God’s Confusing Will

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Leviticus is a particularly interesting and unique book of the “Old Testament”, that is, the Torah, commonly called “the five books of Moses”. Leviticus is the only one of the five books has been constructed by a single “source” — the priests — without influences from various other writers, as appears to be the case for the other four books. So, it’s no surprise that Leviticus deals largely with religious laws and the priests’ role in seeing to it that these laws are obeyed.

As I look at Leviticus, however, it seems there are really three separate sets of laws. And while, in a general sense, all of these laws deal with maintaining holiness and purity, the three groups of laws differ in important ways. Before explicitly examining these differences, look first at the three general themes, which I label “ethics”, “religion”, and “purity”. These themes relate to and substantially overlap with basic ethical issues identified by non-religious scholars.

Ethical Laws

This theme, contained primarily in chapters 19, 23, 24, and 25 of Leviticus, demonstrates an important early focus on human ethics. It is often praised as a key aspect of the Torah (and of Judaism) and as an important guide for human behavior. For example, the Torah tells us repeatedly — at least 36 times — to love our neighbor as ourselves; this injunction is explicitly repeated three times in Leviticus 19. More generally, Leviticus contains a wide variety of ethical commandments, defining God’s rules for how we are to treat other human beings, explicitly including non-Jews. Chapter 19 contains many of these ethical rules.

Besides promoting an ethical approach to how we relate to others, Leviticus also provides instructions on the basic aspects of justice. We are, for example, told not to cheat others through fraudulent land sales, and to use honest scales and measures. We should not take advantage of our employees by overworking them, treating them badly, or not promptly paying them the wages they’ve earned. Perhaps most significantly, Chapter 24 emphasizes that everyone, rich or poor, Jew or non-Jew, should be treated equally under the law.

Explicit ethical principles are also defined concerning the poor and needy. Crops in the fields are not to be harvested to the last grain or grape: some should be left for the hungry poor to gather (or “glean”). We are to see that there are no obstacles in the way that could be dangerous to the lame or blind, and the aged are to be respected.

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has, along with various colleagues, studied ethical principles around the world over the past quarter century. He and his associates have come up with a set of five basic ethical concerns, stated in terms of positive versus negative. These are “rules” about:

o Care for others vs. harming others;

o Fairness toward others vs. cheating others;

o Loyalty toward one’s group vs. betrayal of one’s group;

o Obedience to and acceptance of authority vs. opposition to or subversion of authority;

o Purity and sanctity vs. degradation and disobedience of rules regarding sanctity and purity.

It seems clear that the aspect of Leviticus I’m calling “Ethical Laws” overlaps largely with what Haidt calls “care vs. harm” and “fairness vs. cheating”. The remaining three ethical concerns defined by Haidt fit with two other areas detailed in Leviticus.

Religious Laws

A second theme in Leviticus concerns Jewish religious law. Some, as already noted, are now considered irrelevant due to historical changes, specifically the destruction of the Second Temple, which resulted in abolishing the formal priesthood and the end of animal sacrifice. Even so, there have been a great many legal arguments made over the last two thousand years dealing with specific aspects of religious laws. These were originally passed on by word of mouth but were eventually written down in the Talmud, the law books of Judaism.

Much of Leviticus is concerned not with ethics but with these Jewish religious laws. Many of these laws have to do with animal sacrifice — how to do it properly — but since animal sacrifice ended when the Second Temple was destroyed these laws are generally irrelevant today. There are, however, related laws — concerning how animals are to be slaughtered, for example, that are still relevant. And there are many laws concerning how food is to be prepared and what types of food one may and may not eat.

Some speculate that laws of this sort were designed for a specific purpose. That is, after long wars, a substantial number of those living in the southern kingdom of Judah (from which we get the term “Jew”) were taken captive and sent to Babylon, where they were enslaved. About seventy years later, when Cyrus conquered Babylon, he set them free to return home. But, to the shock of many — especially the priests — they found that the Jews of the northern kingdom of Israel, who had been allowed to stay, had disappeared. This may be the basis for the story — or, more properly, the myth — of Israel’s “ten lost tribes”. It is actually most likely that the Jews (of whatever tribe) who stayed behind were not lost but had simply been assimilated into the general non-Jewish population.

