During my year of reading through the entire Bible, I tried whenever possible to write bumper sticker descriptions of each book as I went. According to my notes, I described the book of Leviticus as “Let’s kill something, set it on fire, and/or make Aaron eat it.” While this may be a bit of an over-simplification, I still stand behind the thematic assessment.
Leviticus is a big book of laws, and most of them have to do with animal sacrifice, the role of the priests, and ritual cleanliness. There are also laws about sexual relations, including one in particular you may have heard of. Conservative Christians often cite Leviticus as a reason to classify homosexuality as sinful because there is a law declaring that men must not have sex with other men. Leviticus defines this act as an abomination. Sex between men is not the only abomination – the same word is used to describe shellfish. There are a number of other laws that seem equally bad in God’s eyes yet are no longer adhered to by most Christians, including a huge number of unclean animals we shouldn’t be eating (pig, camel, rock badger, hare, gecko, land crocodile, mouse, etc).
The rules about sex are mostly confined to a single chapter, and the majority of that chapter is spent defining every kind of family member you shouldn’t be having sex with, including your mother, your sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s sister, your uncle’s wife, and any mother/daughter combo whether they are related to you or not.
However when you consider the setting for Leviticus, a different story appears. Leviticus is supposed to take place in the desert, right in between the slavery of Egypt and the freedom of the promised land. There are rules about confining diseased people for a defined period of time, rules about rotating your crops, rules about burning uneaten meat, and a lot of rules about ritual cleanliness. When I read Leviticus, I see an isolated group of people living in the desert and trying to survive. I see a community that is likely to fall apart and die if they can’t pull together and make it through as a united unit. And in that backdrop, it makes sense to me that you need a rule about not eating meat three days after you kill the animal, as scarcity may make you feel like it’s worth the risk. And maybe you need a few laws to control and confine menstrual fluids, since no one can really wash their hands. You probably need to outlaw incest of any kind, as unrelated women might be hard to come by. And yes, you’ll probably have to demand that all men confine themselves to women, because you’ll need to maximize your number of procreating pairs if you want to produce a stable, healthy generation of babies.
We don’t live in the desert anymore. We don’t need God to tell us to throw out the bad meat, because our abundance shows us there will always be more. And we don’t need to ensure the next generation, because that generation will happen without us even trying. The desert rules that made sense in a time of scarcity need not make us feel scarce forever. Instead, the lesson to learn from Leviticus is that for humans to live together, we must have rules. We must have structure. And sometimes we have to do things that may seem unnecessary to us, but are in the best interests of the whole tribe.
However if you do encounter someone that feels these rules should still apply as written, there are a few items worth asking about. Ask how they have found a modern way to leave the edges of their field unreaped so that the poor will have something to eat. Ask if they take an entire year off every seven years as a holy sabbatical, trusting that the Lord will provide. Ask if they have loved the alien as themselves, since they were aliens in the land of Egypt. Most importantly, ask if they have ever been devoted to destruction. The God of Leviticus has very clear instructions for what to do with such people.