What makes a dignified society? For those who, like Jesus, embrace the wisdom of the cosmological myths of Genesis, that question undergirds politics. What must a society do to honor universal human dignity? How do we structurally declare to everyone that they belong?
While using something from the book of Leviticus is always sketchy when trying to prove a point, when read contextually, it has powerful lessons on human dignity.
An Introduction to Leviticus
For those who are not familiar, Leviticus is the third book in the Hebrew Bible. It is also the book where attempts to read the whole Bible, go to die. Genesis opens with a series of rich cosmological myths, two casting a vision of what life should be like (here and here) and a third explaining why it is not that way.
After a few more stories, Genesis delves into a narrative about the formation of Israel as a people. This collective people is the central character in the Hebrew Bible. We find ourselves in their story, and through their story, we can find ourselves.
Then, halfway through Exodus, the Bible’s second book, the narrative slows down. Here God offers a detailed account of laws the people of Israel are supposed to follow. These laws cover half of Exodus, the entirety of Leviticus, and the first part of the fourth book, Numbers. No wonder it slays those cover-to-cover dreams.
But it is not just that Leviticus contains a bunch of laws. These laws are for a world far different from our own. These laws are archaic. They demean women, call homosexuals an abomination, and seem to pitch God as a blood-thirsty animal hater who constantly needs more and more sacrifices.
So it is not just that the book is boring, but the content is often horrific to our Twenty-First Century sensibilities. So how can that contain powerful lessons on human dignity?
How to Read Leviticus
First, remember that, like all of the Bible, Leviticus happens within a specific cultural setting. In the Semitic world approximately fifteen centuries BCE, women were universally treated as property. People who did not breed became cultural liabilities because they had no children to care for them in their old age. Harsh punishments, like those established in the Code of Hammurabi a few centuries earlier, were the norm. Sacrifices, including child sacrifices to appease the gods, were common.
Those were the cultural assumptions of the people who first heard the laws of Leviticus. So what we should focus on as a window into the heart of Yahweh are not the elements that are unfamiliar to us, but the ones that would be unfamiliar to them. Where do these archaic laws and stories deviate from the ancient Semitic world? That is where Yahweh is guiding the people.
Where Does the Bible Deviate from Culture?
The thing that makes the story of Abraham tying Isaac to an altar and raising a knife to sacrifice him is not that Abraham did it. After all, in that world, child sacrifice was common. The thing that makes the story unusual is that God said, “Stop!” and then provided an animal as an alternative. The story is not about a god who kills children but the one God who does not.
What makes teachings about giving women captured in war a month to grieve before taking her as a wife unusual is not that men took women captured in war. It is that the woman had a month to grieve before becoming a wife. That time demands some recognition of her humanity, and becoming a wife assured her long-term care.
In all of this, the Bible is not creating a more vile and undignified world but guiding a vile and undignified world towards something more humane. It attaches a small rudder to a big ship with a long vision of changing the ship’s direction.
This is what makes the Bible’s teaching on gleaning so radical. Gleaning appears three times, twice in Leviticus and once in Deuteronomy (the Bible’s fifth book). Each account offers some variation of Leviticus 19:9-10:
When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.
Gleaning binds all landowners in Israel to provide food for the vulnerable and foreigners. In other words, the people who, for whatever reason, were not provided for through the family structure still received systemic provision.
Notice, this is not charity but a cultural obligation. It is a form of taxation on those who have more to enable the dignity of those who have less.
Bringing Leviticus To America
When you combine this with a general culture of hospitality, where denying a visitor shelter and food brought disgrace, not just a family but an entire village, and the instruction to treat foreigners like native-born Israelites (Leviticus 19:33-34), Levitical law, when followed, creates a radically progressive society for that time. It is a society where all people are fed, sheltered, and receive essential human care.
So what are some ways we could accomplish that in America today? How could we use our voices and vote to bring about the kind of society Yahweh aimed to steer ancient Israel towards?
This book is like the previously recommended, The Bible Tells Me So, but it’s also completely different. Pete’s a theologian and a bit snarky. Rob is a pastor who delves into the depths of spirit and soul. In this book, he also has a great chapter on Leviticus and how it invited the people from the world they lived in, to an encounter with a God who was good beyond imagination.
Video: Universal Human Rights
This video offers some food for thought on what it might take to achieve universal dignity.
Video: Left Defense of the Nuclear Family by Irami Osei-Frimpong
We often hear the political Right talk about the family and how they seek to achieve stable homes. Typically this involves a highly structured home defined by specific gender rolls. So what might family values from the political Left look like? As always, The Funky Academic has some thoughts.
Comment with your thoughts about how we can bring dignity to America?
I will explore some of my thoughts on how to bring dignity to America.