What is this ancient text; what authority does it have? Can it still claim to rule our lives?
Leviticus is an ancient book of laws and rituals produced by the priestly class whose special function was to carry out the cultic rites in the great Temple at Jerusalem. Inflexible religious attitudes of such functionaries are responsible for some of the stories they told about earlier times.
According to Exodus (32:25-29), when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with his famous tablets and found the Hebrews totally out of control, wildly worshipping the Golden Calf, he stood in the gate of the camp and called for supporters. The sons of Levi left the general mayhem, and gathered around him. Then Moses told them that it was God's command that they should each take their sword and go through the camp killing 'their brothers, their friends and their neighbours'. They dutifully massacred three thousand people, whereupon Moses declared them worthy of 'ordination for the service of the Lord', because each of them had killed a son or a brother, and so had brought a blessing on themselves that day!
With that mindset, it may be no accident that the book of Leviticus is spattered with blood: the blood of animal sacrifices, the blood of death penalties carried out by stoning, burning and simpler forms of killing. Most of the book consists of legal prescriptions, but there are two little narratives included which will give us a taste of the character of the book. They are intended to give a grim warning of the consequences of disobedience to the letter of these laws.
In chapter 10 we hear of two sons of Aaron who don't follow the prescribed ritual. Fire flames out from the presence of God, and they are burned to death 'before the Lord'. Their bodies are then dragged out of the camp, and Moses instructs Aaron and his two surviving sons not to mourn them: otherwise they will die, and God's wrath will strike all the congregation (10:1-7).
In chapter 24 we read the edifying story of the Israelite son of a mixed marriage, who gets into a fight and blasphemes by cursing the name of God. He is imprisoned while the tribe work out what God wants done to him. They are quickly informed by God (speaking through Moses as usual) that aliens as well as citizens are to be put to death for blasphemy; they are to be stoned to death by the whole congregation. The unfortunate victim is taken outside the camp and duly killed in this way. I leave you to decide what image of God's character is being projected here. And just imagine the consequences today if all the swearing and blaspheming we hear on playgrounds, television programmes, and everyday life came under the divine ordination declared in Leviticus. (Incidentally, Leviticus prescribes death by stoning for cursing the name of one's parents, too.)
Much is made of the 'authority' of biblical texts, especially when they are being used as weapons against others. For many centuries, the author of Leviticus was taken to be Moses himself, and as one of the five books at the beginning of the Bible attributed to Moses (called as a group the Pentateuch) the book took on even more authority in the Jewish religious system . . . an authority which was carried over into the Christian religion. What's more, the book largely presents itself as the record of God directly talking to or through Moses. Here is a text which claims divine dictation in a very literal way.
But the days are long gone when anyone could directly claim that the author of the book was Moses himself. Although it contains some very ancient material, modern biblical scholars are pretty much agreed that it is a compilation of older and later writings: a sort of priestly manual or collection of practices, laws and regulations prepared for the priests serving the Temple before its final destruction during the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.
It is equally impossible to recognise the god who-talks-with-Moses-and-Aaron as the God known to us through Jesus Christ -- or indeed any God now worthy of the name. There can be no sense that in Leviticus we are hearing the voice of God speaking eternal truths valid in all times and in all cultures. The god in Leviticus is only too plainly a god made over in the image of the priests who assembled this book. The Leviticus god deals in shekels and grasshoppers and baskets of unleavened bread; in burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, ordination offerings and 'the sacrifice of well-being'. The Leviticus god is a male god, to whom women are insignificant and valueless -- when they are not downright dangerous to male purity. For this god there is no place in worship or religious leadership of any kind.
The Leviticus god is a trivial god, insisting that the weasel, the mouse and the gecko are unclean and may not be eaten; so unclean that if a carcase touches a plate that plate is to be destroyed. The Leviticus god is a quirky and selective god, banning tattoos, men's haircuts and beard trimming; banning male homosexuality -- but with nothing to say about lesbian sex or women's haircuts (surely a curious instance of oversight, or ignorance or indifference). He is a god who is tough on incest, but who never thinks to forbid sex between a father and his daughter. He is a jealous, manipulative god who promises peace, good weather, the removal of all dangerous animals, amazing fertility, complete military success and lots of children in exchange for total obedience to the laws and statutes set down in Leviticus.
Leviticus accepts the practice of slavery; it assigns women a position of absolute inferiority and virtual servitude to males (50 shekels for a male between the age of twenty and sixty, 30 shekels for a female; 20 shekels for a male between the age of five to twenty, 10 for a female; women who bear a son are declared ceremonially unclean for 7 days, two weeks if a daughter is born); it bans the wearing of any cloth of mixed material (so much for T shirts of cotton and polyester); it declares pork, ostrich meat and eels detestable, unclean and not to be eaten, but allows crickets, grasshoppers and locusts to be on the menu. It gives elaborate instructions for the slaughter of sacrificial animals so that God may smell the pleasing odour of such choice bits as the fat covering the entrails, and be pleased by a thank-offering or placated by a guilt-offering. It proclaims a justice code of strict revenge-punishments -- 'a life for a life, anyone who maims another is to be maimed, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, the injury inflicted is the inhury to be suffered'.
Leviticus and its priestly writers are obsessed with ideas of ritual purity and the mysterious (to them) physical processes which might sully the holiness of priests or the purity of ordinary individuals. Leviticus divides everything into the clean and the unclean. Sexual intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, the consumption of blood in food, the onset of disease and death are all hedged about with purity regulations because they might pollute the whole community and the individuals concerned, as well as offending God. These are pre-scientific attitudes which have flowed on into post-biblical cultures, well down into our own day; they are often reflected in the various forms of new Puritanism that keep emerging among conservative religious groups of many different faiths.
But Leviticus cannot be heard as the final Word of God on any of the matters it deals with, including human sexuality. It is a fascinating window into an ancient culture, but it cannot be taken as laying down binding prescriptions for modern Christians, let alone for modern secular communities like our own. Those who select verses and use them to support their own prejudices while ignoring the majority of the book harm the Bible's standing as a fundamental document of our faith, just as much as they give the Christian faith a bad name by rejecting its all-inclusive welcome and its foundation on love not law.
Of course the approach I have taken to this book raises serious questions about how to read the whole Bible. If we can't believe that God stood at the entrance of the tent of meetings and told Moses and the Israelites not to eat geckos, can we believe that God literally spoke with anyone else, anywhere? But that's another larger subject: perhaps another sermon!