Elderly Couple in an Interior, Frans van Mieris, c. 1650-1655 (Leiden Collection Catalogue)
Leviticus 19:1–2, 17–18
February 23, 2020
This week we read from the Book of Leviticus for the first time. It is one of the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and literally means the book of the tribe of Levi. This tribe was given the responsibility of maintaining the Temple and its worship, and not unsurprisingly, most of the book pertains to cultic matters. It will however show us that, for the Jews, worship and justice are both needed for holiness and the road to holiness may seem a detour from what we find truly important.
Leviticus begins where the book of Exodus ends. There is little action in the book, and it is mostly composed of the LORD speaking to Moses. More importantly is the time of its composition and final edition. We have seen many times before that the historical books of the Old Testament were competed after the return of significant numbers of the Jewish leaders to Jerusalem from Babylon. The first group went between 538 and 515 BC and another about 450 BC. Their concerns may be found in prophets such as (Third) Isaiah, Zechariah, and Haggai and in the historical writings of Ezra and Nehemiah. Through them, we have examined the nature of God’s reign in history, the relationship of the Jews to other peoples, and the developing notion of the Messiah.
They were recreating their society, and this was reflected in rebuilding their temple. Leviticus was written after the work of Ezra and Nehemiah. These were officials sent by the Assyrian king when it had become obvious that the colony was failing. They recognized that this was more than a management issue but required a return to tradition. Leviticus is composed of basically two parts: “The Priestly Book” (Chapters 1-16) and the “Holiness Codes” (Chapters 17-26). The priestly book defines sacred space and what is needed for worship. The holiness code shows how the sacred can be integrated into life.
It is in the holiness code that the Jewish calendar is formalized, literally making the sacred a part of daily life and the rhythm of the seasons. This is done in mind-numbing detail which is one reason why it not often read in church. Yet in the opening section we read today, the author is careful to give us the full and beautiful picture of holiness and its consequences.
The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community”
God is speaking to Moses but tells him to share this not only with the Priests and Levites, but with all the people. Holiness is not the exclusive property of the professional but a command and reward for all.
And tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.
Let us look at holiness. If we look at holiness as a concept, we will get very confused very quickly. Etymologists, anthropologists, and historians have different views on its meaning. Some emphasize that it means separated, others pure, others the wholly different and transcendent. They do not necessary conflict with each other, but there is no coherent statement of meaning. Yet it is perhaps not that difficult. Holiness is who God is. Yes, he is separate from us, we truly do need to purify ourselves to be near him, and we are always inferior to him and in his debt. But by telling us that we need to be holy, he is requiring that we need to be connected to Him.
By obeying the holiness code, we form a relationship with God that will cause us to be holy. This of course means being in a covenant with God. We have seen many times that this is sharing our lives with Him and that this also requires being in relationship with our community.
Between these verses (9:1–2) and the verse that close our reading today (19:17–18), the author gives us examples of behavior which will forge the covenant with God and neighbor and make us holy. These will call to mind the 10 commandments, but in a different order and with for us, curious linkages.
The next verse is:
Revere your mother and father and keep my sabbaths. I, the LORD, am your God.
It is through our immediate family, most particularly with our parents, that we participate in the covenant. How we treat them indicates how seriously we take the covenant. This is not admonishing youngsters to obey their parents, but demanding that adult children care for the needs of their elderly parents. Their world was not an easy one and older people were quite frankly burdens. Were people in the prime of health willing to show nonproductive people respect and care for them? If not, the link with God and holiness is immediately severed and one cannot go any further.
This is connected to the Sabbath for the same reason. We read in Genesis:
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.
The day that God calls holy is the most non-productive day of the week. It is holy, however, because it is the day we spend developing our relationship with God. These two commandments give us the right perspective.
There are other commandments as well between the beginning and end of our reading today. To take only one:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of grain”
This quite clearly is telling farmers not to farm too efficiently. Leave some grain left over for the very poor to “glean” that is to take for themselves. As always in the Old Testament, the poor and their needs are on the Lord’s mind. The reality of their distress was always more important than the efficient use of capital.
This section concludes with:
You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart
The heart for the Jews was the center of one’s being. It was not only feelings and sentiment but thought and will as well. To hate in one’s heart is to give oneself to that hatred “body and soul” and thus to break the covenant completely and lose any possibility of holiness.
Contrast that with
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
This is the kind of concern which will seek to care aged parents and be mindful of those so poor that they need our left-over grain.
Many good things can be obtained, and good deeds accomplished by the efficient use of our time, talent, and capital, but holiness is not one of them. Holiness requires that we waste time with the LORD and not maximize or monetize our relationships with each other.
Perhaps people have told you to “sit down and smell the roses.” Leviticus today is telling us to kneel down and see our neighbor.