6. Epiphany: The Problem with Leviticus

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

12 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO


The Problem with Leviticus

Based on Leviticus 12

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell


            This morning, I’d like to take a survey. Raise your hand if the following applies to you:

            You watched the Super Bowl last Sunday or have ever touched a football.

            You’ve ever had a ham sandwich.

You’ve ever been to Red Lobster, Long John Silver’s or any other seafood restaurant.

            You’re a woman and have ever worn pants.

            You have ever worn polyester or any other clothing made out of two fabrics.

            You’ve ever planted two kinds of crops in the same field.

            You’re a man and have ever had a haircut.

            You’ve ever shaved.

            You are far-sighted, near-sighted, have cataracs, wear glasses or contacts.

            You’ve ever eaten or touched a


                        Rock badger





                        Water hen





                        Hoopoe (what the heck is a hoopoe?)





                        or Gecko.

For shame! You’ve all committed abominations! All of these things are called an abomination in the book of Leviticus. Just be glad I didn’t ask you about the other laws having to do with more intimate matters. Leviticus is a book of holy and priestly laws written for the Hebrew people while they were exiled in Babylon. Among other things, those laws including not touching the skin of a pig (banning touching pigskin footballs or eating pork), not eating any sea creature without scales or fins (banning shrimp and lobster), forbidding women to wear men’s clothes (sorry, no pants ladies), banning the use of mixing two fabrics (goodbye poly-cotton blends), and banning intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period. All these things are called abominations. The Old Testament lists a total of 65 abominations: 5 are abominations in relation to other people, 13 are dietary restrictions, 17 involve improper sacrifice, 12 include a wide range of behaviors from murder to women wearing pants, 8 are unclear in their purpose, 5 are sexual restrictions, and 2 forbid the love of money. The New Testament only uses the word twice, once in Revelation and once in the gospels. Jesus uses it to refer to the love of money – and absolutely no reference to it again. The word abomination comes from toevah, which does not mean something that is intrinsically evil, but ritually unclean for Jews themselves.

            This morning’s text from Leviticus says on the other hand, what persons should do, rather than avoid. We hear that when a woman gives birth to a boy, she needs to spend 33 days of purification – but when she has a girl, she needs to spend 66 days of purification. It’s important to note here that the purification was required not because of any sin associated with childbirth, but because of the flow of blood – which the Hebrews associated with death. But why would a woman have to purify herself half the time for a boy as for a girl? The answer when this text was written may have had something to do with the supposed sin of Eve and its legacy for all womankind. But really, its more likely that its because male children were more valued than female children.

            Now, if I as your pastor suggested that we strictly follow this passage – I’d rightly get run out of town by the women of this congregation. Today, we simply find no need for such purification rites. We don’t see anything inherently unclean about childbirth, and we certainly don’t think women should be treated differently if they have a boy or girl. For the time this text was written it served a purpose. But it has little meaning for us today. Mind you, this text is almost harmless compared to another gem from Leviticus 25, which says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.” That passage basically argues that it is ok to own slaves as long as they don’t come from your own country. This is one of the passages that slaveowners in the United States used to defend their practice of slavery.

                        From the harmless to very harmful, Leviticus includes many passages that we today do not follow, some of which we find just plain abhorrent. Yet, some continue to use one passage in Leviticus to berate same-gender loving persons. Why do this, when we follow almost none of the other mandates in Leviticus? Why do this, when even orthodox Jews do not even follow all of these mandates? Quite frankly, it’s out of prejudice. Most people know little about Leviticus, yet cling to one verse that backs up their prejudice. If people want to do that, that’s their prerogative, but they need to be honest that they’re picking and choosing scripture. We all do that to a certain extent, in deciding which scriptural passages are most important to us.

