Are the Ancient Levitical Laws Still Relevant?
Why Read Leviticus?
Many people skim through the Book of Leviticus, indeed if they even read it at all. And why not? It doesn’t have the excitement and drama of the Book of Judges; you’ll see no stories of mighty warriors slaying the arrogant Philistines in the Book of Leviticus. It lacks the Poetry of the Psalms or the vivid imagery of the Book of Job. There’s none of the world-wide floods shown in Genesis or the multi-eyed angelic, monster-like creatures mentioned in Revelations. Instead, Leviticus is a book of laws. As dry and dusty as an abandoned attic, and as far as some people are concerned, about half as useful too.
The Book of Leviticus is a law book for an ancient nation. Historians who specialize in ancient texts, archaeologists, and rabbis may find Leviticus to be of profound interest. However, most people would no sooner read Leviticus than they would the book of local laws for Peoria, Illinois. Most people don’t care about old-timey cures for infectious skin diseases or the proper cleansing of mildew. Leviticus can seem long-winded and considering that it’s the book that holds all 613 mitzvot that the Jews must follow, maybe it can be forgiven for seeming a little dull.
It would be a shame to dismiss the book outright though. Because “though it be madness, yet there be method to it.” Unlike other national laws, written before or since, Leviticus has heart. Written during a time when it was the custom to own other human beings, Leviticus demanded that they be treated as humans, not property. Steps were put in place to end blood feuds. Punishments were developed that fit the crime. Social welfare programs were created to protect the most vulnerable citizens. Laws were made to protect foreigners. The Levitical laws didn’t exist to create extra taxes and fines for the wealthy, they were handed down by God himself to ensure a separate and holy people.
You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.— Leviticus 20:26
This is in direct contrast to other civilizations at the time. The Code of Ur-Nammu was from ancient Sumer and is the oldest known code of law in existence. (It predates the code of Hammurabi by about 300 years.) It may well be the first laws of any civilization. Though historically they are very interesting, they weren’t exactly progressive. A person who failed to appear before the king would be put to death. A woman who told her husband that he was no longer her husband must be thrown into the river and drowned. Conversely a man who told his wife that she was no longer his wife must pay a fine of one half mana of silver.
Meanwhile, the afore mentioned Code of Hammurabi differed little from the Code of Ur-Nammu. The river was punishment for the wife who insulted her husband. They used the death penalty on robbers. And may God be with the surgeon who was unlucky enough to have a nobleman die on his operating table—the doctor’s hands were to be cut off. A poor man who couldn’t pay his debts was to sell his wife and children into slavery for four years.
Suddenly, the “eye for an eye” of the Old Testament doesn’t seem so ghastly. An eye for an eye doesn’t make the whole world blind, as Gandhi had claimed, it prevented revenge killings. Or at least, that was the intent. Jewish law at the time was very progressive. God made sure that groups who would ordinarily remain unprotected under other Mesopotamian laws, were safe under Jewish law. The laws were in place to create a just and fair civilization. When God created Eden, he had only one law, unfortunately, mankind broke that law and the whole earth quickly descended into chaos. Thus, it was necessary to create new laws, laws that would not only create order and aid civilization but would actually produce a change of heart.
If you follow my decrees and re careful to obey my commands...I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year's harvest when you have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place among you, and will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God and you will be my people.— Leviticus 26:3, 9-12
The Reason for the Laws
Here in the United States there are some fairly progressive laws, and the United Kingdom, and Japan and other countries are pretty enlightened as well, as far as the legal system is concerned. There is, of course, a law forbidding murder, which is good. There are laws against kidnapping and theft. However, Leviticus 19:17 takes it further and instructs us not to hate our brothers in our hearts. The following verse reiterates that point and commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves and release any ideas of revenge. We can’t even hold a grudge against anybody! The purpose of the text, of all the laws, is to instill a purified heart. Imagine if the United States had a federal law stating that we must love the foreigner among us. How many of us would be criminals?
As it is, it’s impossible to keep all 613 laws. If a person was diligent they could keep many. However, the simple act of trying to keep the laws would help a person to develop a habit of concern and love in all their actions; love for both God and for each other. On the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus clarified the intent behind all the laws was love. He would begin by saying ‘you have heard it say this; But I tell you that.’ The purpose behind the laws wasn’t legalism, it was a change of heart. The Sermon on the Mount didn’t absolve us of the laws of the prophets. Jesus told us that he came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. If anything, Jesus’ version was even more strict than the original version. Why? Because after all that time, the Israelites still didn’t get it. The purpose of the law was love, and they still hadn’t gotten their hearts right with God. 2,000 years later and it remains a daily struggle for us all.
Leviticus was written to create a change of hearts for the Israelites. The God of all creation had chosen, because of His promise to Abraham, an insignificant tribe in the middle of a land-locked desert. He told them not to make room in their lives for God. Oh no, they were to fit their entire lives around God. He was the center, not the periphery. To this day, we are to keep God the center. God saw fit that His law remains intact and continues to this day. Thousands of years later there are still many Jews and some Christians who maintain the Biblical laws. By striving to obey the laws, one can’t help but feel a change in their hearts. As they focus on the love and the purity, they will develop habits of love and purity in their own daily lives.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbors life. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you do not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.— Leviticus 19:16-18
Only God Can Save Us
The law can’t save us. That was never its purpose. Only God can save us. But our lives didn’t end with Jesus that day on the cross, they began that day. We are born anew in Christ, and with that gift of salvation we should strive to be holy as God is holy. (Leviticus 11:44) The Levitical laws help us to achieve such righteousness. It may not matter any more if a man’s beard is not cut right or if we mix different types of linens. I’m sure that many people who have memorial tattoos have still gotten into Heaven, along with those who have planted different kinds of seed.
However by focusing on the intent behind the laws: God’s holiness and the righteousness He expects from us, we can all become better Christians. Especially when we combine Leviticus with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We should seek to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) and always focus on love; love for God and love for each other. For that is the Law in a nutshell. God’s law shows the high standards He has for us. Let us rise to His ideals.
© 2018 Anna Watson