Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Holiness Code

When most people are deciding on a book of the Bible to study, Leviticus rarely makes the top of anyone's list. In fact, the Old Testament as a whole is considered by many Christians to be irrelevant to Christian life. Oh sure, there are some interesting stories, useful as illustrations for Sunday School: Moses and the burning bush, or David and Goliath. But that's where its usefulness ends - we have the New Testament now; a new and better covenant. After all, didn't Jesus come to fulfill the Old Covenant Law?

I must admit that I'm guilty of thinking like this for a long long time. But why is this incorrect? For starters, the Apostle Paul had this to say about Scripture: 
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NASB).

Have you ever considered that at the time Paul wrote this, he was primarily speaking about the Old Testament Scriptures? I absolutely agree that this envelopes both testaments of Scripture - "All Scripture" - but it is primarily the Old Testament that Paul has in mind. What was it that Timothy should continue to learn (vs. 14) from? From which "sacred writings" (vs. 15) was the Apostle referring to? Answer: the Old Testament Scriptures!

Or how about another passage where the Sadducees try to trap Jesus with this ridiculous example: a train of brothers who die, one after the other, each marrying the first brother's wife. The Pharisees then asked the Lord whose wife she will be in the resurrection? Jesus' response is stunning:
"But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29-31, NASB).

The Lord's criticism focuses on the Pharisees' lack of understanding of the Scriptures, and hence, the power of God! He goes on to say one of the most amazing things I've ever read in the New Testament: "have you not read what was spoken to you by God?" Christ equates the reading of Scripture ... reading the Old Testament Scriptures ... to that of God speaking to them! What's more, He held them accountable to what was written in the Scriptures!

There is so much that could be said about this passage, but I will have to limit myself for the sake of remaining on topic. What is so often taken for granted is the high view of Scripture held by our Lord! He believes it contains the very words of God, and is the sufficient standard by which we are to live our lives.

I recently finished reading through Leviticus, and was confronted with many things that were a bit ... uncomfortable for someone in our modern, Western culture. God describes the multitude of ways in which He expects to be worshiped, down to the very details of how animals are to be slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice, and what to do with the various parts. Honestly, I find some sections rather grotesque for someone who hasn't grown up on a farm. But reading through this marvelous book of Scripture, you get the sense that Yahweh cares deeply about how He is worshiped, and how His creatures are to live. The true and the living God not only prescribes life for society, but also for individuals by giving universal moral standards.

As you might have cleverly guessed from the title, I spent a lot of time studying the Holiness Code found in Leviticus 18-20. What a rich and beautiful text this is!  It is overflowing with moral clarity, and speaks to issues that all human beings intimately know to be true. I believe that only the God-breathed Scriptures could provide such insight! This section discusses things like: incest, bestiality, homosexuality, adultery, child sacrifice, and mediums and spiritists.  Admittedly, these are not pleasant topics to dwell on, but oh-so important in describing our humanity and what is required of us.

Now, I consider it both a blessing and a curse that when I am reading or listening to someone, I am analyzing what is being said from both sides of an issue. When I read the Holiness Code, in the back of my mind I can hear what the unbeliever might say to try to disprove the Bible. Someone might argue: "What you're saying sounds good and moral, but you aren't being consistent, are you? If you were, you would believe that Leviticus 19:19 is equally applicable for today! And since no one believes wearing mixed fabrics is immoral, how can you honestly say the other listed behaviors are immoral?" Here is the verse just mentioned:
"19 ‘You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together." (NASB)

This isn't new to me; it's an argument I've heard before. But responding to this, and doing so in a God-honoring way that treats the Scripture with accuracy, proved to be a challenge this week. I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. I re-read this section, and discussed it with some friends. How might we respond to this objection? How would you respond to this objection?

I would start by pointing out that the Bible should be taken as a whole, and not cut up into little, isolated chunks. As Christians, we believe all 66 books in the Bible have the same divinely inspired source: the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they have a consistent message. Right away, the Biblically literate believer knows that some commands given to the nation of Israel were abrogated (set aside) due to their fulfillment in Christ, namely, the ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant Law.

"Aha! So God's moral laws change! And so does God..." our unbelieving objector might say. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn't allow God the freedom to give certain moral requirements for a specific amount of time, and for a specific purpose. This is precisely why we believe the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law existed: to differentiate the Jews from among the nations, and to function as a shadowy picture of the things to come. Contrary to what the Dispensationalists believe, the Law was not given to provide a works-based salvation, if only they kept God's commandments (as if that were even possible). Rather, they were to point them towards the necessity of a perfect Savior, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Digging into the text a little bit, both chapters 18 and 20 have statements that make these texts universal. For example:
"‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people." (Leviticus 18:24-29, NASB).

Chapter 20 has another statement similar to this.

The moral requirements discussed throughout chapter 18 are seen to be universal because the Lord is holding the nations accountable for what He is proclaiming here. Even before Leviticus was written, they were guilty of breaking these commands, and it is because of these sins that they would be cast out from the land Israel was to inherit. This means these universal moral requirements were in effect prior to the Pentateuch being written! Is it fair that they be held accountable for a revelation they did not possess in writing? The Apostle Paul taught that God's moral laws are written on the hearts of every man and woman (Romans 2:12-16).

Now let's look at chapter 19, this chapter that is sandwiched by two chapters containing so many universal commands. Why is it placed in-between these two chapters? It seems so ... out of place. Wouldn't it have been better to organize it after all of the universally required laws? That's when it hit me: I was falling into the trap of anachronism by forcing a modern, Western organizational standard onto the text that was completely foreign to the Jewish mindset of the day. What do I mean? I mean that the concept of organizing and categorizing topics, in an encyclopedic format, is a rather modern idea. What's more, to the Jews, all of these laws were moral for them: whether it was about homosexuality, or mixing different kinds of seeds in your field! To stray from God's universal or ceremonial requirements was sinful to them.

But ... but why are they strung together? The short answer is: I don't know, but I believe the Holy Spirit of God has a reason for it. What is clear to me is that there is a strong distinction between the moral laws that all people everywhere are held accountable to, and the ceremonial laws meant to distinguish the Jews and point them towards the then coming Messiah. Surely, when the psalmist wrote, "O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97, NASB), he understood the clear difference between commands such as honoring your father and mother, and wearing various fabrics. Even considering the additional comments he makes about loving the law later in Psalm 119, he directly mentions moral requirements (vss. 113, 163, 165).

Why did I spend my week agonizing over this section of Scripture? Why do I care about an unbeliever's objection to the inspired Scriptures? I care for two reasons. The first is that I want to have a proper understanding of what God has to say to me. Because if I have a view of Scripture, equal to that of Christ's, then I must believe that both Old and New Testaments exist so that I may be fully equipped to live my Christian life. The second, is so that I can offer a clear defense of my faith when the unbeliever raises questions like what we see above. Real people have asked (and are asking) these questions. I have been asked about this before, and I believe it is only a matter of time until I hear them again.

Given the conversation in our culture, how long do you think it will be until you are asked about the Holiness Code? Wouldn't it be better to have a prepared answer that clearly explains what you believe, and why? The godly model of the Apostles indicates that we ought to be prepared. Peter lays it out clearly for us when he wrote:
"but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

Amen to that! May the Lord grant to His people the desire to prepare to be faithful witnesses of the one and only way of salvation.

No comments:

Post a Comment