The Old Testament: Exodus and Leviticus
Genesis contains some of the best-remembered stories of the Old Testament. But Exodus has narrative advantages over Genesis, particularly its straightforward and compelling central narrative: how Moses led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage and established the first laws of the Israelites. It is an engaging, even thrilling, story.
In Egypt, the worm has turned for the children of Israel: the new Pharaoh, fearing their power, has made them slaves and orders their sons killed. One boy is saved (a strikingly similar story occurs in Herodotus) in a pitch-covered raft. The boy, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, becomes prophetic leader of the nation of Israel, called upon by God to demand that the Pharaoh let his people to offer sacrifices to their Lord. The Pharaoh refuses repeatedly and, in return, God sends many signs and wonders to prove his might, and finally a series of plagues upon the people of Egypt.
These sections can seem unbearably cruel. God punishes the Egyptians horribly, killing their firstborn children and their animals, in retribution for their Pharaoh’s arrogance and impiety. It’s actually worse: starting with Exodus 10, the text says that “the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart, and he would not let them go…” I’ve never understood these passages. It reads as if God sends Moses to offer the Pharaoh a choice, then hardens his heart so that he cannot make the proper choice, and massacres the Egyptians for that choice-not-made. The Lord says He wants to clearly establish the difference between Egypt and Israel, and does so unambiguously. But the vengeful nature of Yahweh is off-putting, particularly for those more familiar with the God of the later books. And yet, a common insight of Old Testament is that man has his own ideas of justice, distinct from those of God.
Exodus 12 establishes the Passover traditions celebrating the passage of the Israelites out of Egypt, and the smiting passage of the Lord through Egypt. Such enduring traditions create a bond among a people and a lasting honor paid to the Lord; the traditions, and laws in these early books shape the community. I think of the Pentateuch therefore as sort of the boot camp of monotheism. Returning to our discussion about hospitality and strangers, Jews are to share the Passover traditions with non-Jews who are among them. Exodus 12:49: “One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” Similarly, “thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23:9)
After releasing them, the Pharaoh pursues the fleeing Israelites, and perhaps the convention that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart is necessary because it’s inexplicable otherwise that he would hunt down these people when it’s so evidently a terrible idea- one wonders if his head wasn’t hardened too. Lo and behold, his armies are drowned by God after parting the Sea to let the Israelites pass. I think the first significance of this story is that the Israelites are hunted, lost, afraid, and ready to mutiny- this is their darkest hour and their Lord is still with them. Secondly, it’s important that “The Lord is a man of war…” (Ex 15:3) It’s not good to be an enemy of God’s people; soon after, when Amalek goes to war with Israel, God vows to “utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Membership has its privileges.
Compared to other religious texts of the time, most of which are polytheistic, there is a striking development of “religious intolerance” here. The Lord is a jealous god. The Israelites may not worship other gods and must abolish such worship wherever they go. For worshipping the golden calf, the children of Levi slaughter “about three thousand men”. For the Jews, devotion begins at birth and is non-negotiable. In exchange for their loyalty, God will cast out the other nations before Israel and increase her borders. Conquests and wars occur throughout the books of the Bible and recent discussions about the supposedly unique “conquering ideology” of the Koran frankly make little sense in light of the Old Testament.
Even weirder, some have claimed that Islam is different from other faiths in having a body of laws attached! Nevertheless, Exodus establishes the roots of Jewish law and Leviticus fleshes out and expands them, beginning when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives the first Ten Commandments. The third Commandment is repeated with surprising frequency and is serious: anyone who works on the Sabbath “shall surely be put to death.” I find the second commandment, about graven images, confusing: it specifically says not to create graven images, nor to worship them. As a non-believer, I’m unsure how Jews and Christians justify making any visual art, aside from how horrible life would be without it. Maybe the bare, white Calvinist churches are more pious.
It’s also not clear to me that our understanding of “adultery” hasn’t broadened to reflect our less patriarchal times. The description in Leviticus (20:10) is similar to other tribal laws of the era, in that an “adulterer” is a man who sleeps with another’s wife, while an “adulteress” is a married woman who sleeps with another man. In various passages, though, a husband practicing polygamy or concubinage seems less problematic. I suspect the emphasis is on the sexual fidelity of the wife, and the key issue is parentage. Of course, this is an assumption, and likely controversial, so feel free to site passages I might have missed.
Exodus further explains how to build a tabernacle, temple, and an ark of the Testimony, the duties of priests, and the rituals to perform, such as tithing, sacrificing animals, and burning incense. Leviticus explains how atonement may be offered, usually through animal sacrifice- sin offerings, peace offerings and burnt offerings carried out by the Priests. Cleanliness is a recurring theme: one must take measures to not profane holy things or defile the body. Certain foods are taboo- no hares, camels, pigs, shellfish, owls, eagles, lizards, mice, most insects, or any animal fat whatsoever may be consumed. Lepers, women who have recently given birth or who are menstruating, and men who have ejaculated recently are unclean. Measures for fighting plague are detailed. There are laws administering fair dealings with neighbors or those with whom one does business.
Certain transgressions bring death: blasphemy, a Priest’s daughter playing the harlot, killing someone (apparently, not by stoning), adultery, bestiality, sorcery, etc. Incidentally, some of the most notorious events in Church history arose from attempts to carry out the law of Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” But the laws of Leviticus are less harsh than I’d remembered. The common penalties are atonement by priestly sacrifice or exile from the tribe, and there are less “death penalty crimes” than I thought. Obedience generally brings abundant crops, victory over enemies, and peace in the land; there’s nothing yet about life everlasting.
Nevertheless, the Lord’s wrath is great and devastating. The passages in which sinners are forced to eat their children are, to put it mildly, horrifying. The laws of Leviticus are, on first reading, terrible: that is, they evoke terror in us by their absolute certainty and, conversely, by the equally-absolute consequences of breaking them. Terror is the uncultured response that precedes all identifications with moral law; by identification, sensible interests are sacrificed and, in exchange, one gains the higher level freedom that comes by intellectual affirmation of an abstract universal.
Having read works of comparative anthropology like The Golden Bough or Totem and Taboo, much of Leviticus sounds familiar; this is tribal law. These are the laws of a particular nation in the ancient world and probably best suited to keeping the peace in the close quarters of a tribe; an emphasis on purity and cleanliness, for instance, is very characteristic. The appeal of such rituals, I suppose, for those of us who live in very different circumstances is that, in some sense, they set aside the quotidian as sacred. As with Confucius’s straight prayer rug, ritualizing seemingly trivial behaviors says that these things matter and each thing we do matters. For a demonstration, ask a Marine to make your bed for you.
Clearly, though, it is very hard for a body larger than a tribe to keep these laws with perfect fidelity. It’s hard to imagine that blasphemy would call for stoning outside of parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, where tribal law still holds. The laws have been adapted, reinterpreted, and again the Bible establishes an ongoing dialogue between man and God, which explains the changes to some extent.
Certain fundamentalists, of course, claim the laws of Leviticus are still-binding and our failure to, for instance, stone the impure daughters of Priests proves that we have “fallen away from God”. This, however, is the lie of fundamentalism- picking out a handful of ancient tribal laws that are not compatible with modernity- specifically because they’re incompatible- and using them as a cudgel to intimidate more guilt-ridden fellow members of the faith, while ignoring the entire exegetical tradition surrounding those passages, or even the rest of the text. It is coercion and a godawful lie besides.
Endnote: Once again, I note that I’m not a believer and was not raised hearing these stories, but I do approach the Bible with great respect. Any notes, corrections or suggestions are welcome.