Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Leviticus 19

Leviticus 19: Various Laws


This chapter is a grab-bag of laws that the Israelites were to obey. As with the previous chapter, it opens with a summary:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (verses 1–2)
There doesn’t seem to be a general theme to the laws given in this chapter. It’s just a big pile of rules, many of which are repeated, from earlier chapters.
  • They were to respect their mothers and fathers.
  • They were to observe the Sabbaths.
These two commands are combined together in the same sentence: “Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths” (verse 3). I find it interesting that God combines these two rules together.
  • They were not to “turn to” nor make idols (verse 4)
  • Fellowship offerings were to be sacrificed in such a way that they would be accepted by the LORD:
    • They were to be eaten the day they were sacrificed, or the next day. Anything left over after that was to be burned up.
    • Anything eaten after that would be “impure,” and would not be accepted (verse 7). If someone ate part of the offering after the second day, that person was to be cut off from the Israelites.
I think this is simply a rehash of rules that have already been given.
  • When harvesting their crops, the Israelites were not to reap right to the very edges of the field—nor “gather the gleanings” (verse 9), although I don’t know what that means—and once they had reaped their harvest, they were not to go back over a second time, to get what they had missed. Anything left over was to be for the poor and the alien.
First off, I find it amazing that this rule was handed down. I don’t know my ancient history, but it’s possible that this was the first form of social assistance program ever created. (I always find it ironic that the political conservatives—who usually claim to be very religious—are so against any form of social assistance.) I also find it interesting that the rule specifically mentions the alien; it’s not just the poor Israelites who would benefit from this, but even passing foreigners.
  • They were not to steal
  • They were not to lie or deceive one another
  • They were not to swear falsely by God’s name.
  • They were not to defraud or rob anyone
  • They were not to hold back the wages of a hired man overnight
Most of these are probably self-explanatory. I like the level of detail, though, that the law actually specifies that a hired person’s wages were not to be held overnight; the person would probably need the money for food right away.
  • They were not to “curse the deaf” or “put a stumbling block in front of the blind” (verse 14).
I have to wonder, when I read this rule, whether God was speaking literally, or metaphorically, when He handed down these rules. (Or both.) There is definitely a concept, in the New Testament, of people who don’t know the Truth being considered metaphorically “blind,” so that may be what’s being discussed here, as well.

For example, suppose a priest tells a woman that if she sleeps with him, it will make her holy. Since the priest knows the law, and the woman doesn’t, would that be considered “putting a stumbling block in front of the blind?” Or, perhaps, these rules are just literal; if you know a blind person, don’t throw something in front of him, when he’s walking, to make him fall down! The subtext, from looking at the verse, is that you shouldn’t mistreat someone just because they’re blind—whether literally or metaphorically—because God is watching:
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. (verse 14)
If you “fear God,” you won’t take advantage of the deaf or blind.
  • They were not to “pervert justice” (verse 15).
    • It is explicitly mentioned that they were not to “show partiality to the poor,” nor “favouritism to the great.”
  • They were not to spread slander.
I think these laws were covered in earlier chapters. I don’t know if the word “slander” is being used in a legal sense, or if it covers normal gossip.
  • The Israelites were not to do anything that would endanger someone else’s life.
I’ve probably said similar things for other rules/commandments, but I love the simplicity of this rule. Don’t do something that would put someone else in danger.
  • The Israelites were not to keep angry feelings to themselves, and when someone needed “rebuking,” they were to do it face to face. (“Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” (verse 17))
  • The Israelites were not to seek revenge, or bear grudges.
    • This rule includes the famous phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 18), which Christians know so well from the New Testament. (In Matthew 22:34–40, Jesus quoted this as being the second most important commandment in the Old Testament. The most important was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”)
God was to be the Lord of every aspect of the Israelites’ lives—even down to how they felt about each other. See the Thoughts section, below, for additional thoughts on this.
  • The Israelites were not to mate different kinds of animals, plant different types of seed in the same field, or wear clothing woven from two different kinds of material.
I can honestly say I don’t understand this one. It obviously had a meaning—especially when you see that the verse starts out with the phrase “Keep my decrees:”

Keep my decrees.
Do not mate different kinds of animals.
Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.
Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

(verse 19)

This had some kind of meaning for the Israelites, I just don’t know what it was.
  • If a man slept with a slave girl, and that slave girl was “promised to” (verse 20) another man, but the slave girl had not yet been ransomed or given her freedom, the man who slept with her was to be punished.
    • However, because the girl was still a slave, and had not been freed, they were not to be put to death.
    • The man who slept with her was to bring a ram to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting as a guilt offering.
Any time the laws start talking about slaves, I feel that I’m not properly understanding what’s going on. If the girl in question had not been a slave, but had been “promised to” another man, this situation would have been considered adultery, both her and the man who slept with her would have been put to death. But since she was a slave, she was simply considered property.

