Rob Buckingham's Blog

Understanding Leviticus

Every time there’s a natural disaster we’ll always find at least one preacher who’ll attribute it to a minority group or a company of sinners who are considered to be worse than others.  This was the case with the Victorian Bush fires in 2009, the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and most recently, the earthquake in New Zealand, where the pastor in question was giving a “biblical perspective” as he referred to natural disasters being linked to the “degradation of sexual sin” and “iniquities of mankind destroying our earth.”  To defend his view he quoted from the Book of Leviticus.

I am so fed up with this sort of pronouncement as it repels people from the Christian faith and doesn’t reflect a Christian attitude.  During and after natural disasters people lose their lives and loved ones, people are injured, property damaged and lives are ruined.  The message people need to hear from the church at times like this is one of compassion and empathy, not just in words but also in actions – the church rolling up its sleeves to help.

And so I posted this status on my Facebook page: “Dear Christian Preachers. Unless you are personally going to live by the entire Levitical Law, please stop cherry-picking odd verses from that book and using them to condemn certain minority groups.”  It prompted a lot of discussion as well as this blog.

The favourite verse for some Christians to quote is Leviticus 18:22 – one of the verses used to condemn gay people.  I’ve never heard a sermon on Leviticus 18:19 though, “Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.”  Maybe that one’s a bit too close to home for heterosexual preachers.  Although, based on this verse, should I not be standing at the door of Bayside Church each weekend making sure we’re not letting any unclean couples in?  Church has changed, chuck them out. 🙂

The same goes for women who have just given birth to a baby. According to Leviticus they are unclean and not allowed to gather with God’s people.  Thank God for livestream!  If it’s a boy the penalty is one week followed by 33 days.  In the case of a girl it’s two weeks plus 66 days.  Obviously boys are twice as good as girls right?  Mixing fabrics in clothes is wrong, so are tattoos (although we see a lot of those on famous preachers and worship leaders), cutting your hair at the sides and trimming beards – both wrong!

The New Zealand pastor, Brian Tamaki from Destiny Church, was preaching on Sunday 13 November, the day before the latest earthquake.  He quoted from Leviticus 18 that lists all sorts of sexual sins.  God then says to His people, Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants…for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Lev 18:24-28). Pastor Tamaki linked these verses to earthquakes and other natural disasters surmising that the verb “to vomit” must refer to earthquakes.

Now it needs to be said that prophesying an earthquake in New Zealand is on par with saying the sun will rise this morning and set tonight.  New Zealand was formed by volcanoes (the last eruption was about 600 years ago) and is built right on the edge of two tectonic plates.  Earthquakes are caused when underground rock breaks away from the edge of a tectonic plate causing the plate to move.  They are not caused by people’s sin.

I refer you to a blog I posted a few months ago called, Should the Bible be taken literally?. In this blog I suggest, “When you’re reading and studying the Bible one of the first things you need to ask yourself is, what type of literature am I reading?”  So what type of literature is being used in the verses quoted above from Leviticus 18?  It’s a metaphor, that is, a figure of speech that is not to be taken literally.  The earth doesn’t vomit!  This metaphor isn’t talking about earthquakes and other natural disasters; it’s talking about what will happen to the people if they don’t live holy lives.  Living in the land was a privilege that carried certain responsibilities.  If they didn’t live up to the responsibilities they would lose the privilege.

So how can Leviticus best be understood?  The name means, “relating to the Levites” who had religious and political responsibilities amongst the people of Israel.  The book can be divided into two parts: The way to the Holy One (1-10) and the way of holiness (11-27).  The first part outlines sacrifices and offerings that were to be used in approaching God.  This was revolutionary 3,500 years ago as it was the first time a deity had clearly communicated to people (and had it written down) how He was to be approached and worshipped.  Until then the nations used a lot of guesswork to deduce what a deity did and did not want.  This led to a lot of superstition and bizarre practices like temple prostitution and child sacrifice that are both condemned in Leviticus, and rightly so.

The second part deals with sanitation (purity of body) – an essential for thousands of people living in a desert region – and sanctification (purity of soul).  Again, this was radical teaching in its day.  Leviticus gives detail on cleanliness, health, diet, social interaction, worship and conversation.  God also recognised that people would fail in these areas on a regular basis and so Leviticus concludes with three provisions of grace including the Year of Jubilee, the year that Jesus came to proclaim for all people of all time (Leviticus 25:10; Luke 4:19).

Much of Leviticus does not apply to people today.  For example, Jesus declared all foods to be clean essentially freeing people from all the Levitical food rules (Mark 7:19).  Jesus corrects other statements from Leviticus in His Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, but I tell you …”  (Matt 5:21; 27; 33; 38, 43).  The New Testament quotes Leviticus a number of times and two statements are repeatedly quoted: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Sadly Leviticus seems to be most-often used today in an unloving way towards our neighbour.

The most important thing we can learn from Leviticus is that the book points towards the Messiah.  The New Testament teaches that all the types and symbols, the sacrificial system and priestly mediation, are all fulfilled in Jesus (read Hebrews chapter 8).  Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law He came to fulfill it.  This He did through His life, death and resurrection and declaring a New Covenant with all people not just one nation: “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13).  The Old Covenant, with all its sacrifice and ritual, disappeared in 70AD with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

And so let’s stop cherry-picking from Leviticus to bring guilt and condemnation on others.  Let’s embrace its themes of holy living and loving, and enjoy and share the wonderful salvation Jesus makes available to all.

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