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Friday, October 10, 2014

Levitical Laws, Slavery, and Sexual Prohibitions

Yesterday, I began a conversation based on a question from an atheist concerning a passage in Leviticus that seems to condone slavery. You can read the first post here, but basically he asked why Christians believe that slavery is immoral if:
  1. It has biblical support, such a Leviticus 25:44-46
  2. It is used as a model by the New Testament writers as a way to express allegiance to Christ.
In yesterday's post, I discussed how the NT writers were referring to a different type of slavery than what one might immediately come to mind, such as that practiced in the Antebellum South. I also noted that Levitical laws performed three different functions (distinguishing Israel from pagan nations, demonstrating allegiance to Yahweh, and laws governing social interactions). However, since these laws are all intertwined, a fair question would be "isn't the distinction arbitrary?" How does one know whether a law still holds for Christians, such as the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 versus the longer slavery passage just a few chapters later?


How Leviticus Applies to Christians

The short answer to the question above is simple. Christian theology teaches that none of the Levitical laws are binding on Christians today. Paul is very clear that a Christian is no longer governed by the Old Testament laws (Gal. 3:15-29, Rom. 6:12). In fact, Paul makes a big deal in Galatians that the law was something of a schoolmaster, used to teach people about their sinfulness: "Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal 3:24-25)."

Given that we are not to abide by the Levitical laws, does that mean that they are worthless to us? Here would be the longer answer. As a teacher, the Levitical laws can help illuminate certain actions that God considers sinful. For example, Leviticus 18 uses the strongest possible language when forbidding adultery (v. 20), child sacrifice (v. 21), homosexual relations (v. 21) and bestiality (v.22). Interestingly, intercourse with a menstruating woman is the only prohibition not specifically carrying its own term of condemnation.

Leviticus 18 is primarily a guide of differentiation. Verses 24through 26 state "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. 25 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." The Canaanites were using all of these practices and many times in ritual worship.1 However, designating such practices as "abomination," "defilement," and "perversion" distinguish these acts as wrong intrinsically.

When we look at Leviticus 25, though, the focus is not one of differentiation, but of dealing with laws of land ownership and how to treat the poor. Slaves fall into the second category as slavery served as a type of indentured servitude that allows the poor to survive. Since laws like reverting the land to its original owners during the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10) and providing a kinsman redeemer (Lev. 25:25) don't apply in any way to modern Christians, neither do the slave statues that immediately follow. However, the point must be made that because the slavery passage is found within the context of national dealings with the poor in a nation where all land rights have already been assigned, it shouldn't be assumed that modern concepts of slavery are in view at all.

References

1. Neill, James. The Origins and Role of Same-sex Relations in Human Societies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. Print. 96.
Photo provided by Jun and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

1 comment:

  1. I have some questions about the larger issue of Levitical laws and how they do/don’t apply, but I’ll limit it to things you’ve brought up in this and the previous post. You mention a distinction between the laws given in Leviticus: "However, designating such practices as ‘abomination,' ‘defilement,' and ‘perversion' distinguish these acts as wrong intrinsically.” How does this weigh against Deuteronomy 14:3? Just before specifying again what is clean and unclean, God says, “You shall not eat any abomination.” I suppose we could quibble about different translations, whether it’s “abomination” or “detestable,” but I believe definitions of both are equivalent.

    I’d also like to ask your reasoning behind Peter’s vision in Acts 10, in claiming all food to be clean. The literal interpretation might show this to be the case, but that doesn’t seem to be what Peter understood. In verse 17, Peter was "inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean.” Given the plain meaning, God would have been saying, “Peter, break my law.” While he’s still pondering the meaning, three gentiles come to him…our first connection, three men, three repetitions of God speaking to him in the vision.

    Peter realizes what the vision means, and says as much in verse 28: “...but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” He says nothing about food here. The vision isn’t about breaking God’s law. It’s about breaking the traditions the Jewish leadership had put in place…the same “traditions of men” that Jesus speaks of to the Pharisees.

    Peter mentions this vision again in Acts 11, when he returns to Jerusalem and answers the “circumcision party.” These are the believers who hold the view that you must adhere to the Law for salvation. In their accusation, they say, "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” He answers them by recounting his vision, saying he was to go with the three men without making distinction. After hearing him, the group conclude with this in verse 18: "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” There is no mention of food. There is no mention of the Law being done away with. There is only the falling away of tradition, that Gentiles are unclean—something the Law never says.

    There’s certainly more to be discussed about the Law and what still holds true, but I don’t think it’s best represented by the mainstream message that modern Christianity proclaims. If the Law is abolished, there are too many statements in the Bible that suddenly become false, and then there is contradiction. The Law can’t give us salvation, but I can’t set it aside as abolished and still find a harmony across all scripture. But that is a larger issue for another day.

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