A six part study
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand idly by when the blood of your neighbor is at stake: I am the Lord.’ Leviticus 19.15-16
Introduction to Leviticus
Begin by writing down all that you know about Leviticus- good, bad, ugly, beautiful and everything in between.
Connections to Scripture
One of the challenges that most of us have with Leviticus is that most of us have been taught to see it as a text containing specific verses that ‘judge’ and ‘condemn’ particular people. And so, we avoid it, because it has been used to attack and hurt us, and those who we love. But this is not what Leviticus is.
Leviticus is not a series of discrete ‘rules’ or ‘instructions’ but more of an interwoven web that guides the life of an ancient community, struggling to recover from destruction and decimation. Individual passages should be read within their context, and should never be about judgement, condemnation or slander. To read them this way both defiles the text, and our undermines our integrity as those who seek God in this time and place.
Leviticus seeks to returns the community to the very beginning, setting its people back to the cycle of the creation narrative. It places God as creator, and the creation of new life, which was the ultimate goal for this community, at the centre of everything. This is what that ancient community needed to rebuild and restore themselves. Harmony and procreation.
Leviticus instructs the people about the importance of giving thanks for life and the abundance that life gives you, by gifting the best of what you have to God. It directs the people to use structured prayer when things are not flourishing to encourage growth.
Leviticus is a guidebook that holds a tensions between rest, reconciliation and restoration that ensures awareness of blessings, love of our neighbours and harmony with the created world.
In essence, Leviticus was written to ensure that the exiled and devastated community that it was written for pulled together and grew through the bearing of children. This was the way to ensure the future in that time, and in that place, for that community. It was never about alienation or permanent separation, but always seeks to restore the person or peoples to the community, and to God.
How might the hypothesis or reflections above impact on the things that we know about Leviticus?
How might they challenge the things you wrote down at the beginning of this discussion ?
Clean and Unclean- Part 1
Connections to Scripture
One of the things that is most difficult about Leviticus is that the explanations are missing- there is an assumption that the reader is from the same cultural context and that many things make sense. But the truth is we don’t know the context so we don't have much of the information we need to understand.
The other thing that is difficult, is that our past learning teaches us to read emotion read back into Leviticus. And this is understandable because our English translations use harsh and ugly words.
But this is not how it should be read. Emotion should be put aside because Leviticus was a legal book. Like our books of law it should be read as dry instructions.
When we read Leviticus, it is important to stand back and look again with fresh eyes that are not hindered by hurt or preconceptions. I know that for some of us this is hard, but in the words Professor Keating in the clip from Dead Poets society ‘You must try.’ This will help you find your voice in the text.
Here are some things I discovered when I did this:
This text was written only for the people of God in a particular time and place. It is their rules. It is not rules for anyone beyond that community and accordingly there is no suggestion that those beyond are ‘unclean’ if they do not follow the rules
Unclean things are better defined as forbidden or taboo rather than ‘dirty’
Things that are already ‘teeming’ or prolific in nature are unclean, and therefore not included in the temple system. Perhaps this is because they are understood to not need intentional blessing because they are already ‘blessed’?
Only creatures that are brought into the temple system are killed and eaten. It is taboo to eat or kill anything else, which effectively protects the ‘unclean,’ and limits consumption of those things considered ‘clean’
Killing and harming is expressly forbidden unless it is for ceremonial purposes. And the ceremonial system places very tight limits on this. Perhaps the threat of making the perpetrator unclean is not about the perpetrator at all, but about protecting the vulnerable?
And all of this made me wonder if the Leviticus community looked back to the creation narratives as a guide for encouraging flourishing and balanced creation. The instructions lay a foundation that allows them to honour the covenant with God as ‘stewards of creation,’ whereby the temple system sought blessing for things that were not already abundant, whilst simultaneously protecting abundance and the vulnerable. In a weird way ‘unclean’ can be seen as already fully blessed by God, and the vulnerable things are intentionally blessed and protected by both focusing the community life on them, and protecting them from harm and over consumption.
