. 19 have been seen before as well. Here's a brief list of the ones I've been able to determine:
- peace offerings must be eaten by the third day (Lev. 19:5-8; Lev. 7:16-18)
- don't pervert justice or show favouritism in judgements (Lev. 19:15; Ex. 23:1-3)
- don't eat any meat with blood in it (Lev. 19:26; Lev. 3:17; Lev. 7:22-27; Lev. 17:10-14)
- don't mistreat aliens living among you (Lev. 19:33-34; Ex. 22:21; Ex. 23:9)

It appears, therefore, that whoever was writing or reacting this chapter had not done a good job of reading the rest of the text to this point. If he had, it would have realized that nearly a third of the chapter is a repetition.

However, even the rest of Lev. 19 isn't particularly well organized. Laws range widely. However, my brain has already begun to categorize them into a few general areas. Here are just a few of the categories of the laws in Lev. 19:

Help the less fortunate: verses 9-10 command the Israelites not to harvest their whole field or vineyard, but rather to leave the far edges and the gleanings for the poor and aliens. Verse 13 tells them not to commit fraud against your neighbour or postpone paying a hired man. Verse 14 is the often-quoted "do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind" verse. Verses 20-22 describe what a man must do if he sleeps with a slave girl (namely, he must sacrifice a ram as a guilt offering).

More general laws of social justice: verse 16 commands against slander or anything endangering a neighbour's life. Verse 17 commands them to love their brother in their heart, while verse 18 tells them not to bear a grudge but "love your neighbour as yourself." Verse 29 offers the sensible advice of not prostituting your daughter. Verse 32 commands them to respect the elderly and rise in their presence. Finally, verses 35-36 tells them to use honest weights and measures.

So far so good, right? All these commands, while a bit scattered and not particularly elaborate, make sense. There are a few others that make inherent sense, such as the command not to eat fruit from a newly-planted fruit tree until the fifth year, thus giving it time to grow freely. (Lev. 19:23-25).

On the other hand, some laws in this chapter are simply bizarre. A sampling:
- don't mate different kinds of animals, don't plant two kinds of seed in the same field, and don't wear clothing made of two different kinds of material (Lev. 19:19)
- don't practice divination or sorcery (Lev. 19:26)
- don't cut your sideburns or shave the sides of your beard (Lev. 19:27)
- don't cut your flesh for the dead or get tattoos (Lev. 19:28)
- don't seek mediums or spiritists (Lev. 19:31, NIV; "wizards" in KJV) Incidentally, we learn in Lev. 20:27 that wizards should be stoned.

I realize that this entry so far has read to a great extent like the chapter: a long list of various laws with little in the way of connecting text. For that, I apologize.

Thus, let us devote the last hundred words or so to tying the whole thing together. Lev. 19 offers us a mish-mash of laws, many of them previously stated in the text. The laws range from common-sense commands about the treatment of social inferiors to downright strange commandments against pashmira and poly-cotton. It seems that whoever wrote or redacted the chapter had little concern for structure and simply cared about getting everything written down somewhere. In many ways, it reads like a poorly-written undergraduate term paper. I can only assume the authors of the Bible were more careful than the average first-year undergraduate, and thus must conclude that their values lay in making sure all of God's word was recorded, even if it didn't make much sense.

March 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: In case you missed it the first time...

Lev. 17 reminds the Israelites that they are absolutely, under no circumstances, allowed to make sacrifices to any other god. If they make an animal sacrifice, they must bring it to the tabernacle door and have it sacrificed upon the altar. (Lev. 17:1-7) I suppose this is just a reminder, in case the Israelites missed the first several dozen times the text commanded them not to sacrifice to other gods.

March 15, 2007

Breadcrumb: All that work for nothing?

Lev. 16:2 notes that the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, with the tabernacle itself and the mercy seat, cannot be breached by anyone but the high priest. Furthermore, even he can only enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement. When he's there, he must bring enough incense that he can't actually see the mercy seat (Lev. 16:13). Remember all the work that went into the tabernacle and the mercy seat, described at tedious length in Exodus? It looks like no one gets to see them but God. Poor Bezalel and Oholiab.

March 14, 2007

Leviticus 16-18: All about sex!

