Today is Bible Sunday, the Sunday when we’re particularly encouraged to focus on the Scriptures and give thanks for God’s Word. I wonder if any of you have ever tried to read the Bible from cover to cover? How far did you get? (I salute your superior sticking power)
Reading the Bible from cover to cover like we would a novel is not usually recommended. Although fairly easy at first, with all the exciting stories in Genesis and Exodus it’s not long before you reach Leviticus. And boy, is it tedious! Repetitive (and rather gory) instructions on sacrifice. An obsession with leprosy – contracted by people, cloth, even houses. Law after law. Yawn! You reach for the latest Dan Brown, intending to return to the Bible later, but it somehow never happens.
Christians react to Leviticus in one of two ways. One is to regard it as a historical and religious curiosity – mostly a record of priestly laws and practices that have been superceded by Jesus and by modern science. The other is to go through it with a fine toothcomb and insist very loudly that everyone follow most, if not all the laws there.
And yet, to do either of these things is to miss what is at the heart of Leviticus. But let me digress for a couple of minutes…
Did any of you see the recent TV series about the London Fire Brigade? It followed the fire and rescue crews as they went about their work and gave a sobering insight into just what they face daily. Quite often they can’t see a thing because of the smoke, so they rely on infrared detectors to find the seat of the fire. They follow strict procedures to keep them as safe as possible whilst entering a burning building. They wear special protective clothing and breathing apparatus. They may only stay in the building for a set time, because their oxygen will only last 31 minutes. They’re counted as they go in and out. When they come out they must rest awhile before they are allowed back in again. And you can’t necessarily just go in with a hose. Sometimes you have to assess other safety issues first. In one case, they first trained the hoses not on the fire itself, but on some gas cylinders nearby, cooling them so they wouldn’t explode.
Fire in itself is neither good nor bad. It provides heat, light, energy. It is attractive. But it is undoubtedly dangerous. If you don’t approach it in the right way you might be killed. Fire must be respected.
For the people of Israel, recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, living with God in their very midst is like having a massive uncontrollable fire in the middle of the community. God is attractive – full of life and power, awesome, protective, holy. But God can be dangerous. Like a fire, he should only be approached with extreme respect.
God cannot be tamed! And so the laws of Leviticus enable Israel to live safely with God in their midst. There are boundaries to be respected. A specific cleanliness to be observed. Rituals and sacrifices to be performed in the right way.
But throughout the book of Leviticus God says to Israel: “I, the LORD your God am holy. Therefore you shall be a holy people”. God is holy. And God has given Israel the gift of holiness. Leviticus, then, is all about how to live as a holy nation, with the presence of God living in the midst. What does it mean to be a holy people?
Yes it’s about maintaining a right relationship with God through worship. But just as importantly, it’s about how you live your everyday life in community with each other, family, friend, neighbour, rich and poor, countryman and foreigner. Treat any of your fellow human beings wrongly and you break boundaries, causing sin to pollute the land.
Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus are known as the “holiness code”. And at the heart of everyday holiness is is the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. A commandment repeated on many occasions by Jesus in the gospels and by Paul in his letters.
The holiness code spells out in detail what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. So loving your neighbour means dealing honestly with others, not defrauding them, judging justly, not harbouring a grudge, but correcting a neighbour when they’ve gone wrong. Loving your neighbour means leaving the edges of your fields unharvested so that the poor can glean what’s left. It means paying your labourers at the end of a day’s work, not the following morning.
Peppered throughout chapter 19 is the reminder “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God”! When you go about your everyday life, God is there! So live your life in a way that truly shows you are God’s holy nation.
When we read Leviticus, it’s obvious that parts of it are now mostly of historical interest. We no longer sacrifice animals. Understandings in science and medicine mean that the much feared so-called “leprosy” – skin diseases and mildew – can often be successfully treated these days. And we have, for good reasons, dropped many of Leviticus’ other individual laws.
But we are still God’s people. His Spirit lives among us. And the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself is one that is as relevant to us now as it was to the ancient Israelites. So let’s not forget that God wants us to be a holy people too. And let’s use the very practical examples listed in Leviticus 19 of what loving your neighbour meant then to guide us as we work out what this means practically for us today.
Reader Catherine Burchell.