Part three already, and I appear to have worked my way through all of Leviticus in one week. Before I get to that, however, I wanted to have a brief look at the etymology of the Bible books covered so far. I have always been very interested in the origins of words, so while the books of the Old Testament have been floating around in my head for decades (I had to learn them by rote as a child), I never really thought about what they meant.
So we start with Genesis. Everyone of course knows this as the creation bit, and you can talk about something having it’s genesis somewhere or at some time, but where it comes from is the Greek γένεσις, meaning origin. Similarly, Exodus comes from the Greek ἔξοδος, meaning ‘going out’. These days, exodus in its most generic sense of course means a mass exit from something. The third book, Leviticus, also comes from Greek (Λευιτικός), which means ‘relating to the Levites’. The Levites are the priest class among the Israelites, and their origins are described in Leviticus.
The fourth book, Numbers, relates to the two counts of the Israelite people described in this book. It is also the first book where the Dutch name is different: in Dutch this book is called by its Latin name, Numeri, though that of course just means ‘numbers’.
Anyway, back to Exodus, where the Israelite people are now wandering through the desert, complaining that they were much better off in Egypt, and wishing they’d never left. God, meanwhile, tells them all the things they’re not allowed to do, through Moses. And I’m not just talking the Ten Commandments here. I have no idea why everyone only ever mentions those, because it really should be the Five Hundred Or So Commandments.
Take Exodus 21, for instance. This covers the rules regarding the life of another. The whole ‘thou shalt not kill’ thing. Except there’s nuances in that. Verse 20 and 21 state that when someone beats his slave with a stick and the slave dies, they shall be avenged (the slave, that is). However, if the slave remains alive for a day or two there will not be any avenging, because hey, it’s your own money. So killing a slave outright is bad, but killing him slowly is absolutely fine.
Exodus 22 – If you kill a burglar at night there are no consequences, but if you kill him after the sun has come up, you have to pay a blood price. Is this so you don’t accidentally kill the milkman?
Exodus 23 contains my personal favourite: Among all the commandments in this whole Bible book telling you how to treat your neighbour, and how to resolve disputes, you are commanded here not to boil a kid (as in a baby goat) in the milk of its own mother. Well damn, milk-boiled baby goat is my favourite dish, and it just doesn’t taste the same if the milk wasn’t its mother’s!
And then things get really boring. Exodus 25 to 29 describe in excruciating detail how to build the Tabernacle, what materials it should be made of, how long and wide all the bits should be, what the Ark of the Covenant should look like, how much gold it should be covered with, etc. etc. etc. It also describes in the same detail what priestly vestments should be made, how, for whom, what with, and so on and so forth. What doesn’t help is that the measurements used are sickle, gera and hin, which tell me nothing whatsoever, so I can’t even put a vague picture in my head of what ridiculous amounts of silver, gold and copper go into making this tent for God to live in (which is what the Tabernacle is, for those of you who don’t know).
Things momentarily get interesting again when the Israelites first prove that they are idiots, through the Golden Calf incident. Bear in mind that they have a God who struck Egypt with ten plagues, who parted the sea before their leader and drowned their enemies, who makes it rain food from the sky every day, who gives them meat when they whine about not having any, who travels before them in a cloud column by day and a fire column by night, and fuck knows how many other things I’ve forgotten. If there was a God here today who did the same things, then fuck, I’d probably believe in him, and I’m a veteran atheist. But no, Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God, things get a little too cosy so he stays away for forty days, and the Israelites are all ‘Wah, where is God? Where is Moses? We need to worship something, wah! Make us a Golden Calf to worship, even though God has specifically forbidden us to worship anything but him! You know, the God who has been smiting our enemies left, right and centre!’
So, God gets angry (and frankly, I would be pissed off too), and condemns them all to die in the desert. Only their children shall go into the Promised Land. Go, God! Oh, and he also commands the Levites (the designated priests) to kill about 3000 of their fellow Israelites, to bring a blessing upon them. Riiight.