The priests decided that to prevent another such disaster — and perhaps the total disappearance of the Jewish people — they would set up rules to make it as difficult as possible for Jews and non-Jews to interact. This would prevent Jews from the sort of contact with non-Jews that might encourage friendships and, ultimately, conversion to whatever religion the non-Jews practiced. That may then be why they created laws focused on food, that is, to prevent Jews from sharing meals with non-Jews. Some have suggested that the prohibition of certain foods — shellfish and pork, for example — has a basis in maintaining a healthy population, but others argue that these rules have nothing to do with health. The focus and purpose of such religious laws are, rather, on keeping Jews away from the “dangerous” influence of non-Jews and making it less likely for Jews to “disappear” into the general non-Jewish population.

While many of the religious laws that remain relevant today seem relatively simple (don’t eat any dairy product at the same time you eat meat, for example), they are the basis for literal volumes of legal arguments that began in ancient times and continue today. One might today, for example, ask whether it is permissible to eat a cheeseburger if the burger is composed purely of vegetable matter.

Again, the two ethical categories Haidt identifies as “loyalty vs. betrayal” and “obedience vs. opposition” seem quite consistent with the spirit of what I’m referring to as religious laws. The reason is, as noted, these Jewish laws are really focused, at least according to some scholars, on maintaining a cohesive community, a “tribe” if you will. The bonds of loyalty that then develop among members of the community make it unlikely that any will “betray” the group by leaving. This is, of course, achieved by obedience to the religious laws that enjoin separation from other groups and tribes.

Purity Laws

The third theme in Leviticus centers on aspects of Jewish religious law that were considered ethical at the time but probably would not be thought of that way today, at least by most Jews (or, for that matter, most non-Jews). A minor example is the requirement that a man who has a nocturnal emission must separate from the community and carry out various bathing rituals before returning, with roughly similar requirements that must be carried out by women after menstruating.

There are, however, a large number of rules that would be, in the minds of many, extreme. For example, should a person see his relatives — parents, siblings, etc. — naked, then that person is to be punished by being cast out of the community. As an even more frightful example, two men who engage in homosexual activities are to be stoned to death by members of the community. Death penalties are similarly specified for those — men or women — who engage in sexual acts with animals. Perhaps most bizarre is the penalty specified for a man who has sex with a woman and her mother: the three of them are to be burned to death.

Jonathan Haidt, who has studied the elements of ethics in a wide range of nations, might label the sort of laws just described (and detailed at length in Leviticus 20) as “Purity Laws”. However, I would hope that most of us would see these types of rules as anything but ethical or preservative of purity.

Confusing Choices

So, what are we to make of this? I suggest that, on the one hand, the truly ethical aspects of Leviticus — rules that most of us would today see as essential ethical guidelines — should be a central focus and asserted as a major contribution of Judaism to human ethics. As for the less objectionable religious laws, I’ve already noted that many are now irrelevant. Others (such as dietary rules) continue to be a source of conflict among Jews, who have formed a variety of sub-groups largely on this basis, thus demonstrating the (at least partial) failure of these laws to maintain a strictly homogenous community.

Of the third group of what might be labeled “purity laws” some seem strange (such as priests diagnosing skin diseases) and are no longer relevant. (It is interesting, however, that rabbis — the priests’ replacements — were historically often physicians and exceptionally good ones). But most of the religious laws in this third category are, to current sensibilities, pretty much “anti-ethical” or just plain crazy. Fortunately, this third category of religious laws seems to be ignored for the most part. There are, no doubt, some Jewish sects still attending to the rules for purification after a nocturnal emission. However, there has not likely been a slaughter of offending men and daughters-in-law for more than a thousand years. Still, Leviticus provides some ethical guidance that is relevant today, even though much of it is no longer applicable or makes little sense in a modern context.

Perhaps the best, maybe the only, general conclusions are that God’s will:

· Can be confusing;

· Should generally be taken with a grain (and sometimes a large block) of salt;

· Provides quite a bit of sound ethical guidance — if one looks carefully and in the right place.

With these caveats in mind, we may find that there is wisdom to be found in this ancient text.



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Marshall Sashkin

I taught organizational psychology at a number of universities across the US and was active in research and publishing, with a focus on leadership and change.