What I Learned from Leviticus Part 1

“Oh the folly of any mind that would explain God before obeying Him!  That would map out the character of God instead of crying, Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do?”

–George MacDonald

It’s hard to believe that winter break is almost over.  Christmas has come and gone, and I barely took the time to enjoy it.  I hate when that happens.  And now the new quarter is almost upon me, but before I settle in to learn study more Greek (“learn” is perhaps too optimistic), I want to pause and reflect a bit on my spiritual journey.

For my final paper in my Pentateuch class I chose to write on the Levitical mandates surrounding menstrual and lochial discharge.  Clearly, it’s a topic that’s pure fun for the whole family.  I chose it early on because one of the many, many issues I’ve had with the Bible is its treatment of women.  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool egalitarian.  Seriously, if it’s possible to be born a feminist, I was.  So when the word of God seems to intimate (or when it just plain states outright) that women are inferior or unclean or innately gullible, it rankles.  I had no idea what my thesis was going to be when I began researching Leviticus, but I was a tad concerned that it would go something like, “God hates women.  The biblical writers are pigs.  It’s all a crock.  The end.”  As epic a diatribe as I’m sure such a paper would be, I didn’t think it would go over well with my professor.  My goal was to take a part of the Bible that seemed blatantly anti-feminist and find the redemptive thread that ran through it.  If God is who I think He is, then that thread had to be there.  At least, I hoped so.

Now, Leviticus is not a book I have traditionally spent much time in.  It’s pretty much a manual for holy living.  There are rules regarding what to eat, who you can have intimate relations with, how to build a tabernacle, and what to do about bodily discharges (my topic du jour).  My mad case of ADD and severe lack of discipline pretty much prohibit me from paying careful attention to directions lengthier than two sentences; there’s no way I can read a whole book’s worth.  And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Despite my long and storied career listening to many, many sermons from many, many pastors, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one preached on Leviticus.  It’s strange if you think about it.  Leviticus stands at the heart of the Pentateuch–the most important part of the Hebrew Bible–and nobody talks about it.  Honestly, I don’t think we Christians know what to do with it.  Leviticus is odd.  It smells funny.  And it’s boring.  What applicability can a bunch of outdated rules have for us today?  For me, Leviticus was a microcosm of the Bible as a whole–antiquated, dull, and out of touch.  In a way it was my common ground with the biblical literalists who are so prevalent in my faith tradition.  They didn’t read it, and neither did I.

Word: Leviticus

I’m not really planning to go into all my thoughts on how the mandates surrounding female discharge fit into the biblical narrative as whole..in this post (feel free to thank me later).  But stay tuned; it’s sure to be scintillating.  However, I do want to give some encouragement to anyone who has been struggling with the Bible.

I grew up reading the Bible as my rulebook for life.  I believed every word (except for the weird ones like in Leviticus) until I…didn’t anymore.  I’m not sure when it happened or why, but all of a sudden the stories of talking snakes, worldwide floods, and towers to heaven seemed less plausible than before.  In my mind lodged this foreign idea that refused to leave: “Maybe the Bible isn’t always factual.”  As a good evangelical I had no idea what to do with that, but the next thought was even worse.  As I considered God’s directives to the Israelites to slaughter women and babies in their conquest of Canaan, I thought, “Maybe the Bible isn’t always right.”  Maybe what I had always taken to be the unadulterated word of God was really the word of men masquerading as something more.  If that’s the case, how do I read this book?  How do I suss out the lies from the truth?

I had no freaking idea.  For years the Bible and I have been at a stalemate.  Maybe it hasn’t noticed, but I sure have.  I was confused and terrified that everything I’d been taught was all wrong.  And I was angry, angry that God would allow us to deify a book we couldn’t possibly understand.  I didn’t know where to turn.  It seemed everyone around me either didn’t have the doubts I did or they could take the Bible with a grain of salt, picking and choosing what was relevant for them.  Neither way was an option for me.  The doubts were there to stay, but I was too anal to give God a pass on what He surely knew would become the cornerstone of our faith.  A book I felt to be flawed, difficult, and ridiculous was the touchstone of Christianity.  On the basis of a text thousands of years old many Christians today reject evolution out of hand, deny people civil liberties, tithe, wage war, feed the homeless, embrace celibacy, and in my mind the foundation for these beliefs appeared to be crumbling.

