LEVITICUS 19: HOLY LOVE
It's so important in Leviticus that we understand that holiness of God is connected to the holiness of Israel. God says in Leviticus 11, 19, 20 "Be holy for I the Lord Your God am Holy!"
What does holiness mean? For this section called "the Holiness Code," holiness is conceived in terms of how Israel treats neighbors (19:18), and even strangers (19:33-34).
If we keep these very important things in mind, the rest of what might feel random makes more sense.
Leviticus itself is not as random as you might think. The structure is a chiasm, meaning the bookends are similar (sacrifices on front end, festivals on back end that match, such as Yom Kippur; and second is the ordination of the priests, the sons of Aaron and second to last is the qualifications of the priests; in the middle sandwiching Leviticus 16, the atonement, are sections on purity laws. So what seems random has a structure of ABCDCBA.
Also, in Leviticus 19, there is a cool structure that makes what seems random, really not at all.
One of most meaningful things I’ve learned about Lev 19:1-37 is the chiastic structure of the chapter, displayed instead as parallels from the Berit Olam,
You shall keep my Sabbaths (19:3)
You shall keep my Sabbaths (19:30)
Do not turn to idols (19:4)
Do not turn to mediums or wizards (19:31)
You shall fear your God (19:14)
You shall fear your God (19:32)
You shall not render an unjust judgment (19:15)
You shall not render an unjust judgment (19:35)
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)
You shall love the alien as yourself (19:34)
You shall keep my statutes (19:19)
You shall keep all my statutes (19:37)
You see, it's not random. This kind of structure is common in Jewish literature, but we often miss it and write it off as ancient and irrelevant, but it's very relevant. How?
First, this is the chapter Jesus quotes when he adds to the Shema (Love the Lord your God) the love your neighbor command (Mark 12:28-34). This is huge. Jesus didn't make up love. He embodied love and deepened love.
Second, there is a very important text here that has been missed for centuries, and it's the parallel command to love strangers, also "as yourself." We are not called just to love neighbors, people like us, but strangers, foreigners, immigrants, people sojourning in our land. What are the implications of this for today's debates about immigration and how we are to treat immigrants in our nation and communities. They are very strong! I'll be publishing a paper about this in the summer about this third love for the stranger, and will make it as public as I can so you can see it.
OK, let's talk about some of the other elements of Leviticus 19 that also relate to loving, just, merciful treatment of others, that's connected to the nature of God, be holy for I the Lord Your God am Holy.
I enjoy getting the window seat on airplanes. What you can see from the air is amazing! I love flying over mountains and seeing the sunlight and shadows form a better 3D movie than anything on the flight. I enjoy seeing snaking rivers, cities—locating the stadium or famous landmarks like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or Statue of Liberty in New York City. From above I also enjoy seeing the patchwork quilt patterns formed by farmland. The way irrigation systems work today, often crops grow in circles, because it’s most efficient for sprinklers to roll in a circle around a fixed axis. This leaves the corners unused or less productive.
I am reminded of this aerial view of farmlands, because Leviticus 19:9 urges just the opposite of modern day irrigation circles and leaving the corners to dry up. Israel is encouraged not only to plant to the corners of their fields, but when the harvest time comes, they are instructed to leave the corners of the fields unpicked so the poor and foreigners among them can “glean” food there.
In the strange alien universe of Leviticus comes a dramatic new connection for Israel to make, unlike any other nation: worshiping the One Holy God is connected to how we love our neighbors, even if they are aliens. The whole issue in the United States and Europe about legal or illegal aliens is a moot point in Leviticus. People are not legal or illegal but are to be viewed as neighbors to love if they are living among us. “Do not oppress foreigners who live in your country. Treat them just as you would treat your own citizens. Love foreigners the same way you would love yourselves, because you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh, your God” (19:33-34).
Interesting that the concept of “gleaning” comes just before the prohibition of stealing. The command not to steal is simple: “Do not steal.” But the idea of not giving to the poor is a way of stealing what is rightfully left to them.
Even the corners of the marketplaces, places of business, were no hiding place from the ways of Yahweh. “Be fair when you judge people. And, be fair when you measure and weigh things. Your baskets for weighting should be the correct size” (19:35-36). Marketeers were great, and still are, at tricks of the eye and sleight of hand with weights and measures of flour, grains, and oils in the marketplace. There is no place God does not call us to honesty, even when doing our taxes!
“Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him” (19:13) expands from the simple prohibition, “Do not steal.” The concern is both for the person to remain honest and free from lust for other’s possessions but also free from the guilt of mistreating or defrauding a neighbor. Very practical commands about paying wages fairly and in a timely way—the day the services are provided—continue this theme of concern for the neighbor and the poor laborer.
Leviticus 19:14 mentions the cruel idea of putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person. “Instead, you must revere your God,” as if cruelty to people is a direct affront to God. But the idea of a stumbling stone is more than just a cruel joke on a blind person.
When I was a young boy, a woman went before our church to confess sins. Said she had been “a stumbling block to others.” I never knew for a long time what that meant. Many years later when teaching a Bible class in Nashville, Tennessee, I asked the class what “stumbling block” means.
One class member said our church had been a stumbling block in our treatment of outsiders, because rather than draw them to the Lord we’ve often repelled them with harsh exclusivism. Another disagreed, saying the context of this text ought to lead to our application. The context, he said, is a recounting of the law in terms of relationship and the distinction of Israel from the nations, and the nations had no regard for their neighbors or concern for them. Still further, a third person in the class, an elder of that church, said we ought to remember the mindset of the ancient world, that a person with a defect, blind or maimed or deaf, would be considered not blessed by God, even cursed. But God was giving them a radically new way to view neighbors and the poor among them.
A stumbling block is “any object that may cause someone’s downfall, whether literal (19:14) or figurative . . .” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary). Idolatry is a stumbling block in the hearts of people in Ezekiel (14:3f). In Isaiah the people stumble over God himself (Isaiah 8:14), and Simeon in Luke 2:34 says the child Jesus “is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Paul, in Romans 9:32-33, compares unbelieving Israel to those who stumbled over the “stumbling stone” because they pursued religion of works instead of Christ by faith. Paul calls Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks—in Greek the word is scandalon, an offense. He parallels this with the tendency of believers who find new freedom in Christ to flaunt this and therefore make others stumble (Harper’s Bible Dictionary).
While concern for the poor is thematic throughout Leviticus, 19:15 provides an alternate view: don’t show partiality to the poor or the rich but judge your neighbor fairly. Israel is warned about slander, again reinforcing the idea of fairness and love for neighbors. Yet the second part of Leviticus 19:16 is puzzling: what were Israelites doing to endanger their neighbors’ lives that a prohibition not to do anything that endangers life would be necessary?
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ in Tulsa, OK. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.