Digging for God in Leviticus

Is holiness a synonym for piety? Leviticus 19 gives it an astonishing twist in meaning.

Few Christians read Leviticus, the third among the five books of Moses. We don’t because when we start to read it, we encounter several chapters of what appear to be abstruse and repetitive regulations for ancient Israel’s worship. We bore quickly, then click out (to use a modern Internet term).

That’s a shame. There’s gold (or God) to be found if we dig deeper. I mean specifically Chapter 19, the chapter the lectionary assigned as the Old Testament reading for Christian worship yesterday.

The chapter comes near the middle of the book. That’s a sign of how important the editor considers this chapter. It centers the whole book’s teaching.

The chapter forms the opening of what scholars call the Holiness Code. This code issues God’s call to the Israelites to be a holy people. You shall be holy, says God to the Israelites, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19.2) The code lays down rules for how Israel is to be holy.

Upsetting our Understanding of Holiness

But what fascinates me is how these rules end up defining holiness. It is far different from the concept of holiness most of us have. It does not designate some ethereal aura of other-worldliness or some form of disdain for others of the holier-than-thou variety. No, holiness for the author of Leviticus is down right practical and this worldly.

As you read through the chapter, you find it means leaving some of the grain field unharvested so that the poor can glean wheat for their own table. It means not stealing or lying. It means not cheating a worker out of his wages. It means not confusing categories like sowing two kinds of grain in the same field.

It means not ridiculing the handicapped. It means not showing partiality to either the rich or the poor in a court trial. It means not bearing a grudge against another person.

It means letting fruit trees mature before you start exploiting them for a harvest. It means honoring the aged. And it means not oppressing the foreigner (or the immigrant) residing in your midst.

All of these regulations apply to concrete behavior, not feelings. These behaviors will set the Israelites apart from their neighbors. For the Hebrew word for holy is qadosh. Qadosh is an adjective that describes something that is set apart or separated to belong to God or be used by God. Israel will show that it belongs to God by its behavior.

Now that can shake up our understanding of holiness. Holiness has not so much to deal with piety as with social relationships.

This understanding of holiness is capsulized in verse 18: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus and Leviticus 19

If that verse sounds familiar, it should. We encounter it again in the New Testament when Jesus quotes it. When he is asked to name the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Jewish Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

And then he adds that the second greatest commandment is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:31)

This exalts Leviticus 19 to the level of being one of the two sources of the greatest commandments. That is a good reason for Christians to pay honor to this text.

But as I was reading this chapter in my process of sermon preparation, I found something even more surprising in this chapter, something I never expected to find there. As we read deeper into chapter 19, we find that God instructs the Israelites as to how they are to treat the alien (the foreign immigrant) who is living in their midst.

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

What I had never noticed before was God’s instruction, You shall love the alien as yourself. The wording is an exact parallel with verse 18. In verse 18 the Israelites are called to love their fellow Israelites as they love themselves. But in verse 34, God goes even further. They are to love the foreigner as they love themselves. In fact, they are to regard the foreigner as the equal of their fellow citizens.

Now all who love to quote Leviticus 18:22 in its condemnation of homosexuality might want to pause and ask: What does Leviticus 19:34 have to say about our treatment of undocumented immigrants in America? Leviticus presents both verses as the explicit word of God.

Let me suggest one further nugget in Leviticus 19. Keep in mind that in many ancient languages (like Greek), the word for foreigner or stranger was often the same word for enemy. When God calls the Israelites to love the foreigner in their midst as they love themselves, God is in effect calling them to love their enemy as themselves.

So when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls his disciples to love their enemies, he is not being original. He is showing himself to be one who has meditated deeply on the Old Testament. He is drawing out the deeper implications of God’s call to us to be holy as God is holy.

To my mind, that’s an astonishing extension of the principle of holiness. 



Gamaliel’s Rule and Christian Debates over Homosexuality


I am a child of the Protestant Reformation. And so I was raised in a church environment where the Bible has served as the final appeal in debates over doctrine and ethics. I carry that upbringing within my very being.

Along with this high respect for the authority of the Bible, I was also taught that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are always in agreement.  I suspect this conviction has roots in the Reformation, too. Reforming agitators like Thomas Müntzer claimed the Spirit’s authority for actions that Martin Luther and others believed contradicted Scripture. They argued then that the Spirit does not move in directions contrary to the word of Scripture. God cannot contradict himself.

I am not sure I fully agree here with Luther anymore. I wobble on his conviction precisely because of the witness of Scripture. In my previous posting (“Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider”), I argue that God cannot be caged in our theological or other expectations of how God must act. At times God moves freely, it seems to me, beyond the literal letter of Scripture.

