The Complete Book of Leviticus

The Most Glorious Chapter in the Bible
What's really in the Good Book.
July 14 2006 3:02 PM

The Complete Book of Leviticus

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Leviticus

Chapter 13and Chapter 14
Leviticus wanders way off into Weirdistan. As in: What to do when you have an infection in your clothes. These clothing ailments, according to Leviticus, are exactly the same as the skin diseases earlier in Chapter 13. If your shirt suddenly develops "an eruptive affection," then the priest must be called to examine it, quarantine it, and diagnose it. Are your Levi's suffering from a "malignant eruption"? Has your favorite silk blouse ever been afflicted with the dread "streaky green or red" illness? I have no idea what this passage is talking about. Is there some deadly apparel plague that Burberry and the Gap have successfully hushed up?

Hold on! Leviticus isn't done with bizarre epidemics. In the very next chapter, houses are getting sick. Now "greenish or reddish streaks" are infecting the walls of a house. (I caught the green streaks once—my upstairs neighbor's toilet had sprung a leak.) Again, the priest is called, the house is quarantined, and if the plague spreads to other walls, Amityville-style, the house is torn down.

While we're in the land of the baroque, Chapter 14 also prescribes the purification ritual for a healed leper, which requires that the ex-leper shave off all his body hair … twice. More proof that God loves the bald man.

Chapter 15
On to sex—what a relief! As with food and skin, purity and impurity are the chief Levitical concern. If a man ejaculates, he has to bathe and remains impure for the rest of the day. (Incidentally, this suggests that the Bible tolerates masturbation, since the ejaculation described is one that doesn't occur during intercourse. More evidence that we misread the Onan story.) If a man has sex with a woman, they both have to bathe and remain impure for the rest of the day. (A question for observant Jewish readers: I assume some version of these rules applies today—how do they work in practice? Is there a lot of bathing going on in Orthodox homes? How does that post-coital impurity affect everyday life?)

A menstruating woman? Impure, of course—for seven days. As with all the impure folks Leviticus discusses, it's not merely that she is impure: Anyone who even grazes her is contaminated, anything she sits on is impure, her bed sheets are impure, etc. If you merely touch the chair she sat on, you have to scrub your clothes and take a bath—and you still remain impure for the rest of the day. Judging by Leviticus, life was nothing but baths and laundry.

(How would these Levitical directives go over today? I'm looking forward to the book that Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs is working on: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest To Obey the Bible as Literally as Possible. According to an acquaintance of mine who knows him, Jacobs is carrying a portable stool everywhere—so he never has to sit where a menstruating woman has been.)

Chapter 16
Biblical ignorance confession: I never knew the scapegoat was a real goat! (Did you?) It appears in an extremely odd, yet poignant, passage. After Aaron purges the tabernacle, he takes a goat, lays his hands upon its head, confesses all the Israelites' sins to it—thus "putting them on the head of the goat." Then he exiles the goat to the wilderness, ridding the Israelites of their iniquities. Poor goat. (I cheated and looked at some commentary on this: It turns out that "scapegoat"—a version of "escape goat"—appears in Tyndale's first English translation of the Bible in 1530.)

Chapter 17
In perhaps half-a-dozen Leviticus chapters, God warns of dreadful consequences for people who eat blood. In this chapter, God really brings the metal. God bans blood four separate times in Chapter 17. (For example, God admonishes: "I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin.") Yesterday I complained that God's dietary laws seem random, and that He doesn't explain them very well. The blood law is the exception. This chapter accounts for the ban vividly, emphatically, with this argument. You mustn't eat blood because "the life of all flesh is its blood." I know, I know, it doesn't make any difference to the animal that's being eaten—it's just as dead no matter how it's slaughtered. Even so, draining the blood is a powerful metaphor. When you bleed the animal, you are somehow allowing the animal's life force to escape, to free itself, before its flesh is consumed. (The chapter even specifies that you have to bury the blood in the earth.) Eating flesh and blood seems primal and cruel by comparison, because you are, in a sense, consuming the life of the animal—that's why they call it "lifeblood"! I'd never really thought about the kosher blood ban, and the passage made this blood-eater reconsider my sanguinary ways.

Chapter 18
Hey—all you folks who told me Leviticus was boring? You're nuts. It's fascinating!

For example, this chapter is crammed with important and incendiary laws–most of them sex rules. You must not "uncover the nakedness" of your female relatives, including mother (and father), sister, half-sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law. Also forbidden, any mother-daughter combination, any menstruating woman, and thy neighbor's wife. I don't know what "uncover the nakedness" exactly means. I assume it means "have sex with," but it's curious that Leviticus would use a euphemism when it's so explicit everywhere else. (Incidentally, this chapter of the Torah imagines only male readers: These prohibitions are directed only at men. And there's no parallel passage forbidding women from uncovering the nakedness of their brother.)

All this uncovering nakedness is just a preview for the hottest law of all, the No. 1, all-time favorite, top-of-the-pops Bible verse for social conservatives: Leviticus 18:22.

"Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence."

