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Leviticus 18-26

June 23, 2012

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. – Leviticus 24:17-20

I think there are two main things I want in my reading material: one is that I want things to be happening, and the other is that I want those happenings to be well-written.  Leviticus falls short in both of those regards, and that is most of the reason that it is my least favorite book so far.

One of the only small rays of light and pleasantness in the whole 26-chapter book comes in Leviticus 19, which includes the phrase “. . .you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bumper sticker or a tattoo directing readers to that particular chapter and verse, despite its positive message and concise wording.  Perhaps people feel, with justification, that it’s better to steer clear of Leviticus entirely.

For the most part there is no narrative here, and little effort at eloquence.  We are subjected to God’s continuing litany of rules and instructions which he imparts to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The passage of time is difficult to detect, although I get the sense that Moses is going back and forth from the mountain to the nascent desert community of Hebrews and that many months elapse before all of the laws are communicated.  The list of rules covers subjects such as animal offerings, whom one may not lie with (somewhere in here is the rule about men not lying with men as with women, but of course there’s nothing specific about women lying with women as with men; I’m not going to get into this right now, it’s a whole other rant and there will probably be another opportunity), how certain crimes and sins should be punished (with death, quite often), and what kinds of people can do what things.  Priests and lay people, the slaves or priests and the slaves of lay people, and the in-laws of priests and of lay people, for example, all have different rights and responsibilities.

All this amounts to a fairly detailed description of how an ancient, very religious society felt it ought to operate.  That sounds interesting enough in theory, but as a reader it would be preferable to observe these rules in action, through examples and stories.  When do we get parables?  When will we return to character-based storytelling?  When will people be doing things?

There are two or three fleeting moments in Leviticus when narrative reasserts itself, and when it does the results are fairly disturbing.  But I suppose it may be preferable to be disturbed than to be bored, so I’ll end my discussion of this dull book by recounting one of these events.  A man living among the Hebrews was the son of a Hebrew mother and Egyptian father.  He got in a fight with an Israelite and “blasphemed the Name” of God.  So they brought him before Moses and “put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them.”

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. . . The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” – Leviticus 24:10-13

It was a vicious, uncompromising, bloody code of laws that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.  There are moments of compassion and instructions to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but more common and perhaps more memorable are the warnings that transgressions will bring “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” upon perpetrators.

That’s nothing I didn’t already know, which is a big reason Leviticus was such a bad read.  I am in this to expand my limited knowledge of the Bible, find things in it to enjoy and appreciate, and share my reactions from the perspective of a confirmed atheist.  I emerge from Leviticus fairly empty handed, so I am glad to be moving on to the fourth book, Numbers.

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