Leviticus

The broccoli of the Bible.

Written by Blue Pipe Thoughts

This is my first pass at condensing, simplifying, or simply translating the books of the Bible into single sentences. By setting myself the challenging limit of one sentence for each chapter of each book I feel as though I have to find the essence of each chapter. In this way I may get to know the Bible better, perhaps reveal the underlying narrative arc, and maybe get to know God a little better too.

I decided to start this Bible reading adventure with Leviticus for the same reason I tend to eat the broccoli first at dinner – to get it over with as quickly as possible. I don’t expect to enjoy this book, but like broccoli I think it’s a useful source of… something.

Each sentence represents a chapter of Leviticus:

  1. All about burnt food offerings
  2. These offerings make a pleasing odour to God
  3. All of the fat belongs to God – burn it!
  4. A purification ritual
  5. What to do about accidental sin
  6. Extra ritual instructions for the priests
  7. A list of yet more offerings for various things
  8. Priestly ordination butchery
  9. Yet more complicated butchery
  10. Aaron’s sons screw up
  11. Unclean things!! (Includes Rock Badgers)
  12. Cleaning up after childbirth
  13. Dermatological diagnosis of uncleanness
  14. Getting over a skin disease is expensive
  15. All you never wanted to know about genital emissions
  16. Poor little scapegoat
  17. Bring all sacrifices to the temple or they don’t count
  18. Detestable sex
  19. Rules for right living
  20. Death to sinners!
  21. Perfect priests?!
  22. Israel must treat God as holy
  23. Festivals and holidays
  24. Stone blasphemers
  25. Jubilee and generosity
  26. REMEMBER
  27. The costs of getting out of an oath that you want to take back

The thing that struck me most about the book of Leviticus is that it reveals a priestly practice which is very bodily. This is interesting when you consider that Leviticus was a sort of handbook for Jewish temple priests – surely it should be very spiritual and mystical? But the overall impression is that being a priest was long, hard manual labour – butchery, blood splattering and constant barbecuing – as well as having to get very up close with personal parts of other people’s bodies. Not a job for the squeamish or for animal lovers – even the scapegoat (Ch.16) doesn’t actually get away, he was driven into the wilderness to die – after all nobody wanted to risk the animal carrying all of the sins of the people wandering back to join it’s flock! The treatment of people with anything considered as ‘disfigurement’, or those with unfortunate skin conditions, and the general attitude towards women and those of other nations is also discomforting. And I’m not going to get into the way this text treats homosexuality (as many other more qualified Bible commentators are tackling these problem texts much more thoroughly than I could.) All in all, I’d be surprised if many Christians cited Leviticus as their favourite book of the bible, but while we may hold it lightly we can’t ignore it completely. It is one of the sources of ‘The Law’ which Jesus and Paul talk about so much in the new testament, and while both of them challenged interpretation neither sought to destroy these teachings. Having said all that, I’m relieved to have ‘finished my broccoli’ and I’m not in a hurry for another portion.

The chapter I found most interesting was the last one which is primarily a long list of monetary values. I got quite angry while reading it at the way women were consistently ‘cheaper’ than men, so I did have a glance at my commentary, which suggested that this wasn’t about general worth but more a reflection of physical strength. It’s to do with getting out of rash oaths, and it seems that this was a something of a problem. Apparently people (okay – we’re just talking about men here) would say things like “if ‘the thing’ I want happens I’ll give my son/daughter/Mother-in-law/slave to God!” And then, when ‘the thing’ happened as they hoped, they had to follow through by donating said son/daughter/Mother-in-law/slave to work in the temple for a year or so – and it was physically very hard work. So the lists of values represents what work the son/daughter/Mother-in-law/slave could do. It gave an opportunity for a foolish (or possibly drunken) man to get out of his oath, without bringing down the wrath of God, or the condemnation of the community on his head. It’s a face-saver. It seems God allowed for idiots in ‘The Law’. I find this very reassuring. The chapter repeatedly warns men not to make oaths at all, but the detailed price lists suggest that many didn’t heed the warnings…

…Oh – and the mention of rock badgers in chapter 11 (one of the animals among the long list that were considered unclean) is a reference to a funny talk I once heard from Justin Welby when he was bishop of Durham and visiting a secondary school. Apparently he once had to read this text at a big cathedral service and started laughing helplessly while reading aloud the very long list of “detestable” animals which could not be eaten. By the time he got down to the line about not eating rock badgers, he said he was hanging onto the lectern with tears of laughter streaming down his face. He said that when he was made a bishop the good folks of his sending parish had a rock badger carved into the bishop’s crook they gave him as a leaving gift – to remind him never to take things too seriously. A lesson I thoroughly endorse.