© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

LEVITICUS (bookin’ through the bible 10)



Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.
Numbers 12:3
(The traditionally-claimed author of Numbers is, well…Moses)

The wicked man desires the booty of evil men.
Proverbs 12:12

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts.
Jeremiah 4:4

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.
Ezekiel 23:20

There are many candidates for funniest verse in the Bible, but for me there’s a clear winner—and it’s found, surprisingly enough, in Leviticus, the least funny book of the Bible:

If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death.
Leviticus 24:17

During the ethics portion of my half-day nonreligious parenting seminar, and in a previous post, I talk about what I call “boiling-pot parenting”—the notion that our children are, at root, boiling pots of depravity, and that our foremost occupation as parents is sitting hard on their lids lest their naturally sinful natures o’erflow.

I quote Christian parenting author Reb Bradley who warns that “all children are born delinquent….Given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist.” I mention The Lord of the Flies, a novel that convincingly plays out Bradley’s nightmares.

I then make what I hope is a convincing case that this is all rather silly and thoroughly unsupported by the best research in the social and developmental sciences.

Leviticus (“of the Levites”) is the book of the Bible that most directly reflects the boiling pot mindset. And though it’s tempting to lay the blame at the foot of Leviticus, that would be silly, too. The Bible didn’t create this mindset any more than it created self-delusion, self-contradiction, bigotry and fear. These are far more ancient and basic human frailties of which the Bible is merely a potent reflection, a handy place to go when we need to feel good about our lazy inability to do any better than ignorant Bronze Age goatherds.

Because I’ve come to see Leviticus as a reflection of our fears rather than the inspiration for them, it doesn’t get under my skin anymore. It’s fascinating anthropology. The fear of disorder—the absolute terror that the second law of thermodynamics governs human life as well as the physical world—is at the root of all Abrahamic religion. We’re all hurtling toward a cliff every second of our lives, says the Salvationist, with Sin leaning on the accelerator. That’s why Leviticus, the “morality” chapter in the OT, is not a steering wheel but an emergency brake. Don’t do X, never do Y, watch out for Z. Leviticus boils down to this idea: Follow God’s rules or die.

And such rules! There are rules for the wringing off of pigeon heads, precise instructions for the killing, burning, distribution, cutting, and “heaving” of animal sacrifices, for the all-important “waving” of the entrails, for the girding of men with “curious girdles.” There are rules for allowing fields to lie fallow and for washing pots, cautions against mixing this and that—different grains, different threads, same genders, the sacred and the profane. Don’t touch a menstruating woman. Don’t think an impure thought. And if you do… If you do… (Damn. What should we say?) I’ve got it! An invisible and quite powerful force will smite you.

No, that’s not exactly right, is it. One of the things I find most curious about Leviticus is that God is telling the people to do the smiting. He’s quite busy, granted, but I can’t help thinking it strange. Why bother with intermediaries? How much more efficient it would be if God would simply set things up so the scores of capital crimes in the bible are rewarded with a nice, sudden aortic rupture. Imagine Hitler crumpling on the spot before he quite got the order to invade Poland out of his mouth. Imagine how many children would have been spared if the first child-abusing priest had keeled over, pants around his ankles, as a warning to the others. Imagine all the disobedient children, astrologers, seed-spillers, marriers of their wives’ mothers, every one of them dropped where they stand. Instead, this weird system of intermediaries. I’m sure there’s a reason.

Leviticus is often maligned for its clear and happy endorsement of slavery. But dig deep enough—granted, you’ll need a big, big shovel—and there’s a hint of moral progress here. The Israelite is instructed to treat all Israelite slaves generously: “You must not rule over him ruthlessly,” and he must be released before the periodic “Jubilee year.” A miracle of progressive thinking.

You quickly note the obvious flipside—that non-Israelite slaves are designated as property “for all time” and can be treated however you like—that this is just bigotry compounded by distinguishing between those worthy of mercy (those most like one’s self) and all others. Give me a break. I’m digging for gold under a latrine here.

The book ends with an epic speech by Jehovah in which he promises bad juju if the rules are broken:

If you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I will wreak misery upon you … you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it … I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. … I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children … though you eat, you shall not be satisfied … your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin …

And then some stuff about taxes.

Leviticus is an early attempt to impose the order of rules on the perceived chaos of the human condition, to articulate a workable morality. In the absence of systematic evidence, we were feeling our way forward, trying to come up with rules to live by, trying to avoid screwing up—an activity in the midst of which we generally screw up far worse.

And there’s the human comedy for ya.

Far less forgivable to me is the fact that anyone in the 21st century—anyone with access to the knowledge and insight and history these guys didn’t have—still finds a single scrap of Leviticus good for anything beyond cultural anthropology. And the occasion chortle.

April 3: Deuteronomy

Believers on Deuteronomy
Skeptics on Deuteronomy
Slate blog on Deuteronomy

[forward to DEUTERONOMY]



This was written on Thursday, 27. March 2008 at 11:11 and was filed under belief and believers, bible study series, humor, morality, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. Even as a kid, it boggled my mind that my family and social circle bragged about following the bible so closely, yet they ignored most of this book! I used to think that my parents’ rhubarb never did well because they planted them too close to the grapes.
    Then, of course, there’s the fact that they generally left much of the world alive.

    Comment: ondfly123 – 27. March 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Has anyone read The Year of Living Biblically? A.J. Jacobs tried to follow all the rules in Leviticus etc for one year (9 months of OT rules and 3 of NT), and hilarity ensued. I’ve heard good things about it. It’s on my list.

    Comment: Ryan – 29. March 2008 @ 1:28 pm

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