April 03, 2007

Final Reflections on Leviticus

Congratulations! If you've made it this far in our trek through the Bible, you have now officially made it through the most boring book. It's all downhill from here.

What is it about Leviticus that makes so many people, even seasoned Biblical scholars, groan when they hear that they will now need to read it? Why is it the most notoriously boring chapter in the entire Bible? And is this reputation valid?

To answer the first set of questions, we must note that Leviticus is a law book. Like many other law books, it is precise, detailed, and consequently not a lot of fun to read. Most people don't read other ancient law codes, such as the laws of Hamurabi, for their personal enjoyment. On the other hand, many people read the Bible as a means of spiritual enlightenment or religious practice. Therefore, they are forced to encounter this law code.

To further Leviticus' reputation as a boring text, it isn't particularly relevant. The first seven chapters are devoted to animal sacrifice, which is no longer practised by Jews and was never practised by Christians. Other chapters deal with infectious diseases, whether in people, clothing, or houses. Today, most people faced with an infectious disease turn to their doctor for a diagnosis, not their priest. The chapters about holidays are relevant for Jews, but not for Christians. Some laws are simply neglected today, even by generally religious people, such as those in Lev. 19 against wearing clothing made of two types of material or shaving sideburns. In other words, most of the book no longer applies to Jews' or Christians' daily lives. It is, essentially, an obsolete law code, designed for a pre-industrial, agricultural society.

Of course, this does not stop some people, both Jewish and Christian, from trying to apply portions of Leviticus to modern life. Jews still follow the dietary restrictions laid out in Lev. 11 and the holidays listed in Lev. 23. And a great deal of ink has been spilled over the laws about sex in Lev. 18, specifically the laws against male homosexuality. There are a few laws in Lev. 19 that prohibit wizards or enchanters, which have often been used to malign modern new-age religions like Wicca. But for the most part, these dubiously relevant verses are a tiny minority of the total book. While there may be one or two nuggets of potentially useful information, it requires a great deal of digging to find them.

It doesn't help that Leviticus is nestled in the middle of two action-packed books, Exodus and Numbers. In Exodus, we have the ten plagues, the parting of the red sea, the story of the golden calf, and the ten commandments. Numbers (once past the initial ten chapters, which are also fairly boring) gives us rebellion and opposition, miracles, and war. Though less well-known than Genesis and Exodus, the stories in Numbers can be just as exciting.

Leviticus is unfortunately sandwiched between these two books, largely for chronological reasons. In the middle of Exodus, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, and they don't leave until the beginning of Numbers. This is when the Israelites receive the laws, and so for chronological reasons the laws are included in a separate book, called Leviticus. It's an inconvenient disruption to the narrative for anyone reading straight through, as we are, but it makes sense in the greater scheme of the chronological Biblical record.

Now that we have examined the reasons most people consider the book of Leviticus boring (namely: it is an outdated law code with dubious connections to modern life, and it interrupts the flow of the narrative), the question remains: is that reputation valid? Is it really as bad as everyone makes it out to be?

Each reader will have to decide for themselves, but in my opinion it has a few shining moments. There are a few truly bizarre rituals, such as the one for cleansing people from leprosy (Lev. 14), and a few interesting episodes, such as the holy murder of Aaron's sons (Lev. 10). They are few and far between, certainly, but they provide entertainment in an otherwise dull book.

Also, when approached as a law code, the book provides a wonderful window on an ancient race. It shows us what they considered important, which issues troubled them, and how they lived their daily lives. This sort of information is invaluable to social historians, who try to reconstruct how people lived in historical societies. If we approach the book of Leviticus with the question, "how did these people live?" or "how were their lives and values different from ours?" we will glean much more value from the text than asking the question "what happened next?" It's all a matter of attitude.

That said, I am glad the book is over and done with. I mentioned that the first ten books of Numbers are also fairly boring, and there will unfortunately be a slog through at least five more essays before we reach the part where the narrative starts up again, but at least we're done the hard part. We've made it through the book that causes even evangelists to throw up their hands in frustration (except when using certain verses for their own purposes, of course), and we've arrived at the end with our minds relatively unscathed. So, I say again, congratulations. Next stop: Numbers.

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