May 2, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: More laws from the Book of Leviticus

John F. Fink(Seventeenth in a series of columns)

Last week, I dealt with the first 16 chapters of the Book of Leviticus.

Chapter 17 is the beginning of the “Code of Legal Holiness.” It begins by emphasizing the sacredness of blood. Since blood was considered the seat and sign of life, even the butchering of animals was seen as having a sacrificial character.

Verse 11 tells us that “it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement” (Lv 17:11). The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament applied that idea to the death of Christ, inasmuch as “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22).

Chapter 18 is about the sanctity of sex. Marriage, as well as casual intercourse, is forbidden between men and women of various degrees of relationship. I might note that “you shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife” (Lv 18:16) is the commandment John the Baptist accused Herod Antipas of having done. (An exception to that law is made in Deuteronomy 25:5 when a man dies and his brother is advised to marry his widow to raise up children in his name.)

Apparently some of the things condemned in this chapter were practiced by the Canaanites because the Israelites are warned not to conform to their customs.

Chapter 19 has a variety of rules of conduct, especially concerned with defending the rights of the weak. It includes the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18). It also commands, “Do not tattoo yourselves” (Lv 19:28), forbids consulting fortune-tellers (Lv 19:31), and says, “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the native born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself” (Lv 19:34), one of numerous times that this commandment appears in the Old Testament.

Chapter 20 repeats some of the commandments but adds penalties to each, some severe, especially regarding idolatry and incest.

Chapters 21-25 deal with priestly matters and public worship. They begin with the sanctity of the priesthood, with special rules for priests governing marriage, deformities and uncleanness. For example, “The priest shall marry a virgin. Not a widow or a woman who has been divorced or a woman who has lost her honor as a prostitute, but a virgin” (Lv 21:13-14).

Priests also may not be blind, lame, have a crippled foot, be humpbacked, or afflicted with eczema, ringworm or hernia (Lv 21:18-19).

Chapter 23 has rules for the Jewish holy days, beginning with the Sabbath and then Passover, Pentecost (50 days after Passover), New Year’s Day, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths. Booths celebrated the fruit harvest. For seven days, the Israelites camped in booths of branches on the roofs of their houses in commemoration of their wandering in the desert, where they dwelt in booths.

Chapter 25 concerns the sabbatical year, every seventh year when no planting is done, and the jubilee year, every 50 years when property and debts return to their original owners. However, there’s no evidence that the Jews actually observed them. †

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