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Posts Tagged ‘Leviticus 19’

Believe it or not, one of my favorite passages in the Pentateuch to teach is Leviticus 19.  I can think of a couple reasons, including the strong correlation between theology and ethics.  But, I’ve found that this is a good place for a Bible teacher to show how historical background can help us understand the seemingly random laws we find in Leviticus.  Enter October’s Resource of the Month, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament.

 

In verses 26-31, we see a combination of laws that seem, to our minds, arbitrary and disconnected to one another.  However, when we understand the pagan cultures that surrounded ancient Israel, we can understand why the Lord issued these commands.

 

The Bible Background Commentary informs us that the issues brought up here in these verses were a part of pagan religious rituals.  Some of this is obvious to us (practicing divination, seeking out mediums), while much of it may not be.  Let me share some relevant background information from our good friends Walton, Matthews and Chavalas (all of these quotes are from page 134).

 

V26– The connection of meat with blood still in it and divination is seen in nearby cultures (such as the Hittites), who used the blood of sacrificed animals “to attract the spirits of the dead… or chthonic (underworld) deities in order to consult them about the future.”

 

V27– “The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead. …In ancient thinking hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives of a person’s life essence.  As such it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic.”

 

V28– Cutting oneself was often a means of attracting a god’s attention (think of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:28).  As for tattoos, this was often “designed to protect a person from the spirits of the dead.”

 

V29– While the denunciation of prostitution does not necessarily require a pagan religious ritual context, it may well include that (and since this command falls in the context of pagan rituals, I would argue it does).  As we know, prostitution was often a part of pagan religion.  (Remember the story of the idolatrous Israelites and the Midianite women in Numbers 25.)

 

So, when we read Leviticus 19:26-31, we can see that these are not arbitrary laws, but rather are commanding Israel not to practice their religion like their pagan neighbors.  You don’t need to perform magical spells or stir up a special concoction in order to hear from the Lord.  You don’t need to mutilate your body to ensure that the Lord will hear you.  You don’t need to live in fear of the spirits of the dead because you have the God who created all things on your side. 

 

This all leads to another reason why I like teaching Leviticus 19: I find it ripe for hermeneutical reflection.  In what ways do we copy the surrounding pagan culture?  Have we adopted means of determining the Lord’s will that are actually unbiblical?  Do we worship in ways that reflect our godless culture more so than our holy God?  There are many more questions one could ask, which are admittedly open ended, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of our readers.

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