Today's reading is Leviticus 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers regulations about the Day of Atonement rituals; a few regulations about sacrifice; a proscription against eating blood; and lots of regulations about sexual relations.

Looking at the above list, guess which one we're going to talk about. (Bonus points to the people who can do it without referring to the subject header of this post.)

Lev. 18 has gotten quite a bit of coverage throughout the centuries. This coverage has not diminished in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Many people still use Lev. 18:22 ("Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination," KJV) as a justification for banning gay marriage. But there is so much more in this – ahem – suggestive chapter.

The first thing we learn in Lev. 18 is that the Egyptians and Canaanites were doing all the practices enumerated later in the chapter. (Lev. 18:3) Given the strangeness of some of the prohibitions listed, we can only imagine what life was like in the Egyptian or Canaanite households of the ancient middle east. This might just be a case of fear-mongering by God to keep the Israelites in line, but if it wasn't, the ancient world was probably a lot more interesting than we give it credit for.

By far the longest portion of the chapter (Lev. 18:6-18) explains that you cannot have sexual relations with any of your close kinsmen (or, specifically, kinswomen). The text elaborates in great detail who was on the "no contact" list: mother (verse 7), sister (9), granddaughter (10), half-sister (11), paternal aunt (12), and maternal aunt (13). This is, after all, fairly straightforward even for meta-texual reasons: too much interbreeding leads to problems.

But the text also bans sex with family members who are not blood relatives: your father's wife, even if she isn't your mother (8); your paternal brother's wife, ie: your aunt (14); your daughter-in-law (15), and your brother's wife (16).

There are a few more special scenarios the text tells us we must avoid: sex with a woman and her own daughter or granddaughter (17); a wife and her sister (18); your neighbour's wife (20); or any "unclean" woman (19). Recall that Lev. 15 talked extensively about when a woman was unclean, mostly focusing on the time she is menstruating.

These proscriptions all seem straightforward today. It is generally only social deviants who want to have sex with their own family, or with two females of the same family at the same time. On the other hand, the situations do come up, especially for those who are frequent talk-show viewers.

When asked why we shouldn't have sex with our kin, especially those who aren't related to us by blood, the best most of us can answer is something about family relations and impropriety. The Bible has something more to say on the subject. For most of the women mentioned above, we read that her nakedness is also the nakedness of the closest man to her, generally her husband. So, for example, your mother's nakedness is also your father's (Lev. 18:7). In fact, the text notes that you shouldn't have sex with your granddaughter, because she is in fact your own nakedness (Lev. 18:10). No one wants to feel cuckolded, least of all by themselves.

The text also notes that you cannot have sex with men as with women (Lev. 18:22), nor should men or women have sex with animals (Lev. 18:23).

There! You see! Homosexuality is wrong and evil and all homosexual must be burned at the stake!

Oops, sorry. A fundamentalist apparently usurped my keyboard while I wasn't looking. But let's look at the statement, regardless. According to the text, it is indeed true that men are forbidden from having sexual relations with other men. (Please note that there is no Biblical proscription against lesbian sex, which is apparently fine.) In so far as it goes, the Biblical literalists are right on track with their reasoning. However, a mere two chapters before, the text also gives explicit instructions that no one may work on the tenth day of the seventh month, as it is the day of atonement (Lev. 16:29). My guess would be that most "homosexuality is outlawed in the Bible and therefore evil" people don't even know when the tenth day of the seventh month is, let alone honour the Biblical commandment not to work. In fact, this is a reference to Yom Kippur, the holiday that Jews celebrate in the autumn.

Furthermore, the very next chapter, Lev. 19, contains the commandment not to wear any item of clothing woven of two different kinds of material (Lev. 19:19). It also commands not to cut your sideburns or the sides of your beard (Lev. 19:27). These commands have as much space devoted to them as the anti-homosexuality laws. If we're going to obey one, we must obey all, right? So if your accuser is clean-shaven man wearing a poly-cotton shirt, he deserves whatever rebuke is coming to him for being a hypocrite.

But wait! Does this mean I'm picking and choosing from the Biblical commandments? Does this mean that we should obey some laws and not others? Frankly, yes. Today most of us (and all my readers, I suspect) live in secular societies that are not governed by Biblical laws. We can chose which Biblical laws make sense to us and apply those, while disregarding the ones that seem foolish.

