Tag Archives: Christianity

Reading the Book of Leviticus


Ah, Leviticus. No one’s favorite book. Whoever hijacked Moses’ tongue in Exodus is in his element in Leviticus. In Exodus we got a taste of law and order. Here, we have law and order edition 2: blood sacrifice; how to diagnose leprosy; hundreds of reasons why you are all unclean and deserve death and; a sexual code of conduct that makes a heroic attempt at listing all possible perversions that would have been possible at the time.

Exodus set the scene for the priestly takeover. God stops communicating with people personally, instead choosing to perch on Mount Sinai and later, in his tabernacle. He also becomes so holy that people are not allowed to be in his presence or to see him.  The only exception, of course, are the priests, who were selected from Aaron’s family line. So now in Leviticus, we have the Priests consolidating their power, and putting the fear of a distant, angry, all seeing, all knowing God into the Israelites.

  1. God has very specific taste when it comes to sacrifice: The Israelites are told that God accepts male, unblemished animals, birds (for those too poor to offer animals), fine flour with oil, and the first fruits of the land.  It is very important that the flour not contain leaven and that all the offering must be seasoned with salt.  Flour has to be burnt with fine oil and Frankincense. He also likes the fat from the animals  as well as kidneys and the liver. He does not accept entrails, which are known to you and me as matumbo. (Whatever is cooking sounds kind of tasty, actually). I lost count of the number of reasons they had to make sacrifices but I feel like it was for everything – sin, thanksgiving, illness, cleansing, and celebrations of God.
  2. Priests get a pretty good deal: They are allowed to keep the ‘first fruits of harvest’ and any remainders from flour offerings. Priests can also eat sin offerings and guilt offerings because whatever they touch becomes holy. They also get every breast and thigh of animals given as peace offering. Israelites are also not allowed to eat fat or use the blood of animals and if they do so, they will be cut off from the people. (So eating mutura gets you forced into exile).
  3. Ignorance is no defense: God makes it clear that the Israelites can commit offenses that they don’t know about. When that happens, they have to sacrifice a young bull. If an individual commits a sin unknowingly, he has to sacrifice a ram. For commoners, the price is a female goat. (This is a running theme in Leviticus – poverty does not excuse you from paying for your sins, and much like the tax code, every economic class is subject to a different fine/ fee.)
  4. A lot of things can make you unclean: this includes touching the carcass of an unclean animal,touching an unclean person and having an emission of semen (wash in the river and unclean for the rest of the day). I would love to know how this law was enforced- how would the priest know that a man was unclean because he came? Wouldn’t this mean that at any particular time of day, at least half of the male population would be considered unclean?
  5. Sexual conduct: Chapter 18 lists all the people that you are not allowed to see naked, including your parents, siblings, and your extended family as well as a reminder that seeing a woman naked during her period is not allowed. (I’m thinking uncovering nakedness might have another meaning here…) Then at the very end we have the all famous ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’ Chapter 20 also reminds us to put to death any man who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, and not spare her either, as well as an extra reminder not to ‘see the nakedness’ of a sister from a mother or father.  Priests are expressly forbidden from marrying prostitutes, and if ever a priest’s daughter is found guilty of harlotry, she must be burnt to death.
  6. Aaron’s sons make a massive boo-boo: Not much goes on in the way of direct intervention from God, except for this time that Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who took his censer, lit it and laid incense on it. (This means they didn’t follow proper sacrifice protocol). God’s judgement was brutal and instant. He sent fire down from heaven and incinerated them. And then Moses forbade their families from mourning for them. Later Aaron has to make a sacrifice, including releasing a goat into the wild to atone for their sins.
  7. An Israelite woman’s son is stoned to death: Our second brief interlude from the law comes when this boy, who’s father is Egyptian, it is emphasized,  gets into a fight and blasphemes God’s name. So they take him to Moses, who consults with God, who then says that witnesses to this event should put their hand on the boy’s head and they should stone him to death. This is where the proclamation ‘When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbor,as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth… ‘ is made.
  8. All things kosher: This is pretty well known. You can eat animals that have hoofs and chew cud. Birds are okay, except vultures, ravens, ospreys, kites, falcons, ostriches, vultures, pelicans, storks, herons and a couple of other gross birds. Insects are okay as long as they don’t have four feet. No swarming things allowed, like geckos, crocodiles, mice, weasels and chameleons. Actually if they even touch your clothes then your clothes are unclean too.
  9. About the womens: When you have a baby boy, you are unclean for 7 days, then you get him circumcised and then you are unclean for another 33 days. If you have a girl, you are unclean for 2 weeks, and then another 66 days. Your period makes you unclean for 7 days, and anything or anyone that touches you is also unclean, including your bed, your chair, and any man foolish enough to ‘lie’ with you. (So for every year, your average woman is untouchable for almost 3 months for the sin of bleeding from her gross lady parts and she literally can’t sit with you)
  10. Public health: Chapter 13 dedicates 59 excruciating verses on the management of leprosy in all its describable forms. Priests, of course are responsible for diagnosis, treatment and ritual cleansing of these lepers, which also extends to their clothing and property. For example, once quarantine away from the people is over and the person shows no sign of disease, this is what he must do next – ‘ the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two living clean birds and cedar wood and scarlet stuff and hyssop; and the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water. He shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet stuff and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water; and he shall sprinkle it seven times upon him who is to be cleansed of leprosy; then he shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird go to the field. ‘  This process must be repeated to cleanse his house as well. And he also has to give a guilt offering to God for being diseased.
  11. Other forbidden things: No witchcraft or consultation with mediums is allowed. Fathers cannot force their daughters into prostitution, and parents are forbiden from sacrificing their children to Molech. Men are not allowed to round off the hair on their temples or mar the edges of their beards. Israelites are also warned against cursing the deaf or putting stumbling blocks before the blind. When it comes to business, you cannot keep a man’s wages overnight,  you cannot tamper with scales and you cannot interbreed your cattle. God also commands that the Israelites treat strangers well, and to not gossip about their neighbors.
  12. Blemished men cannot approach the alter: this includes anyone who is blind, lame, has missing or mutilated limbs, hunchbacked, has eye problems, is a dwarf, or has crushed testicles (huh??)
  13. Disobey at your own peril: The punishment for not following God’s laws is explained several times, but this is the most graphic – You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense alters….and I will lay your cities to waste, and I will make your sanctuaries desolate…and I will devastate the land, so that your enemies that settle in it shall be astonished. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. (Can you imagine a Pastor shouting that at his congregation every Sunday? This is the stuff of nightmares. )

