Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dave's Compromise with Focus on the Family, Complete with the Sacred Rights of the Poor: Leviticus 19:1-18

This post is part of a revolutionary commentary on the Bible by the Church of the Orange Sky.

It's time to redeem the Ten Commandments. I was skeptical about some of the implications in them before, but I like this set a lot better. I said before that Leviticus 19 was a series of social justice rules. I'm still right, but in fairness it's more than that - it's a mishmash of the Ten Commandments (repeated with some extrapolations), some social justice rules, and some symbolic purity regulations. After ranting repeatedly about the injustices of the Levitican laws, I have to say that this chapter is my favourite in the entire commentary to date.

My NIV chapter calls this "various laws" - but they're wrong! It's a conservative editor's attempt to downplay the significance of this revolutionary chapter!

Indeed, reading this chapter has made me so excited that I'm prepared to issue, on behalf of the Church of the Orange Sky, a groundbreaking compromise proposal to those who speak for the religious right. The Church of the Orange Sky is prepared to negotiate a common plan for legal and political activism based on the principle that if we're going to legislate morality based on Leviticus, we have to legislate morality based on Leviticus. The Church will support their attempt to re-institute their regressive principles of sexual ownership rights - under which homosexuality is outlawed - if they agree to give equal time to legislating the charity provisions of the Ten Commandments - some of which are here in Leviticus 19. They won't, of course, which gets me off the hook.

Here, God re-interprets and extends the Ten Commandments in a way somewhat reminiscent of Christ's sermon on the mount in Matthew, which had the same objective, though it took it in somewhat different directions. It's also a little difficult to get that this is what God's trying to do, because he has trouble presenting the commandments. They're all out of order, but they're there. Then, and only then, does he move on to the purity regulations, and after getting those out of the way, he's back to the troublesome issue of honesty and charity.

God begins with the Protestant fifth commandment - honour your father and mother. Originally this was justified on the grounds that it would give you a blessed long life, which prompted my Men's Bible to wax eloquently about family values. Presumably that's still true, but God doesn't mention it again. This one isn't an important commandment to elaborate here. It's kind of telling, really; so much for all the nonsense about God being focused on the family.

After a brief reference to the Sabbath, God discusses idols. This discussion is expanded from the original form - don't make idols or gods - to some specific warnings about sacrificing to God. God has to be very careful about the sacrificial process because he doesn't want it to veer off into heretical idolatry. To this end, sacrificial material gets a time limit: it's only holy for three days, after which any use of it would "desecrate" the holiness of God.

Then we're back to Sabbath-keeping. God makes clear that the Sabbath is important for several reasons - respect for God, but also rest and renewal, as God symbolically used the day after creation. Rest and renewal is gained not through taking no action, but through not doing economically productive work. This is not just for your benefit, but for others, God argues in Leviticus 19. To this end, when you harvest your fields, you must stop before the job is complete. You must go through the vineyards only once, and you must stop before you've reached the edge of the field. If you drop anything along the way, you can't pick it up. Once you've finished, whatever is left belongs by sacred right to the poor and to the "alien," i.e. the foreigner.

This is one of several of what I think are fundamentally essential and normally blatantly ignored commandments within the old law. The notion that the poor and the marginalized have specific rights granted to them by God for their own protection is something conservatives are unwilling to accept, and something alien to the capitalist doctrine of personal gain and independent enrichment which our culture has largely accepted. And I'm only talking about the poor here! What about the other half - the part about "the alien"? The notion that immigrants, especially immigrants have sacred rights to charity and welfare is something I suspect many people would not want to accept.

God appears to skip over the commandment on theft with just a brief reference. This might make it seem like he's not interested in challenging the traditions of property and personal ownership (in contrast, Jesus deliberately and extensively subverts them in the gospels), but in reality it's because he's combined two commandments here, merging theft and deceit together. That's also hard to tell because the Ten Commandments specify only bearing "false witness" against your neighbour, whereas in Leviticus 19 God generalizes this to the much broader "do not lie."

The resulting commands reveal just how broad God thinks this command really is. No deceit is permitted - which presumably includes lies of omission and false implication. Refusing to pay your workers at the end of every single working day is considered theft (so much for biweekly paycheques)! Hindering or harassing the deaf or blind is evil. Showing favoritism in justice is a perversion of justice. Slander is lying and therefore wrong.

Then it's on to the sixth commandment. This is the one that conservatives infamously abuse, saying that "thou shalt not murder" is limited to a few forms of unauthorized killings; it's also the one the pacifists like to broaden to include all killing. I thought only Jesus expanded it in the gospels, but here God does it too. Verses 16-18 represent a substantial expansion of the commandment; it's murder, according to God, if you (a) hate your brother, (b) seek revenge or bear a grudge, or (c) "do anything that endangers your neighbor's life." Finally, God concludes the section with the well known phrase, "love your neighbour as yourself." What can I say? It's aweseome.

So there you have it. The Ten Commandments, Revised Version.


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