The book of Leviticus is admonished for being boring: protocols for sacrifices, priestly garments, the dimensions of the Temple, and laws upon laws. It becomes an inside joke in churches. The dreariness of Bible reading is lumped onto those early Old Testament texts.
Yet Leviticus teaches us something tragically painful about Israel’s past which reflects not only Christianity’s origins, but also the mires of daily life we find ourselves in.
“If a man marries both a woman and her mother…”
For a man to marry both a woman and her mother is not only illegal, but unspeakably frowned upon. It’s both unthinkable to not only consider, but also that such a warning should be needed for people not to do it.
This very command is found in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 14. If you find this deplorable, good. Consider other verses in the chapter, all incredulous reminders that a society should never have to be reminded of.
It is easy for us to read Leviticus and judge. It feels too far in the past, a distant culture that serves no moral relevance. Consider though the cultural context of slavery the Israelites had just escaped and the pagan worship they would have been surrounded with in Egypt. Then, the warnings begin to make sense.
For the Israelites, our modern senses of morality would not have been a foregone conclusion. Their exposure to pagan worship would have been so entrenched that commands from the Lord would only suffice in deterring them (and even still that was not always sufficient deterrence).
These cultural complexities leave us confused why some cultures, aspiring to such moral heights, have such strange behaviours or laws. One would wonder why such a society seeking such moral standards would require so many logical prohibitions and regulations.
Writing on this concept in a different social setting, Alan Jacobs bares wise words in Breaking Bread with the Dead,
“The prospect of social disorder was not theoretical to them. The question they faced was one, not of good versus evil, but of competing goods” (p. 54).
We see this sort of logic with Moses’ mother in Exodus where the midwives lie to Pharaoh about the surviving Israelite babies. We know lying is a sin, yet the choice the midwives were faced with was not simple binary, but of competing goods: the good of not lying or the good of saving multiple lives from a tyrant.
For the Israelites in Leviticus, there was no good in disobeying God’s commands, yet the concept of competing goods leads us to an understanding that there was good in the Israelites needing to be told, even when we may find it incredulous that it was needed in the first place.
Competing Goods for Christians
This notion continues to play out in the New Testament as it resonates its implications for our daily lives as Christians. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul finds himself needing to remind a church that it is not good for a man to sleep with his father’s wife.
This reminder is more familiar. Perhaps not a father’s wife but, tragically, churches are sometimes caught up in their own scandals. Yet, for the Corinthian church, this behaviour had become prominent enough requiring Paul to remind the church to excommunicate the man for his unrepentant sin.
It is not good when Christians need to be reminded of that which they ought to know. This is admonition given by the writer of Hebrews to Christians who needed to be taught the elementary truths of the faith again (Hebrews chapter 5).
Yet, we know we are not without sin. It is prevalent throughout our actions and throughout our lives. Just as we are ever in need of grace, we are always in need of the reminder of the Spirit of that which we ought to do in the small daily matters of life.
We may not need the reminders of Leviticus and Corinthians, but in the daily burdens and struggles, Scripture will always be there, the Spirit ready to remind us in the way we ought to go, the only truly good way.
Like the wise child commended in Proverbs, we too should not shun the reminders of what which pleases God.
Hailing from North Auckland, Blake Gardiner sounds American, looks Swedish, but grew up in Laos. As an introvert, Blake lives life on the edge by socialising. When he isn’t putting his life at such risk, he enjoys reading theology and debating whether Interstellar is truly the greatest movie of all time.