How does re-interpreting the meaning of ‘unclean’ to ‘already blessed,’ ‘taboo’ or ‘forbidden’ change our perspective on the text and the named creatures?
If we were the Leviticus of today- what are some practical ‘rules’ or ‘practices’ that we might encourage our community to adhere to that would help us to restore this balance to the created world?
What should be unclean or ‘taboo’- off limits to us both for our own benefit and the benefit of all or creation?
What vulnerable people and other elements in the created world needs to be placed at the centre of our community life to ensure that they are able to flourish and grow as God intends?
Connections to Scripture
Leviticus 15.1-7. 19-24
Clean and Unclean- Part 2
God, we give thanks for the busyness of the everyday.
For our morning rituals over coffee, for midday meditations as we move from place to place, for the gathering darkness and the creeping cold that draws some of us in and others out.
For the rising and the resting of our bodies each day and each night.
For calmness and chaos and for everything in between.
For the drumbeat that echoes through all of creation. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always there.
Forgive us when we forget to pause and see your thread through all. When we forget to look, or hear someone else’s song that changes the melody as you intended. Help us through our worship today to pause and to see.
A starting point from our last reflection
The use of the word ‘unclean’ in Leviticus could be better defined as forbidden or taboo rather than ‘dirty’
It can be speculated, in a somewhat weird way that ‘unclean’ can be seen as already fully blessed by God.
When we read Leviticus wholistically (rather than a verse at a time) and we remove the emotion that we associate with clean and unclean and simply see them as binary categories rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we start to notice a few things
Firstly, there is nothing in the text to suggest that those things that are ‘unclean’ and therefore temporality or permanently removed from the temple system are ‘unholy’. On the contrary, Leviticus is very clear that all things- including those things beyond the temple system are holy because God is holy
Secondly, we notice that more often than not if a person is referred to as unclean and excluded from the community for a long period of time- they are more often not somehow vulnerable or impaired and in need of extra care. This includes both men and women who have a bodily discharge that is associated with life (and human reproduction)- either blood or semen.
Finally, in the case of sin that causes someone to be unclean all of these actions, if executed, would be harmful to something or alternatively to someone who was recognised as being vulnerable
Put this together and we realise:
Leviticus was not written to be ‘human-centric’ or reader centre, if you like, but instead to guide the actions of the reader so that they are better able to care for the most vulnerable
Being ‘unclean’ both separates the vulnerable so that they can be cared for, and provides a caution to those considering harming the most vulnerable as they to will be separated if they intentionally harm someone else. Classifications of unclean make things and actions taboo so that the most vulnerable are protected, and the priorities of the community are ensured.
Types of protection include:
Care for those who have illnesses until they are well enough to return to life in the community. This care includes a time where you do not need to do the normal ‘work’ are intentionally cared for by the community
Rest for women after childbirth, and time for restoration after ‘discharge’ by men. This could also indicate an emphasis on the centrality and, I suppose, the ‘holiness’ of intercourse as an essential part of building the community. This last part may at first be a bit difficult to get our heads around but remember sex was not about love in Leviticus. It was about making babies.
Protecting the vulnerable women in a patriarchal household including wives, mother’s and daughters. Unfaithful men meant that women and children became incredibly vulnerable and at risk of being deserted, ostracised, and destitute. Consent (or lack of consent) is irrelevant in this context as the men hold the power.
An emphasis on the growth of a vulnerable community by emphasising the importance of unnecessary ‘discharge’ for men. Remember that intercourse in this text was not about love. It was all about creating more babies. Loss of semen meant loss of babies. No more babies means that the community cannot be restored after its destruction and exile.
Who are the most vulnerable in our modern day world?
Who do we need to set apart – metaphorically- so that they are given more care and attention in our societies?
What actions do we need to reconsider in order to protect the most vulnerable among us, including the LGBTIQ + community?
A final note from me to those of you who have been hurt by these texts in Leviticus
I can't finish this part of the study without addressing the elephant in the room about these passages. They have been, all to often, used to denigrate loving and consensual sex between men and to persecute, marginalise and prohibit the LGBTIQ+ community from church.
I am sorry. I am have not used them that way but I am an active and passionate part of the institution that has used them that was, and because of that, believe we are collectively responsible for your hurt and pain.
My reading is that the text should not ever have been read this way. The sentences that speak about this are very few in the context of all of the prohibitions about sex, and within their context, have got nothing to do with loving mutual relationships between two men. They are not about the men at all in my opinion, but instead the protection of unnamed other- the vulnerable women who are fully dependent on their male husbands.
If anything they tell us that sex between men, and indeed loving relationships between men, have been part of community for all time. Loving relationships in which the men of their time challenge societal convention to be together.
And the really sad thing about all of that is that in constantly bashing you over the head with your supposed sinfulness, the church is sadly one of the worst persecutors in history of the one thing that Leviticus tried to stop. And that is sexual practices that damage the most vulnerable among us.
At the end of the day what Leviticus says about sex is that if you are going to commit to a sexual relationship with someone you need to be faithful to them, you need to love them and protect them, and you need to ensure that that relationship will not do them or anyone else harm. This is a really important message for all of us.
Sacrifice and The Tabernacle System
Before we begin
Take some time to consider how you ‘prepare’ for church each week. Or alternatively your ‘intentional’ ways of spiritual practice or discipline. How do you seek God?
Connections to scripture
Many cultures and faiths around the world have intentional spiritual practices that prepare them for prayer, or are part of the practice of prayer.
Our Christian liturgy is no different. We are called into worship and then pray prayers of confession and thanks, that help us to focus our hearts and minds on God and gather us as community. We then read scripture. It is only then that we are ready to reflect on the Word. We then apply this to our prayers of intercession before being sent into the world where the Word continues to grow and inspire our actions through the week.
The tabernacle and sacrifice system in Leviticus is really just an earlier and more intricate system of preparation and prayer, with every intentional action leading the worshipping community into the holiest of holies. It places the Holy literally at the centre of the community. This ensures that the community can't help but pay attention by to God in their midst by making the sacred the focus of their life together.
We can make several observations about the Leviticus system that are helpful for us:
The tabernacle and its associated sacrificial practices are all communal. Nothing is done alone, including atonement for individuals. This makes sure that the community is connected, and work together
The majority of offerings are for thanks and intercessions asking for continued or additional blessing. Very few are about wrongdoing, and even fewer about individual wrong-doing. The emphasis is on bringing the best of our communal life together before God and giving thanks for that gift that this life together represents.
There are justice concessions built into the system. Each person is asked to bring the best of what they have, and if that is only a little, that is enough
How might you and your community prepare better to ensure you are fully aware of God’s presence during worship and beyond?
What would it mean to do this on a daily, weekly and beyond basis?
Would it change you awareness of the Holy within you and in the world ?
Connections to Scripture
Leviticus 25.8-12 & 18-22
Watch: What is the tragedy of the commons? - Nicholas Amendolare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC161GvMPc&t=2s
Beginning hypothesis: What if the rules of Leviticus are actually an early attempt to deal with the ‘Tragedy of the commons’ ?
If you take a peripheral glance at Leviticus is that it seems to act in binaries
Clean and unclean
Outsider and insider
Holy and unholy
The people of God and the rest of creation
Doing this and doing the opposite
The idea of sabbath and jubilee are similar as both balance a period of doing with a period of not doing
For six days you are busy and the seventh you are not
For six years you produce from the land and on the seventh you only reap
For 49 years your act one way and in the 50th you do the opposite
But really what we discover, if we look at it more closely, is that it is much more of a spiral or a labyrinth, whereby everything is moving away from and then intentionally returning to the middle . Everything is moving away from and then, in it’s own way, either naturally or if not naturally by intentionally process moving into the holy. And there in the centre will you find balance, or if you like God
To me it appears to be more like a spiralling system that recognises that every action has an opposing re-action that needs to be compensated for. If that re-action balance does not happen naturally Leviticus steps in with a series of rules to make.