Leviticus is ground zero for atheists trying to prove a point about how nasty the Christian God is, expose Christian hypocrisy on the selectiveness of the application of God’s laws as laid out in the bible (why don’t we stone adulterers anymore/ allow for the wearing of clothing with mixed fiber/ not burn our children for harlotry, etc, if we insist on quoting the Bible as reason to condemn homosexuality?) It’s a rich and easy target because a lot of the laws are ridiculous, impossible to follow, excessively cruel and often seem to have no real purpose that somebody living in the 21st century can decipher.

Then we have the Christians, who feel as though they have licence to dictate society’s moral code, and will go to great lengths to justify the use passages from Leviticus to prove their point. Thus we have a nice little deadlock with each side shouting the same thing over and over again to infinity and beyond.

But when it comes to letting the church dictate society’s morals (and then using the bible to justify it), my gut feeling is that the church is forced to evolve along with the rest of society, albeit extremely reluctantly. So eventually, one day in the distant future, I think that the church will eventually abandon condemning homosexuals in the same way it abandoned justifying slavery, and eventually decided that God doesn’t actually condone slavery and that everyone, including the so called sons of Ham (also known as black people) should be free.

Leviticus also paints a picture of a bleak, miserable world with many harsh rules, many of them punishable by death. It paints a society where being a woman is downright horrible, a large amount of time is dedicated to appeasing an angry and vicious God through sacrifice for atonement for multiple sins and death is always around the corner – either as a direct punishment for breaking the law, or as collective punishment for the transgressions of your people. I suppose this is why Christians have a tendency to blame the world’s problems on the decadence and sinfulness of modern society as a whole.

The words written in the bible have always been as clear as day and night. But our interpretation evolves as our circumstances change. Again and again and again. And as long as we become more accepting, inclusive and forgiving, that’s actually something to be proud of.

