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Reading Leviticus and Old Testament Law: the Problems of Relevance and Human Rights

This post is specifically for my church family as we read through the Bible together this fall.  Sometimes it has felt as though we are drinking water through a fire hydrant!  Reading at this pace is a challenge and it often feels impossible to stop and meditate.  But one advantage is to be able to see recurring themes and points of connection more clearly.  If you see a prophecy in Deuteronomy, and its fulfillment comes at the end of 2 Samuel, you will recognize it more easily if the readings are only days or weeks apart rather than months or years! The first five books of the Bible are sometimes known as the “Books of the Law.”  Depending on your point of view, law can be tedious and boring in modern and ancient literature alike.  Leviticus is a challenging book!  The pace of the narration grinds to a halt as God continues his dictation of laws to his covenant people, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.  If you aren’t bored to tears by the slowed pace, you may be shocked by the seemingly harsh judgments against those who might break God’s law.  I wanted to post this note in hopes that it would remind us of truths that God has revealed in other parts of the Bible. That way we are practicing good interpretation; we will use scripture to interpret scripture and let the Bible speak for itself. IsaacsacrificeDOMENICHINO16

Types of laws: Throughout the first five books of the Bible, God gives three general types of laws: Civil, Moral and Ceremonial.  You can see examples of each in Leviticus.  For an example of a civil law, see chapters 13 and 14 which outline laws of hygiene.  You can find an example of moral law in chapters 18 and 19.  Some of the ceremonial laws are given in 23 and 24.  Why is this part of the Christian Bible?  Why should we read it?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  In light of this New Testament declaration (which concerns the Old Testament and New Testament alike), we know that God would have us to gain something from Leviticus.  But what??  What does the grain offering prescribed to the ancient Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai have to do with Jesus’ church after the cross??  Aren’t we free from the law?
Yes, we are free from the Law.  The entire book of Galatians, Hebrews and long portions of Romans are dedicated to describing, at great length, how and why we are freed from the Old Testament law.  But there are universal truths behind each law that are useful to understand.  Some are easier than others to discern.  What do we gain from reading them?  A deeper understanding of God’s relationship with his covenant people and his design for human flourishing.  For example, the theme of the entire book of Leviticus is “holiness”.  The word “holy” is used in Leviticus 76 times in 27 chapters. (A quick comparison with the other Books of the law: in Genesis, the word “holy” is used 1 time.  Exodus: 46 times, Numbers: 35 times, Deuteronomy: 11 times.)  We aren’t bound by the laws in Leviticus, but we can see that the universal principle of “holiness” is terribly important to God.
This becomes apparent when we consider the nature of the sacrifices.  Many types of sacrifices for different occasions are outlined.  How many of them have something to do with atoning for sin or ceremonial cleansing?  All except for one: the fellowship offering described in chapter 3.  What can we learn from this?  For thousands of years God has been in the business of making a way for us to have fellowship with him!  There is even a sacrifice prescribed for unintentional sin!  God is so holy and pure he cannot dismiss sin with a wink, yet he still desired relationship with his morally bankrupt people.  The sacrifices and some of the rituals clearly foreshadow Jesus’ final sacrifice at the cross as well.
What about the human rights problems in Leviticus?  Capital punishment is an activity that some people today find disgusting. Most people today are sickened by slavery and many actively fight against human trafficking.  How come we see these two activities condoned in Leviticus?  Isn’t this problematic for the Christian faith?
Yes.  Enemies of the Christian and Jewish faiths, many of them under the umbrella of “progressivism” use passages such as Leviticus 18 and 19 as leverage for their anti-religion agenda.  How can we take the Bible seriously when it condones slavery? Can we really believe that the God who allowed people to sell their children and execute people by stoning and burning is the same God who sent his son Jesus to teach love and forgiveness?  Haven’t we as the human race moved past such draconian, stone-age practices?
Paul Copan, in his Book “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” answers these and other difficult questions with scholarly expertise.  You can purchase it by following this link:   (I also have a Kindle version if you wish to borrow it.)  If you don’t find enough depth in this post, I highly recommend Copan’s work.
For now, let’s go back to what we already know about what God has said in scripture:
1. God created everything. (Genesis 1:1).  As such, he is the creator of absolute truth, morality and humankind.  He is the author of right and wrong, which stands independent of the changing winds of cultural taste.  He is the sole owner of every human being, and apparently feels within his rights to destroy every last one of us if he so chooses (remember the flood! Genesis 6 – 9).  By contrast, our cultural preferences and legal systems are man-made, temporary and subject to change with the new moon.
2. The form of slavery in the Old Testament was not the same type of slavery we normally think of in our culture today.  With the abolition of slavery less than 200 years behind us, we naturally revert back to a despicable form of slavery, which was permanent, degrading and hopeless.  By contrast, Hebrew slavery was temporary, compassionate and hopeful, as seen in Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-46.  What about the foreigners that they enslaved?  They were likewise to be treated with compassion, as seen in Exodus 21:5, where slaves had a legal option to stay with their masters if they chose.  Slaves were allowed to own their own property, and potentially to purchase their own freedom.
