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.

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