How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part three

There’s another problem, though. In order to get us all “in line” and following all of His rules exactly, God would have had to speak almost exclusively about rules all the time, but if He did this, we would be in danger of thinking that following the rules was all it took to please Him. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.

scc_heavenintherealworldI think that teaching at a Christian school really helped me understand the book of Leviticus, because I was in a position of having to represent the rule-makers to the rule-followers. That is not an easy position to be in. For example, we had a rule that said students were not allowed to wear band shirts to school, and the students thought it was stupid. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I’m seriously getting in trouble for wearing this Stephen Curtis Chapman shirt?! Stephen Curtis Chapman is seriously like the most Christian musician there is!”

Ok… I take that back. I never heard that… But I could have. And I did hear similar things…

“It’s not like I’m wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt.”

“What do my clothes have to do with my Christianity?”

“Are you saying that my shirt is a sin?”

Let’s think about goals and difficulties for a minute, remembering that God faced the same kind of thing, and we will continue to face the same kind of thing every time we pair religion with rules.

The point of the rule was to keep kids from wearing shirts that were genuinely offensive. The administration also wanted to set a standard of modesty, so they established a somewhat arbitrary length for girls’ skirts.

One of the reasons that rules have to be specific is that, had we said that students needed to avoid offensive and immodest clothing, there is no possible way discipline could have been enforced. Students would have had to change clothes between every class, because even the teachers could not agree on what counted as modest or immodest.

So God wants people to release their slaves based on the fact that they have realized that slaves are human beings. This is much better than releasing them because God said they had to or He would kill them. But there remains the problem of treatment of slaves, and we have to take into account that the master isn’t the only one that matters – the slave matters to God too. If God made no rules protecting slaves from severe mistreatment, surely slaves would be prone to think that they didn’t matter to God.

So He decides to take a different road, protecting the slaves while giving the masters a chance to realize that slaves are people too. He makes a law requiring masters to treat their slaves well.

But unless those laws are specific, they are meaningless. What is to stop a slave master from saying that as long as the slave is alive he hasn’t been mistreated? How do you enforce a law that says you’re supposed to “be kind”?

The other side of the problem at our Christian school, and this was really the bigger problem, was that some students started thinking that as long as they didn’t wear band shirts and their skirts were the right length, then they were on good terms with God. This was the problem the Pharisees had. They didn’t spit on any rocks on Saturday, in fact they even counted their steps to make sure they didn’t walk too far, but they missed the whole point of the day. The day was a day of rest and worship, but they were so busy worrying about whether or not they were desecrating it with their spit and their steps that they didn’t have time to think about what really matters to God.

The rules do matter, because God needs to tell us what a person who follows Him looks like.

And they matter because sometimes people need to be restrained. It is important to, like God, allow for the development of character over time so that obedience is not only outward. But that doesn’t mean that we keep letting people murder each other in hopes that one day they will have a change of heart and decide to stop.

They also matter because they tell us about our God.

And when I look at the laws through this lens, I see something pretty incredible.

God always raises the standard.

At any period of history, you can look at external records and find that the Bible is ahead of its time in terms of the ethical norms of society. In the Old Testament world, a man could divorce or kill his wife whenever he wanted. God required him to give her a certificate stating why he was sending her away. He raised the standard and, in so doing, challenged men to look past what they saw around them and lift themselves above the status quo.

When certificates of divorce became the status quo and men began using them as an excuse to get out of their marriages, Jesus reminded them that it was only because of the hardness of their hearts that the Old Testament allowed them to divorce with conditions. Their hearts had gotten a bit softer and a bit closer to God’s intention, but they needed softening still. They needed to remember Genesis 1:27 and the story of the creation of Eve.

In all of this, God never compromises His absolute moral standard. He never stops telling us that we are to be perfect as He is perfect. He never stops telling us that His own character is the standard. And He never stops telling us what the next step is in getting to where He wants us to be.

