by Robert Brow, posted on www.brow.on.ca, March 2005
The third book of the Bible is by far the most perplexing. Christians, and even devout Jews, would not want to apply some of the rules of Moses in our modern world. Here for example are some criminal laws that are no longer acceptable:
"If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death" (20:10).
"If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death, both of them have committed an abomination; their blood is upon them" (20:12).
"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them" (20:13).
"If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you" (20:14).
"If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them" (20:16).
"A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned to death, their blood is upon them" (20:27).
"Take the blasphemer out of the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him" (24:14).
There are also some rules in Leviticus that seem surprisingly relevant in our day.
"You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kind; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:13-18).
"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself. You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances."
How then should Christians deal with the Book of Leviticus? We begin with the fact that some of the rules are decisively rejected in the New Testament.
The first nine chapters of Leviticus give detailed rules about animal sacrifice and the consecration of the Aaronic priests who were to conduct the rituals. But the Epistle to the Hebrews explains that our High Priest is Jesus, the Messiah, and he has made "the sacrifice of atonement" which now replaces all the animal sacrifices of Leviticus (Hebrews 2:17; 4:14 - 5:4; 7:11-28). Quoting Jeremiah, the Epistle to the Hebrews explains that we live under the new covenant (8:1-7, Jeremiah 31:31-34)), which means that the sacrificial system instituted by Moses is no longer relevant. "In speaking of a new covenant, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear" (8:13).
When Jerusalem fell after a terrible siege (AD 70), the temple was destroyed, and the Aaronic priests were either killed or scattered. By then early Christian churches had replaced the rituals of animal sacrifice with the bread and the wine of the communion service which Jesus had instituted.
And for the past 2000 years (since AD 70) Jews have never practiced animal sacrifice. The annual Passover is not a sacrifice but a family meal which is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:3-20). This was instituted when the Jews began their exodus from Egypt over a year before the rules of Leviticus were written by Moses. But without the temple in Jerusalem and the ancient Aaronic priesthood a blood sacrifice was no longer possible. In our day as a reminder of the ancient rite the bone from a leg of lamb is put on the Seder supper table.
Leviticus has a whole chapter of regulations about which animals are fit to be eaten (kosher), and which animals, birds, and fish, are never to be eaten (11:2-47). Jesus undermined these rules when he explained that "Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer." And Mark added the comment "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark7:18-19).
The implications of this did not sink in till Peter was shown "all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air" and told to "kill and eat." Peter said "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." But the voice announced "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:11-15). Since then Christians all over the world have felt free to disregard the Leviticus food laws, and eat whatever food is suitable in the country where they live.
There are various explanations given to explain why Moses could have given the rules of Leviticus which we find so unacceptable. One suggestion is that some of these were given for the temporary period of wandering in the wilderness till the people crossed the Jordan into the promised land. Some commentators expound the sacrificial system of the first nine chapters of Leviticus in great detail as God’s way of illustrating for us various aspects of the death of the Messiah, the Lamb of God, on the cross.
We certainly cannot take the rules of Leviticus as an expression of the permanent will of God. As Moses went in again and again to pray and seek the mind of God in that particular situation, and what would be needed in the promised land, he wrote down what he received. As in the case of any great leader, or in the adopting of a constitution, room for change in new circumstances does not deny the validity of the original document.