“Just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or not he chooses to go that way.”
Christopher Wright, in the New Bible Commentary, on the 19th chapter of Leviticus:
The chapter is remarkable for its breadth and depth of moral insight. It touches on the thoughts of the heart and the actions of the body, private and public behavior, and almost every major area of social life in a community. The application of some of its legislation would transform the lives of millions in today’s world. And the deeper one reflects on it, the more it seems that many Christians come nowhere near the standards it presented centuries before Christ (let alone Christ’s own development of it in the Sermon on the Mount).
Far too often in the Christian community, the Old Testament law in general, and Leviticus in particular, is dismissed much too quickly as irrelevant (that OT law doesn’t apply to us anymore, right?), impenetrable (how do you make sense of the maze of priestly codes and types of offerings?), and simply, sometimes humorously, random (regulations regarding mildew? commandments regarding the mixing of fabrics?).
Perhaps the best argument against this assumption is simply to get people to read the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which is rich, relevant and wise. Are all the laws found there immediately clear in their purpose and relevance to us today? Of course not. But this chapter is also remarkably clear, and should function as a sign to us that this book is not just some dusty collection of confusing and confused prohibitions. Rather it rewards study, and upon such, (like the rest of the book) shows itself to have both an inner logic, and a theological and social richness that is extraordinary.
That may seem like an overstatement. Yes, big chunks of Leviticus are slow reading and often dry. But if we push through, this ancient culture and more importantly it’s astonishing God, is still there to be found. He is still speaking.
Jesus’ testimony about the law should have pointed us in this direction. Indeed, as Wright notes, Leviticus 19 stands as a clear source behind the Sermon on the Mount. But Moses’ words as well should give pause to any of us who want too quickly to dismiss the law on our way to other things. Moses’ words on the law in Deuteronomy 4:6 – 8 point to it’s wisdom and utter uniqueness:
Observe them [the decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
John Sailhamer, in The Meaning of the Pentateuch (155):
How different the Pentateuch would be if it began with the statement “In the beginning God gave Moses the law” rather than “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Wilfred McClay, writing in a First Things article, “The Moral Economy of Guilt”:
“There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This…is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.
In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions…
In such a world, where there are few intrinsic limits to what I can do, there is almost nothing for which I cannot be, in some way, held accountable. I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television and know for a fact that, if I cared to, I could travel to that remote place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering. Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it is never as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.
…indeed, as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally sensitive individuals who have the weakest commonsense defenses agains such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities…”
The Latest Decalogue
by A. H. Clough:
Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp’d except the currency:
Swear not at all; since, for they curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it.
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it’s so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.