In discussing the examples of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and in the Spirit’s leading to incorporate Gentiles as equal members in the church, I think we can argue that that is what God is doing. God does not confine himself to the letter of Scripture, or at least not to our interpretation of the letter of Scripture.

Equality in the Church over Sexual Orientation

If my argument is valid, then I must give a serious listening to those voices in the church today who argue that God is leading us to accept gay and lesbian Christians as equals with straight Christians in the community of faith.

Opponents appeal to the Reformation principle that the Holy Spirit never leads in a way that contradicts God’s word in Scripture. Then they appeal to the several passages in the Old and New Testaments that condemn homosexual behavior as a sin.

I agree that all the references to homosexual behavior that we find in the Bible are uniformly negative. That seems to me to be a fact, however we choose to deal with that. Appealing to the Reformation principle, then we would have to say that the Holy Spirit cannot be behind any of the movement to welcome gays and lesbians as equal members into the community of faith. The Spirit does not move in directions that contradict Scripture.

But as I argue in my last posting, I am not so sure of that Reformation principle anymore. It seems that it contradicts the witness of Scripture. God does indeed move in ways that break out of the strict letter of the written word.

And so I must give a serious hearing to those who argue for the equality of gays and straights before God. Indeed, what is going on in the Christian world with its contentious debate over homosexuality may be more than an accommodation to secular culture, as conservatives argue. Some of that may be happening. But maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit is at work in this movement as well.

The Relevance of Gamaliel’s Rule

How do we decide where the Spirit is at work? I have begun to believe that an appeal to the letter of Scripture cannot always be the decisive arbiter. Instead I think the more important arbiter in this particular debate must turn out to be the rule of Gamaliel.

Gamaliel was a highly respected Pharisaic rabbi in Jerusalem when the infant church was just beginning its life. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Judaism.

The evangelist Luke tells a story in Acts 5:12-39, how the Sanhedrin called in Peter and the early apostles and admonished them on their active preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They order the apostles to desist from preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and the other apostles refuse, saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

The council is enraged and seeks a way to kill them. But Gamaliel stands up in the council and advises restraint. Citing examples of other social and religious movements that blazed for a moment and then faded away, he concludes his argument by saying (in Acts 5:38-39):

So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!

Notice, Gamaliel does not appeal to Scripture in his advice to the council. Instead he appeals to history. Let the new Christian movement alone. History will ultimately reveal whether it is of God or not.

Making Appeal to the Judgment of History

After listening to all sides of the debate over how Christians should respond to homosexuality, I have come to the conclusion that an appeal to Scripture cannot definitively settle the debate. Instead I think we must adopt the rule of Gamaliel. History will be the arbiter.

Let us be willing to consider that the Holy Spirit may indeed be at work in this movement. However, only time will tell whether our consideration is right or wrong.

As equality between gays and straights becomes a practice in the life of the church (as it seems to be doing in my own denomination), where does it lead? Does it lead to greater wholeness not only in the life of individuals and couples, but also in the life of churches and communities? Does it produce good fruit? If so, that can be a strong indication that the Spirit is indeed at work in this movement.

If it leads to a breakdown in the life of families and individuals as well as in the life of churches and communities, if it produces bitter fruit, then that can be an indication that Christians advocating equality chose the wrong road.

Gamaliel’s rule echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. How do you recognize false prophets? By their fruits. “A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, or a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18). We will recognize the leading of the Spirit or the lack of leading by the historical results of the decisions that churches make today.

The problem with this appeal to history is that the answer to our question is not likely to be clear in the life of this or the immediate generations to come. History seldom delivers its judgments quickly. Because they will have some distance from the heat of present debates, future generations may have more objectivity in assessing the current debate than we can.

And so I am willing to accept the argument for equality, but on the basis of a fundamental humility. Both sides in the debate, I believe, must be willing to accept that they not only may be right, but also they may be wrong. We await the judgment of Gamaliel’s rule. 

Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider

One of my favorite books on prayer is Beginning to Pray by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. Bloom makes a statement that has always shocked me. He says: “To meet God means to enter into the ‘cave of a tiger’—it is not a pussy cat you meet – it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not seek information about it.” (Paulist Press paperback edition, 1970, page xv)

Bloom is speaking about the need for the Gospel to reach beyond the intellect into a person’s whole being. But what I have always taken from this statement is the insight that God is not someone we can contain into our intellectual or theological cages. God remains free. Whenever we try to domesticate him, he is likely to break out of our cages and surprise us, if not shock us, with his saving actions.