A good teacher teaches both the ultimate goal and the next step in the process.

God is a good teacher.

And He never takes shortcuts in getting us aligned with His ultimate standard.

Because the standard is not just outward obedience.

The standard is obedience based upon love of God, honor toward one another, and understanding of our own place within the world He has created.

He will never compromise, and He is still softening our hearts.

Because we’re not home yet…

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part two

Cultural and historical context are also important when we start thinking about how the Old Testament laws were to be enforced, and about what God ultimately wanted to happen as a result of giving them.

A few years ago, I was volunteering with Justice for All at the campus of the University of Northern Colorado, and at the end of my conversation with one of the students that had seen the display, he asked me about the group’s goals: “What do you guys ultimately want out of this?”

I told him that our goal was for abortion to be outlawed, but I realized later that I had lied, at least about what I wanted personally. I don’t really care all that much about the laws. What I care about are the babies. And no matter what happens with the laws, my real goal is that abortion clinics have to close because of lack of demand. In the end, the result would be the same – abortion would end. But the way we get there would be totally different, and the way we get there is incredibly important.

Modern missionaries have faced a unique dilemma in ministering to polygamous tribes. Let’s say missionary Harry goes to Papua New Guinea and, through chronological Bible storytelling, a certain tribe begins to accept the gospel and live as believers. As they begin to pursue Biblical ethics for their tribe, they realize that God’s intention for polygamy_evilmarriage is that each man have only one wife, and vice versa. What does Harry do with the man who already has 6 wives? In order to follow the letter of the command, he must either divorce or kill 5 of his wives, but is that really what we want? The solution to this is, of course, complex and must be dealt with uniquely in each situation, but I use it to illustrate the fact that the world in which these laws were given was not a blank slate. It was a very chaotic, morally confused world in which men married, divorced, and killed their wives, children, and slaves based on whim and mood, human sacrifice was commonplace, and feuds between families and between nations continued until one side or the other was completely obliterated from the face of the earth. To get people to start treating each other with respect in a world like this is quite a task.

But God’s goal is not just obedience. His goal is obedience that results from a changed heart, which is one of the primary messages of the sermon on the Mount. It’s important to note that Jesus never changed God’s rules, in fact He followed the Old Testament closely. His rebellion (I’ve heard it called this, but I think teaching people that Jesus was a rebel probably does more harm than good) was against the kind of laws that teach people that as long as they behave the right way, their hearts do not matter. What Jesus was attacking was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Law was all about. This is why Jesus spit in the dirt to heal a man on the Sabbath. For those who don’t know, the Pharissees had a law that said it was legal to spit on a rock, but not on the dirt, on the Sabbath. The only possible justification I can think of for this is that, should there happen to be a seed in the ground where I spit and it grows as a result of the moisture I have placed upon it, then I have farmed on Saturday and deserve to be cast into the Lake of Fire. By spitting on this law (sorry…), Jesus points out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of such a situation. He has just healed a blind man, but the really important blind_Healingthing is where He spit… This is sort of like telling a rape convict who wants to get saved that he’s going to have to get rid of his earrings and pull his pants up. It may be that at some point he does both of those things, maybe even because he loves Jesus, but the timing is a little off.

And timing is actually pretty important. If you watch the progression of God’s revelation throughout history, it’s not all that difficult to see that He is continually calling people to a higher standard, taking the long road of character change in order to reveal what He really wanted from the beginning. This, I think, is one of the most incredible and beautiful things about God. He never compromises on the absolute standards, but He also meets us where we are at in order to bring us, by our own choice and the development of our own character, to where He wants us.

Let’s take the example of slavery. From the beginning, it was very clear that God created all men (and women) equal. Genesis 1:27 says that man and woman were both created in the image of God, and the early laws make no distinction between one man and another by way of race, ability, age, etc. God’s desire is that all human beings, as His image-bearers, be seen and treated as equally valuable. But by the time we get to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, sin is firmly in place, human nature is corrupted, and slavery is commonplace. What is God to do now? How does He rid the world of slavery?