But I think the thinking behind this law—and I fully realize that it’s always dangerous to try and put yourself in the LORD’s place, as if you know what He was thinking—might have been something like this: If the man to whom the girl was promised really loved her, he would have freed her. The fact that he didn’t means that he was still considering her to be his property, instead of giving her the full rights of a wife. (And, in this light, I’m glad that the girl wouldn’t have to be put to death for this!) In this sense, the man who slept with her wasn’t so much committing adultery with her, as he was “stealing” another man’s “property.” As much as I don’t like thinking in those terms, in society in which the Israelites lived, where slaves were a more accepted part of the culture, the laws had to take that into account. “You don’t want to give the girl who’s promised to you her freedom? Fine, then if she sleeps with someone else, it won’t be considered adultery.”
  • When the Israelites reached the land which had been promised to them, if they planted a fruit tree, they were not to eat its fruit immediately.
    • For the first three years, after the tree was planted, they were to consider its fruit “forbidden” (verse 23). The footnote indicates that the Hebrew word translated “forbidden” is actually, literally, “uncircumcised.”
    • In the fourth year, the fruit from the tree was to be considered holy—an offering of praise to the LORD.
    • Starting in the fifth year, they were allowed to eat the fruit from the tree.
Although I don’t fully understand this rule, either, there is a reason given: “In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the LORD your God.” (verse 25b)
  • They were not to eat meat with blood still in it.
  • They were not to practice “divination” or “sorcery” (verse 26b).
  • They were not to cut the hair at the sides of their head, or clip the edges of their beard.
  • They were not to cut their bodies for the dead, or put tattoo marks on themselves.
I’m assuming that the last one referred to specific practices performed by the cultures around them.
  • They were not to make their daughters into prostitutes.
A reason is given for this one, too: “…or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness” (verse 29). I don’t know if it’s significant, since all of the laws are written in a male-centric way, but notice that the onus is on the fathers not to turn their daughters into prostitutes, not on the daughters to refrain from becoming prostitutes.
  • They were to observe the LORD’s Sabbaths, and have reverence for His sanctuary.
  • They were not to turn to mediums or spiritists.
This rule about Sabbaths is a repeat even within the same chapter—it was mentioned above. I was surprised, when first reading through the Old Testament, at how often the Israelites were chastised for not obeying the Sabbaths; it seems like such a minor thing, to us, but it obviously wasn’t to God.
  • They were to rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for their elders, and revere the LORD.
I found it pleasantly surprising, the first time I read this, that respect for elders was codified right into the Israelites’ law.
  • They were not to mistreat aliens living among them; aliens were to be treated the same as a native-born Israelite.
When handing down this rule, God reminds the Israelites that they were once aliens, when they lived in Egypt. This would have been very personal to the Israelites who came out of Egypt, but I wonder if future generations started to forget this little fact?
  • They were not to use dishonest weights and measures.
It was common practice in the day and age—and perhaps still is, in some parts of the world—for people to keep two sets of weights: one set to be used when selling something, and one set to be used when buying something. For example, if you were buying a kilogram of grain, you might use a weight that weighed more than a kilogram, and end up with more grain than you’d paid for. Similarly, when selling a kilogram of grain, you might use a weight that weighed less than a kilogram, and thus give away less grain than you were being paid for.

The chapter ends with another summary:
Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD. (verse 37)


I often think of the New Testament “way of living” to be harder than the Old Testament way of living, in a sense, because when Jesus told people how to live, they had to not only act good, but be good. For example, in Matthew 5:27–28 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” The Israelites already knew that they weren’t allowed to commit adultery, but Jesus pointed out to them that, even if they weren’t guilty of the act, they could still be guilty of the sin. (In fact, reading the New Testament, we realize that it’s impossible to live a life that would be pleasing to God, which is why Jesus’ sacrifice was required, on our behalf.)

But when I read rules like the ones in this chapter, where the Israelites were not to seek revenge or even bear grudges, and that they were not to hate one another, it reminds me that Jesus wasn’t changing the laws, in his sermon on the mount. He was simply reminding them what the laws had meant all along: The Israelites were to be Holy, as God is Holy. If they were able to keep that up, it would have meant that every aspect of their lives would have to be monitored, and sin erased.

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