July 31, 2016

–Maurice D. Harris, Leviticus: You Have No Idea
“Why do I think Leviticus can be a valuable book for people today who have—for lack of a more precise way of putting it—a progressive approach to religion? Because when it comes to Leviticus, we really have no idea. No idea of the surprisingly relevant questions and insights it contains, and little idea of how to integrate its strange, authoritarian, and intimidating worldview with our commitment to progressive values. As with so many other parts of the Bible, we tend to miss a lot of what’s there in Leviticus by not taking the time to explore it and greet it freshly with the question, “What might we learn today from studying this text, from bringing our current problems and struggles into dialog with even this text?” And if, in the course of greeting Leviticus with those questions, we are willing to let our sacred texts be imperfect—let them be a record of our ancestors’ understandings of God, not of God’s literal words beamed down to us never to be challenged—then the potential for what we can learn that’s directly relevant to our moment in human history expands dramatically.”

Leviticus 19:33-34
When an alien resides with you in your land,
you shall not oppress the alien.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself.

Leviticus 1:1-5
The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the Lord, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock.
If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

The Old Idea of Sacrifice D.H. Lawrence
The old idea of sacrifice was this:
that blood of the lower life must be shed
for the feeding and strengthening of the handsome, fuller life.

O when the old world sacrificed a ram
it was to the gods who make us splendid
and it was for a feast, a feast of meat, for men and maids
on a day of splendor, for the further splendor of being men.

It was the eating up of little lives,
even doves, even small birds
into the dance and splendor of a bigger life.

There is no such thing as sin.
There is only life and anti-life.
And sacrifice is the law of life which enacts
that little lives must be eaten up into the dance and splendor
of bigger lives, with due reverence and acknowledgement.

 

+++++

The inspiration from this summer sermon series came from a conversation I had with Dan Barker. Dan is a former evangelical Christian preacher who became an atheist and leads the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan and I talked about his latest book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. His book was in turn inspired by a paragraph by Richard Dawkins from his book, The God Delusion.

This is the famous or infamous paragraph from Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Dawkins was criticized for that statement. In a conversation with Dan Barker they came up with an idea of noting Bible verses that underscore Dawkins characteristics. In the course of doing this, Dan found so many examples of God acting this way that he decided to write a book with a chapter for each of Dawkins’ 19 descriptions of God. Then he found other qualities that Dawkins missed to demonstrate that the character “God” is not someone any decent person would want to emulate or worship.

I encourage you to check out Dan’s book and draw your own conclusion. I don’t disagree with Dan. I have no argument with his viewpoint. I think it should be shared. I would say, given what Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins have said, now what? Can we engage this inherited scriptural tradition in a fruitful way?

I affirm that the character “God” in the Bible is a literary product of a 3,000 year old tradition, and as such represents the prejudices and attitudes of a people quite different from us. There are ethics and morality and philosophy presented in the Bible that we rightly reject. I think it is a serious problem to put haloes around bad texts. I think it has been problematic in many areas to promote uncritically characteristics of the literary figure “God” as real, divine, or even good.

What I have said is no heresy. I am 100% confident that you agree with me. No one in this room is going to say we should enforce Leviticus 20:9, a command of God:

“If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him.”

If you need more problematic examples of the commands of God, read Dan’s book.

Now that I have you going in a certain direction, I am going to turn around 180 degrees. I am going to suggest that there is a way to engage these texts not in a defensive way, but in way that allows these texts, flawed as they are, to challenge us and our assumptions and practices. In so doing our engagement with them can make us better, more enlightened people.

I am going to begin with the most difficult, opaque, and offensive book in the Bible, Leviticus.

First of all, the easy part. One of the most famous quotes from Jesus comes from Leviticus. Leviticus 19:18:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There we go. Score 1 for Leviticus. And we might ask ourselves, how are we doing on that? That loving your neighbor thing?

In Leviticus 19:33-34, what we read for today’s call to worship, God commands the people to treat the alien as a citizen, because you once were an alien in Egypt and you know what that felt like. Be better. Here is the text again:

When an alien resides with you in your land,
you shall not oppress the alien.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;
you shall love the alien as yourself.

Now it gets personal. How are we doing on that? Many laws in Leviticus seem barbaric to our sensibilities. But here is a law written about 2400 years after Leviticus:

Oregon was

“the only state admitted into the union with an exclusion clause written into its constitution. It bans any “free negro, mulatto, not residing in this State at the time” from, living, holding real estate, and making any contracts within the state.”

Historian Egbert Oliver wrote that

“African Americans were essentially illegal aliens in Oregon.”

We might say that is all behind us now. True, that law was repealed in 1926. The language was removed from Oregon’s constitution in 2001. But we ought to recall William Faulkner’s line:

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

I don’t say this to make White folks feel bad or guilty or defensive. None of that is helpful. No one is responsible for what others did in the past. What is important is to understand our history so we can be engaged in the present.

I encourage you to read an article published last week in the Atlantic, “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America.” From the article:

As the city becomes more popular and real-estate prices rise, it is Portland’s tiny African American population that is being displaced to the far-off fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s center. There are around 38,000 African Americans in the city in Portland, according to Lisa K. Bates of Portland State University; in recent years, 10,000 of those 38,000 have had to move from the center city to its fringes because of rising prices.

White folks are challenged to be Christians. We are challenged by our scriptural tradition, by Leviticus, and by history, to learn what it feels like to be a person of color. What does it feel like to be treated like an alien in your own country, in your own city? Our obligation to the Beloved Community is to be aware of our programming and our privilege and to use who we are and what we have to aid in the flourishing of all. What might it mean to take this text seriously: “You shall love the alien as yourself?”