Let me pause and remind you that God’s goal is not to rid the world of slavery. His goal is to fill the earth with men and women who will not tolerate slavery because they have learned to honor the intrinsic and inalienable value of every human life.

God could have gotten rid of slavery by sending a lightning bolt to kill everyone who owned slaves, or even by making slave-owning punishable by death. But what would have been the result? He would have achieved half His goal. Granted, people would not own slaves, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not nearly as good as people not wanting to own slaves because they respect each other. He would also have had to keep doing this, every generation, until the end of time, because people’s actual morality would never change. Effectiveness in the short term does not equal effectiveness in the long term. And God seems an awfully patient fellow when it comes to things that are really important, like the morality of the human race.

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part one

I think anyone who has ever done any serious thinking about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even read the Old Testament closely, has wondered what we do with all the crazy laws we find in the Old Testament. Which ones should we still follow? Am I going to hell if I eat pork or shellfish? What about tattoos? Should we really stone kids to death for disobeying their parents? If a man dies without having children, does his brother really have to marry his wife and have a kid with her and then give that kid his dead brother’s money?

In this, like most things that have to do with the Bible, I think it’s very important that we understand before we try to apply. Most of us jump right to wondering which of these laws we’re still supposed to follow, which is not a bad question, but it skips a few steps. I think a good place to start with this particular issue is trying to figure out the point of these laws within their original historical, cultural, and political contexts.

One of the simplest and most fundamental tenets of the study of communication is that all communication involves at least three things – a sender/speaker, a receiver/listener, and a message. If we discount any one of these three, there’s no way we’re really going to understand what is being communicated, and if we want to know what God meant when He said these things, we have to start with asking what it would have meant to the original audience. Here are a few examples of how this can drastically affect the meaning of a message:

In 2011, if I turn to the young man next to me in class and ask him if he is gay, I am asking a question about sexuality. In 1908, the same question directed to the same young man would have been a question about mood.

If I have a guest staying at my house, and I ask the question, “are you hungry?” I am asking whether or not he wants me to make him a sandwich. If I am a football coach giving an inspirational speech before a playoff game and I ask the same question, I am asking about my players’ level of desire to win the game.

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And finally, to borrow a bit from Dumb and Dumber, the statement “I’ve got worms” does not always refer to intestinal parasites – sometimes it means you’re actually in possession of a certain species of slithering animalia.

So if we want to know what a person meant by a message, we have to at least ask what that message would have meant to the original audience.

This is particularly pertinent to Old Testament laws like the ones about tattoos and boiling a baby goat in it’s mother’s milk, and even some New Testament laws like the ones that say women shouldn’t have short hair or ever talk in church. For us, a tattoo of a swastika carries a very specific, strong meaning, but before Hitler, it would not have carried that same meaning. Similarly, showing your middle finger to someone is offensive in the Thumbs-UpUnited States, but in other countries this is not so. And to insert a bit of travel advice – it is always wise to find out a country’s equivalent to our middle finger before you go there, just in case it’s something like a thumbs up or the “ok” sign. This could be especially problematic if you don’t speak the language and you’re trying to tell the guy at Starbucks that he got your order right…

But back to the laws…

Sometimes we get confused when there are cultural issues we don’t know. Tattooing in the Old Testament was used to identify a person with a pagan god. In fact, priests and priestesses would often tattoo an image of the god or goddess they served on their bodies as a sign of devotion to that god, and for the people of ancient Israel, tattooing was seen as a sign of pagan religious devotion, so saying you were getting a “Jewish tattoo” would be kind of like getting a giant picture of Satan inked on your face and claiming it’s because you love God so much.

Sometimes, we have to dig a little deeper in order to really understand what God is asking us for. More on this tomorrow…