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What I learnt from reading the Book of Genesis


I bought a Bible and decided to read as much of it as I can. I’m not a theologian, but my idea is to read it with an open mind, although I have already been warned that ”the lightning that is about to strike you is doing press ups’, but that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m genuinely curious about what it contains, because I suspect that there is a big gap between the actual contents and  what I think is in the Bible.

I started from the beginning, that is, the book of Genesis. This is what I learnt.

  1. The creation story has caused a tonne of controversy: I don’t know what most Christians think of the origin story in the bible, or how they reconcile it with evolution. I would like to think that, for most people, it doesn’t matter. However Christians are obliged to believe that since the Bible is the word of God, then it is infallible, completely accurate and the ultimate word of God. Various churches interpret this differently, ranging from ultra Conservative Christians that insist  that ‘creationism’ should be taught as mainstream science, to more liberal Churches that  view the Bible as a human witness to the glory of God, the work of fallible humans who wrote from a limited experience, unusual only for the insight they have gained through their inspired struggle to know God in the midst of a troubled world. Unfortunately for the hardliners, science continues to poke some very big holes into what they believe in, and that is causing a lot of anxiety and very weird counterarguments that go to great lengths to prove that the garden of Eden actually existed.
  2. There seems to be two separate creation stories: How God created the earth is explained in Chapter 1 and then again in Chapter 2. In chapter 2, God is a lot more physical, he walks around explains his actions and thoughts. In Chapter 1 he is a lot more powerful and a lot more high level. He issues commands with his voice and they happen. The explanation for this by theologians fall in two camps: the stories are in fact one with no contradiction, or that they are allegorical and should not be taken as fact.
  3. Eve was tempted by a talking snake: We were taught in Sunday school that Eve was approached by Satan disguised as a snake but a very basic reading of the text tells us otherwise. She was, in fact, approached by a talking snake that the text expounds by saying: ‘Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God has made.’ Later the snake is banished to eat dust and crawl on its belly. I was honestly surprised by that.
  4. Punishment seems to be based on whether or not you are the chosen one: Cain and Abel are the first. They sacrifice their harvests to God, he rejects Cain’s, which makes him jealous, which leads him to kill Abel and then he is cursed. We aren’t told why God rejects Cain’s sacrifice. (Later on we find out that God really likes the smell of burnt offering, which never ever include a side of veggies.) Then Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricks his brother into selling his inheritance and then tricks his father into blessing him but that’s all okay. Much later on, Esau meets up with his brother Jacob and he is surprisingly magnanimous despite the fact that Jacob took what was rightfully his. (This surprised me because I always thought that Esau was the evil one, plus no-one names their kids after him).  It happens too with Jacob’s sons; Reuben is denied his birthright because he slept with his father’s concubine, but Judah gets the okay even though he mistook his daughter in law for a prostitute and got her pregnant. Some men, like the unfortunate Esau, are cursed for marrying foreign women, while others, like Joseph, get a pass. So far, morality is subject to whether or not one is considered chosen to build the great nation of Israel.
  5. God seems to be evolving: During the early chapters, God appears physically and has conversations with people, including the time he was walking around in the garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit. He carries out negotiations with Abraham on whether or not to flatten Sodom and Gomorrah. Later on, he starts appearing in visions; and graduates to using ‘men’ and angels as his representatives during critical moments. As the population grows larger and more preoccupied, he disappears for long periods of time, but always comes back to reassure the current patriarch that they are chosen and that they are special and that all of Canaan will belong to them. Sometimes, God has to physically go down and verify what people are actually doing, like with Sodom and Gomorrah. For most of Genesis, people don’t actually pray. They offer up animal sacrifices because the smell pleases God, and they receive direct instructions from him or an emissary.
  6. God doesn’t seem to be alone: After Eve and Adam get expelled from the garden, he says that man has ‘become like one of us’ and protects the garden by placing a cherubim on its eastern side. In Chapter 6, we find out that the sons of God went down to have children with the daughters of men. In chapter 11 (the Tower of Babel) he feels threatened by the unity and ambition of his people, and so says ‘come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ Later on, we are introduced to angels who go down send his messages, like in Chapter 19 (Sodom and Gomorah) where he sends down two angels to go warn Lot of the impending doom; the time an angel intervenes between Hagar and Sarai’s domestic issues, persuading her to go back to her mistress instead of risking it in the wild and of course when Jacob fights an angel all night without seeming too surprised.