Does that make sense of Exodus 21:20-21?  Apparently slave-owners could beat their slaves savagely and be free of legal wrongdoing.  If you are like me, you will find it hard to have a warm fuzzy about that law.  But consider again that we are judging from within our own cultural context into a culture that had only just been freed from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt.  Beatings were commonplace.  Moses, their leader chosen by God himself had personally killed a man with his own hands!  The ultimate resolution of this problem is that it is God’s word that prevails…not our personal preference.  
Does that mean that we should re-institute slavery as a modern civil structure?  No way!  As New Testament followers of Jesus, there are no second class citizens, as we see in Ephesians 2:11-22 and Galatians 3:28.  Paul also encouraged slaves to purchase their freedom if they were able (1 Corinthians 7:21).
3. What about Capital Punishment?  Sexual deviants, blasphemers, and witches were equally condemned to public execution, usually by stoning, sometimes by burning.  What are we to make of this?  Can God still be good and order the death of an adulterer?  By today’s standards, perhaps half of our population would be condemned!
In order to gain some perspective and clarity, let’s look at three priorities that God has clearly demonstrated: His own reputation, the moral hygiene of his covenant people, and the natural order.
Priority #1: God’s reputation!  As owner of all of humanity, God is concerned that his people know Him as He is.  Knowing who God is and what He is like is an essential part of human flourishing.  As such, when his name and reputation are slandered, or anything that lessens his greatness in the eyes of his people was subject to swift and decisive correction! (Leviticus 10:1-3 and 24:10-23).  Ouch!  Can we reconcile this with the God we see in the New Testament?  Check out Acts 5:1-10.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied to God and were instantly killed by the Holy Spirit.  Can you see the parallel?  In each case, a covenant had only just recently begun.  In each case, someone tested the author of the covenant; God.  His reputation was at stake!  These were precedent setting events.  God had the obligation to maintain his reputation, even at the cost of human life (which he owns anyway.)
Priority #2: the Moral Hygiene of God’s People!  Many of the laws we see in the Old Testament seem puzzling: Exodus 34:26–don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.  Leviticus 19:27–don’t trim your hair or beard.  What can we make of these strange commands?  Look at the bigger picture: God was removing Israel from Egypt (a pagan nation) and bringing them to the land of Canaan (a pagan territory).  The surrounding cultures were rife with all types of witchcraft, demon worship, child-sacrifice, ritual prostitution and nature worship.  God’s priority of keeping his people separate from those influences comes out in many of his laws.  Why?  It goes back to God’s reputation (which the pagan worldviews undercut) and human flourishing (which pagan practices stunt).  God was so concerned about the cultural purity of his people that he sometimes used capital punishment as a deterrent.  Is there a modern-day application for that universal principle?  You tell me…
Priority #3: Rebellion Against the Natural Order!  Leviticus 18:21, You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God.; I am Yahweh.” Leviticus 18:22, “You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable.”  Leviticus 18:23, “You are not to have sexual intercourse with any animal, defiling yourself with it.”  A few of the Old Testament Laws prohibit activities that may have been pagan in practice, but also go completely opposite of natural design.  As such, they are a rebellion against the one who designed them.  Again, God is concerned about His reputation, and the moral hygiene of His people.  The category of sin in those verses bleeds into the other priorities already mentioned, as we see in the verses which follow: “Do not defile yourselves by any of these practices, for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things…I am Yahweh your God.” (Leviticus 18:24, 30).
*A quick word on homosexuality and the church today*  This is a front-line culture war issue.  The church has a bad reputation in the world’s eyes because many denominations have maintained a biblical stance on homosexuality, which stands in contrast to mainstream culture.  Open Door Church will stand on the Bible, in spite of cultural pressures.  However, we will strive to keep homosexuality in perspective: it is not the only sin.  It is not the worst sin.  We are committed to being truthful about sin of all types, and learning to love sinners of all types.  Expect us to do both less than perfectly.

What’s the Bible for, Anyway?


The entertainment industry is money driven.  Period.  If people will pay for it, they will produce it, no matter what it is.  The number of Biblically based productions lately is a testament to the fact that there is still a thriving “evangelical” base in the American populace. What about Bible movies?  Are they okay for Christians to watch?  Should New Testament Christians support the entertainment industry with dollars that could be used elsewhere, when we already know what the Bible says?  To say “no” might be splitting hairs over something silly when we (the church) have much bigger fish to fry.  Besides that, Paul addresses certain cultural differences within the church in Romans 14…”who are you to judge the servant of another?”  One objection might be raised at this point, however: movie makers, while they are free to exercise poetic license, disrespect the Christian world when they insert anti-Biblical messages into their work.