So, that said, I'd keep the laws against sleeping with kin. It leads to inbreeding for blood-relations and bad family dynamics for those who merely married in. The law against homosexual encounters, however, can probably be safely disposed of, along with the laws against poly-cotton shirts and clean-shaven sideburns.

March 12, 2007

Breadcrumb: A bad picnic spot

Note to any time-travelers in the audience: if you go back to ancient Hebrew Canaan and find a house that's quarantined because of disease, that's a bad place to take a nap or have a quick bite to eat. Lev. 14:46-47 notes that anyone unfortunate enough to do these things is unclean until evening, and needs to wash his clothes. Just another example of "contact uncleanliness."

March 11, 2007

Breadcrumb: Contact uncleanliness

In Lev. 14 and 15, we are faced, yet again, by numerous examples of "contact uncleanliness." For example, if a woman is having her period, anything she lies down on, anything she sits down on, and any person she touches is considered spiritually unclean. If you touch anything that has touched her, you need to wash your own clothes and bathe, and you're still considered unclean until sunset. The same thing goes for anything that's touched semen. I can only imagine that the Israelite camp must have had a lot of people bathing and washing their clothes.

March 10, 2007

Leviticus 14-15: FIrst, you kill a bird...

Today's reading is Leviticus 14-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the ceremony involved in declaring someone cleansed from leprosy; the ceremony involved in diagnosing and cleansing a house from disease; and laws about various types of unclean bodily discharges, including flesh wounds, semen, and menstrual blood.

When I first saw the heading titles for this chapter, I thought I was in for another slog. "Oh joy," thought I, "another set of tedious chapters devoted to infectious diseases and trivialities." But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading that the chapters are instead mostly devoted to a bizarre set of rituals for declaring someone healed of leprosy. In fact, the first half of chapter 14 is solely devoted to this purpose (Lev. 14:1-31) and later in the chapter there is a variation of it for declaring a house to be cleansed of disease. (Lev. 14:48-53)

Let us look at this ritual for a moment, and see if we can glean anything from it beyond, "wow, that's strange."

The ritual is actually done in two parts: the first while the leper is still awaiting judgement that he is healed, and the second a week later at the tabernacle.

The first part of the ritual proceeds like this, paraphrased from Lev. 14:1-8:

The priest comes to the leper and sees that the leprosy is healed. The priest then has the newly-cured person take two birds, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop. He (the patient) kills one of the two birds in an earthen vessel over running water. The priest then takes everything else, dips it in the blood of the dead bird, and sprinkles the blood over the cleansed man seven times. The cleansed man is pronounced clean, and the living bird is let free over an open field. Then the cleansed man washes his clothes, shaves his hair, bathes, and stays at his tent for seven days.

If you thought the bit about dipping a live bird into the blood of a dead one was bizarre, just wait until the second half of the ritual, paraphrased from Lev. 14:9-20:

After seven days, the man shaves his hair (again) and washes his clothes and himself in water. The next day, he takes two male lambs, one female lamb, 3/10 of an ephah (about 6.5 L) of flour, and a log of oil (about 1/3 L) to the tabernacle. The priest takes one male lamb and the oil, waves them around, and then kills the lamb. He places the blood on the penitent's right ear, right thumb, and right big toe. Then he pours the oil into his left palm, sprinkles it on the penitent, and anoints the man with it on the same places. Whatever is left over of the oil, he pours on the man's head. Finally, he kills the other two lambs, one as a sin offering and one as a burnt offering. Then the former leper is declared spiritually clean.

A few further notes: if the man is poor, he only needs to bring one lamb and two turtledoves or two pigeons, which are used as the sin and burnt offerings, and 1/10 an ephah of flour instead of 3/10. The ritual otherwise proceeds exactly the same way as before. (Lev. 14:21-32)

What are we to make of this? Blood and oil on the ear, thumb, and big toe? Live birds dipped in the blood of dead ones? Three animal sacrifices, not counting the original one? It all seems pretty suspect to me.

