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Leviticus 19:1-18

Leviticus 19:1-18

Background to the Book of Leviticus
Literary Features:The Book of Leviticus follows the golden calf incident in the Book of Exodus and the tabernacle has been set up. They are still in Sinai and so the whole of the Laws and directives given in Leviticus are placed within the Sinai experience of God which serves to give them authority. Two types of literature are present in Leviticus: 1. narrative in chapters 8-10, 24:10-25 and 2. law. Torah has a much broader meaning than simply 'law' which is what we normally give it. It really means teaching which then covers both law and narrative. There is some dispute about amount of narrative present in the Book of Leviticus (G. Auld has Lev 8-10,10:1-7, 24:10-16. Kaiser 26:3-46). This means that Leviticus is not to be interpreted narrowly as a law code (and hence more easily dismissed by many) or as static statutes unrelated to Israel's ongoing life. The following interpretive implications for Leviticus (and for the Pentateuch as a whole) are highlighted by this integration of genres:
i-- law is more clearly seen as another gift of God's graciousness for the sake of life and well-being rather than burden;
ii -- obedience to the law is seen, not as a response to the law as law, but as a response to the story of all that God has done; need to go back to the longer narrative, set in sinai, and the rest of the journey
iii --the story shows that the law is given to those already redeemed, as a way of doing justice to the relationship with God in which Israel already stands, not as a means to achieve salvation; not faith by works,
iv -- the law is more personally and relationally conceived when part of a story;
v -- the law is not to be rigidly fixed, but moves with the storey-new occasions teach new duties;
vi -- the story gives to the law a vocational character, a promoting and enhancing of the purposes of God for the creation decisively reclaimed by God's narrative deeds;
vii -- the shape that the law takes in Israel's life is to be measured by the shape of the narrative action of God (be merciful, as God has been merciful);

Torah is to enable people to live holy lives in relationship with God. The laws are the way in which people can achieve this. Furthermore, they are intended to be an instrument so grace is extended to others as in the Abraham blessing. The words ' the Lord spoke to Moses’ occurs 56 times in the book which gives authority, from the great lawgiver, as Christians defer to Paul when they want extra authority. Indeed, some of the books are dedicated to Paul when they might have been written much later and are wanting the Pauline stamp on them. Another motivation for obeying the law is drawn from Israel's narrative experience with God rather than from abstract ethical argument or divine imperatives and if God is presented as subject in both law and narrative it provides for a continuity of divine purpose, grounded in the personal will of God (Fretheim: 124). It is possible to see theological links to ‘P’ or Priestly account of creation in Gen 1-2:4a (Lev 10:10, Lev 11:14-22, Lev 25:2-3, Lev 1-7). Most scholars accept that the Book of Leviticus is a Priestly document but contains within it very old and ancient laws.

Outline of the Book:

Lev 1-16 is addressed to the Priests, although much of it is in fact addressed also to the people Lev 1-7 = offerings and sacrifices,
Lev 8-10 = priesthood,
Lev 11-15= issues of purity,
Lev 16 = Day of Atonement
Lev 17-27 focus on Priestly instructions to the people: 17-26 is often called the Holiness code
Lev 17-25 ritual and moral matters,
Lev 26 exhortation,
Lev 27 appendix
Whilst the book contains very early laws, its final creation was probably in the post-exilic era. The concern by the leaders was to keep the people faithful and not go after other gods. This had been the big condemantion by the Deuteronomic writers that the people had been influenced by the nations around them and the peoples' whose land they had taken over. It is helpful to understand this and gives the reason why they are so strong and repetitive about keeping holy only to Yahweh.

Context of Lev 19:1-18
Lev 19:1-18 is part of the second section of the book and of the Holiness Code 17-26 (not all scholars agree with this category). It contains a variety of laws which appear not to have a particular coherent pattern. The Code begins in Lev 17 with detailed instructions about the killing of beasts for sacrifice and the specific commandment that no meat is to be eaten which contains blood. Blood is equated with life and therefore sacred. Lev 18 moves into laws about sexual relationships especially to do with incest. The laws in the Holiness Code mostly related to the need to keep holy and these are the ways in which this can happen. Lev 20 continues with a mixture of laws covering stoning, mediums & wizards, committing adultery with a neighbour etc. The chapter ends with an injunction not be like the people of nations around. Lev 21-23 contain laws about the priesthood.

