Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Righteous Shall Inherit the Land (Leviticus 23-27)

We now plunge into a list of holy festivals – the Passover, the feasts of firstfruits, weeks, trumpets, booths, and the day of atonement. There are six, and if you count the weekly Sabbaths (included in the list) you get an even seven.

I was particularly struck by the feast of firstfruits:
When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest… And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
Not a single bite until you’ve given back a share of the harvest to the Lord. The land is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and a symbol of Israel’s continuing calling. And, like Esau with his birthright, the fickle people are in danger of throwing away their treasure in exchange for the most transient of pleasures – food not the least.

But there is another thread running even deeper. God is not only concerned with the hearts of his people. His aim is to bring life and renewal to his entire creation. The cursed ground will now be blessed with the loving stewardship of his chosen people. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in one of the most peculiar and impractical laws in the Bible:
When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.
The land itself gets a Sabbath. How stunning this is to the modern reader! Especially in America, the sovereign ownership of land by the individual is one of our most sacred values. But if the Israelites had any similar notions, the Lord nipped these in the bud with the establishment of the year of Jubilee:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.
Every 50 years the former owners of the land have a right to buy back their old property – even if the new owners aren’t interested in selling. No one has ultimate claim to it. The land is the Lord’s, and the people are only his tenants.

Leviticus ends with a choice – to walk in the laws of the Lord or to reject them. Obedience means rains, rich harvests, prosperity, peace, health, victory over their enemies, and loving communion with God. Disobedience means panic, disease, famine, defeat, and exile:
I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.
A sober warning indeed. The land you live on is holy ground – not a mere commodity. Your everyday work of tilling the fields is a sacred task – do not simply do with it as you please. God will not hold guiltless the man who takes his land in vain.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Puritanical Environmentalism (Leviticus 18-22)

Here we come to an extended section of Leviticus on holiness, including what is perhaps its most contentious passage in contemporary culture:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
This is just one in a huge list of sexual offenses, nearly all punishable by death. Most involve intercourse with a close relative, with a few other things like sex with animals and child sacrifice to Moloch thrown in for comprehensiveness. I had to smile at the prohibition of taking both a woman and her sister as your wife – no more Rachel and Leah combos for Israel. And what’s this about sex with a menstruating woman warranting death or exile? I thought back in chapter 15 it just made you unclean for a week.

If the laws so far seemed severe, they get even more intense for the priests. The most shocking thing for me was the proscription of death by fire for any priest’s daughter who became a prostitute.

Because of our current debates over sexuality, we can easily miss the forest for the trees. What is the bigger picture here? Why did God forbid the Israelites to do things as consenting adults which seemed perfectly natural to many of the surrounding nations? Leviticus gives a direct, if puzzling, answer:
By all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.
This connection makes less than no sense to the individualistic assumptions of our culture, and even I have trouble wrapping my head around it. The most private sins are forbidden because they apparently pollute the land itself. Echoes of Genesis are booming. First we have God cursing the ground because of man’s disobedience. Then the ground is stained with the blood of Abel, crying out to God. The Lord goes to investigate the evil of Sodom, tipped off by an outcry presumably from the land. And sure enough, against the backdrop of vomiting sulfur are scenes of homosexual gang rape and incest.

The Lord goes on to outline how to live in the land he is preparing for them. Harvest your crops with a thought for the poor; be truthful; pay fair wages; be considerate to those with handicaps; judge justly; love your neighbor as yourself. All this is side by side with instructions about planting seed, breeding cattle, and picking fruit. They are indeed called to live in harmony with nature – and this is inseparable from harmony with their fellow man.

The Lord sums things up like this:
You shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
Herein lies the point to all this severity. The people of Israel are called to be God’s own platform for engaging the world. The nation is to the world what the priests are to the nation. A priest cannot stand before God while his daughter is engaging in cult prostitution for demons. The Israelites cannot be God’s holy nation if they make themselves so loathsome that the land spits them out like the former tenants. They are the light of the world, and need to shine spotless. The redemption of everything else - man and animal, rock and tree - depends on it.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness (Leviticus 11-17)

King David, in one of his less militant psalms, asks the question:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
The people of Israel have a precarious vocation. These crude grimy former-slaves are to live their day to day lives – of work, food, sex, childbirth, family and death – all within a stones throw of the burning presence of God himself. His creative vision has formed the cosmos; his power has crushed the mightiest of empires; his fury against imperfection has annihilated entire cities; his brightness and splendor alone has struck men dead. This is a disaster waiting to happen. No wonder the exasperated Lord wanted to scrap the whole idea!

Back when they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites could be content to live casual lives, but no longer. The Lord is clear that, though they may be used to rolling in the mud, he is not about to have them tracking their filth in his house. Leviticus is almost wholly concerned with regulating, in meticulous minutia, what having clean hands and pure hearts is to looks like for the people of Israel (on pain of death, of course).

And boy does it change everything. When you’re living next door to the Lord, you can’t eat the sort of thing the other nations eat – only clean animals. People need to take care not to touch dead carcasses, and if they have to, to stay away from public places afterwards. Disease is taken seriously – if you have an infectious skin disease, you need to be quarantined. Clothes need to be clean, houses with some sort of infestation must be cleansed or demolished. Childbirth and anything else which might contaminate someone with bodily fluids require strict cleansing rituals and precautions before a person can go near the sanctuary. Even contaminated pots and pans are taken very seriously.

The point of all this couldn’t be clearer:
For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.
It amazes me the assumed connection between what we might call biological or physical infection and spiritual uncleanness. In the Mosaic law, they are one and the same. Both make you unfit for the presence of God. Both can lead to your ruin and death. And both require purification and atonement before you can expect to be clean again.

What can wash away all this filth? In minor cases, simple water will do, but, if Leviticus is to be believed, it is the blood – aka, the life or spirit – of a clean animal that really does the trick. I confess this is not the first thing I would have thought of, and the mechanics of it still mystify me. Just how is this supposed to work?

I suppose it must be kind of like water. If you are dirty, and you shower off with clean water, the water will carry the dirt down the drain (leaving your body clean). Dirty water can’t do this, because anything it would take away would just be replaced with more grime. The water must be clean to start out with, and you only end up clean by the clean water itself getting dirty.

So with deeper muck and sin. It doesn’t just go away by itself. Something clean needs to be willing to get dirty to clean something else.

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