The remarkable parade of the ethical teachings of the Scriptures which we have canvassed over the past several weeks in Chapel would not be complete without Leviticus. While the love of God and the love of neighbour are implicit in the Ten Commandments and, for that matter, in the Beatitudes, and are concentrated in what is known as the Summary of the Law, the love of neighbour is made explicit in Leviticus and as explicitly connected to God.
The phrase “I am the Lord” punctuates repeatedly the various directives and laws in Leviticus. Thus Leviticus 19.9-18 ends with the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Thus, this important ethical teaching is grounded in God and God’s relation to our humanity. The ethical and the holy are united. Leviticus helps us to think about the meaning of holiness and to see its relation to our lives ethically.
Leviticus is an especially formidable book. Yet it is an essential part of the Torah and reflects deeply upon the themes of creation. What makes Leviticus so formidable? It is a collection of rules and regulations that seem arbitrary and obscure in their detail and proscription. Yet is that really very much different from the technocratic world which we inhabit? A world of dictates and rules, of the endlessness of bureaucracy that seems to serve only itself? Our reading and meditating upon Leviticus may awaken us to a wisdom that speaks more deeply to us in our relations with one another.
One of the least read of the Scriptures, at least in the Christian Churches, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Why? Because some parts of it seem so antithetical to our contemporary sensibilities. There are daunting passages about cultic rituals and practices that have emerged over many centuries, the origins of which are obscure. They may seem entirely arbitrary but actually, there is a logic at work in the distinction between clean and unclean, or pure and impure. Following the work of the sociologist, Mary Douglas, holiness and purity are closely associated but holiness means more than simply that which is set apart from common usage. It also relates to wholeness, to the idea of the integrity of beings. As she puts it: “To be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual,” in the idea of things in their class or kind. As such, the distinctions in Leviticus are a further working out of the Genesis logic of creation as order through the distinguishing of things from one another. Similar arguments are present in Philo and Origen, Jewish and Christian exegetes from the first and third centuries CE as well as other Patristic writers.
The ethical demands in Leviticus are grounded in the identity of God who identifies himself to us as the fruition and perfection of our humanity. In those places which seem to be forbiddingly particular and restricted to the limits of a tribal culture, we also see the aspects of something more universal: an ethical understanding of the stranger in our midst, about the sabbath of the land, about the concept of jubilee, and about how one deals with the inequalities of wealth. Though Leviticus seems to point to older tribal forms of identity, the text makes clear that it also opens us to the grandeur and grace of God; in short, to our wholeness as holiness.
Justice is a major concern in Leviticus. “You shall do no injustice in judgement” (Lev. 19.15) both in terms of thoughts and deeds. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19.17). These directives extend to the stranger, the sojourner. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19.33,34). The stranger, the sojourner, is thus your neighbour. This way of thinking is grounded in God’s relation to his people, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19.34); echoing Exodus in the giving of the Law.
The ethical demands of Leviticus extend to human dealings with the land, to dealing with the created order with justice and care; again, an echo of Genesis and the idea of creation as an order that demands our respect and care, and in ways that speak to our world and our concerns. Thus, Leviticus extends the sabbath of God to “a sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev. 25.4), a time of leaving the fields fallow. There is also the idea of leaving the gleanings of the fields after harvest “for the poor and for the stranger.” The concept of Jubilee in the fiftieth year signals the proclamation of “liberty throughout the land” in terms of debts owed and in the making of contracts. What is emphasised is an ethic of justice, of not wronging one another in the pursuit of self-interest. Once again, the teaching is grounded in God. “You shall not wrong one another” in matters of the buying and selling of goods, “but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 25. 17). Thus, the love of God and the love of neighbour are constantly intertwined and belong to that higher vision of justice as seasoned by mercy. They challenge and counter the instrumental view of justice embedded in our technocratic culture. They remind us of the primacy of love.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy