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…

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