I have to warn you: this Bible passage from Leviticus 21 is startling.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron, [the High Priest] and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the LORD’S offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel.
Dare we say: The Word of the Lord? Thanks be to God?
There are several principles I count on whenever I do biblical interpretation and one of those principles is how important it is to take the Bible as a whole, not by piecemeal. It is not possible to make sense of Leviticus for our time without also listening to the wisdom literature and to the prophetic writings; without hearing the alternative voices, without seeing a counter-vision within Israel’s own tradition that pictured glimpses when – unlike in the day of Leviticus – there would come a day when all people would be welcomed and included in the reconciling, redeeming work of God. Listen to the word of the prophets of the Lord:
I am about to do a new thing, [says the Lord]
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)
For the foreigners and the eunuchs and the outcasts, [says the Lord] For all those who hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer…
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56)
Israel’s own tradition saw the rules of Leviticus as part of the whole – as we must today.
For example, the Hebrews’ author (most certainly a Jewish theologian living in the first century) re-interpreted the Jewish Priestly system, the Tabernacle system and the Sacrificial system. This new understanding allowed Jewish Christians who had been steeped in their particular religious culture to envision God’s presence in a fresh new way; to be able to see God’s new work embodied in Jesus, their Messiah.
In our Hebrews text for this conversation we read about the ancient curtain within the Tabernacle – a thick, impenetrable curtain that separated God from the people, the Ark of the Covenant from the rest of the world, the Holy from the mundane. But the Hebrews theologian – in his way of “faith seeking understanding” – understands that separation now to be eliminated; the curtain is disintegrated in Jesus Christ. This powerful re-interpretation understands that Christ’s own life and death and resurrected life has removed the barrier to the Holy and has opened a new and living way.
The ancient understanding of holiness, with all its rules and expectations, may seem odd to us, but we moderns could probably learn some good lessons from Leviticus about what it means to acknowledge and honor the Wholly Otherness of this Holy God. I think this ancient people of God did the best they could to try to honor that mystery. So in their day, with the cultural understandings that were typical for them, the priests who served at the holy altar were expected to epitomize holiness and physical excellence as best the community knew how to represent it. The priests were expected to be as perfect as possible – whole, healthy, clean – and (it goes without saying) male!
Whenever we read through Leviticus, we can see quite an interesting picture of this ancient time and place and how the culture of Israel shaped their expectations. Listen to these words from Leviticus:
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall observe my statutes and follow them: I am the LORD your God.
The priests shall not have bald spots on their head or shave off the edges of their beard. They shall not marry a divorced woman. They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God.
You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any tattoo marks upon you: I am the LORD.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on a garment made of two different kinds of materials. All who curse father or mother shall be put to death. I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin…you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
So – I’m wondering how many of you have tattoos. How many of your children or grandchildren have tattoos? Leviticus is pretty clear about tattoos. I’m wondering how many of you like your steak rare; if any of you have been divorced; if any of you plant different kinds of seeds too close together in your gardens. I’m wondering if anybody reading this blog right now might be wearing a combination of cotton and polyester.
Some current day biblical interpreters try to use passages like these from Leviticus to define what attitudes and practices are appropriate for living in our modern world. But the discipline of reading Leviticus as a whole and then reading the whole of Leviticus within the larger picture of Scripture discloses how these kinds of interpreters have to do a lot of picking and choosing. Those who would use these verses from Leviticus to condemn homosexual behavior – if they are to be consistent – must also condemn tattoos and many other things we take for granted these days. (Actually, a few of these folks do attempt to be consistent; in some very scary comments a few years ago, a candidate for the Oklahoma State House suggested that stoning gay people would be appropriate because of these verses in Leviticus.)
The method and the process we use to read the Bible is vitally important. It always has been but responsible biblical interpretation is even more significant a task in our current day when perverted understandings of Scripture are fostering perverse politics and policies in our social and national life. So whenever we try to make sense of texts like these, sensible and mature interpretive methods demand that we unpack the historical situation and understand the cultural practices that shaped the writings of the original community.
For example, it would be important for us to understand that, in this ancient day, within the experience of Israel, the worship of false gods was rampant. The rites and rituals that developed around those god and goddess cults often included elaborate tattoos, male and female prostitution and the drinking of blood. Consequently, when Israel was discerning how they would behave and how they would worship, they developed very specific taboos against many of the practices of the nations around them.
And so when we read Leviticus, we should be very, very careful about bringing any of these cultural assumptions from another world and a different day forward into our day. Faulty and unfaithful interpretations of the Bible, misapplications of some of these very obscure verses in Leviticus have been used again and again in the church, often by well meaning Christians to exclude and condemn some of the very people whom God is calling into relationship.
“Therefore, my friends…” the Hebrew writer begins our current New Testament passage. Here is another tip for good biblical interpretation: whenever you see the word “Therefore …” always look back to see what the word is “there for!”
Right here, in these verses, is a hinge in the Hebrews writer’s argument. Here is a pivot and a crux. Every idea and theological reflection that has been developed in this letter-sermon up to this point, now turns. It turns from theory to practice. It turns from thinking to acting.
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain…”
The letter has been building to this climax: the barrier has been removed. The definitions have broadened. Everything has changed. In the mysterious movement of God, because of the faithful work of Jesus Christ, we now have access to the Holy. The curtain is wide open.
Theologian and Preacher Paul Tillich loved to say: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you … Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
No matter who you are. No matter what you’ve done. Whatever. It just doesn’t matter because Jesus Christ has opened and continues to open this new way, this living way so that now ALL who approach the Holy God are accepted and are made holy.
In this way of thinking, in the way of theological reflection by the Hebrews author, in this image of Christ opening the curtain to the Holy of Holies – there is no place where God is not.
The work of the Christ has sanctified everything. What was considered to be imperfect, unholy, inadequate, impure, unacceptable …. all has been made perfect and holy and acceptable by the perfect work of God in Jesus Christ.
So now we are called to be who we are, to be the people God has made us to be. We are called to behave in ways that are congruent with our identity as holy people of God. Not as “holier than thou” people, but rather as people who are astounded at the grace and are humbled by the mystery.
Hebrews gives us ways to do that. Hebrews urges us to: 1) Draw near to God in faith; 2) Hold on to the hope we confess; 3) Encourage each other toward love and good deeds. Faith and hope and love are the actions and the behaviors of a people who have been transformed into the image of Christ. Faith and hope and love are the characteristics of a holy people.
If the Church is really going to be a people of this new way, this living way that is the way of the Christ, then we will actively and pro-actively welcome all kinds of people into our Christian community – those with tattoos, those who are divorced, those who are bald or hairy or blind or stubborn or lame or stumbling or old or young or male or female or gay or straight or rich or poor or any other human reality. There are still too many Christians, too many denominations, too many local congregations that have not yet figured out how to be this kind of inclusive community.
All around us, all kinds of people who have been shunned and excluded and made to feel unholy and unacceptable are yearning for a place of welcome, where the curtain really is opened wide. And so here and now, in our time, in our place, let us live boldly, let us go forward with confidence in this new and living way the Christ has opened up for ALL of us.
Living in The Story reflections for Week 15: Leviticus and Hebrews