To give an example of the obscurity of this passage, I tried searching for a while for the meaning of the "right ear, right thumb, and right big toe" anointing. Sad to say, I found very little of actual value. The closest I came to something that sounded reasonable was that the right ear represents that the man may now hear the words of God, the right thumb represents his ability to do the tasks that God requires, and the right big toe that he may go wherever he needs to in the service of God. Another explanation claimed that the ear, thumb, and toe represented the extremities of the body, symbolizing that the entire man was now clean. In other words, the man, who as a leper had been forced to live outside the camp in segregation, is now symbolically as well as physically re-accepted into the main body of Israelites. I can only imagine, however, that despite his two recent baths, he'd be shortly forced to take another one to get off the blood and the oil.

Another thing that seems downright strange is dipping a live bird in the blood of a dead one, using it to sprinkle blood onto the penitent, and then letting it go free. Now, I've never actually tried to use a bird for this purpose, but I can imagine that it wouldn't be hard to have the blood sprinkling all over the place off the birds wings. It would probably be flapping like crazy in an attempt to get away from its insane captors. I have no idea what the spiritual purpose of the exercise was supposed to be. Perhaps it symbolized the distinction between life and death, clean and unclean. I can only imagine it was pleasant for neither the bird nor the men.

So there you have it. If you thought the stuff you do in synagogue on Saturday or church on Sunday was strange, they don't hold a candle (or a pigeon) to the stuff your ancestors did. Be grateful for small miracles.

March 09, 2007

Breadcrumb: Burn that tunic?

The latter part of Lev. 13 (verses 47-59) discusses what to do with clothing that has been infected by someone with a skin disease, particularly leprosy. Great lengths are taken to ensure the garment is free from disease before it can be declared clean. In fact, in most cases the commandment is to burn the garment. Why didn't God simply command the Israelites to burn all garments that contained infectious diseases, as we might today? Probably because clothing was much more expensive in ancient times than it is today. If you burned your tunic, you had to spin, weave, and sew a new one; you couldn't just go down to Walmart and pick up a replacement. It it could be salvaged, it would be. They just needed to be extra-careful that the next time they wore it, they wouldn't come down with a nasty case of leprosy.

March 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: Holy doctors, Batman!

Lev. 13 talks about infectious skin diseases, particularly leprosy. It introduces a number of potential diseases that might or might not be leprous. However, the man who makes the diagnoses is not a doctor but a priest, guided as always by the Biblical text. Does this mean that there were no competent doctors in the Israelite camp? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Medicine was rarely effective until the last several hundred years. When it came to serious contagious diseases like leprosy, it seems the Hebrews were taking no chances.

March 05, 2007

Leviticus 11-13: Don't eat that!

Today's reading is Leviticus 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers dietary laws, laws about purification after childbirth, laws about infectious skin diseases (particularly leprosy), and laws about clothing contaminated with diseases (particularly leprosy).

As you might imagine from the list above, there were slim pickings for today's essay topic. That being the case, I thought it might be time to discuss Jewish dietary laws.

Back in Exodus, we had a few brief notes about dietary laws. In Ex. 23 and 34, God commanded the Israelites not to "boil a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex. 23:19, 34:26, NIV) In fact, the second time it's noted, it is on the second set of ten commandments. This prohibition has been wildly used to justify the Jewish laws against eating meat and milk at the same meal.

However, in today's readings, the text goes quite a bit deeper into dietary laws, noting which animals and types of animals the Hebrews may (and may not) eat. In fact, the text talks exclusively about animals. In some cases, such as land and water creatures, it lists general features of the animals which are permitted. In particular, the Hebrews are allowed to eat any land animal so long as it has a completely-divided split hoof and chews its cud. (Lev. 11:4-8) Sea animals must have fins and scales. (Lev. 11:9-12) In the case of fowl, the text simply lists the prohibited birds. (Lev. 11:13-19) Also on the prohibited list are all types of flying insects, a few other scattered creatures, and "creeping things". (Lev. 11:20-23, 11:29-31, 11:41-43)

In all honesty, there's not a lot I can say with regards to this list. Not knowing much about dietary nutrition, I cannot say whether there is anything inherently wrong with eating any of these animals. I'm certain that there are people who eat most of them on at least an occasional basis with no ill effects, particularly when we're talking about pigs, shrimp, and escargot. Beyond imagining that God merely wanted to set his people apart from the surrounding nations by giving them specific dietary requirements, I can't think of a reason why these animals would be forbidden, as opposed to others.

