In class Monday, we discussed some of the peculiar laws found in Leviticus. At first glance, it might seem that the majority of this book doesn’t really mean anything outside of existing as a list of religious rules to follow. While some may choose to think this way, there are many scholars out there looking for meaning in this list of rules. Hopefully, I can make a good argument to support the idea that the book has more to offer than warnings against trying to eat camels and attempt to explain why rules written thousands of years ago for a different people still apply to us today.
It really comes down to what questions you ask and what perspective you take when reading the material. There are a lot of intangibles in Leviticus that are confusing such as the idea of spiritual uncleanliness and religious rituals like sacrifice. While it is easy to assume that these concepts have no relation to modern issues, there are actually a number of allegorical references that sort of reveal the universal nature of the Bible. This is a great example of what makes the Bible a great piece of literature — thousands of years later, we are still human and we still feel and do the same things they did, only in a different setting.
We can infer that the idea of “spiritual cleanliness” sort of represents a way to describe how humans can strive for holiness. God has gone through a lot of trouble to detail every sort of thing that He deems unclean, including actions and even things we can’t control, like menstruation. The whole act of revealing the Israelites and all humanity as an entity that strives to be like God, but will inevitably fail, is a scary reality that still hits home today.
The most confusing part is how God has organized the clean from unclean. We talked a little about the importance of hygiene in the Bible, at a time where preventing a disease from spreading could save hundreds of lives. I think this is a good place to start, as we know that some of the ‘unclean’ acts or animals are literally unclean or unhygienic in a way that the Israelites would probably be better off staying away from them even without the law in place. If this is the case in the majority of rules, then the purpose of having the laws set up in the way they were could be to simply train the Israelites in how to keep themselves alive and healthy.
It gets more complicated as we try to explain why God sees animals that have fins or scales, for example, as acceptable, while not having these traits is unclean and simply eating something as common as shrimp would place you in an ‘unholy’ state in the eyes of God. From first glance, this seems sort of unfounded, but in keeping with the theme of the text, we must trust that God’s plan has a purpose even if we do not understand what it is.
This and other rules established in Leviticus have been the topic of debate among scholars who seek to understand the significance of each rule. Mary Douglas shares a quote in her book Purity and Danger that attempts to explain not only why a law such as the ‘fins and scales’ law exists, but also their universal implication:
“Fish with fins and scales, admitted by the law, symbolize endurance and self-control, whilst the forbidden ones are swept away by the current, unable to resist the force of the stream.
It is the writer of this passage that points out a metaphorical reason for the law. Fish with fins and scales exhibit endurance and more notably self-control, while those deemed unclean are weak and without resistance. In this way of thinking, we can now propose that ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are attributes of something, be it animal or human, which are favorable in the eyes of God. We can see the laws as a way to instruct the Israelites to not even associate with those animals which have ‘unclean’ characteristics such as the fish with no fins or scales, which is weak and has no self-control. It is these attributes that are unfavorable in the eyes of God.
By declaring that the Israelites model their behavior from these ‘clean’ attributes — self-control, endurance, resistance to the world around them –God is creating a way for the Israelites and all humanity to know what kind of people he wants His people to be. Now what was a list of rules has become an outline of how to live your life so that it is pleasing to God.
Not only is it noteworthy that God has now shown the Israelites what He expects them to be, but it is also important to note that He has acknowledged their humanity and in a sense, our humanity. Instead of saying “if you do something wrong, you will die,” God has allowed a way for the Israelites to become clean again if they do mess up, or in some cases, if their own humanity makes them unclean (in the sense of unpreventable uncleanliness, such as menstruation or sickness) through the rituals He also described in Leviticus.
In this way, God has made it possible for the Israelites and all humanity to be aware of the attributes that a follower of God should possess in order to separate himself from the unclean world around him (A separation that is often focused on by the Priestly writer). Additionally, God has established a way to atone or become clean again, suggesting that He is sympathetic to Humanity’s weaknesses and is a merciful Divinity.
Although this might be a stretch for some people, that is the beauty of literature and its infinite interpretations. Some may not accept that a list of oddly specific rules written thousands of years ago still have some importance to us — to a generation of people that might not heed the rules at face value and avoid eating shrimp all of our lives, but could still benefit from the value of self-control in our lives. Maybe we don’t sacrifice our cattle to make up for the things we’ve done wrong, but sacrifice could be used as a broader term, referring to giving up our time or our resources in order to atone. It is possible that the religious side of the text is more of an influence here, but do you have to be religious to want to have self-control and be a good person?
In any case, Leviticus is as important today as it was when the events took place. Whether ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ still have religious connotations or not, I think the theme and meaning of the book can still be appreciated, if not believed and applied to ourselves in order to better our lives. Leviticus might not be specifically saying, “Thou shall not eat camels,” but the point is made even if we choose not to eat camels, and hopefully, most of us do.