Monday, March 31, 2008

So Much for the Grand Compromise: Leviticus 19:19-37

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

God's in the middle of a really cool discussion of the Ten Commandments when suddenly he starts talking about purity regulations again. I'm not sure what to make of it; it's possible that some of it is an extension of God's commandment that the Jews worship him alone. This implies a purity of thought, belief and action which permits no compromise. Symbolically, that lack of compromise is reflected in verse 19, which prohibits mating different kinds of animals, planting different crops in the same field, and wearing clothing woven of different kinds of materials. People who want to take the Old Testament literally should therefore be cautious about using mules, or about wearing clothing made of mixed cotton and polyester. Both are symbolically disrespectful of God.

In verse 23, God moves on to some more purity codes, some of which are much more than merely symbolic. The Israelites are not to eat from the plants of their new land for a minimum of four years (three of which are an absolute prohibition, and the fourth a complete sacrifice unto God). The fourth year is universal holiness, in which all the fruits of the land are "an offering of praise to the Lord." Only then may the Israelites begin to eat the fruits, once the land has been sanctified. Then God moves into some more I-am-the-only-God statements: don't eat meat with the blood of life (part of the earlier sacrificial regulations); don't cut up or tattoo your bodies, and thus remove their purity; don't practice divination or sorcery (apparently divine casting of lots doesn't count after all); don't "degrade" your daughter by selling her into prostitution. God gets off track again and starts talking about Sabbaths, then finds his place in his notes again and actually repeats the command against sorcery, this time ordering the people never to seek out "mediums or spiritists."

The remaining four verses are a mishmash of postscripts that probably should have gone somewhere else and had to be added in as optional extras (or not so optional, as the case may be). God extends respect to parents to respect to all elders: "rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God." He extends the principle of deception to include "dishonest" weights, scales, and standards. And finally, he reminds the Israelites once again to take care of the foreigners amongst them, reminding them that "you were once aliens in Egypt." That's an interesting point to close on, because God rephrases it again as "love him [the alien] as yourself." So now we have love your neighbour as yourself and love the alien as yourself. Leviticus 19 has some of the most radically broad social justice provisions in the entire Old Testament, and God draws all of them out of the Ten Commandments. I like it.

I've left one verse out. Three, actually: a bizarre little insertion at verses 20-22 which talks about men sleeping with slave girls that don't belong to them. According to these verses, if you sleep with a slave girl who is "promised to another man," you've committed an offence and have to sacrifice a ram. But you don't have to die (and neither does she), because she's a slave girl, not a free Israelite woman.

The adultery commandment hasn't yet appeared in God's reformulation of the Ten Commandments, so it would seem this is the most God wants to say on that subject. It's quite disappointing - after extending the principles of the other commandments, God narrows this one. Is this the best that can be done? On the one hand, it does give a few unmarried women some more freedom from ownership - but only in the sense that they're owned as slaves rather than as concubines, and therefore men's sexual rights to their bodies are a little murkier.

It's disappointing and I think God can do better - Jesus certainly does when he talks about adultery. It's also completely out of place here; God presents all the commandments out of order, but this one seems randomly thrown into the middle of the purity codes. I'd accuse a scribe of adding it in later, but you'd think a scribe who wanted to edit the commandments would do a better job of it. Sorry to end the grand compromise proposal on such a disappointing note, but I think the adultery provisions of the Leviticus 19 commandments is bullshit. It's not just that I disagree with it - it's that something this narrow and specific just doesn't make sense given the general flow of the writing here. Leviticus 19 started out strong but wandered considerably in the middle.