Thursday, 2 January 2014

New Year, new post! A brief look at Levitical law and what it teaches us about God's justice.

Old Testament law is not often at the forefront of Western Christian teaching. Yet Christ himself declared he had not come to “abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfil them”[1]. His ‘Nazareth Manifesto’[2] quotes Isaiah and references Jubilee, indicating he regarded the law and prophets related to his work, therefore law becomes important to his followers as an indicator of Missio Dei. However, law books are highly contextual; care must be taken in discerning principles behind specific commands. We begin with an overview of genre and origin of Leviticus, then take two passages from Leviticus 19 (vv.5-8 and 9-10), consider their implications for Ancient Israel and discuss relevance for those seeking to follow Christ today.

Leviticus as law:

There is much debate about the origin of Leviticus. Since Wellhausen’s Prolegomena the accepted view has placed Leviticus as post-exilic[3], possibly responding to prophetic criticism[4] and redacted from earlier sources[5]. More traditional views locate Leviticus’ origins at the Exodus, with Moses as author. Wenham notes linguistic evidence linking Leviticus and Ezekiel to point to authorship between the two positions[6]. Naturally there is implication for the reading of the text as instruction for Israel as it took possession of land or as a comment on a later society. The content of the text would suggest that, even if written as late as 5BCE it is likely an attempt to relate the essence of pre-monarchic Hebrew religion[7].

It is also uncertain whether Leviticus is a compilation of multiple authors (suggested by source criticism) or the work of one author, albeit drawing from different sources (suggested by an anthropological reading recognising analogical consistency)[8] . This has led to two views of the book’s structure. Typically, commentators offer a linear, two-part structure beginning with laws pertinent to priests and concluding with instruction for laity. Douglas, however, outlines a ‘textual-image’ of the tabernacle, with specific passages marked by corresponding ‘location’[9]. The two are not wholly incompatible and in both chapter 19 has significance. Framed by the inter-relating chapters 18 and 20[10] it is seen by the former as switching from priestly to lay instruction[11] and by the latter as marking progress from Outer Court to Sanctuary[12]. The latter view interestingly links chapter 19 with chapter 25 (the next ‘curtain’ in the model) which, we shall see, is highly appropriate. Whichever view is taken, the book is carefully structured for a purpose and needs to be understood as an entity rather than a collection of fragments to be plucked from at will.

Regardless of source, general agreement is that the key theme is Holiness[13]. This is achieved by divine dispensation[14], but law instructs Israel how such holiness can be maintained and restored and provides a frame of reference for defining righteousness and justice. Although ‘law’ is often understood in a legalistic, prescriptive sense, linguistic study suggests rather than command the book depicts a society “in which these things are done”[15].  These instructions are often designated ritual, which serves as ‘Social Drama’[16] through which worldview is conveyed, and ethical. Chapter 19 contains a blend of both, placed alongside with clear meaning that holiness is not a matter of simply religiosity or morality. There is no such duality. Indeed, Hartropp claims “righteousness” and “justice” here are really different translations of the same underlying reality[17]. To live ‘justly’, according to the law, is to be righteous.  In the following examples we shall take one ‘ritual’ instruction and one ‘ethical’ instruction to see how ‘ritual’ informs morality and the “Obligations of life in its simplest and commonest details… [are] transfigured.” [18]


It is too simple to claim Leviticus 19:9-10 means care for the poor. Wenham states a farmer who did not “Reap to the very edges”[19] of his land would not be helping the poor in today’s urbanised society; that “Giving to charity” or “Supporting welfare schemes” is closer to the spirit of the command[20].  He may be right to suggest that “Inefficient combines are of no benefit to the poor in our society”[21], however neither is uncritical support of welfare schemes and charity. Gleaning tells us more about how God views relationships between the affluent and the poor. As the British welfare system struggles under massive strain this kind of study is invaluable.

