The Complete Book of Leviticus
This is the Law and Order: SVU chapter, where the Lord specifies punishment for sex crimes. The most popular sentence: "They shall be put to death." Execution is the price for sex between: adulterer and adulteress; man and stepmother; man and daughter-in-law; man and man; man and beast; woman and beast. A threesome of man, woman, and her mother is singled out as especially heinous: The punishment is not just death but getting burned to death. God allows a few tender mercies: Marrying a sister is punished only by excommunication. Sex with a menstruating woman—that rates only banishment. And sex with an aunt or sister-in-law merely guarantees the culprits will die childless.
That God who spoke up so powerfully for the blind and the deaf in Chapter 19? He's gone. Out with Martin Luther King God, in with Martha Stewart God—a finicky Lord who's peeved by human frailty and offended by illness. The fussiness shows up when He issues His rules for the priesthood: No one who's blind, a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has scurvy, a broken leg, a boil-scar, one leg longer than the other, or crushed testes can join God's squad. "Having a defect … he shall not profane these places sacred to Me."
God issues His calendar. He assigns three big holidays to the seventh month of the year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Sukkot. Here's the question that puzzles me and for which all you Torah scholars have an easy answer: Why does Rosh Hashanah—the holiday celebrating the New Year—fall on the first day of the seventh month?
A half-breed Israelite—his father was Egyptian—says the Lord's name, so he gets stoned to death. God declares that anyone "who pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death." This is a curious episode, because it's unclear if the culprit is executed for merely saying God's name or for cursing God. Is the crime the word itself? Or the word uttered in the wrong spirit? And what, exactly, is the "Name" that cannot be spoken? I realize this is like taping a big "Smite Me" sign to my back, but I'm curious: How did the Israelites know exactly what word to avoid?
Even so, as a writer I find this passage strangely comforting. The rage of the Israelites, Moses, and the Lord against the blasphemer signals their profound belief in the power of the word. Muslims call Jews (and Christians) "People of the Book"—a high compliment, and a well-deserved one. Although I am woefully ignorant of it, there have been 4,000 years of Jewish textual scholarship, of arguing and philosophizing about the meaning of all these Biblical words (a key reason why there are so many Jewish writers and lawyers). From the beginning—apparently, as we see here, from the very beginning—Jews respected the might of the word.
Good intentions, bad public policy. The first half of the chapter addresses the Sabbath and Jubilee years. Every seven years, we're required to give the land a rest from planting—God promises to deliver bumper harvests in Year 6 so that no one goes hungry. Every 50 years, there's a jubilee, which is another year without planting. It is also the time when land is returned to its original owner. As I read it, farmland couldn't be sold for good, only leased until the next jubilee year, when the original owner could redeem it. I don't need to remind any of my real-estate-owning friends what folly this must have been. Such long-term leaseholds would have discouraged land improvements, prevented economies of scale, kept property in the hands of lazy owners, and suppressed entrepreneurship. (I remember reading that Orthodox farms in Israel observe some version of the Jubilee year even now. How does it work?)
Like most first-time Bible readers, I've been stunned by the amount of slavery in the Good Book. The second half of this chapter is the worst passage yet, a real slavery gobsmack. It doesn't sound so bad at first. In fact, it seems quite tolerant, because it is specifying all the ways in which an indentured Israelite must be well-treated. You can only keep him and his family until the Jubilee year: They can never become property. The Lord reminds His people to treat their Israelite slaves generously: "You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God." This is all very apples and honey.
But note who the passage is not talking about: All the non-Israelite slaves. They, by contrast, become property "for all time." Leviticus says you must not treat Israelite slaves "ruthlessly." But what does that imply about how to treat non-Israelite slaves? Bring out the whips! Cut the rations! Want to be ruthless? Go ahead, be ruthless!