Insights/Message of Lev 19:1-18
Literary: Gerstenberger believes this chapter is unique in the Old Testament in that it has such a variety of ethical laws which have strong social and religious emphases (Gerstenberger: 258). The formula, "I, Yahweh, your God am Holy" is used in Leviticus more often than anywhere else in the Old Testament. It is used to begin new sections and subsections and repetition is always used in the OT to make a theological point, which it does here. What follows is Yahweh's will for the people mediated through Moses. The prohibitions are cast in either the singular or plural: vv.9-10 = singular, vv.11-12 = plural, vv.13-14 = singular, vv.15-16 = singular, vv.17-18 = singular. Gerstenberger suggests that the purpose of the prohibitions in the singular are to address individual members of the community to help maintain social cohesion (Gerstenberger: 262). On the other hand the plural prohibitions are supposed to address a group of assembled listeners which must be the Jewish religious community during the Persian period (Gerstenberger: 262). It may be, but I don't think we can know for certain why some of the prohibitions are in the singular and others in the plural. A summary outline of vv.1-18: vv.1-2 = prologue, vv.3-10 = focuses on loyalty to the covenant in general, vv.11-18 = looks at rulings concerning responsibilities to other Israelites and ends with a call for love (Ross: 354). The first section focuses on positive prohibitions and the second section on negative instructions.

Message/Theology: The chapter is a call to Holiness and sets out what " holiness should look like: devout worship honesty, integrity, justice charity and love."(Ross:352). There are some features which are unique to this chapter: unlike the previous chapters the divine declaration (I am the Lord your God) has attached the words" am holy" thereby emphasizing God's holy nature which Israel has to copy (Milgrom in Sayer: 67). Another unique feature is the double call to love others (Ross: 352). Not many people realize the great commandment of Jesus has its basis in Lev 19. The prohibitions begin by first commanding respect for MOTHER and father and keeping the Sabbaths followed by the command not to follow other gods. It is an interesting combination of the earthly before the divine and it is one of the few times mother comes first. These three commandments from the Decalogue are reversed in Lev 19. The instructions related to the peace offering (vv.5-8) are reiterated here for the lay people and are in a simplified form. The peace offering siginifies all previous sacrifices have been done and people are right with God. We move to care for others with instructions about gleanings to be left for the poor to pick up. Verses 11-18 are a number of instructions about living with members of the community and picks up the emphases in the second half of the decalogue finishing with the second half of the great commandment. These are the ways in which the community was expected to live and thereby being holy. Again vv.11-12 begin with the earthly behaviour (v.11) before the divine (v.12) and this is paralleled in vv.13-14. The instructions in vv.15-16 and vv.17-18 finish with the words, "I am the Lord". It is fascinating how much holiness is tied to ethical behaviour.

This chapter moves the concept of holiness from only being associated with the priests to the laity. It reminds me of the inception of the Uniting Church with its emphasis on the gifts of all people to be used for ministry not simply an elite group called. Holiness is much more than simple piety and keeping religious observances but involves active justice and care for one's neighbour. It is an interesting concept for today if one asks the question about how do Christians attain holiness. How many would name so many ethical demands? Yet it is because God is holy and we follow the Christ who showed the same compassion and care that is presented in Lev 19. The great commandment is followed in the NT with the story about the good Samaritan. So much of the Old Testament law is a viewed as negative and consequently ignored but it has some extraordinary passages that speak to us today. Two definitions of 'Holiness' are 1. it is that condition of human nature wherein the love of God rules; and 2. the quality or state of being holy. The latter is the one which is quoted most frequently and has been associated strongly with the doctrine of sanctification which has not taken the ethical instructions seriously. I like the first definition because it matches the idea spelled out in Leviticus which means if the love of God rules within then it has to result in loving one's neighbour.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 5:38-48, it is a pity that the speech of Jesus associated with this quote from the Old Testament(Exod 21:24) is not known very well. It is turning the "eye for an eye" concept so completely on it's head that even today we hardly ever do it. In the Old Testament it had to do with justice so that a rich person did not get away with a lesser punishment but received the same as a poor person. This is rarely understood today. In our world of competition and revenge it is a timely reminder of Jesus words. Pacifists have always been betrayed as cowards - I always thought they were very brave to stand up to society. Again half the quote from Lev 19:18 - you shall love your neighbour has been changed by the writer to make a point that it is the Christ's way to love your enemy. The latter half of the quote in Mth 5:43 is not to be found in the Old Testament at all. At least the Lev 19 reading is associated with the NT reading in the Lectionary.

Resources/Worship for Lev 19:1-18


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book of Isaiah.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11


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