“The Rules,” Leviticus 19

Last week we introduced an imaginary person who is setting out in 2019 to read through the entire Bible. Let’s fast forward a bit and assume that this person has been successful so far. They made it through Genesis despite the occasional list of names that we talked about last week. They’ve wrapped up Exodus, which is more of a feat than you might think at first glance when you consider that getting out of Egypt is just the first half of the book. That second half can be a bear. There’s like three chapters explaining what the tent the Arc of the Covenant goes into. But our friend has made it through that and now they’re ready to pick the story back up. And they’re all excited but we’re concerned because we know what’s coming next…Leviticus. And Leviticus checks a bunch of those boxes we talked about last week when we started looking at reasons we might avoid certain parts of the Bible – it is mostly rituals/rules which aren’t the most entertaining things to read, some of the rules seem outdated and irrelevant, some of them are hard to understand what the point is, and some of them maybe we just don’t like.

Leviticus, and other places in scripture that are mostly rules and regulations, makes for a easy punching bag, both in the church and outside of it. People who look at Christianity and argue that it is just a bunch of rules can point to it, when we want to make that same argument about Judaism we can point to it, if people want to argue that Christians are hypocrites they can point to some of these outdated rules and say “well you don’t follow that so how can you say….” So all in all probably not high on a lot of people’s favorite books list, it is easy to laugh at some of the odd rules and cringe at some of the outdated ones and argue about whether some are outdated or not, but in dismissing the rules we miss a couple of things I think. One that is interesting and can give us a little insight into how God works, and one that that calls us to a different understanding of this book in particular and “rules” in general.

That first thing is this: while some of these rules seem really arbitrary, when we look at them, especially in the context of when they are starting to develop (1400ish BC), they are incredibly practical. So I picked Leviticus 19 because it has a good variety of rules that prove this point and I want to briefly go through them and show you what I mean. We’ll come back to verse 1-2 in a minute, the rules themselves pick up in verse 3, with 3 and 4 reiterating things we already know as commandments. Then verse 5 picks up with these instructions about eating meat that has been sacrificed. Now the way the sacrifices would work is they would kill what ever animal they were sacrificing and burn it on the altar, cooking the meat, the idea being that the aroma would reach heaven and that the smell is what satisfied God. Some sacrifices required burning up all of the animal, some left meat behind, and this rule says if that happens you can eat the meat the day of the sacrifice, you can eat it the next day, but after that you need to throw it out, don’t eat it. Seems random and arbitrary. Except, what happens to meat when it sits out? It spoils. And what happens when you eat spoiled meat? You get sick. They don’t have Tupperware and refrigerators, that meat is going bad. And maybe Moses isn’t thinking about that at all, maybe there are purely spiritual reasons for this idea, but the fact remains that that rule keeps them from eating bad meat.

Davis is one of the biggest babies in his class at daycare right now, he’s actually getting ready to move up to the next room, and he’s a bit of a bully. He steals toys from other babies, I’ve watched him do it. We walked into the room, I sat him down beside another baby, and he immediately snatched a toy out of that baby’s hand. And two times Davis has done that and gotten bitten. So we get an accident report that explains what happened and there’s a spot for what they did to the child who bit and it has said, both times, “we discussed giving our friends soft touches.” I get they’re in a tough spot, how do you punish a baby, and I fully believe that its Davis’ fault so I’m not like demanding retribution, but I don’t think the soft touches conversation is having much of an impact. But what do you do because babies don’t understand enough for you to explain rules? Those of you who have been parents longer than me will say, I’m sure, that sometimes you just have to make a rule that you know is best for your child without wasting time trying to explain it because they aren’t going to be able to get it. The people of Israel aren’t going to understand that tiny microscopic organisms are all over the meat causing it to go bad, but if you tell them not to eat it after two days because you said so they’ll do what they’re told. I think that is an important example about how God has dealt with people and still deals with us. Why do a lot of the understandings about science and things like that in scripture not match up with later scientific discoveries? Because it was 3000 years earlier and God spoke in ways they would understand. And God still speaks in ways we can comprehend. How many times in your life have you only understood what was going on after you came out on the other side? How many times has what seemed like a “no” from God revealed a greater “yes” further down the line? These rules seem random and arbitrary but if you really look at them they keep the people safe and they help their nation flourish.