Some comment has been made about maintenance of dignity by a system through which those without their own land are able to sustain themselves through work[22], this is particularly important in an honour-based society where the inability to support a family was cause for shame[23]. In the book of Ruth, Boaz is able to ensure Ruth has extra grain to take home by instructing workers to let some drop intentionally[24]. Gleaning allowing the landowner to show mercy without condescension is the vehicle through which the narrative of Ruth plays out. That the gleaner must work to earn their keep deters culture of dependence. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard[25] depicts a landowner employing similar approach in a different context. In this instance he repeatedly returns to hire more of those stood facing shame in the public marketplace; marked as unable to provide for their household, increasingly unlikely to be able to buy food that day[26]. The landowner does not need extra labour, but acts generously with the means at his disposal to ensure they are cared for in a way which does not shame them or cause them to become indebted to him. Although this is a parable, not a commandment, the link between the action of the landowner and the kingdom of heaven suggests indication of how position of affluence is to be used in line with the will of God.

The idea of not maximising production from land sits uncomfortably in a society where Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” with its declaration of obligation to generate high profit margins has become the adopted model[27]. Efficiency is crucial in a fast-paced world and the casualties of demand for high turnover are numerous. Maybe gleaning in the modern world resembles a business owner who employs those others would turn away, a well-equipped facility making equipment available for others’ use at times, rather than maximising output. These have potential to foster greater self-esteem than financial hand-outs and may go some way to redressing poverty rather than maintaining it.

We mentioned above that, according to Douglas, Leviticus 19 and 25 are linked by the structure of Leviticus. This is important since 19:9-10 do not stand alone commenting about land use and poverty. Chapter 25 introduces the concept of Jubilee which redresses balance in society, preventing the gap between affluence and poverty from growing irredeemably. Inflation is capped by regular redistribution of land. In Ruth, the women’s survival is by gleaning but their stability is not assured until Boaz fulfils his role as redeemer[28]. In Deuteronomy the instruction about gleaning is validated with a statement about Israel’s treatment in Egypt[29], pointing to divine redemption to come. In this way we are informed that care for the poor is not a long-term solution but a stop-gap until the next period of ‘redemption’. Jubilee draws upon the idea that all land belongs to God and is merely stewarded by humans[30], thus what is bought is a lease rather than land itself. Where land is bought and sold at escalating cost and considered ‘owned’ by those who hold deeds, how can we imagine the principle of Jubilee today?

There is substantial evidence that the early church practiced a form of Jubilee[31] in a context where land was claimed by Rome. Private property was allowed, but human value took priority and so “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” [32] In this way a form of redistribution of wealth took place. When the church spread, the collection for the church in Jerusalem demonstrates that this principle extended beyond the local congregation. 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 summarises the principle well; in abundance care for others, you need not fear poverty as others will care for you. Held together, concepts of gleaning and Jubilee have real potential to redress increasing rich/poor divide.

Wellbeing Offering:

Vast cultural differences between Modern Western and Ancient Hebrew society, coupled with difficulties in translating archaic linguistic terms for which there is little comparative documentation available[33], necessitates care interpreting sacrificial meaning . Balentine’s ‘Social Drama’ places emphasis not on ritual but on what cosmic truths it conveys, but our ability to discover this is hindered by the concern of the priestly text with process[34] and that the interpretation of sacrifice changed throughout the period in which sources were compiled and redacted[35]. Attempts to understand the role of sacrifice in Leviticus come from three main areas: Historical Criticism, Anthropology and contributions of Jewish scholars such as Milgrom[36]. We will allow all three to speak into an understanding of Leviticus 19:5-8.

Inclusion of sacrificial guidelines at this point in the text is explained by proponents of linear composition as due to the position of the ‘wellbeing offering’ as the only sacrifice which the laity were allowed to handle[37]; thus important to feature in this section aimed at the common life of Israel. In Douglas’ ‘textual-image’ structure the significance of this sacrifice at this point could relate to ideas of sacrifice as communion; a shared meal with God since part of the sacrifice was burnt and the remainder eaten by the offerer and his family[38]. Important for both understandings is that meat of the Peace Offering could be eaten by the laity, we will return to this shortly.

