The Babylonian Captivity of Leviticus

In 586 BC the Babylonian Empire conquered the remnant kingdom of Judah, sacked the city of Jerusalem, razed the Temple of Solomon, and took most of the surviving populace into captivity elsewhere in their empire.  It was a political move: by forcing migration of conquered peoples, local cultural and religious identity (it was thought) would be destroyed after a generation or two, and the empire would continue as its central conquering culture and religion dominates all others.  To the Babylonians, the Jews were like most other neighboring peoples: a potential slave force, an economic tool, a political asset.

Over the course of history, many people and things of God have been described to be in a sort of “Babylonian Captivity” – a position of enslavement to the political machinations of an agenda foreign to the Gospel of God.  One such hostage I have observed in recent years is the third book of the Bible: Leviticus.

This oft-misunderstood book falls prey to many masters these days – liberal progressives, conservative reactionaries, and even atheist skeptics.  The flagrant misuse of the book of Leviticus by these parties is so rampant that even many well-meaning folks caught in the middle end up not knowing what to do about this odd book, themselves.

Slave Master #1: Cherry Picking

This is a basic and common issue that every part of the Bible falls plague to.  It’s just all the more rampant with Leviticus because (I think I can safely bet) very few people actually bother to read it all the way through.  It’s also especially easy to do this with Leviticus because it’s a book (like Proverbs) where individual verses often form a complete thought that do essentially stand alone.  Basically:

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Slave Master #2: Political Posturing (Left or Right)

This is where most of the internet memes I see come into play.  On the “left” side of the political spectrum you find people highlighting a sort of social justice agenda in Leviticus.  At the time of writing this article, one of the most popular quotes from Leviticus on Facebook is 19:33-34 and similar passages, declaring the ancient Israelite civil law concerning foreigners.

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This verse, on its own, is used correctly.  However, there’s no sense of context.  What else does the Bible teach about foreigners?  What about the ban on Israelite intermarriage with other nations?  What about participation versus exclusion in the Israelite feasts and fasts of the year?  The primary intention behind sharing this verse is to prop up a political agenda, not to further the biblical message.

The “right wing” is no better.  Leviticus has some famous laws declaring homosexual activity an “abomination” in the classic translations.

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This again, is political posturing.  These are not traditionalist Christians trying to communicate the message of the Bible, these are socio-political conservatives trying to bolster their socio-political agenda.  As with the previous example, the basic message of this individual verse is used correctly, but (again as with the previous example) there is a lot more to be said which is omitted.

If you want to talk about biblical teachings on the treatment of foreigners and Christian sexual ethics, Leviticus is only one piece of the puzzle.  It is not anyone’s lap dog for quick and easy proof texts.

Slave Master #3a: Discrediting by Absurdity

Once the hypocrisy of the cherry-pickers and the political posturers becomes painfully obvious, the skeptics rush in with yet another angle of attack on this book: by pointing out the wacky stuff in Leviticus that everyone else is ignoring.  And yes, there is a lot.

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The idea is once they get you to realize that you’re ignoring certain laws and have zero chance of conforming your life to follow them, it’s entirely your own bigoted fault for clinging to other laws in Leviticus of your own choosing (be it the rejection of homosexuality or the welcoming of foreigners, or whichever cherry-picked verse you’d gone for).  And for many Christians this is a confusing thing, because so few actually bother reading through Leviticus, let alone understand it.

But this is an argument to discredit the book of Leviticus from outside the Church.  There is also another way people attack Leviticus (intentionally or not) from within the Church…

Slave Master #3b: Discrediting by Antinomianism

The term “anti-nomianism” means “anti-Law”.  It’s a rejection of the Old Testament Law by an argument that it no longer has any place in Christianity whatsoever.  Christians are under grace, not under law, and therefore books like Leviticus are completely obsolete.  Thus you get memes like this:

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Antinomianism is a false teaching, however.  In fact it’s closely related to an outright heresy called Marcionism, which is (mostly) the rejection of the Old Testament for portraying an angry God in contrast to the loving God of the New Testament.  Antinomianism isn’t quite that drastic, but it still puts forth a horrifically deficient view of the Old Testament and only serves to confuse the Christian’s understanding of the Bible.  Christianity doesn’t throw out the Law; rather, it receives it in a different way, through the filter of Jesus Christ.

The Correctives

As the majority of the problems in dealing with Leviticus involve taking verses and biblical ideas out of context, the solution begins with restoring the proper context to our reading of this book.  Unfortunately this is not a simple matter of reading whole paragraphs at a time, whole chapters, or even the whole book.  Leviticus is a very specific type of book set firmly in the collection of the writings of Moses known as “The Law.”  The function of the book of Leviticus, and thereafter its contents, only make sense if you’ve first properly read and understood Genesis and Exodus, and go on to read and understand Numbers, and the summary concluding book to round them off, Deuteronomy.  Even then, you’ve still just got a Jewish understanding of Leviticus, so if you want the Christian understanding you’ve got to study the words of Christ in the Gospel books and the various New Testament writings that deal with Old Testament Law (such as the epistles to the Galatians and to the Hebrews).  In short, Leviticus is one of the more obscure books for us to understand, simply because of the way it is.

There’s probably more than one way to tackle this, but what I have found to be the most useful tool for interpreting Old Testament Law, especially Leviticus, is the classic three categories of the Law: religious law, civil law, and moral law.  As I’ve explained in another post, these distinctions allow us to see more clearly how to receive the laws of books like Leviticus.  Laws that deal with the rites and ceremonies of worship in the Old Covenant have expired, as Jesus has fulfilled those laws, bringing their activity to an end.  We can learn about New Covenant worship and the saving role of Christ from these laws, but it would be blasphemous for us to bring back those old sin offerings in actual practice.  The civil law is similar: it was given for the kingdom of Israel, which was a temporary expression of the Kingdom of God on Earth.  Now that the Kingdom of God made manifest as the Church instead, the civil laws no longer bind us, though they could be used as inspiration for civil laws in other countries if circumstances seem appropriate.  The moral law, finally, is timeless.  Murder and adultery will always be sins no matter the circumstances.  Distinctions can be made between manslaughter and murder, or rape and adultery, but the specifically moral teachings of the book of Leviticus remain to us Christians as immutable standards of holiness.

The challenge that some of this book’s abusers bring to the table is the confusion of the three categories of law.  Some say that the prohibitions against homosexual acts is religious, not moral law.  Some say that the welcoming of foreigners is a moral, not civil law.  Only with these categories in place (or some similar method of understanding Old Testament Law), can actual debate begin.

All this makes me feel rather inspired to engage in a long-term detailed study of the book of Leviticus.  But I know I don’t have time to do this right now, nor will I for the next couple years.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to The Babylonian Captivity of Leviticus

  1. Pingback: The Witchfinders – Ripples in my Tea

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