Intentional practice that focuses everything back on the centre. The place of creation. The holiest of holies.
The jubilee story fits really well into this idea.
The world began at creation. And in the moment, everything was God’s because it had come from God the creator. Humanity was given the responsibility to care for this creation.
Leviticus holds this idea as central.
Read Leviticus 25.23-24
On the seventh day, right at the beginning, is the sabbath. On this day you must take nothing from creation and making no further imprint. But instead look around and notice the wonder of what you have. And in that same moment creation in the cycle of life and death is given a chance to breath.
And then in the seventh year a whole year of sabbath is to take place. A whole year for creation and the workers to recover. To reset if you like back to the beginning.
And then at 50 years a bigger reset. All who own the land must give it back and all who are slaves or bonded servants are also given back, not to past owners as it were, but to God. Because the foundational idea of Leviticus is that God owns the land and everyone and everything in it.
As I have reflected on this, I am struck by the reality that the capitalist of western myth is that the success of any economy is based on growth and ownership. but the reality of the world is that we can’t grow forever. The pond will eventually run out of fish.
I also know that there is and always has been a cost as we grow wealthier. And that cost is disproportionately born by the marginalised people in our communites and in the majority world and, by the natural world.
And this is rarely compensated for. Mining companies strip the land, but rarely restore it. Big business makes billionaires, yet struggles to pay minimum wage to those who do the work. Whilst we in the minority world, who should be the happiest and most satisfied, continue to hunger for something that is just beyond our grasp, rather than taking time to sit back and give thanks.
And the natural world cries out, our first nations people continue to lament what they have lost.
The list goes on.
What would a jubilee look like in the world today? What do we need to restore and reset our systems and practices, so the world is in harmony and all of creation flourishes?
What if you began your own personal system of Jubilee where you took 1 day a week to use only what you already have and took time to notice all that you have, in particular those things you have in abundance that you could share or gift to others?
What would this look like if you did this for a whole year?
Begin in Prayer
God there are times in our lives when we have all felt like the scapegoat,
Outcast by those who are supposed to love us.
Bitter and angry.
Tired, scared and sad.
There are also times that we have felt like the scapegoats often forgotten twin brother.
Times when we have sacrificed ourselves for those we love;
where have been battered and bruised by those we trust,
our energy, trust and life emptied,
and our individual uniqueness and desire consumed
in pursuit of the ever evasive
and somewhat subjective common good.
In this time and this place,
in our hurt and our sadness we pause to give thanks.
Not for the hurt or the pain or the loss of self that comes with all that we have named,
but instead for those rare and precious people that stood by us.
For the inner fire that keep us together.
For moments of refuge to cry and dissolve into despair.
For the courage and persistence that allowed us to make it through.
Forgive us when we have been part of the compliant crowd,
Proud of our allegiance and inclusion
or simply unwilling to speak for fear of what is to come.
Show us the different way.
We pray in your name,
Connections to Scripture
Read Mark 1.1-10 As you read write down:
Where John the Baptist is located
The detailed description of John the Baptists clothing and food, which contrasts with the authors normal brief style
The key elements of the ritual of baptism
Who is goes and/or is sent into the wilderness and who doesn't?
Who or what takes Jesus into the wilderness?
Who or what did he find in the wilderness?
Read Leviticus 16.1-22. As you read write down:
Where were the people located at the time of Leviticus? (Remember: that this book specifically addresses Moses so must have taken place before the Israelites reached the promised land but sometime after the Exodus)
The instructions giving to Aaron about his clothing
Key elements of the ritual
Who/what is sent into the wilderness and who/what stays behind and why?
Who or what takes the scapegoat into the wilderness?
Who or what will the goat find in the wilderness (hint see: Leviticus 16.10)?
Do you see any similarities between the two texts? If yes, why might this be? Remember that the community that grew around Jesus would have been familiar with Leviticus.
Read Psalm 23
Take some time to write down all of the places that the Good Shepherd is with the author of the Psalm
Read John. 10.14-16
Which sheep belong to the shepherd? Those in the fold or those outside the fold?