Thankfully for me, there is more to say about spiritually unclean animals. First, anything that touches the carcass of an unclean animal also becomes unclean. (Lev. 11:24-28, 11:32) Any earthenware vessel in which they were kept or cooked much be broken. (Lev. 11:33, 11:35) If someone takes water from such a vessel and places it on clean meat, that meat becomes unclean. (Lev. 11:34) Even seeds, if they are touched by unclean carcasses, are considered unclean if there is water on them (the seeds). (Lev. 11:37-38)

Why this obsession with "contact uncleanliness"? This is not the only location in the text where spiritually unclean things cause other, clean things to become unclean merely by touch. It is a common feature in the text, in fact. The simple act of touching something unclean renders the person, animal, or object touched unclean as well.

One reason for this "contact uncleanliness" might have been to limit the spread of spiritually unclean things. Especially in the case of infectious skin diseases (Lev. 13), marking the diseased person as unclean might have helped limit the spread of plagues and disease in the Israelite camp. Forcing someone to wash or quarantine themselves after touching something unclean would have prevented the disease from spreading. Equally, in the case of uncooked meat, earthenware pots could easily have picked up contaminants that would spread to water in the pot and from there onto other food. After all, this is before the age of glazed cookware, and therefore the earthenware pots would have been porous and susceptible to contamination.

On the other hand, I have no idea why these rules should apply only to certain carcasses and not all animal carcasses. Surely the raw flesh of a cow or a chicken would be equally likely to spread disease as that of a pig or a swan.

No doubt the Israelites were also confused. This is likely the reason God gives a justification in Lev. 11:43-45, which reads as follows in the KJV:

(43) Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.
(44) For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
(45) For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

In other words: do what I say, because I'm the one that told you to do it, and you should be holy like me. Hardly compelling reasoning, but, as we have seen in previous chapters, God had power and might on his side. Or, put another way, a being who could provide that much firepower did not also need to provide rational thought.

Jews have typically divided all commandments into two groups: man-to-man and man-to-God. The former category includes things like the prohibitions for murder and theft, laws dealing with the poor, justice, and social responsibility, and so on. Meanwhile, man-to-God laws did not involve any other person, only God. The dietary laws fall firmly into this category. If you eat an unclean animal, you're not harming another person. You are, on the other hand, breaking your covenant with God. As a general rule, the man-to-man laws are much more accepted by non-Jewish populations, while the man-to-God laws are often looked at with derision. Dietary laws are no exception. It is interesting to note that Christians, except for the very earliest sects, did not keep these dietary laws, mostly because of the apostle Paul. (see, for example, Rom. 14:14-16)

What good were these laws, ultimately? They provided yet another way for the Israelites to differentiate themselves from the surrounding nations and perhaps managed to keep them a little healthier than they otherwise would have been. Are they still valid today? It depends on who you talk to.

March 04, 2007

Breadcrumb: What's good for the goose...

Lev. 9 is a series of seven offerings which begin Aaron and his sons' ministry. The very first offering, however, is a personal sin offering for Aaron. (Lev. 9:2, 9:8-10) Only after offering this sin offering was he able to offer a sin offering on behalf of the rest of the people. (Lev. 9:15) It seems that unless the offering priest was absolved, he could not absolve others. Please note that this is in contrast to Catholic doctrine, which says that the absolutions, consecrations, and other rituals offered by an ordained priest are valid, no matter what the personal state of the priest's sins.

March 03, 2007

Breadcrumb: By my ear!

During the ordination of Aaron and his sons, they placed the blood from the sacrifice on their right ear, their right thumb, and their right big toe. (Lev. 8:23-24) I can only imagine it must have looked like a giant game of "Simon says." As with so many religious practices, much of the ceremony involves looking silly to anyone not adequately initiated into its mysteries. On the other hand, look at most of the religious celebrations you attend. Certainly some of the rituals in those would cause those outside the faith to fall over laughing. So if God wanted Aaron to anoint his ear, thumb, and toe, who are we to argue?