In speaking about sacrifice it is natural for the Christian to place Jesus in the role of sacrificial victim. Depicted as ‘paschal lamb’, Christ is associated with the animal slaughtered in the Passover festival and traditionally his death is seen as an expiating sacrifice “once, for all” [39]. However, Rowley comments that the Passover was not seen as a ‘typical’ sacrifice but as a particular festival[40], so it may not be appropriate to see the death of Christ as fulfilment of all Old Testament sacrifice. Jesus observed Jewish festivals, didn’t condemn sacrifice[41] and there is evidence removal of sacrifice from Christian custom came about with the destruction of the temple in 70AD[42] and influence of Hellenistic philosophy[43] rather than in response to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let us return, therefore, to the question of the Peace Offering specifically. As we have noted, the distinctive property of this sacrifice was that meat from it could be eaten by the laity. Scholars largely agree that all slaughter was considered sacrifice[44] until Josiah’s centralization necessitated introduction of secular slaughter[45]. Leviticus 17 declared only meat offered at the altar was to be eaten, so here we have another example of a law which does not stand alone. The type of animal which may be sacrificed is also dictated by law. Ringgren notes animals declared ‘unclean’ are sacrificed by other nations, so the restriction, along with the warnings in Leviticus 17, remind Israel it stands apart[46]. Douglas finds another explanation, particularly concerned with animals listed as ‘abhorrent’. She suggests that the purpose of branding creatures as such is to dissuade humans from meddling with them[47]. Thus Levitical law limiting consumption of meat to sacrificial victims, and sacrificial victims to livestock kept and bred[48] restricts impact of human consumption upon creation and ensures slaughter is properly acknowledged and ‘sanctified’. At a time when US slaughterhouses typically kill 1,100 pigs per hour[49] and much of the result is wasted maybe we could learn to value animal life more from the example of sacrifice?

Leviticus states any leftovers are to be burned on the third day, possibly an encouragement to share the meat (and the occasion for which sacrifice is presented) with others[50] as well as for hygiene reasons. This links with verses 9-10 which, as we have already seen, advocate sharing of resources. Jesus’ injunction to “invite the poor” to our banquets[51] brings this element into direct reference for the Christian life. We are not to celebrate God’s bounty alone.


We have looked briefly at two small elements of Leviticus and seen that the context in which it was written was very different from our own, nor are experts agreed on what exactly that context was. Temptation is to find small pieces we believe we can understand, applying them directly to circumstances we relate to; for example, taking gleaning as meaning provision for the poor and therefore charity. Yet ritual elements remind us how alien concepts referred to in the law are to us and warn us not to assume we share the same world view. We have also seen that taking individual ‘laws’ in isolation means we miss building a larger picture of Holiness before God as depicted in the book as a whole. If we separate care for the poor from redistribution of land we end up with perpetual moderation of escalating poverty levels. If we connect sacrifice and restrictions on slaughter we are presented with a picture of God’s care to protect His creation from human greed. The book has much to teach us about Israel’s understanding of righteousness and God, and therefore our own, but we must be careful not to be hasty in drawing conclusions based only on our own societal perspective.

[1] Matthew 5:17
[2] Luke 4:18
[3] Wenham, 1979, p9
[4] Sawyer, 1996, p74
[5] Sawyer, 1996, p67
[6] Wenham, 1979, p13
[7] Douglas, 1999, p8
[8] Douglas, 1999, p34
[9] Douglas, 1999, p234
[10] Balentine, 2002, p155
[11] Balentine, 2002, p8
[12] Douglas, 1999, p223
[13] Sawyer, 1996, p215
[14] Sawyer, 1996, p66
[15] Douglas, 1999, p35
[16] Balentine, 2002, p3
[17] Hartropp, 2007, p17
[18] Wenham, 1979, p265
[19] Leviticus 19:9
[20] Wenham, 1979, p274
[21] Ibid.
[22] Hastings, 1902, p314
[23] Hartropp, 2007, p71
[24] Ruth 2:16
[25] Matthew 20
[26] Bailey, 2008, p359
[27] Sider, 1977, p102
[28] Ruth 4:9-10
[29] Deuteronomy 24:19-22
[30] Douglas, 1999, p87
[31] Sider, 1977, p88
[32] Acts 2:45
[33] Kitchen, 1966, p149
[34] Beckwith, 1995, p25
[35] Ibid, p28
[36] Ibid, p25
[37] Milgrom, 2000, p1615
[38] Ringgren, 1966, p155
[39] Ashby, 1988, p100
[40] Rowley, 1967, p116
[41] Ashby, 1988, p50
[42] Ibid. p52
[43] Ibid. p53
[44] Rowley, 1967, p119
[45] Ringgren, 1966, p171
[46] Ibid, p142
[47] Douglas, 1999, p157
[48] Ibid, p140
[50] Milgrom, 2000, p1623
[51] Luke 14, 12-14