At the end of Chapter 24—right before this slavery chapter—there's a wonderful passage about equality in law: "You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike." Great stuff! Of course the Torah doesn't really mean it. Every so often—as in this Chapter 24 verse—the Bible nods toward a universal brotherhood of men. These are the kumbaya verses that are quoted by modern judges and heralded by modern civil rights activists. But they are aberrations. Most of the time, the Bible conceives of a tribal world, a world of a Chosen Us, and a nearly sub-human Them—an Us who can never be slaves, but a Them that can be exploited ruthlessly, a Them that is property, a Them whose first-born can be smitten.
First two verses: Don't make idols, and keep the Sabbath. If I could boil down the first three books into a couple of sentences, they would be: Don't make idols. Keep the Sabbath. I haven't kept a tally, but I'd bet that the Torah has already issued this pair of laws at least 15 times. By contrast, "thou shalt not kill" rates only half a dozen reminders.
Let me hazard a guess about why idols and the Sabbath dominate the Torah. A key purpose of the Torah was to distinguish the Israelites from those around them—to make them feel different from the Baal worshippers and Molech-lovers. But the most obvious big laws—don't kill, steal, covet, etc.—are pretty universal. Even those loathsome Molechites probably had laws against stealing! So, those common laws garner just a few mentions. The laws that the Torah keeps noodging us about, by contrast, are the laws that separate Israelites from those around them: No idols, a seventh-day Sabbath, and—as I wrote earlier—no blood eating. Not-killing doesn't make you different from a Molechite, but keeping the Sabbath and avoiding blood does. The unusual rules are the ones Israelites have to observe if they're going to remain a distinct, independent people. They are the laws that keep Israelites from becoming Molechites. (What happens when Jews don't observe those unusual laws? Look around you. Those unusual laws go unobserved by American Jews like me, and the result is that we are largely indistinguishable from American Christians and atheists. We and the atheists and the Christians keep the same big laws—we don't kill or covet or dishonor our parents—but if we don't keep the defining laws, our identity blurs. And that, I assume, is why the Torah keeps bothering us about them.)
OK, back to this chapter, which is among the finest bits of writing in the Bible. It's divided in two. In the first part, the Lord tells the Israelites what glories await them if they obey His laws. In the second part, God warns what will happen if they disobey.
The reward for good behavior is: rain for crops, bumper harvests, easy victory in war: "I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross the land."
Since during the entire history of the Jews, there have been perhaps four days when we could "lie down untroubled by anyone," one can only assume that we have not followed God's laws faithfully.
This chapter offers a precise measurement of God's balance between love and fear. The rewards for good behavior take 11 verses. The punishments for bad behavior go on for 27 verses. I suppose the Lord understood the iron law of drama: Villains are always more interesting than heroes, and bad times make better stories than good times. The same thing is going on in this chapter. God cursorily promises the milk and honey. But he waxes enthusiastic about the suffering.
Let's just drop in and sample a few lines from what must be the most menacing speech ever recorded:
"If you reject My laws and spurn My rules … I will wreak misery upon you … you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. … I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. … I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children … though you eat, you shall not be satisfied … your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin …"
He just goes on and on and on like this, verse after verse of wroth and wrath. It's incredibly scary but also—I probably shouldn't say this—a little bit funny. It's like a shaggy dog story of divine vengeance. Just as you think it's about to end, God suddenly remembers another comeuppance ("the land of your enemies shall consume you …") and flies off the handle again.
Despite all the threats, God never quite closes the door on His Chosen People. After their horrific reckoning, they (we) will confess our iniquity and atone for it. And He won't forget His promise: "I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God." I'm very interested in how Jews read Chapter 26 after the Holocaust. Did some rabbis take Hitler's genocide as evidence that we had disobeyed God—that because we had broken His laws, the land of our enemies consumed us? Or was the chapter read in other ways?
If the author of Leviticus had an editor, the book would end with the terrifying thunderclap of Chapter 26. Instead it finishes with a whimper—an extra chapter about taxation and tithing. We are ordered to tithe one-tenth of our harvest and our animals to the Lord: Is this law still in force? Are Jews still supposed to obey it? If so, here's yet another way I'm falling short.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at email@example.com . E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.