March 02, 2007

Leviticus 8-10: Performance review

Today's reading is Leviticus 8-10 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the beginning of their ministry, the death of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, and the fallout from that event.

Imagine the scenario: you're a newly-ordained priest. The sacrifices are not yet cold from your ordination ceremony, and you decide, being the eager young priest that you are, to start your ministering right away. Specifically, you decide to start with something simple: incense. You and your brother, also a newly-ordained priest, take some incense and burn it for God. Unfortunately, you reached into the wrong incense jar and burned the wrong stuff.

You know you've done wrong. But there are a lot of rules, and you're new. Surely there's a trial period. You'll just burn a sin offering, switch the incense, and do it properly tomorrow. Right?

Wrong. Because for you, there are no tomorrows. Because you'll be dead. Because God killed you.

This is exactly the scenario that Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, find themselves in at the beginning of Lev. 10. In fact, the episode takes up so little space in the text that it's worth quoting in full:

(1) Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. (2) So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Lev. 10:1-2, NIV)

Keep in mind that just the two chapters before, in Lev. 8, these men were ordained as priests, and in Lev. 9 they offered their first official sacrifices.

I can just imagine the conversation Nadab and Abihu, or at least their deceased spirits, must have had with God after this incident: "Lord, what is the meaning of this? Our father, Aaron, singlehandedly created a golden god to rival You (Ex. 32), and all he got was a slap on the wrist. We offer the wrong incense, and You kill us! What's going on? Have You never heard of a probation period?"

I can only imagine God would not have been particularly sympathetic to this line of reasoning.

Of course, it does raise the question, "what was God thinking?" Given the exceedingly small amount of text devoted to this episode, we don't know what Nadab and Abihu were thinking when they offered the false incense. Perhaps they were doing it maliciously, trying to deliberately break God's laws. Perhaps they were drunk "on duty," as suggested by the commandment later in the chapter that priests must never drink wine or other strong drinks when in the tabernacle, on pain of death. (Lev. 10:9-11) Perhaps the incense they offered was poisonous, or extremely flammable, or otherwise dangerous to themselves or the tabernacle. God may have been perfectly justified in thinking they two brothers were up to no good.

On the other hand, we are now faced with an interesting double-standard. Aaron did indeed create the golden calf, but this was before he was ordained as high priest. Perhaps he was given a certain amount of leeway, since he was not officially the high priest at that time. The argument seems a bit tenuous to me, but it can be made regardless. Ordained priests are held to higher standards than the rest of the community. Moses is held to an even higher standard than Nadab and Abihu: when God commanded him to speak to a rock in order to have it pour forth water, Moses struck it with his staff instead. Water did flow out, but God became infuriated with Moses for disobeying him and declared that because of this insubordination, Moses would never enter the holy land. (Num. 20:1-13; Deut. 32:48-52) Moses slipped once, and indeed it seems only natural that it was bound to happen, given the whining of the Israelites, and God denied him the holy land.

Similarly with Nadab and Abihu: they were God's representatives within the Israelite nation. They of all people were supposed to uphold God's laws, no matter how minute. If they could not be trusted to light the proper incense, they may have gone on to more severe infractions.

Returning briefly to the land of the living, we learn that Aaron and his two remaining sons, Ezeazar and Ithamar, were not allowed to mourn for their dead relatives. They were specifically commanded not to uncover their heads or tear their clothes, traditional signs of mourning. (Lev. 10:6) The rest of the Israelites were allowed to mourn, but not the immediate family. (Lev. 10:7) Why? Perhaps because Aaron and his sons were supposed to know better. Maybe they could have warned their brothers against the false incense, and thus some of the blame fell upon them. Furthermore, they were supposed to reflect God's decision: if he killed Nadab and Abihu because of their infraction, Aaron and his other sons were supposed to stand by and accept the decision stoically.

I can only imagine, however, that this was a severe wake-up call not only to Aaron but to the rest of the Israelites. If God was willing to kill his own priests for as minor a problem as burning the wrong incense, what would he do for more serious problems? Unfortunately, the rest of Biblical history seems to be a repeated loop of the Israelites forgetting this early lesson, sinning, and being punished. La plus ca change...