Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
“I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus,” said one of my students in a Pentateuch class years ago.
His testimony to the tedium of reading Leviticus will surprise no one, I’m sure. Many a resolution to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has foundered on Leviticus’s arcane details about sacrifice and skin disease.
And yet, there is more to Leviticus than meets the eye. It takes work on the part of the reader (or preacher). This book is not narrative; it is law code and ritual. But the person who is willing to enter into the book with imagination, and with an eye for detail, will find profound insights there.1
Take chapter 19, for instance. It begins with an oft-repeated refrain in Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2).
Holiness is a matter of great concern to the priestly writers of Leviticus. Not because of a need to “earn” personal salvation (a concept foreign to ancient Israel) but because holiness was an attribute of God, in fact, the attribute of God. And in order for this holy God to dwell in the midst of an unholy people, a certain order needed to be maintained.
Think of the tabernacle, the visible sign of God’s presence, as a sort of electrical power plant, a source of unimaginable power. If you approach that power carelessly, without the necessary preparations, you will be hurt, not through any malice on the part of God, but because God is wholly other, wholly holy (cf. 2 Samuel 6:1-10). So, the necessary preparations need to be made and a certain order needs to be maintained in order for this holy God to dwell in the midst of the people without destroying them.
Samuel Balentine discerns two beliefs that underlie this priestly worldview:
God has created the world with a capacity to be “very good,” and that goodness is maintained by the order that God has built into creation, setting boundaries, for instance, between light and darkness, earth and sky, sea and dry land (Genesis 1). When those boundaries are maintained, life can flourish. When they are crossed, chaos ensues.
Human ritual order mirrors and helps maintain this cosmic order. The priest, according to Leviticus, is to distinguish (hivdil — the same verb used of God when God “separates” things in Genesis 1) “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). When the priests maintain this ritual order, mirroring God’s cosmic order, the holy God is able to dwell with Israel.
Balentine sums up the priestly worldview this way: “[T]he ritual order, like the cosmic order, establishes the boundaries and categories that enable a holy God to dwell in the midst of a world vulnerable to sin and defilement.”2 Hence, the priestly concern with sacrifices and skin disease. It’s not about personal holiness. It’s about maintaining right order so that life can flourish, chaos is kept at bay, and God can dwell with God’s people.
It’s important to note that Leviticus is addressed not just to priests but to the whole people. Particularly in chapters 17-26, which is called by scholars the Holiness Code, instructions are given to all Israel about how to maintain holiness in the community. And in these chapters, there is no distinction between what we might call “religious” concerns and “secular” concerns. All of life matters to God — what we eat, how we do business, who we sleep with, how we care for the land, our relationships with family, neighbors, and strangers — all of it matters to God. We might even say, in this strange book of Leviticus, that matter matters.
This is apparent in chapter 19. Here we find an odd variety of laws. Many of the Ten Commandments are here: prohibitions on idols, stealing, false witness, profaning the name of God; injunctions to keep the Sabbath and to honor one’s mother and father. But we also find laws against sowing your field with two different kinds of seed or wearing clothing made of two different materials (verse 19).3 All of life matters, from seemingly trivial issues to matters of life and death.
Here in chapter 19 we find the most famous verse in the whole of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 18). When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus, who is a good Jew, quotes this and Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
What does it mean to love your neighbor? Well, if we take the context of this verse into account, then loving your neighbor has more to do with action than with emotion. You must be honest in your business dealings — don’t put your finger on the scale (verses 35-36). You must not defraud your neighbor or slander him (verses 13, 16). You must render just judgments (verse 15).
When you harvest your fields and your vineyard, you must not strip the land bare, but leave enough for the poor and the foreigners to glean and support themselves (verses 9-10; cf. the book of Ruth). In short, “loving your neighbor as yourself’ means not just refraining from hurting your neighbor, but also willing your neighbor’s good and working for it.
In its original context in Leviticus, the term “neighbor” probably refers to a fellow Israelite. Jesus expands the definition in Luke 10 with the story of the Good Samaritan. But even within this chapter in Leviticus, a more universal understanding is also apparent. Just a few verses later, we read, “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner.The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:33-34).
Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the foreigner as yourself. Be holy, as God is holy. This book is more than a list of sometimes arcane rules and customs. It is a profound theological statement about life with God. The laws and rituals are grounded in the reality of who God is and who God has called us to be: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Holiness is not something we can achieve ourselves, of course, and when we try to do so, we often fall into sin, adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Holiness is the work of God in us, for the sake of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Gilbert Meilaender puts it well when he speaks of “God’s commitment to make us people who will want to live in his presence — to make us what he says we are. Hence, God’s promise is embedded in his command: “‘You shall be holy.’”4
“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors.
1 My favorite chapter in Leviticus is ch. 25, which speaks of the Jubilee, when all debts are forgiven and slaves are set free. This vision of Jubilee inspired Jubilee 2000, a movement calling for the forgiveness of third world debt by the year 2000. The Jubilee movement continues today.
2 Samuel Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation; John Knox, 2002), 4.
3 The latter laws probably have to do with the distinction between the holy and the profane. Mixtures of cloth were reserved for the most sacred people and places in Israel: the clothing of the high priest and the curtain of the Holy of Holies, for instance [Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22 (Anchor Bible 3A; Doubleday, 2000), 1660].
4 Gilbert Meilaender, “Hearts Set to Obey,” in I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, ed. Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz (Eerdmans, 2005), 274.