That’s where I was when I decided to take a long look at Leviticus.  It’s one of the largest chinks in a Christian’s armor.  When people mock Christianity, they rarely cast their verbal stones at Jesus or Esther or Ruth.  They attack Leviticus.  “Christians pick and choose what laws to follow,” they contend.  “And some of those laws are stupid.  Don’t eat shellfish?  Don’t wear clothing made up of two types of fabric?  Your religion is laughable.”  I never knew how to answer them because, deep down, part of me agreed with their critiques.  We do pick and choose what laws we follow.  We don’t seem to have any idea why the laws are what they are.  Sure, we can say that some of those mandates were for those particular people at that particular time and now they are expired, but that’s not the way the laws are presented.  In the Bible God executes people for gathering wood on the Sabbath.  That was then, this is now just doesn’t cut it if we wish to make sense of that.  Why did God care so much about the Sabbath laws then only to throw them away later?  Is He crazy or just crazy arbitrary?

The situation gets a bit more convoluted if you accept the premise that parts of the Bible are distorted by the fallenness of man.  Which parts are good and which parts are rotten?  What category does Leviticus fall under?

I don’t have all the answers.  I’m still figuring stuff out.  But after so long wandering in the spiritual desert, for the first time I feel like there’s a way out into a land flowing with chocolate and nougat.  Yes, my promised land is a giant Snickers bar.  Are you surprised?  If you think the Bible is weird, that it doesn’t make sense, and you have a hard time discerning its relevance, I’m with you.  But the best piece of advice I can give is to study it.  Pick a topic that troubles you, and research it.  Read what super smart people have to say.  As a mental exercise, try to make an argument for why God chose to speak through whatever wonky passage horrifies or delights you.  For so long I kept the Bible at arm’s distance, scrutinizing it from afar.  It wasn’t until I delved into it for my paper and really worked with the text that the disparate puzzle pieces started to form something that kind of looks like a picture if you squint a little and use your imagination.

I’m sure this all sounds quite cryptic, and I’ll get into all the why’s and wherefores anon, but for this one post I want to put down in writing that I have experienced a paradox.  Something that looks funky and chaotic from the outside can be harmonious when you embrace it.  The opening quote by my good buddy, George MacDonald, was one that always stuck with me, but it was a concept I’ve never really understood.  In a similar vein St. Anselm once said, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”  That’s about as far outside my wheelhouse as you can get.  I’m no mystic.  I’m an intellectual.  My greatest joy is taking ideas apart to see how they work.  I’m cautious and earthbound by nature.  I look before I leap.  I eschew empty ritual.  Understanding for me has always preceded action and certainly preceded faith.  But this research paper forced me to grapple with a text I didn’t want to touch, and in doing so, I think I might have found something true.  It may only be a little bit of truth, but it makes me feel rich.  And now I see, in a way that I didn’t before, that the life of faith cannot be boiled down to a confessional statement.  It can never be captured in words on a page.  Living faith is a funny business.  It’s kinetic, it’s reckless, and yes, even and most especially mystical.  In other words, it’s the opposite of me in my rawest form, but I’m learning.  I hope I’m learning.

So for anyone out there still wrestling, first, know that that’s what you’re supposed to do.  “Israel” means “he who struggles with God,” and I expect to be doing that my whole life long.  Secondly, challenge yourself to walk while still blind.  For me, arguing for the goodness of God through the vehicle of nutty purity regulations was super helpful.  For you it may be something else.  But if you’re comfortable in your ivory tower it may be time to get a little bit dirty.  When it comes to faith, thinking about it only gets you so far.  It’s something you need to experience.  And that is just part of what Leviticus taught me.

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