I can keep going:

  • Verse 9 and 10 – nations fall when people are hungry. Leave a little bit behind, don’t pick up what you drop, and the folks who are struggling will have enough to eat and won’t riot in the streets.
  • 11-18 – big chunk, all of them deal with making a society where people trust each other, where they believe that everyone is looking towards the greater good. You think whether or not people trust each other and believe that everyone wants the best for themselves and each other has something to do with why the government has been shutdown for 23 days?
  • Verse 19 – that one seems really arbitrary, except, hybrids are sterile. Mules can’t reproduce. Brocco-flower can’t grow in nature. If you rely on hybrids you aren’t going to be able to keep them going. If you’re allergic to cotton or polyester it is important for you to know what your clothing is made out of.
  • 20-22, I once heard an NBA reporter say that all fights among professional athletes are about cards or women. If you have a set rule for this kind of situation then it doesn’t escalate into people killing each other.
  • 23-25 – following that pattern guarantees that plants take root and expand and mean there will be future harvests.
  • 26 – undercooked meat kills people and fortune tellers lie and cheat and swindle you.
  • 27 – the hair cutting was part of rituals of death cults that push people towards those other occult practices
  • 28 – tattoos get infected. In 2019 if your tattoo gets infected you go get an anti-biotic, in 1400 BC your infected tattoo killed you.

I hope I’ve made the point, these rules aren’t arbitrary, they were a framework to a safe and healthy and functioning society. Verse 29 – more prostitutes in not a good thing. Then we get a couple that repeat things we’ve seen already until verse 33 and 34, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” That doesn’t make a who lot of sense. They’re supposed to welcome the foreigner? Treat them the same as the native born? Those people won’t know the language or the culture, they’ll always be different. How are they supposed to trust them, if they treat them too well more might come in, that’s not what you do. No other nation would treat foreigners that way. And that’s exactly the point. Because they aren’t supposed to be like other nations.

All the way back to the top, verses 1 and 2: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” That word holy, in Hebrew is Kadesh, and it means “set apart, different, other.” Over time that idea of being different and set apart got connected to the idea of being perfect, because God is perfect we should strive to follow all these rules and be as close to perfect as we can be. God is perfect, but God is also different. God was different than the gods that their neighbors worshipped because God is faithful and loving and slow to anger and all these things we know to be true. So the point of these rules was never to be good enough that we were perfect like God, it was to be different like God is different. They weren’t supposed to be like other nations, they were supposed to be different so that the other nations stopped and took notice. In the way they lived their lives they were advertising a way of being that was completely different from the status quo. And the idea was that other nations would see that and be intrigued. They would see it and wonder, “why are you different? Why do you treat each other differently? Why do you leave food in the fields for the poor when you could take it and sell it? Why do you provide for you elders and your daughters? Why do you welcome strangers into your land and treat them the same as everyone else?” And they would be able to answer “we’re different because God is different. We follow a God who gives freely so we give freely. We follow a God who is faithful and consistent so we keep our word. We follow a God who cares for the lost and the last and the least and so we care for those people as well. We follow a God who is not for one group or nation but who created all people and so we embrace all people. Our God is different, so we’re different.”

Our greatest example to the world about why our faith matters is how it makes us different. In a world that is all about status and fame we embrace humility. In a world that thrives on distrust and divisions we find common ground. In a world that measure worth by bank accounts we treat all people as children of God. And we do it, not because of a list of rules that we follow for hope of a reward or fear of punishment. We do it because our God is different. Our God is the difference, between life and death, between hope and despair, between the way things are and the way they can be. The world needs another example. The world needs to see another path. The world needs to be exposed to another way. Be different. Because our God is different.

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