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.

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