Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 20:17-28; Romans 2:1-16; Psalm 54; Leviticus 21-22
Many of the laws in Leviticus seem strange and alien to us. Some of the punishments seem excessive, unjust and even immoral. Glazing over these passages as irrelevant, or ignoring them completely, is not an option for those who take biblical authority seriously. Some of those who speak out publically against Christianity raise these laws and punishments as prime reasons to reject the Bible and its teachings. They claim that these laws reveal a cruel, unjust God, or simply prejudiced people using divine authority to justify their personal prejudices.
As with any text, the context is crucial. Leviticus 21 begins by noting that what follows is addressed to the Israelite priests. This must be kept in mind as we examine today’s two chapters. The first topic notes that those set apart as priests were not to touch a dead body unless it was that of their parents or close relatives (Leviticus 21:1-3, 11). This may seem like a strange taboo, but is understandable given the origins of biblical monotheism. In Egypt, Canaan and most other ancient Near Eastern cultures, people consulted the dead to get help for the living. Such activities were completely rejected by the Old Testament (Isaiah 8:19). The priests were to be so separated from the cult of the dead that it was inappropriate for them to even be around the dead. However, they would still need to honour their parents, and so they were permitted to engage with those burial arrangements. Shaving and cutting the flesh were part of pagan rites of mourning and cut hair was offered to appease departed spirits, which helps explain why priests were not to carry out such practices (Leviticus 21:5).
The need for sexual purity among priests is understandable, but burning a priest’s daughter for prostitution seems extremely excessive (Leviticus 21:9). The prostitution may have been part of cultic prostitution that occurred in Canaanite religions. Not only would her actions signify participation in pagan religion, but it would destroy her father’s position as a priest and hence his livelihood. The death penalty highlighted the seriousness of her sin. The Old Testament calls for the death penalty for sixteen crimes, but only for premeditated murder was a ransom prohibited (Numbers 35:31). Many Old Testament and Jewish scholars hold that Jewish officials could and did commute the death penalty for the fifteen crimes, including the one here, but not for premeditated murder. In this case, biblical death penalties reminded people of the seriousness of certain crimes and did not often lead to executions. Taken in this light, the biblical judicial system was humane and a major improvement on those in cultures around ancient Israel.
The laws prohibiting those with disabilities from serving as priests likewise seem offensive at first. Some critics claim they show a God who is intolerant of the disabled and promotes discrimination against those with deformities. To understand these laws, we must examine why they were given. The sphere of God’s activity was to reflect wholeness and integrity. The sacrificial system taught these ideas through images and by analogy, while we might discuss them abstractly. Everything involved in sacrifices was to be perfect, without defect or blemish, because that is how God is. Only animals without deformities were to be sacrificed (Leviticus 22:19-25). In the same way, only priests without physical defects were to offer the sacrifices (Leviticus 21:16-23). Therefore, these regulations had nothing to do with how those with disabilities were to be valued or treated. They regulations were part of a complex system of analogies teaching the importance of perfect order and ideal craftsmanship in the divine realm. As we saw on March 2, Leviticus 19 calls for those with disabilities to be treated with the utmost respect and not discriminated against.
The sacrificial system may seem alien to us, and its details repugnant. The system was designed to bring ancient Israel from a place where they were immersed in pagan religion to one where they understood God and his work in the world. It was a temporary system, designed to paint a picture that Jesus would ultimately fulfil. As part of that, it taught the otherness of God. He is perfect and abhors imperfection. We are not perfect, and our stubbornness and sin calls for our punishment (Romans 2:5). The sacrificial system provided a temporary means of approaching God to find forgiveness, but required those involved to be perfect. The gospel of Jesus Christ provides a permanent answer when even our secrets will be brought into the open and judged (Roman 2:16). Leviticus 21-22 says nothing about the worth and value of people with disabilities, but points to God’s perfect moral character and the dilemma this creates that could only be solved through Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross.