The Bible in and as History: Leviticus

Leviticus, unlike the first two books of the Bible, is less a narration than it is a series of explanations, rules and instructions, handed down within the narrative to Moses by God for the ‘Children of Israel’.  For this reason it’s also less well known and certainly I hadn’t absorbed as much through general cultural osmosis of this book than I did the previous two.

To borrow a joke, here’s a summary; Kill an Animal, sprinkle it’s blood on the Alter, burn it and make a scent that is savour unto the lord.  The Joke works because Leviticus is both very repetitious, but also obviously ritualistic in it’s intent.  While Exodus may explain the ‘why’ of the rules, and indeed that why is repeated again and again in Leviticus(because God took the Israelites out of Egypt to be clear), it is the rules themselves, their form and action that are the basis for this text.

The Books historical context, like the previous two is a it hard to assertion.  It doesn’t tell us much about the time it is supposedly written about, and acts, I think clearly, as instructions for the future.  It paints a very particular picture of the Israelites of this time period, or perhaps the time period following it; A group with a Hereditary Priestly caste.  One for whom sustained cultural separation from surrounding peoples was viewed as important.  Indeed many of the laws laid out are clearly intended to punctuate contrast between the Israelites and their neighbours.

It’s these cultural differences that I found most interesting in terms of Leviticus.  Obviously in a modern cultural context the book is most well known for it’s invectives against Homosexuality, which constitute two lines in a very elaborate set of rules.  But these rules tell us a great deal about the people who formed them.

For example, they live in an obviously patriarchal culture.  Male sacrifices are viewed as superior than female sacrifices.  Males are monetarily valued more than females in the reckoning of people in the later part of the book.  Eye for the an Eye is the law of the land.  The Death penalty is a normal part of life and imparted for a variety of crimes, including things like Blasphemy, Adultery and so forth.  The nature of the punishments outlined in this chapter and their relationship to the crime is abstract so we are left to deduce our own reasonings.  They are, after all, just handed down by god.  But it’s clear that we are dealing with a conception of justice that stems from the centrality of community, and the centralness of the afore-mentioned hereditary priestly cast.

Many of the rules within the book are directed specifically against the ‘Sons of Aron’.  We get interesting rules such as how if the daughter of a priest of Aron ‘goes awhoring’ she is to be killed.  Or how if a Daughter of the priest of Aaron marries a foreigner she is not to partake of the flesh of particular sacrifices unless she is divorced and without children.  Part of these rules form a foundational basis for a society, but much of that foundational basis is about sustaining differences between the Priest caste and the rest of the people.

Other things of note are the interesting notions of ‘cleanliness’ and indeed the seeming obsession with categorizing things and events as clean and unclean.  I think it also clear the idea of a separation between physical and spiritual pollution isn’t within the text itself.  Handing dead things is viewed as negatively as committing certain ritual faux pas, for example.

So as a book written to instruct ancient Israelites about their day to day lives it has obvious value and historical worth, but it’s modern history is also interesting.  The people who translated this text obviously viewed it as divinely inspired, and yet ignores a considerable section of this particular book.  Leviticus is only occasionally invoked and there are obvious reasons why.  Yes it has it’s invective against Adultery, against various other forms of ‘sexuality immorality’.  It also condemns eating shell-fish.  Sowing a field with two different crops, or wearing clothes made of two different fibres.  Unlike the perhaps more generalizable rules laid out in the first two books, this book is even more essentially ‘Jewish’.  This of course hasn’t stopped people from referencing it to service very political and religious purposes.

Next I dive into another large book, and this time a book about which I have very little knowledge and very few preconceptions. So next up; Numbers.


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