Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Rest of Leviticus

Leviticus 18-27

The rest of Leviticus includes more rules to structure the Israelites' life together in community. Here are a few that especially caught me by surprise:

  • "You shall not put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev 19:19).
  • "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard" (Lev 19:27).
  • Every seventh year is a sabbath for the land! So, farm laborers, as well as the land itself, had sabbaticals (Lev 25:2-7)!

Sexual Ethics

I also found myself a little surprised about the detailed prohibitions about sexual behavior (Lev 18 and Lev 20). I wasn't surprised that there were prohibitions, but I was surprised that they needed such detailed specification. Why not just say, "don't have sex with anyone except your spouse"? I'm not sure if the detailed prohibitions suggest (a) having sex with those not explicitly prohibited was okay (in general, anyone not already married or close of kin), or (b) these were really details about who could be chosen as a wife (remembering that, during this time, men were allowed to have multiple wives). Also, the intended audience seems to be men. Were the rules a little different for women? (Or is this a translation issue -- was the gender meant to be neutral?)

Eye for an Eye

I had earlier noted that the context of the first "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage was much more specific than I had expected. I wondered then whether a more general statement would come up later. Yes. See Leviticus 24:19-20.

More on Slavery

Earlier, I had also puzzled over the issue of slavery. A passage in Leviticus clarifies the difference between hired labor and slavery. If Israelites themselves came upon hard times and had to sell themselves, they were not to be regarded as slaves but as hired laborers (who would be freed again in the jubilee year, every 50th year). So the only people who could become slaves, as such, would have been aliens (Lev 25:39-46).


I am very struck with the claim that people did not really "own" land in a permanent sort of way, but the land belongs ultimately to God (Lev 25:23).

But at the same time, the land was to be laid out in a surprisingly permanent way (once they reached the promised land), with a portion for each of the Israelite tribes. People could sell off parts of their land, if they needed to do so for money, but there would be a "jubilee year" every 50th year in which the land would be restored to its original tribes. Additional rules structured how this would happen in a fair way. Since everyone knew this would eventually happen, the buying and selling of land would be regarded as temporary, and thus would affect the pricing (Lev 25).

These are very powerful ways to establish a community's relationship to the land: to regard the land as ultimately God's, and to establish a practice that ensures that that sometime during every generation the whole economic system would be "reset" to give everyone a fresh start!

What if we now also took seriously the notion that no one ever "owns" land or other material property or resources in any permanent way?

And what if we were to establish a practice of re-distributing resources every 50 years? Imagine, for example, everyone's assets being tallied and then redistributed, giving everyone an equal amount! What would such a practice do to our economy?

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