While the question “should Christians watch Bible movies” is an irrelevant waste of time, I think a deeper, more important question is in need of addressing in church culture: What is the purpose of the Bible?  Did God intend for us to be entertained by His Word?  That is a distinct possibility, as he inspired the original authors to use every means of literary communication available at the time…auditory as well, when you consider that the Psalms were sung and played on instruments.  (I wonder if the Bible were being inspired today, would authors use film or other visual arts, or would they stick to written communication?)  However, entertainment is not the sole purpose of the Bible.  John explains that he wrote his gospel in order that we would know that Jesus is the son of God.  Paul explained to Timothy that scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.  Is there another, overarching synthesis of these and other passages that can explain the purpose of scripture?

It would seem that the purpose of the Bible as a whole is to show us that God has made a way for our broken relationships to be repaired, especially our relationship with Himself.  And the way is the person of Jesus.  Does using the Bible as entertainment  create a problem?  Not really.  But that’s not what it was intended for.  How about this angle–does using the Bible as a moral guide create a problem?  Many people assume that’s what the Bible is.  A compilation of rules by which to live.  The problem with this approach is that the Bible itself doesn’t champion the rules as a means by which to achieve morality.  Let’s unpack that a bit.

The Hebrews were the chosen people of God, privileged above every other nation.  They were chosen, not because of any particular moral qualities, per-se, but because of Abraham’s faith.  Abraham took God at his word.  Hundreds of years after Abraham, God gave his chosen people a moral code, as they gathered in fear at the base of Mt. Sinai.  There were blessings promised for adherence to the code, and curses for disregarding the code.  It was a solemn and binding oath, a covenant.  The Israelites, having seen God’s deliverance from Egypt, had every reason and incentive to keep the covenant.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Old Testament tells us that, in spite of their KNOWLEDGE about God, they were sometimes WORSE than the Canaanite pagans they displaced!

How does this principle apply to the Bible as a whole?  Both Old and New Testaments contain moral injunctions.  But the net result of the moral efforts of Old Testament Hebrews was abject moral failure.  If we can learn anything from the history of ancient Hebrews, it is that having rules does not make us good people.  If this is true, why would New Testament followers of God through Christ Jesus try to interpret the Bible as a set of rules?  Trying really hard to follow rules didn’t work under the Old Covenant, human nature being what it is, trying really hard won’t work under the New Covenant.  That’s why the focus of the New Covenant is the person of Jesus, foreshadowed by the Tabernacle, succeeded by the Holy Spirit in power.  Only God has the power to take a morally broken and failed person and make him or her good.  No rules can do that.

This is why the method of taking characters in the Bible and holding them up as moral role models is problematic.  I don’t believe God intended them to be role models (nor did he intend for them to be entertainers!)  People are portrayed in the Bible exactly as they were: morally bankrupt, but still bearing the image of God.  David failed in the matter of Bathsheba.  Joseph failed in his hubris toward his brothers.  Noah was a drunk.  Jonah was a racist.  Peter was a loudmouth and a flake.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh.  (On a side note, the fact that nearly all of the Biblical “heroes” had feet of clay is strong evidence that the Bible has not been touched up by editors over the centuries.)  Top to bottom, people in the Bible were people…except Jesus.  He was a complex person, prone to telling off the Pharisees and keeping company with gluttons.  He claimed to be God in the flesh, which would have been blasphemy for any mere mortal.  But the illegal court that convened to send him to his death had to make up a charge because there was no one who could ever say they had seen him sin.  Jesus BECAME our morality.  He fulfilled the entire moral law at the cross.  He empowers us with his Holy Spirit to be redeemed from habits of sin.  On the contrary, the Bible “heroes” merely provide us with a backdrop, an historical context for the long-view of God’s redemptive work in humanity.  They fill in the gaps of the story between creation and redemption.

Sometimes I think we tend view Jesus as simply one of a field of Bible heroes.  Probably the best.  But in the same class, to a greater degree.  We see him as the professional version of what his predecessors were trying to be.  This is a false idea.  Jesus isn’t a better version of ourselves.  He is in another class altogether.  He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because He took on human flesh, but the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in that body.  He is far superior to any person who has ever lived.  The Old Testament “saints” predicted his coming, the worship and rituals foreshadowed his atoning sacrifice, everyone who ever met him was astonished by his presence.  Three short years of his ministry precipitated the birth of the Church, and the calendar started over.  His impact on history is unparalleled.  If there is a moral role model in the Bible, it is the step-son of Joseph.  This is why we can say with confidence that the Bible is not primarily a source of entertainment.  Nor is it a moral guide-book.  It introduces us to the person and work of Jesus, in order that we might know him and be reconciled to God!

