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.