Holy Everything

My friend Ty issued me a challenge, which was to post some of my writing that I have done for school here on the interwebs.  I’ve been reluctant for a few reasons.  Mainly, I am reluctant because my writing for school has been deeply personal and has allowed me a forum for getting my real thoughts and feelings out of me without the public-ness of blogging or F-booking.  Because, when it really comes down to it, most of my internet friends already think me a heretic – why would I add more fuel to that fire?  However, some of what I have written I think is worth the risk, and since I have a brief moment to think about this today, I am giving it a shot.  The following is my second paper I wrote for my class on Leviticus, that oft-neglected/quoted book in the Old Testament.  The assignment was to interact with Leviticus 19 and 25 and their conception of holy living.  It would help for you to take some time and read those chapters, but this is the gist of the second half of the quarter:

Holiness encompasses everything: every action, word, and religious deed.  The Priestly writers of Leviticus go to great lengths to explain and expound upon what was enjoined on the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, “but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”[1] Leviticus 19 compels the Israelites to be holy in everyday living: eating, farming, and relating to others.  Leviticus 25 expounds upon the holy Sabbath by applying it to the land itself, thus creating a new picture for the holy Sabbath that they are compelled to observe. In short, Leviticus teaches the Israelites that nothing in life is arbitrary.  Every moment is an opportunity to practice holiness as members of the nation called to be holy as God is holy.

Leviticus 19 is considered by many scholars to be the centerpiece of the book of Leviticus, and especially so in the context of Leviticus 18-20. Mary Douglas notes that,

“Idolatry and sex are collected into the two outer, corresponding chapters – the framing sections – so as to separate and enclose the laws of chapter 19 about honest dealings and fairness.  Justice is the corner or apex of the pediment, the conspicuous place of honor.”[2]

Chapter 19 signals a specific change from ritual requirements of holiness to everyday living in 19:2, “’You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’”.[3] In a sense, all of the ritual requirements leading up to Leviticus 19 and all that follows hang on this critical chapter. 

Leviticus 19 calls Israel to observe ritual requirements (19: 3-8, 11-12, 20-22) and to live ethically in everyday living (19:9-10, 13-19, 23-36). Balentine notes that, “the list as a whole makes it clear that here, as in the framing chapters, the summons to holiness can be fulfilled only when fidelity to God is embodied with equal passion by both ethical and religious commitments.”[4] In regards to religious commitments, Leviticus 19 echoes the famous 10 Commandments, or Decalogue, but places them in a different order.  The first commandment referenced is actually the fifth commandment, which reads in Leviticus, “You shall each revere your mother and father,”[5] followed closely by the fourth commandment, “and you shall keep my Sabbaths.”[6] 

“Possibly, the fourth and fifth commandments of the Decalogue (Sabbath and parents) were chosen to head the list of prescriptions of holiness…in order to illustrate from the start that ethics (respect for parents) and ritual (Sabbath observance) are of equal importance,”[7]

especially so in that they are here inverted.

The holy ethic that Israel is called to embody in Leviticus 19 involves land (19:9-10), honest dealings with others (19:11-16) love of neighbor (19:17-18), purity of created things (19:19), planting and harvesting (19:23-25), differentiation from pagan rituals (19:26-30), respecting elders (19:32), treatment of aliens (19:33-34), and honest business practices (19:35). It should be interesting to note the humanitarian thrust of Leviticus 19:9-10 and 19:33-34.  Regarding the harvest, the Priests compel the Israelites to act out their holiness by leaving a portion for the needy and the stranger.  Milgrom notes that these verses (Lev. 19:9-10) serve as a “bridge between the two categories”[8] of religious and ethical.  He says, “not to harvest the entire crop is a religious duty; leaving the remainder for the poor is an ethical duty.”[9] This commandment pairs with the one found in 19:33-34 regarding the treatment of the stranger in the land.  Though the stranger would not naturally benefit from the rights of the Israelite, Leviticus flips that on its head and compels Israel to treat the stranger as one of their own, remembering that they were once in the same situation in Egypt.[10]

All of these hinge upon the commandment found in 19:18, “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”.  “The word love implies both attitude and act; one must not only feel love but also act in ways that translate love into concrete deeds.”[11] Therefore 19:18 is the nail on which the whole chapter, and thereby the whole book of Leviticus, hangs.  All of the ethical and religious commandments outlined here simply state, as Jesus inferred, holiness is love of God and love of neighbor. 

Leviticus 25 shifts attention to the land itself as the sanctuary of God, and implies that the land itself is holy.  “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord.”[12] Since Sabbath-keeping is a holy endeavor, it is therefore implied that the land is also holy to the Lord. “Accordingly, there is no place in the land that ordinary Israelites are not obliged to revere.  Only by constant mindfulness of the holy in its varying intensities can this people live fittingly on the land with which it is entrusted.”[13] Habel states that,

“The agricultural land over which Israel holds tenancy is to keep its Sabbaths ‘to the Lord.’ It is as if YHWH is addressing this law to the land itself, a land that is capable of responding to the way the Israelites handle it.  The life of YHWH’s own land is at stake.”[14]

That is to say, that the land’s holiness to God is contingent on how the people treat it.

In God’s new program, with Him as the landowner and Israel as tenant farmers, the land becomes the dwelling place of God, likened to the tabernacle itself.  As such, Israel is to keep seven-year and seven-times-seven year holy Sabbaths for the land.   Just as God rested from his work in the Garden, Israel is to let the land, God’s dwelling place, have rest.  They are also, by proxy, required themselves to have rest from their labor.  “Such a plan requires the whole society to be absolutely dependent on the generosity and goodwill of the landowner, trusting in the capacity of YHWH to produce an extraordinary crop in the sixth year as proof of YHWH’s miraculous powers.”[15]

Within the text (Lev. 25:13-54) is an outline describing both God’s ownership of the land and his concern for the poor and marginalized to be treated justly in accordance to living in His land.  Israel is reminded that they are “but ‘aliens’ and ‘tenants’ on the land; they are custodians of a title that only God can give.”[16] With this understanding, Israel is not to view the transfer of the land from one owner to another as a permanent deal.  The righteousness of God commands that, in the Jubilee year, everything must be set to right again.  In keeping this command, Israel acknowledges that the land is holy to God, and that their holiness depends upon their understanding of their relationship to the holy God, the “holy” land, and the holy people. 

In summary, Leviticus 19 signals a shift in attention from the ritual to the ethical nature of holiness.  These two are held in a divine tension: everyday living is as important to holiness as religious ritual.  Leviticus 25 places a new attention on life in the land, and even the land itself, as holy unto God.  In this way, Israel is commanded to understand that all of life is holy, and to imitate God’s holiness towards God, man, and creation.

[1] Exodus 19:6 (Revised Standard Version).

[2] Mary Douglas. “Justice as the Cornerstone An Interpretation of Leviticus 18–201.” Interpretation 53, no. 4 (1999) 344-345.

[3] Leviticus 19:2 (RSV)

[4] Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 160.

[5] Leviticus 19:3 (RSV).

[6] Leviticus 19:3 (RSV).

[7] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 215.

[8] Milgrom, 224.

[9] Milgrom, 224.

[10] Milgrom, 244-45.

[11] Balentine, 165.

[12] Leviticus 25:2 (RSV).

[13] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 86.

[14] Norman C. Habel, The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 102.

[15] Habel, 104.

[16] Balentine, 195.


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