            So what do we do with Leviticus? What do we do with these passages that we typically choose not to follow? I don’t think most people are going to give up their glazed ham Christmas dinners or shaving or pants. But Leviticus is part of sacred scripture and it does need wrestling with. First, it’s important to understand the role the Levitical code played. The name Leviticus comes from Levi, which was the tribe of priests in ancient Israel. The Hebrews had been exiled out of their homeland to Babylon. They were living in a foreign country and culture, and were looking for ways to protect their identity as a people in a strange land. The laws found in Leviticus were the result of those attempts to maintain their own distinct identity away from their homeland. These laws were written to separate them from their captors and the other people of Babylon. They were designed to preserve the purity of the chosen people, to prevent mixing with other nations and avoid acculturation in Babylon. These primitive peoples did their best to identify how they could maintain their identity and to avoid foreign diseases, so that when they were able to return to their homeland, there would at least be some living who could return to their former way of life. They did not have the scientific information that we have on what food is safe to eat, how to have sanitary childbirth, or how to prevent sexually transmitted infections. But they used what knowledge they did have to try to sort those things out, so that at least a remnant could return to Israel someday. Leviticus was written with all this in mind – for a particular people, for a particular time and place in history. We can learn from the Hebrews’ struggle to maintain their identity and who they were in the midst of oppression, but there is not a need to follow those laws today in our time and place.

            There is a variety of literature in the Bible with a variety of purposes. There is history of the Israelite people and their laws, prophecy calling those people back to God’s ways, wisdom sayings in Proverbs, songs and poems of both praise and disappointment with God in the Psalms, the story of Jesus in the gospels, Paul, Peter and John’s guidance to the early churches in the letters, and an apocalyptic allegory in Revelation – and that barely covers the wide variety in scripture. Much of our holy text speaks to us across time and space, and can find universal application. But not all of it does. Some things simply don’t translate into our current context – like forcing a woman to purify herself doubly because she had a female child. Some of the Old Testament laws are universal, like the ten commandments – which provide the basis for many nations’ laws. But others, like much of Leviticus are unnecessary today. It’s like some of the antiquated laws of our own state that are still around today. For example in Kansas City, installation of bathtubs with four legs resembling animal paws is prohibited. In Natchez, it is unlawful to provide beer or other intoxicants to elephants. In St. Louis, it is against the law for a milk man to run on duty. In Normal, Illinois, where I went to college, it is unlawful to make faces at dogs. They sound ridiculous, right? Just about as ridiculous as a ban on eating rock badger. But, all of these laws at one time served a purpose and at least to those who wrote them, had a reasonable meaning behind them.

            So we can acknowledge the Levitical code’s importance in the history of the Israelite people in preserving themselves, while admitting that this is no longer our concern. So we need not feel bound by it, nor guilty when we get a haircut or wear clothing of two fabrics or love the person we are naturally attracted to. Rather, when we come across such passages like these in the Bible, we need to measure them against the great arc of scripture and Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. Saying ‘What would Jesus do?’ is often a good guide, but we don’t always have a clear answer. Like, ‘Would Jesus eat a camel?” I’m not sure about that – maybe, maybe not. I’d rephrase the question slightly, and ask, “Does this action get in the way of loving my God and my neighbor as myself?” If one commits murder, robbery, or adultery, of course the answer is yes, those all create serious breaches with our God and our neighbors. But if we say “Will having deep-fried camel hump for dinner create a problem between me, God and my neighbor?” the answer is probably no, unless of course, the camel belonged to your neighbor.  

            Leviticus is one of those places in scripture that we really have to struggle with. We often want to use scripture to provide guidance and comfort for our lives. Many books of the Bible do provide that. But there is little of that in Leviticus – it is so foreign to our own culture and day. But we don’t just toss it out and dismiss it, thinking how much more enlightened we are than the ancient people who wrote it. Rather, we need to honor the fact that the laws of Leviticus were written to help the Hebrews remember who they were in their time of exile – and while we don’t follow the mandates of those laws, we can affirm the importance of remembering one’s identity as the people of God.

            So there is no need to berate others with the ‘abominations’ found in Leviticus – since in all likelihood, each one of us is violating the laws of Leviticus in some way. After all, in the gospels, Jesus is only concerned with one abomination: the love of money. That, according to our savior, is more worth avoidance than any of the other so-called abominations. As Christians, we are freed from the law by grace. We are no longer bound to such rules and regulations. Even for the early Church they no longer applied, because even then they no longer spoke to the needs of the day. So we continually develop our own sense of Christian ethics, not based on what were thought to be abominations 3,000 years ago, but with the same reasoning the people who wrote Leviticus used – how to maintain our identity and remember who we are as God’s people. That’s something we can live up to.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.


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