A lot of ink, and probably some blood, has been spilled about the meaning of this verse. I can't count the number of times I've heard religious conservatives cite it in their condemnation of homosexuality. On the flip side, I once listened to my rabbi hold forth about the word "abhorrence" (sometimes translated as "abomination")—he argued that it actually had a much milder meaning than, well, "abhorrence." Despite his impassioned argument, I don't think gay-rights supporters are going to get very far in trying to minimize or deny the Bible's opposition to homosexuality. There is no Brokeback Mount Sinai. This verse, plus a similar verse in Chapter 20 mandating death for gay sex between men, plus the destruction of Sodom—the Bible is crystal clear about male homosexuality. (Lesbian sex isn't mentioned in the Torah.) So, how should Bible-loving gay-rights supporters rebut Leviticus 18:22? A stronger argument, perhaps, is to point out all the other things the Bible is equally clear about: The death penalty for gay sex, yes—but also the death penalty for cursing your parents, the death penalty for violating Sabbath, exile for sex with a menstruating woman, etc. … Turn the Bible-quoting back on the social conservatives: Why do they fixate on the abhorrent gay sex and not the abhorrent menstrual sex, or parent cursing, or Sabbath-violating?

Both Chapter 18 and Chapter 20 are devoted to sexual immorality and its punishments. At the end of Chapter 18, God explains why He's so worried about sexual misbehavior. But it's not at all the answer I expected. He says that the Israelites must follow these sexual laws to keep the land pure. The reason the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, and others are getting expelled from their land is that they violated these moral laws, and the land punished them: "Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants. … So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you." According to the Lord, the land is alive—the land itself can be purified or defiled, the land can rise against the people. A religious friend of mine often talks to me about his mystical connection with Israel, and I have always (inwardly) pooh-poohed it as mere romanticism. But I take back my pooh-poohing. Until this passage, I never fully understood that when God makes His covenant with Israel, He is actually making a three-legged deal: He makes a covenant with His people, for His land. Maybe that's why so much of Genesis is about real estate. Maybe that's why, for many faithful Jews, being Jewish in America or Canada or France is not being wholly Jewish at all, because they are cut off from the land that is our covenant with God. We're not His Chosen People anywhere. We're His Chosen People on His Holy Land. And that's why the land must be pure.

Chapter 19and Chapter 20
Chapter 19 is glorious—a catalog of laws that's even more impressive, in their own way, than the Ten Commandments. No one can argue with Ten Commandments—who favors murder?—but they're pretty vague. The Chapter 19 laws are beautiful for their mix of pragmatism and justice. Let me quote the middle of the chapter at length, it's so good:

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God. I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.

You shall observe My laws.

Wow! Top that, Congress! In just a few sentences, the Torah speaks up for justice, charity, workers, and the disabled; it condemns financial crimes, gossip, and war profiteering; and it offers perhaps the most concise directive on human behavior ("Love your fellow as yourself"—Ever wonder where Jesus got "Love thy neighbor"? Not anymore.)

I particularly love the percussive repetition of "I am the Lord" It's the key to the whole chapter, I think. Why? Start with the obvious point: These are not laws that people want to follow. The employer wants to hold the wage overnight. The farmer wants to pick up fallen fruit. The victim wants to take vengeance. So, why should they follow these laws? In a tribal society, a society without a constitution, without a Supreme Court, without a history of common law, how do you justify laws like these? Or enforce them? There's a lot of modern conservative legal scholarship about "natural law," which, as I crudely understand it, is that idea that there is a basic underlying legal code, largely derived from the Bible, that is independent of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence—laws just like these. But natural law is not natural at all. Law can exist only if there is power to enforce it (the police, the courts). "I am the Lord" is a statement of faith, but even more a statement of force. For the Israelites, what supported these laws? The knowledge that the Lord—the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, the God of Nadab and Abihu, the Really Supreme Smiting Court, is there to enforce them. "I am the Lord. You shall observe My laws."

Hmm, I just noticed a contradiction in this entry. How can I reconcile this praise of the Chapter 19 laws with what I wrote a few paragraphs ago about the Chapter 18 anti-gay laws? Last chapter I was bemoaning the Levitical laws and looking for ways gays could subvert them. Here I'm praising the laws to the sky. But Leviticus isn't consistent—why do I have to be? The laws in Leviticus are a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous—and the repellent. Just after the incredible legislative passage I quote above, for example, come odd laws against mixing fabrics, cross-breeding animals, and violating slaves. Those laws, in turn, are followed by wonderful laws about respecting the elderly, being kind to strangers, and doing business with honest weights and measures. And those laws, in turn, are followed by the draconian laws of Chapter 20, which impose death for idol-worship, adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality.

Where do I get off deciding certain Levitical laws are glorious and universal, true 4,000 years ago and true today (You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich), while others are archaic and should be tossed away (Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.)? Fundamentalists solve this problem by accepting all the laws as true. But the rest of us—both those who believe the Bible was inspired by God and those who believe it's just a book—don't get off so easy. Unless you're willing to live in a Taliban-esque world of moral absolutism, in which adulterers and homosexuals are dragged from their beds and murdered, you have to pick and choose. We talk about the Bible, as if there is only one. But if there's anything I've learned from the e-mails you're sending me, it's that we all have our own Bible. We linger on the passages we love and blot out, or argue with, or skim the verses that repel us. My Bible, I suppose, has a very long Chapter 19, and a very short Chapter 18. What about yours?

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.