  7. Abraham pulled a low key con using his wife: Twice, Abraham passes off his wife as his sister, and then the king likes her, then God tells the king not to touch Abraham’s wife, and then she is returned to Abraham and then they get land, cattle or both, plus a free pass to live in the new country. For some reason though, Abraham confesses to one King (Abimelech) that Sarah is indeed his sister, because she is the daughter of his father but not the daughter of his mother. This is the last time they did this, at which point Sarah was already past child bearing age and in her own words, very old. (Her husband was already well over 99 years old.) Isaac pulls the same stunt with his wife later on.
  8. The story of Joseph is really nice: Joseph and his brothers take up several chapters. Unlike most of Genesis where things seem to happen for no reason, Joseph’s story has clear direction, good guys and bad guys and ultimate triumph. He is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers (although he didn’t help the situation by snitching on them and then insinuating that he is better than them), but by his own virtue and a bit of help from God, he becomes Pharaoh’s trusted aide and saves the whole country from famine. He also gets reunited with his family and all is forgiven. The only weird thing is that, at some point the famine gets so bad, that most of the Egyptians sell off everything to buy food. So Joseph tells them to sell their land and themselves into slavery so as to get more food. And that is how from then on, farmers must give a fifth of their harvest to Pharaoh. Seems like a pretty raw deal.
  9. Judah and his really messed up family: Right in the middle of Joseph’s story, (chapter 38) we get introduced to Judah’s family drama. Judah starts hanging out with some Adullahmite character, with undertones that he is a bad influence. So he marries a Caananite woman and has three sons with her. Judah’s first born was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so he died. Since he was married, Judah directed his second son, the famous Onan, to go continue his brother’s legacy and have a child with Tamara, said widow. Onan wasn’t having any of it, so he used the withdrawal method. This was not cool, so God killed him. Unfortunately, Judah’s youngest (and final) son was too young to get married, so he sent Tamara back to her in-laws, promising to give her his remaining son as her a third husband once the boy was old enough. However, Judah seemed to forget his promise, and this did not sit well with Tamara. So a few years later, when Judah was in her hometown with his dodgy buddy, she covered her face and waited for him the gate of the city, where he unwittingly proceeded to hire her services as a prostitute with the promise of a goat. Since he didn’t have it with him, he gave her his staff and his signet and cord  as an IOU. (when he sent his buddy to pay her, she was nowhere to be found). Later his in-laws came to report that his daughter in-law was pregnant as a result of her whoring ways. So they dragged her out and were ready to burn her, but then she produced Judah’s staff and signet, proving that he was the father. So he pardoned her and she gave birth to twins, which we later on find out form part of the lineage of Jesus Christ. There are plenty of explanations as to why this story is in the Bible, mostly that God doesn’t appreciate people who break promises, or those who neglect their family obligations and also that he can work through unrighteous men to do good deeds. None of this stops Jacob from lavishing blessings on his son.
  10. The story of Onan could have been taken out of context: Onanism apparently means interrupted procreation, and has been used to claim that contraception is wrong in the eyes of God. However, reading the passage, it seems like God was angry at Onan for disobeying his father by refusing to get his sister in law pregnant, and not because he took offence at semen on the ground.
  11. There is a big focus on resources: Right from the creation story, where cattle are mentioned at least twice, to long passages describing how Abraham solves disputes with foreign kings over ownership of wells, to decisions made to part because the land cannot support the wealth of two men, to Jacob’s shenanigans to outsmart his father in law’s attempts to trick him out of his livestock, you can see  why the promise of the land of Canaan to the  people of Genesis makes sense. Life was tough.

The Book of Genesis reads like an epic tale of struggle and conquest. Its characters face monumental struggles, brother turns against brother, alliances shift, and only the most cunning survive. Knowing what I know about the rest of the Bible, and the New Testament, it feels like some of the passages were inserted to justify what happens in the future. (A good example is Lot and his daughters, because we know the Moabites and Ammonites later become the enemies of Israel).

Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how the rest of the story progresses.