Leviticus: lawyer’s paradise

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

From time to time I hear of people making new year resolutions to read through the whole of the Bible in a year. Very often, Leviticus is where such schemes get bogged down, and what seemed a good idea on 31st December seems like a very poor idea by the middle to end of January. It may not be surprising therefore that there is only one reading from Leviticus in the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle.

This probably matches most Christian views of the book as mainly concerned with Jewish ritual, accompanied by the conclusion that it is therefore mainly irrelevant. The one reading that is used is an excerpt from Leviticus 19. Today’s post therefore seems a good point to stop for a moment and think about this genre or category of law, and see if we can deepen our appreciation of this little read book.

There has been a long Christian tradition of saying that after Jesus, the ritual law has been set aside for Christians, but the moral law is still valid. A good example can be found in the Anglican articles of religion:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Article 7 of the 39 Articles of Religion

As a rough and ready distinction it kind of works: the problem is that it’s not a distinction that the text of scripture makes. Purity in the bible is both a ritual and a moral category, and holiness – God’s holiness – is presented equally in moral and ritual terms.

Holiness is a tricky concept, and the word means different things in different contexts. One way to think about it is as being different. To say God is holy is to say he is different. God is different from the universe: all created things have a beginning and an end: God stands outside time and space. In many of the stories of the Old Testament, this point of understanding has not yet been reached, yet in virtually all of them YHWH1 is seen as different from all other gods.

Because God is different, he wants his people to live differently. That difference is sometimes about how they worship – no idols – and sometimes about how they live – for example, leaving the wheat at the sides of the field for the poor rather than harvesting everything (Lev 19:9). Both the ritual and the ethical are alike included in the word holy. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Law in the bible is instruction on how to be different: how to be God’s people.

The laws in scripture are both embedded into very particular cultural contexts, and contain some universal implications for what patterns of obedience to God might look like. As a reader, you can expect the preacher to do the heavy lifting of helping interpret the text, but it is best to read the whole with attentiveness and care.

Leviticus 19, the one portion selected for Sunday reading, is an interesting case in point, and so important they chose it twice.2 Sometimes, in church groups, I have invited people to go through and divide the different laws into categories: which seem to be redundant today, which seem to be directly relevant today, and which might be relevant, but need interpretation or translation into contemporary categories. You might like to try that exercise for yourself.

As people sort them into those lists, they start thinking it will be easy, and find it becomes difficult quite quickly. Most groups I’ve done that exercise with end up agreeing that everything needs interpretation, whether it appears relevant or not. Even the key verse, and the reason this passage gets included in the liturgy, needs interpretation.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

In fact, you could say that the reason Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is precisely because even such an apparently universal law as “love your neighbour as yourself” needs interpreting. Who exactly is “my neighbour”? Whom do I have to love? Jesus’ answer, offered only in the parable, is not one his legally minded conversation partner had thought of: “That’s the wrong question. The right one is, “Whom can I be a neighbour to?”

That should be no surprise: all laws need interpreting, otherwise a whole bench of judges would be out of work. The laws of the bible are, in that respect, like law everywhere.


  1. See yesterday’s post on the divine name if you don’t understand this set of initials.
  2. Both in Year A, Proper 3 or the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is shared between lectionaries, and Anglicans and Protestants using the RCL get it a second time with Proper 25.

One thought on “Leviticus: lawyer’s paradise

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #166: November 2019 – Theology Pathfinder

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