That is the easy part of Leviticus. At least easy in the sense of understanding what the text is challenging us to do. It takes work to do it.

What about the weirder parts of Leviticus?

To help us with those, I recommend another book. Maurice Harris is the author of Leviticus: You Have No Idea. Until recently, he was the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene. He is of the Reconstructionist Tradition. Very similar to Southminster in the way it engages its texts and traditions.

Here is a text that I would argue has done the most damage of any other and continues to do damage.

Leviticus 18:22:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

It is a bad text. Here is one that is even worse:

Leviticus 20:13:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Chapter 18 is written for men, males. It is list of who he should and who he should not engage in sexual relations. Chapter 20 is about punishments for these violations as well punishments for being a medium or a wizard, sacrificing children to Molech, and cursing parents.

Scholars call these rules in Leviticus, the Holiness Code. They were drawn and adapted from the earlier Code of Hammurabi. It was a tablet from 1750 BCE about 1300 years before Leviticus. They are very similar, often identical.

Hammurabi and the authors of Leviticus would scoff at the idea that all men or all people are created equal. There are males, then below males, females, and below females, slaves, male slaves first then female slaves. That is how both Marduk and Yahweh created these beings. There are different laws for how these people should interact. There are different punishments for infractions.

If a man rapes an unmarried woman, he needs to buy her from her father. But if the woman is owned by another another man, then there is trouble. This is from Leviticus 20:10-16

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.

This was an attempt from these priests to create order within a system that was understood to have a hierarchy of being that came in response to the agricultural revolution and the inequities of surplus and the invention of written language to record exchange. The first writing was about matters of commerce. In fact in Mesoptamia, the earliest records have to do with the sale of beer. You have to find a way of marking down how many vats of beer Joe has taken in exchange for sheep. Then you have to invent money to work out the exchanges.

You need to have some rules regarding commerce, slave trade, taxes, property, and that leads us to sex. Males can’t be having sex with other people’s property. These rules can’t just be made up on the spot. The maker of the rules are the people who have mastered this writing thing to keep track of commerce. The hierarchy of being seems to work pretty well for those who declare themselves at the top. They are clever enough to speak on behalf of Marduk, or Yahweh, or Molech, or the deity of the day. That divine pronouncement gives the rules authority.

Who says I cannot consult a wizard?
Moses said it because Yahweh told him.
Oh, well in that case.

Now we live in a post-Christian, post-religious, post-authoritarian age. That may be why Donald Trump is attractive. He hearkens back to a supposed lost authoritarianism, where the king took care of business on behalf of the people and his god.

We don’t live in that age of divine decree. We live in an age in which it is up to us, all of us to make the rules of how we will create the beloved community, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King. It is up to us, to define sexual ethics. When we no longer live in a world of men, women, slaves, how do we frame value systems and ethics regarding sexuality and child-rearing? It doesn’t work to appeal to the Bible as an authoritarian book.

That said, there is a voice from Leviticus and our scriptural tradition that calls us to holiness, to the sacred. Not in an authoritarian way, but in a human flourishing way. We have stripped the skies of the gods. We live in a time in which we appeal to science and human reason to understand life.

In our post-religious age, there is no holy of holies, no sacred place, no tabernacle where God dwells. There is no sacred time, no Sabbath, all is commerce 24/7. There is no holiness to sex. There is no sacredness or holiness about what we eat or the lifeblood of the flesh we eat.

And so they had the sacrifice of animals on the altar before the holy one. Why? Because there was value and sacred worth to the flesh of animals they were going to eat. If there is something to learn from Leviticus in this regard, we might consider how we treat the flesh we eat, flesh, lifeblood, raised in factory farms and presented shrink-wrapped in our supermarkets. Do we notice anything holy or sacred about our fellow mammals, or our winged cousins?

The people who wrote Leviticus did. They knew that eating was a sacred act, and the lifeblood of that which they ate must be honored and respected and treated with gratitude. The ethics of that led to animals to be treated well. A Sabbath day, for instance for animals as well as humans, is one example.

There is a gain and a loss in our modern scientific universe.. The gain is moving beyond outdated authoritarianism and ethics that favor discrimination, injustice, and harm. The loss is the loss of some sense of the holy, the beauty, the poetics, the soul of our existence.

In our post-religious world, I don’t think it is barbaric to acknowledge the need for the holy, the sacred space, the sacred time, and the sacred relationship.

This is where I think Leviticus and our larger scriptural tradition read with a critical eye, can still enchant and challenge us. What if we subjected our sexuality, our intimacy to the Holy, not in an authoritarian way, but in a way that honored equality and mutuality.

When I was in Tennessee, I officiated at many holy unions for gay, lesbian, and couples in which at least one sometimes both was transgender. They wanted something from a minister, often in a church, to show themselves and their family members and community that this relationship was sacred and holy. It was especially important when the language of hatred wrapped in the Bible was hurled at them.

And what if regarded animals we eat as holy and as sacred and as family as our companion animals?

There is a need for the holy redefined.

That is the essence of what Leviticus and the scriptural tradition was trying to do. We reject the specifics. But the principle of there is something of value and worth here, some soul-force here that can help us live with dignity is crucial to life.

The laws seem archaic, even barbaric, and one level they were. But if we engage them at a deeper level, we may discover the Leviticus and the Bible itself, as well as texts from other religions and cultures, can give us a push back to rethink our ethics as if the holiness of life mattered.

Amen.