Three things I learned from reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy…again
Even before our pastor promoted the two-year Bible reading plan, I had decided to re-read my NIV chronologically-ordered Bible this year. It’s good to be reminded that the narrative in the canon is not always in chronological order—to acknowledge (again) that Job was a compatriot of the patriarchs, and Esther lived hundreds of years after Job, not before even though we’ve memorized…Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job….
Another advantage of this version is that the editor compiles all the Mosaic law into one section and groups them according to type and subject, thereby avoiding duplication and giving the reader a better grasp of the big picture.
True confession—I still skipped some parts. My guess is that even the most well-intentioned students of scripture have occasionally omitted those parts of the Old Testament that don’t lend themselves to devotional study.
Nevertheless, I made three observations in my recent re-read of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
- Cleanliness is not next to godliness, but it’s close.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness” is not found in scripture, but Old Testament law maintained a close relationship between the two. Israelites with skin blemishes (usually leprosy) were considered unclean, as were persons with various kinds of bodily discharges. But the person who was to diagnose or declare the “victim” clean or unclean, cured or sick, was the priest. Not one trained in medicine, though I think it would it not be wrong to assume such persons existed among Jacob’s descendants.
I understand that under the theocracy the priesthood played a significantly more important role in civic life than pastors do in twenty-first century society. But a theology that links illness and disease to sinful behavior misses the point of the Old Testament requirement. The cleanliness laws were meant to remind God’s people that he was holy and they were not. Being announced clean by the priest anticipated the day when the perfect Priest would give his life to declare that all who believe are clean and clothed in righteousness. When we attempt to trace illness or misfortune to a specific sin, we mistake physical cleanliness for spiritual cleanliness (a clean heart).
- God doesn’t need your army.
Deuteronomy 20 lays out preparations for battle as Israel prepares to move into Canaan. Knowing the size and nature of the enemy they are about to confront, you might expect the Commander of the Army to demand 100 percent participation. But I was surprised to discover that the following were acceptable military exemptions for the Israelite army. A prospective solder
- had recently built, but not yet dedicated his house,
- had planted a vineyard, but not yet begun to enjoy it,
- was engaged, but not married,
- was afraid or fainthearted.
You probably know draftees who would have appreciated one of those outs. If none of the first three exemptions applied, a recruit could just claim fear. What could be behind such a lax approach to compiling an army?
Just maybe God wants to remind the Israelites (and me) that he fights for his people. We accomplish nothing in our own strength; he doesn’t need our feeble attempts, but he does bless our weakest efforts when we acknowledge our need and our own inability.
- God provides our daily bread—sometimes through a neighbor.
Jesus’s model prayer includes this line, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s a concept with roots in the Old Testament. When God provided manna in the desert he instructed the Israelites to take only what they needed for a day—no more, no less. Mosaic law even seems to grant a hungry person the right to take from his neighbor to meet his daily need.
If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain. (Duet. 23:24-25)
God’s economic principles abhor both hoarding and hunger—equally. He directs Israelite farmers not to harvest to the far reaches of their field, but to leave some for the poor to gather. He knows that extreme hunger may push a person to do unlawful things. Proverbs 30:8 requests “neither poverty nor riches,” only enough to be satisfied. Moses’ law permits a hungry person to satisfy his hunger from his neighbor’s field or vineyard, but not to take more than he needs for that day.
I’m grateful I’ve never needed to rely on my neighbors for my daily bread, but if I had, perhaps I wouldn’t struggle so with prideful self-sufficiency. For it’s when I’m most aware of my emptiness that I find the most satisfying, fulfilling relationship with my Maker.
The next time I roll my eyes thinking about wading through all the minutia of the Old Testament law, I’ll remember these discoveries and keep digging.