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Living Leviticus

July 30, 2008

Over at Christianity Today they’ve got an odd piece about Park Street Church (in Boston) attempting to live the laws in Leviticus for a month. It’s a fascinating read, though perhaps not for the reasons intended.

The interpretive hermeneutic was to contextualize Leviticus for the twenty-first century Christian.

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross ended any need for animal sacrifice, and the anointing Spirit of Pentecost rendered obsolete the need for a special priesthood.

Being a vegetarian, I appreciate the fact that no animals were harmed in the making of this extended sermon analogy; but is it really as simple as all this? For one thing, not every animal sacrifice in Leviticus is about atonement or reparation from sin. Any time you want meat it seems Yhwh has to be involved at some level. Similarly, I think most Christians would disagree with the assessment that a special priesthood is “obsolete.” This is strictly a Protestant viewpoint, not a Christian one. It would have been far more interesting at the outset if every time folks wanted to cook a hamburger they had to perform a ritual with their pastor before lighting the grill.

Another portion that starts off so well and ends hard is the following:

Leviticus isn’t in the Bible merely to show you your need for grace. It’s in the Bible to show you what grace is for. The ancient Israelites were already chosen people before God gave them the Law. The Law’s purpose was never to save anybody. Rather, its purpose was to show saved people how to live a saved life.

Aside from the fact that this reading kind of skips Judaism entirely, the quote starts at a good place. After all, the Torah is not there to earn one’s way to heaven. Regardless of what may be said on Sunday mornings throughout the country and world, the Torah has always been about the grace God extended to Israel.

But, I’d have to disagree with the stated purpose of showing saved people how to live a saved life. Aside from the fact that this is importing language from certain (though by no means every) New Testament traditions, it disregards what ritual prescriptions do: they sanctify and delineate. Through adherence to the commandments in Leviticus, one is set apart. The refrain from the Holiness Code reverberates in my ears: “be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Through ritual prescription and abstinence, the Israelite is to mirror God. For a group of modern Evangelicals, you’d think this would be the cats meow. I wonder why it wasn’t stressed more. In the article, reference is made to growing a beard as “distinguished you from clean-shaven pagans”. I have problems with the particulars (Ashurbanipal, clean-shaven?), but I think this gets at the heart of the issue — it’s about separating yourself from those not under God’s grace. If this sounds counter to the Christian message of the New Testament, you’ve begun to see why the New Testament authors jettison the food laws to begin with.

I don’t have a problem with contemporary experiments to “live Levitically.” I don’t have a problem with Christians, of whatever stripes, trying to take a book of the Bible seriously — especially when it is probably the most beloved book to me personally. What fundamentally bothers and confounds me about this experiment is that after going through the ritual and trying, in earnest, to encoroporate the proscriptions and learn from the injunctions that the lesson taken away could still be so at odds with the meaning of the text itself.

  1. drunkdreamer8 permalink
    July 30, 2008 1:44 am

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  2. July 30, 2008 3:37 pm

    Thanks, Jim, for a fine post. It makes me want to know more about your thoughts on Leviticus.

    There are many many believers – Christians and Jews alike – who think that their faith is about now having any rules except the one about loving your neighbor as yourself. In this sense, a famous quote from Augustine is often misinterpreted: “love God, and do whatever you please.” That is, “love God” is reduced to a placeholder equivalent to love your neighbor as yourself.

    To those who think in this way, it is beyond them that someone might love God precisely by being a vegetarian, a Nazirite, or by taking a ritual bath after a menstrual cycle.

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