And then we’re back to boring stuff, because now the (contrite) Israelites go about building the Tabernacle, and making the priestly vestments, exactly according to God’s decree. And to make sure we remember them, they are repeated exactly as they were described before. Argh! Oh, and once everything’s been built, they have to sacrifice two lambs per day. One in the morning and one in the evening. Apart from the collossal waste, all I can say is that the place must have stunk, because this is a burnt offering (or whatever you call it in English), which means the whole thing must be burnt. There are about three other types of sacrifices, some of which allow for the priests to eat part of the meat, but not with this one.
And so ends Exodus, 40 chapters in total. Onwards to Leviticus! As the name suggests, this partly deals with the Levites, but in the main it covers more rules and regulations for the Israelites to adhere to. The Levites themselves are the descendants of Levi, Jacob’s third son, and God has chosen them out of the twelve other tribes to do his priestly duties. I couldn’t really see an explanation as to why they were chosen, rather than any of the other tribes, but it may be because Moses and his brother Aaron were both Levites, and Aaron becomes the first High Priest. Later on we learn that because of this the Levites are not granted any land, but there are still twelve tribes to take up the land, because Joseph’s tribe has been split into the tribes of Manasse and Ephraim, his sons.
Anyway, to pick a few things that stood out to me, first you get the descriptions of the various kinds of sacrifice and how they should be executed (ha, see what I did there?). Here is also the explanation of which things are fine to eat and which are an abomination unto God. From here stems the whole thing about not eating blood (for the soul is in the blood) or pigs.
Sacrifice appears to be capable of absolving any sins, so I really have to wonder how much cattle was wasted on a daily basis just to make up for what people did wrong. Also, since some types of sacrifice allow for the priests to eat part of it (they are pretty much commanded to do so), I’m guessing they must have been pretty podgy. Or maybe all the Israelites were clean of heart and deed and only had to sacrifice those two lambs per day, you never know.
Leviticus 13 talks about leprosy. Apparently you are unclean while only parts of your body are affected, but once your entirely leprosified you are clean again. Don’t know how that works. Also, clothes and leather can have leprosy too.
Sex makes you unclean. If you have sex, you are unclean until the evening. Then you must wash, and after sundown you are clean again. Guess that meant no morning sex for anyone.
Leviticus 16 covers the Day of Atonement, which involves casting two lots; one for the Lord and one for Azazel. And the Bible does this a lot – it suddenly mentions a random name, without ever explaining who this person is, but it just expects you to know who they are, and what significance they have in the grand scheme of things. I have no idea who Azazel is (first mention of the Devil?) and I haven’t seen him mentioned again since.
(There is also a lot of ‘this thing happened here, and that’s why they called the place such-and-such’, or ‘they went to this place, which is also called that place’. No further explanation, but it always makes me wonder what those names mean, literally.)
Leviticus 18 is especially interesting, because it forbids things like having sex with your sister (like what Abraham did) or your aunt (which I’m sure someone else did, though who it was escapes me). At least I presume they mean having sex, because it just says that you shall not ‘uncover their shame’. Kinda poetic, really.
Leviticus 18 is also the bit that forbids gay sex, because it is an abomination unto God. But so is eating pigs, and I’ve yet to see fundamentalist Christians get up in arms about that. No more ham! Ban the abomination!
The rest is all just rules and regulations about what to do and how to do it. Nothing really interesting. Leviticus ends with chapter 27, and then we’re onto Numbers.
Numbers 1 starts with the counting of the tribes of Israel. The full count was, apparently, 603,500. This only counts the important people, of course, so only men above a certain age. This is also quite boring, because it’s all ‘The tribe of Ruben was this many people, and Ruben’s sons were these three guys, and these were the sons of the first guy, and these were the sons of the second guy, and this was the leader of the Rubenite tribe’ etc. And that covers the first few chapters.
I’ll pick up next week with Numbers 6.