A prime example is the story that the evangelist Luke tells in his Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 8:26-40, he recounts how God led an early Christian evangelist named Philip to walk onto a desert road in southern Palestine. There he encounters an Ethiopian who had been to Jerusalem to worship.

On his return trip, the Ethiopian is seated in his chariot reading a scroll of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. What he is reading mystifies him. When Philip offers to explain the text, the Ethiopian invites him to join him in his chariot.

Philip gives Isaiah a Christian interpretation. The text is about Jesus, Philip says, and uses this opportunity to tell the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. The courtier is moved to believe. As they pass some water, he asks Philip to baptize him.  Philip does. The Ethiopian becomes the first black African to become a Christian.

Why It Was Daring to Baptize This Ethiopian

But there is much more going on in this story than a surface reading indicates. The black African was a well-educated man. He was reading. He is also probably what was known in the first century as a God-fearer. This was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, its monotheism and high ethics, but did not officially convert. Many early Christian converts came from this category.

What holds this Ethiopian back from converting to Judaism? It was not his African ancestry. It was that he was considered a sexual outsider. He was a eunuch. And by the dictates of the Torah, eunuchs were barred from membership in the people of God, or at least barred from full participation in the Temple worship.

This rule was based upon Deuteronomy 23:1, which prescribed: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

The eunuch was sexually mutilated and therefore an outsider denied access to the gathering of God’s people in the temple. This was the letter of the Torah. And because devout people would regard the Torah as divine law, presumably it could not be changed.

But try to tell that to God. The Deuteronomy passage was not the final word of God on the subject of eunuchs that we find in the Bible. Through the mouth of a later prophet, recorded in Isaiah 56, God speaks a word of hope to eunuchs. The day is coming when eunuchs will be included within the gatherings of God’s people.

Says the Lord in Isaiah 56:4-5:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

                        who choose the things that please me

                        and hold fast my covenant,

            I will give, in my house and within my walls,

                        a monument and a name

                        better than sons and daughters;

            I will give them an everlasting name

                        that shall not be cut off.

In this word of promise, God breaks out of the letter of Deuteronomy. He is not to be contained by it.

This gives deeper meaning to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip answers the question by baptizing the Ethiopian. The sexual outsider becomes a spiritual insider.

All this, Luke says, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The story begins with a command coming to Philip through an angel. And twice later in the story, Luke mentions the Spirit’s direct action in the movement of the story.

Welcoming the Ethiopian eunuch into the circle of God’s people is a saving action of God. For as God says in Isaiah 56:8, his saving work is gathering outcasts into the circle of his people. “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:8)

Respecting the Wild Tiger

Now what fascinates me in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as well as in the Isaiah passage is how God does not confine his actions within the letter of Deuteronomy. God freely moves outside the boundaries of the cage. He remains, in Bloom’s vivid image, the wild tiger.

This is not the only example in Scripture. The supreme example is the Holy Spirit’s leading the infant church to incorporate Gentiles as equal members into the church.

This struck the earliest Jewish Christians as a shocking innovation. The Old Testament had envisioned that Gentiles in the last days would come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of God (see Isaiah 2:2-3). But the implication was that Gentiles would be subordinate members of the people of God, not equal members with the Jews.

The Spirit’s action caught the infant church totally by surprise. That is clear throughout the New Testament. Luke captures that sense of surprise in his recounting of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10).

The letters of the apostle Paul bear witness to how the movement of the Spirit roiled life in the church for decades to come. (And to some degree, the reverberations continue into our day through the long and ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. As if they have not learned the deeper meaning of the Spirit’s action on their own behalf, Gentile Christians have practiced reverse discrimination in their relationship with Jews.)

What these actions by God say to me is that God cannot be domesticated, not even by the written words of the Bible. I say that not out of any disrespect for the Bible, but because of the witness of the Bible itself.

Every time we think we have caged God into our expectations of how God should act, we have set ourselves up to be surprised. That was true for the generations living in Biblical days. I believe it remains true for our generation as well.

Additional Note:

I know that my discussion of Deuteronomy 23 and Isaiah 56 ignores a source critical approach to reading these texts. In that approach, we would explain the differences in attitude in the two texts to their having different authors/editors writing in different eras of Israelite history. They would then represent different theologies.

The canonical form of both texts, however, presents them as words of God. And that is how a good many Christians will read them. If we read them that way, then God seems to have changed his mind between Mosaic times and the post-exilic times when the author of Isaiah was writing. My discussion is particularly directed to those who will be reading the Bible in that way.