Leviticus: Sacrifices and commandments we don’t hear about

What comes to mind when you think of Leviticus? Perhaps primitive religion – animal sacrifices, or the kind of divine legislation that can’t be taken seriously anymore. . . the kind of “thou shalt and shalt not” divine legislation that was the basis for that infamous  “letter to Dr. Laura” excerpted below.

Dear Dr. Laura,
I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
What in Leviticus would be of interest to a progressive or enlightened Christian? I was interested in the passages about sacrifice and commandments we rarely hear.

Sacrifice features prominently in Leviticus. The first three chapters begin to describe, in detail, how the various kinds of sacrifices or offerings are to be made. There is nothing wrong with a detailed rubrical manual. Ancient or modern, most clergy do care enough to perform religious ritual as well as possible. Of course one can care too much about rubrics. Arguably God did in Leviticus 10, in killing Aaron’s two eldest sons for offering “unholy fire.”  Pretty harsh punishment for a rubrical violation. At any rate, how and when various sacrifices are to be offered and performed is the subject of much of Leviticus, and none of it shows up in the Christian lectionary.

We are ambivalent about “sacrifice.” “Sacrifice” has come to mean surrendering something precious for the sake of another or diminishing ourselves in order to advantage someone else. Thanks largely to theological protests made by women, that sense of “sacrifice” – as virtuous self-diminishment — has become suspect, even when the one who is making the sacrifice is Jesus himself, on the cross and for our sake. I say that we are “ambivalent” about sacrifice, because even if we find the “self-diminishment” aspect of it distasteful, we don’t quite know how to tell the Christian story without it. I was once asked to say the Eucharistic Prayer without referring to notions of sacrifice. It’s hard to do. It is woven into the Christian story. Take it out and you’ve got a different story.

Given how central and woven-in “sacrifice” is to Christianity, it is interesting to me that we do not use any of the “sacrifice ritual” passages of Leviticus in the Christian lectionary. We are, at the very least, ambivalent about sacrifice.

At it’s root, “sacrifice” simply means “to make holy.” The sacrifice rituals in Leviticus were a means by which ownership of property was transferred from the realm of the profane to the realm of the sacred. Animals and grain – the stuff of sacrifice — were an aspect of a person’s wealth. Note that animals that did not have commercial value because they were blemished or injured in some way were generally not suitable sacrificial offerings. This dynamic is as modern as it is ancient. Instead of training our clergy how to barbeque, we train them to pass the plate. Theologically, I don’t see much difference.

Sin and guilt comes up in Leviticus. There are “sin offerings” and “guilt offerings.” Interestingly, Leviticus says there is such a thing as an “unintentional sin.” (Leviticus 4) A lot of us think that if we don’t  intend a particular result, we cannot be morally held responsible for that result, even if our action or neglect has played a causative role. From Leviticus 4, we learn that even if we did not intend the offense, we are still morally responsible.

We do not, however, lose the hope of heaven. We simply need to make amends. Hardly primitive. What would be primitive religion is the fantasy that we are not morally responsible for the consequences of our unintended actions or inactions.

Commandments – Leviticus 17-26 focuses less on proper priestly sacrifice etiquette and more on what makes for a holy life. There’s more to it than the Ten Commandments.  Here are some of the other commandments.

-Do not deal falsely. (Lev. 19:11)
-Do not lie to one another. (Lev. 19:11)
-Do not defraud your neighbor. (Lev. 19:13)
-Do not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
(No float?)(Lev. 19:13)
-Do not revile the deaf.
(Congress didn’t invent the ADA.) (Lev. 19:14)
-Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14)
(Do more than comply with the ADA. Make the way truly straight and safe.)
-Do not render an unjust judgment. Do not be partial to the poor or to the
powerful. (Lev. 19:15)
-Do not be a slanderer. (Lev. 19:16)
-Do not hate any of your kin in your heart. (Lev. 19:17)
-Reprove your neighbor. (It IS your business.) (Lev. 19:17)
-Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. (Lev. 19:18)
-Rise before the aged and defer to the old. (Lev. 19:32)
-Do not oppress the alien. “You shall love the alien as you love yourself.”
(Lev. 19:34)
-Do not cheat in measurements. (Lev. 19:35-36)
-Do not give any of your offspring over for child sacrifice. (Lev. 20:2)
(But what if the god promises to pay for their college education?)
-When you reap the harvest, do not harvest everything. Leave some (the
gleanings) for the poor and for the alien. (Lev. 19:9-19 and 23:22)

Under the heading of “does this bother anyone else…”
Twice in Leviticus there is a clear prohibition against the consumption of blood inasmuch as blood contains the life force. “For the life of every creature – its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev. 17:14.) So, at the Last Supper, wouldn’t Jesus’ characterization of the cup as his blood give rise to a real “yuk” reaction on the part of anyone who observed this dietary law?

Lectionary Notes
There is only one passage which is used in the Episcopal version of the Revised Common Lectionary. Portions of Leviticus 19 are read on two Sundays both of which are in Year A.

Epiphany 7A         Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18
Proper 25A            Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18

The reading on Epiphany 7A includes many of the “commandments” noted above, but neither passage includes Lev. 19:34 (“Love the alien as yourself.”)  That is an unfortunate omission. Given that we already do a fair amount of cutting and pasting with lectionary passages, let’s cut and paste so that Lev. 19:34 makes it into the lectionary in the same reading that its more well-known parallel is read. And let’s hear it more than once every three years!

The photo in this post shows a portion of a beautiful wall hanging hand-crafted by Madeleine Buehler of Arlington, MA.