Thursday, July 17, 2014

Leviticus: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarize it in my own words.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Leviticus is mainly a book of laws regarding animal sacrifices, dietary restrictions, menstruation, dermatology, bodily emissions, sexual behavior, and what must be done if these laws are broken (mostly, it’s animal sacrifices).  

God loves animal sacrifices, particularly their odor.  The priests of Israel (Aaron and his sons) are tasked with conducting the huge amount of animal sacrifices God requires, and they must follow very careful instructions for each kind of animal sacrifice.  For example, when sacrificing pigeons or turtledoves, they must wring the bird’s head off, tear off its crop, and partially tear its wings before burning it on an altar.

When sacrificing a bull, the priests must slay it, sprinkle its blood around the altar, skin it, cut it into pieces, carefully arrange the pieces, and wash the hind legs and entrails, before burning it on the altar.

"Priestly Duties" by Johann Christoph Weigel

These burnt sacrifices are described as “a soothing aroma for the Lord.”  God apparently gets quite anxious, and it takes constant methodical slaughtering and burning of animals to calm Him down.

The priests were constantly slaughtering animals as atonement for even the slightest sins of Israel.  Even accidental sins counted.  This system was actually a pretty good deal for the priests, because they were allowed to eat portions of most sacrifices.  The priests were always well-fed.  In fact, given the enormous among of slaughtering and sacrificing they did, I imagine they were quite obese.

The laws of Leviticus are very specific about which animals are not to be eaten (i.e. “unclean”).  These unclean animals include: camels, rock badgers, rabbits, pigs, shellfish, eagles, vultures, buzzards, ostriches, owls, bats, moles, mice, lizards, geckos, crocodiles, and chameleons.  Israelites were not even supposed to touch these animals.

Rock Badger

The laws of Leviticus are particularly hard on women.  Both menstruation and childbirth make a woman “unclean” and require sacrifices for atonement, as if the mere fact of being a woman was somehow sinful and unclean.  This is also evident in the fact that, after the birth of a girl, a woman was unclean for twice as long as when she gave birth to a boy.  When a woman was menstruating, she was considered “unclean” for seven days and no one was allowed to touch her, or even to touch anything she touched, lest they become unclean.

There are literally pages of laws dealing with skin diseases, especially leprosy.  If someone had a skin disease, they had to go live alone outside the community.  Wherever they went, they had to cry out “Unclean!  Unclean!” so people would know to avoid them.  If they got better, they could re-enter the community, but not before (you guessed it!) more animal sacrifices.

Bodily emissions also make people unclean.  If a man ejaculates in any context, he becomes unclean and must purify himself and offer animal sacrifices.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the book of Leviticus.  It was what they called a goat upon whom the priests magically placed the sins of the people, and then sent out into the wilderness.

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

Regarding human sexuality, incest is forbidden, along with male (but not female) homosexuality, and bestiality.

There are many laws dealing with human relationships.  Children must revere their parents.  People are commanded to provide food for the poor.  They are not to exploit or oppress one another, though slavery is permitted.  Vengeance and hatred are forbidden.  Leviticus states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Hospitality is required toward strangers.  If you kill someone, you must be killed, eye for an eye.

Blasphemy is definitely forbidden, and punishable by stoning.  So is idolatry.  The Israelites were fiercely monotheistic, and not tolerant of other religions.

"The Blasphemer" by William Blake

Tattoos are forbidden, as well as trimming one’s beard and sideburns.  Wearing clothes made from two kinds of fabric is forbidden.

If the people obey these commands, they will have peace and prosperity, and will be able to conquer the land promised to them.  If they disobey these commands, God will severely punish his people with sickness, wild beasts, pestilence, cannibalism, and utter destruction.  If, however, the people return to God after falling away, he will forgive them.

All of these laws were given to Moses on the mountain, along with the other laws stated in Exodus.  I can't imagine how all these laws fit onto two stone tablets.  God must have had very tiny handwriting.

"The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant" by Peter Paul Rubens

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