A few more questions for your consideration
What other texts from the scriptures can you think of where people are sent into the wilderness by God or alternatively because they are displaced or outcast. Is God be absent or present with those sent into the wilderness in these passages?
In the gospels, is Jesus most often seen with the people at the centre or the people on the margins and beyond?
What happens to the goat that is not sent into the wilderness?
Now remember the Passion Narrative from the Gospels.
Take take time to write down what you remember about:
Where the people are located, noticing the changing locations between inside Jerusalem and outside the walls in the 'wilderness'
Details the clothing of Jesus
Key elements of the ritual in the text, in particular those that involve water and blood eg the last super, the sword in Jesus side.
Who takes Jesus to the cross?
Who is set free and who is sacrificed? Which party is 'guilty' of their crime?
Where is Jesus 'sent' when he dies?
Concluding thoughts on the Scapegoat
There are some really interesting resonances between the story of the scapegoat in Leviticus, and the stories of the Baptism and Crucifixion of Christ. I don’t think this can be coincidental, particularly when we consider the strong presence of similar themes of exile, alienation, and wilderness across the broader grand narrative of the scriptures.
The reality of human history is that most tragedies are due to the failings of collective. It is never just one person that caused it, or a select group. The collective all contributed in some way through both active participation and, in some cases, compliant silence.
This is what happened at the crucifixion of Christ.
And just like the crucifixion of Christ, all too often the cost of collective tragedy falls on one or two 'scapegoats', all alternatively a vulnerable minority that is somehow perceived as 'different' from the powerful majority. This vulnerable minority are either consumed as they are forced to 'fit in' and comply, or outcast.
And the tragedy here is that those people are probably the ones that were not at the centre where the decision making happened and therefore best able to stand back help us all figure out what when wrong.
But the good news is in this story is that God is bigger than our own stupidity, in particular our need to scapegoat.
In spite of us, the blessing or the action of God continues to act in the world.
The blessing and action of God is least often seen in short-sighted, inwardly focused community, and most often seen on the edges, on the margins and in the wilderness. The blessing and action of God is most often apparent with or through the vulnerable and outcast scapegoat who becomes the faithful remnant that continues to hope and believe despite being tossed aside.
A final thought
I wonder which is better or luckier:
to be the goat that is sacrificed and consumed, ultimately giving up themselves and becoming as 'part' of the powerful, likeminded majority
or to be the goat that is sent away to find God exactly where God loves to be the most, in the wilderness, on the edges and in the margins?
It was the Romans who killed you,
who nailed you to a cross
to punish you for thinking differently.
Murdered for daring to challenge the might of Imperial Rome.
Written prayers Daily Meditations and Response prayers for Holy Week
Murdered for daring to suggest that the world should be different,
that it could be rearranged for once,
not to make the powerful comfortable,
but deeply uncomfortable.
maybe it was the religious leaders who wanted you dead?
For challenging their deeply and sincerely held religious truths,
for shaking things up and rocking the boat,
for daring to suggest that just because
we have always done it like this,
we always must?
We cannot challenge the guardians of tradition,
where would we be without it?
Better surely to let one man die….
It was the crowd!
It was their fault
It must have the been the crowd who gathered and cried “Crucify!”
who are the ones who killed you.
What they need, you see, is a scapegoat,
someone for the Romans to blame,
so that they won’t come looking for anyone else.
maybe it was me?
Maybe you should pity me – me,
for on this Good Friday,
I will stand with the Romans,
because I, who have everything,
don’t really want anything to change.
I will stand with the religious leaders,
and make sure that my traditions are honoured,
no matter who they exclude.
I will stand with the crowd,
who already know who is to blame
for all that goes wrong.
And I will cry “Crucify”
~ in “Daily Meditations and Response prayers for Holy Week” by Nigel Varndell. Copyright © 2011 Nigel Varndell (Meditations) and 2012 www.thesanctuarycentre.org/whereworldandworshipmeet. Posted on the Sanctuary Centre website. http://www.thesanctuarycentre.org/