Divine Justice: a Necessary Component of Biblical Missiology

I recently had a difficult and honest conversation with a person who is skeptical of the value of the spreading of the Gospel message to unreached groups. This person is not a Christian, and her cheif complaint was that it isn’t fair for a hypothetical God to send people to hell who have never heard about how to get to heaven. My inadequate response was to explain that people will stand or fall on judgment day based on their own merit in God’s eyes. By His standard, we are all doomed. Therefore, the “lifeboat” offered in the person of Jesus is certainly an act of mercy on God’s part. The other party in this conversation was not impressed, as I mentioned above. She has a point. At first blush, it seems entirely unfair for people who have never heard the good news of Jesus to go to hell on judgment day. After all, they didn’t even know! How can one be held responsible for information that one never possessed?

Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses the question of how much spiritual truth is residual in the human heart apart from special revelation (the Bible). His inspired teaching on that question is found in Chapter 1, verse 20, “For His [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly percieved ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Chapter 2 builds on this idea: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (verse 14-16). Paul continues the theme of universal responsibility before God, culminating in chapter 3 with the worst news in the world: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (verse 23). The bottom line is that God doesn’t damn people to hell, we damn ourselves. Every person from every religion, philosophy and walk of life is guilty of violating not only God’s standard, but their own conscience. Furthermore, salvation is not a question of moral uprightness before God, but of faith in his promises, specifically the person of Jesus Christ.

But this doesn’t directly address the question of apparent unfairness toward those who have never heard of Jesus. Is it fair for someone who has lived a relatively good life, perhaps in a remote jungle tribe or predominantly Buddhist city in Asia to recieve a sentence of eternal conscious torment in flames, just because they were never told the good news about salvation in Jesus? Two themes may be helpful in understanding this problem in a Biblical light.

The first, as I mentioned above, is that hell is what we deserve. (I need to temper the brashness of that statement by appealing to a more nuanced, three-dimensional, yet thoroughly Biblical version of Hell, which I hope to accurately discuss below). Whether we believe we are good people or not, the fact remains that no amount of moral bootstrapping will justify any of us in the presence of a Holy God. We all find ourselves flawed by the curse of sin and in need of redemption. The fact that God provides redemption at all is a mercy on his part. The fact that not everyone will hear about his mercy does not diminish his goodness. He tasked His church with the burden of bringing the good news to every corner of the globe, AND He promised to provide the resources for the completion of that task (Acts 1:8)! (Which begs the question, “What are we waiting for??”)

The second concept that may help to mitigate the appearance of unfairness on God’s part is with an appeal to Divine Justice. Divine Justice (as opposed to human Justice) necessarily has an element of Divine Love. Love and Justice are not mutually exclusive in the Divine Person (God). We see them overlap to a certain degree in passages foreshadowing Christ’s death on the cross, where we finally see them work in complete harmony. For example, the first passover (Exodus 12) demonstrates justice carried out against Egypt on behalf of the Israelites. A few chapters later (Exodus 21:24) we see the famous injunction, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In the context of 14th Century BC Canaan (or thereabouts), this and other legal stipulations were limiters on punitive action, rather than the draconian impetus for mob vengeance that we percieve from our “advanced” cultural perspective. Whereas other legal codes were (and are) famous for asymmetrical justice (the lopping off of hands as punishment for theft), God, in the Sinaitic law, set the precedent for proportional justice. The punishment was supposed to fit the crime.

Can the scheme of proportional justice be applied to the final state of unbelievers in a Biblically appropriate fashion? Is there room for any punishment besides eternal conscious torment in the Christian concept of hell? I think so. While it is impossible to be dogmatic about the exact conditions of unbelievers in Hell, Jesus made it plain that there are differing levels of punishment (Matt. 11:21-22). This certainly fits in with the idea of proportional justice. Our natural moral faculties would balk at the idea of a Hitler or a Stalin receiving the same punishment in hell as a Dalai Lama or an Albert Swietzer. (I need to qualify that statement by saying that I am not intending to be the judge on any of their final destinations–it was simply rhetorical).

Rather than the idea of a blanket punishment of eternal conscious torment for every person who does not place their faith in Jesus (including those who have never heard), the Bible gives us reason to believe that there are degrees of punishment to be meted out on judgment day, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven. As Abraham asked God in a not-so-rhetorical conversation, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25).

Rather than resting on the Justice of God (as a limiting factor in punishment), Christians should be motivated by the Love and Mercy of God to bring the good news about redemption through Jesus to those who have never heard.

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