The Complete Book of Leviticus
Some skeptical readers doubted that my Bible reading would last past Exodus. Oh, it's all thrills and giggles when you're dealing with the Ten Plagues and the Tower of Babel—but wait till you get to Leviticus! They mentioned "Leviticus" in the same hushed, terrified way that mariners mutter "Bermuda Triangle," or Hollywood executives whisper "Ishtar." Leviticus, I was warned, makes even learned rabbis weep with boredom, turns promising young Talmudic scholars into babbling US Weekly subscribers. What would it do to an amateur like me?
So, it was with trepidation and a large cup of coffee that I cracked open Leviticus last week (while on vacation, no less! How's that for commitment?) I'm happy to report that it's not quite as awful as advertised.
Chapter 1to Chapter 7
In his History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote—with anti-Semitism, but a respectful kind of anti-Semitism—that Judaism was defined by its "peculiar distinction of days, of meat, and a variety of trivial though burdensome observances." Trivia and burden—that's Leviticus! The book is a confusing swirl of baffling practices, peculiar laws, and ornate rituals.
The first seven chapters, for example, are a Complete Guide to Animal Sacrifice. This is utterly useless for modern Christians and Jews, since Jews stopped sacrificing animals nearly 2,000 years ago when the Temple was destroyed, and Christians (I believe) never sacrificed them. But we're stuck with chapter after chapter about it, so let's make the best of it.
If, by some Connecticut Yankee-type time-travel miracle, you ever find yourself in the Sinai desert, standing outside the Tent of Meeting, here are some tips on sacrifice etiquette: First, offer an animal that's without blemish. Don't be alarmed when the priests fling the animal's blood all over the altar. If it's a bird (ideally a turtledove), the priest will "pinch off its head" and tear it open by the wings. If you're bringing a grain offering, expect the priests to eat most of it themselves. That's their "most holy portion."
When should you sacrifice an animal? Well, just about anytime is fine. When: a priest does wrong; the whole community does wrong; a chieftain does wrong; or an individual does wrong—usually a sin of omission or accident. (The Torah mentions a few, including touching an impure animal or object, or withholding evidence of someone else's wrongdoing.)
Leviticus is admirably conscious of inequality: Each time it describes a sacrifice, it specifies what a rich man must do (kill a sheep, let's say) but then offers alternatives for poorer men: "If his means do not suffice for a sheep, he shall bring to the Lord, as his penalty … two turtledoves or two pigeons." If he can't afford birds, he can bring grain. The alternative offerings are a reminder of how practical Leviticus must have been for the Israelites. It wasn't merely a holy book and a law book, it was a manual.
Which is why what I'm about to say is so incredibly unfair—namely that the author of Leviticus is a dreadful writer. He can't possibly be the same person (people) who wrote the cracking good stories of Exodus or Genesis. Leviticus is agonizingly repetitive. For example, it describes how exactly you sacrifice an animal. Then, a chapter later, it repeats those instructions, word for word, for a slightly different ritual (a "reparation" offering as opposed to a "purification" offering). It's very tedious, but I suppose it's unfair to blame the author, since it is a manual. The user guide for my new digital camera isn't beach reading either.
Chapter 8to Chapter 10
Here's an episode they skipped at my Sunday school. God, who's been uncharacteristically quiet and gentle for the first chapters of Leviticus, returns with a vengeance. Moses ordains Aaron as priest—this includes the peculiar spectacle of dabbing blood on "the ridge of Aaron's right ear," on his right thumb, and on his right big toe. Soon afterward, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, who are also priests, take their "fire pans" and offer incense to the Lord. But rather than the prescribed incense, they give God "alien fire." So, BOOM! God incinerates them on the spot. Moses, more like a Mafia boss than a prophet, tells Aaron his sons got what they deserve, then orders some cousins to drag the corpses away and drop them outside of camp. All they did was bring the wrong incense! Is the Lord really that petty? I suppose there's a lesson here: Those rituals that seem so picayune and random—they really matter. A few verses later, God lectures Aaron: "You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the impure and the pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the law which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses." This sounds like God's explanation: The deaths were not the merciless act of a vindictive deity—they were a caution to his followers to mind the details.
Finished with sacrifices, Leviticus moves on to dietary laws—restrictions that observant Jews still follow today. Forbidden: animals that don't chew their cud or don't have true hooves, sea creatures without fins and scales, most insects, "great lizards of every variety," pelicans, owls, bats, etc. As a pork-loving Jew, two words leap out at me. God says that the swine, because it doesn't chew the cud, is "impure." Understood. But then the Lord describes lots and lots of other animals—including lobster, shrimp, ostrich, and most insects—as "abominations." "Abomination" is a much stronger word than "impure." Does that mean bacon, pork chops, pulled pork, and ham are less bad than lobster? Can it really be that pork is a minor dietary offense? The kashrut equivalent of a parking ticket? God, I hope so! Or am I reading too much into a minor semantic distinction?
One of the longest dietary passages concerns which insects we can eat. Which raises the obvious point: The ancient Israelites ate insects! (For the record, the Lord bans everything buggy except locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers.)
Does the Lord have a plan here? He's generally opposed to grossness and wriggliness: Everything that crawls or "has many legs" is an abomination. He opposes all animals with paws. He bans carnivores, only allowing us plant-eating animals (except for fish). But I don't see a grand scheme. Why are pigs bad but goats good, camels bad but cows good, herons bad but hens good? Am I missing something? Is there a logic to the kashrut laws? Or are the laws based on so many diverse sources (what animals were around, how the Israelites could distinguish themselves from neighboring tribes, etc.) that it's folly to look for a guiding philosophy?
Leviticus is fixated with impurity. When you touch an impure object, you become impure. When you have a particular illness, you're impure. When you eat the wrong bug, you're impure. And according to this chapter, a woman is impure for a week after giving birth to a boy. If she gives birth to a girl, she's impure for … two weeks. (How does she get purified? Animal sacrifice, natch.)
The lepers are coming! The lepers are coming! This is a mind-bendingly confusing chapter about how skin diseases make you impure. It's nearly impossible to get through. I did my best. You try a bit.
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if the hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days….
The chapter is obsessed with leprosy. Again and again, it describes a skin problem in pustular detail, then concludes solemnly: "It is leprosy." In one of those Biblical passages that sound more like Monty Python than God's holy word, Leviticus orders that a leper be expelled from the camp, his clothes torn, and his head uncovered. "He shall cover over his upper lip, and he shall call out, 'Impure! Impure!' " This leprosy anxiety: Is it paranoid primitive ignorance? Or foresighted public-health precaution? (The priests are instructed to quarantine those with skin diseases. Perhaps this is the first recorded example of a public-health campaign.)
Best passage of the day: Leviticus interrupts these dire leprous warnings to reassure men that, yes, it's OK to be bald. "If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is pure." And it gets better! God also approves of male-pattern baldness. "If he loses the hair on the front part of his head and becomes bald at the forehead, he is pure." So throw out that Rogaine! God loves a cue-ball, baby!
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.