Leviticus – part seven

Yesterday we started to read through the purity regulations in Leviticus 11-15. For the rest of this week we’re looking at the various theories scholars have come up with to provide a rationale for the laws. Because I think each suggested explanation gives us a different insight on the laws. And from each we can learn something about God and something about being his holy people.

We look at the first two today.

God’s sovereignty

The simplest explanation is that you can’t explain it. God is God, after all. And as our creator, he has the right to tell us what we can and can’t do, what makes us clean and unclean. There is no reason behind why some animals are clean and some are unclean – that’s what God has decreed, and so be it.

In fact, they may be deliberately arbitrary, in order to test whether we’ll submit to God’s authority without question. Like seemingly pointless military rules about haircuts and uniform – designed to train soldiers in unquestioning obedience. Or like the tree back in Genesis – the fruit of one tree singled out as forbidden, in order to test whether we’ll submit to God or not.

Now there’s probably much more to it than that, but we shouldn’t skip over this point too quickly. God is God. He has the right to tell us how to live. And he doesn’t owe us an explanation. The challenge for us is to accept that, and obey.

And yet most of the time we can see that, like any good parent, God has a good reason for his rules. And often they’re for our benefit. (Whereas with human parents you’re not always sure whose benefit they’re for. Being a parent now, I realise that the ‘no swimming for an hour after eating’ wasn’t to stop you getting cramps, like they told you. It was so parents could put off for a little longer having to supervise you in the pool.)

And God even invites us to study his laws – the natural ones seen in creation, and the special ones revealed in Scripture. He invites us to study them in order to understand him better. In order to see the reasons behind them. So what other reasons might there be for this elaborate system of purity laws?

Hygiene and health

One explanation relates to hygiene and public health. The laws are designed to protect God’s people from disease. And it’s hard to argue that some of the laws didn’t make a positive contribution to public health. For example, the requirement that people with possible symptoms of leprosy and sexually transmitted diseases be quarantined outside the camp until they could be properly diagnosed by a priest. Avoiding dead animals is another one that makes sense from a hygiene perspective. And some of the unclean animals they weren’t to eat are known to carry tapeworm or certain diseases. (This may seem like common sense, but this is from a time when science hadn’t worked out how disease was transmitted.)

Yet some of the animals declared unclean have no association with disease, such as the camel. Camels are still eaten today in the Middle East without concern. (And camel noses are allowed, by Australian food regulations, to make up a small percentage of the meat in meat pies. You’ll regret knowing that factoid next time you bite into a meat pie.) And even those animals that did often carry parasites and diseases – they’re OK to eat as long as they’re cooked the proper way. For example, the nations around Israel ate plenty of pork, without any major problems. And some of the clean animals can still carry disease and parasites (and mad cow disease). So it’s hard to see public health as the primary rationale behind the laws – at best, it’s a secondary, contributing factor.

In fact, I think some of our problem is that we want one explanation; one determining factor. We ask the question: are these religious laws or public health laws? We want to separate the spiritual from the secular. But the Old Testament refuses to do this. It consistently intertwines laws relating to religious ritual with laws about human interactions; it makes no separation of the religious and the ordinary. Is it any wonder that laws about relating to God also have implications for the physical health of his people?

This reminds us that God doesn’t draw a line between our spiritual life and the other things we do. I’m not a fan of the expression ‘the Christian life’ for this reason – at least not in the context of ‘so how’s your Christian life going?’ Or ‘how’s your spiritual life?’ Implying that it’s something distinct from everything else you do. That it’s not related to your home life; your work life; your social life. All of life is of interest to God. All of life is to be lived for God.

To think about

Are there times when you haven’t seen the reason for God’s laws, but obeyed anyway? Did you grow through this process?

How often do you “compartmentalise” the spiritual from everything else?

Read Leviticus 12:1-13:28 today, if you’re planning to read all of Lev 11-15 this week in conjunction with these notes. 

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