How Yhwh Talks to the Elephant in Leviticus

Be Holy

The thesis statement of the book of Leviticus is found in chapter 19:

“Be holy, because I the LORD your God am holy.”

If you were to drop this command onto a common Californian living in 2014  questions would immediately arise.

  • Why should I be holy? (Motivation)
  • What do you mean by holy? (Interpretive in a pluralistic context)
  • Who are you talking to? Me as an individual or a group? (Identity)

If I were then to give them the book of Leviticus, the conversation would probably stop or get stranger still. If they would open the book they’d see that the book starts out in chapter 1-7 to the laity and the priests on what sacrifices to offer and how to offer them. This for most would be a non-starter.

Sacrifices, blood or vegetable are not a part of our culture and many of us have strong moral questions about the whole idea.

Last week we saw that at first glance Leviticus looks to many of us as embarrassing, strange or offensive. I wanted to make the point, however, that it may not be as far away from us as we would first imagine. Beginning the exploration with the subject of sacrifices doesn’t seem to help.

How Do You Understand Holiness? 

At first glance, especially among friends who are a little reactive to Christianity and its history in the world, the word itself “Holy” will bring in images of self-righteousness and a “holier than thou” attitude.

When combined with the book of Leviticus whose reputation in our culture is often one of senseless and arbitrary rules that discriminate or harm people, you may have or get from a friend a very strong reaction.

That’s understandable. Holiness is often about a sort of separation. When the separation is combined with a self-righteous, superior attitude we naturally and instinctively interpret it as rejection and our reaction is to reject back.

Chic Holiness in our Conflictive Cultural Conversation

50 years ago if you suggested to someone that the state of California would pass a ballot referendum attempting to govern the emotional well-being of chickens they would have thought you were nuts, but that is exactly what we’ve done, and some believe the real purpose of the law is to set a precedent about the emotional well-being of other livestock.

If someone tells you that they only eat eggs from free range chickens, or they don’t eat meat at all, that decisions is all about holiness. Ask they why they don’t eat meat. There will likely be a range of answers.

  • Farms are cruel to animals
  • I don’t support taking the life of animals for human consumption
  • Raising animals for slaughter is ecologically costly in terms of acreage devoted for feed, water usage, methane and use if antibiotics and growth hormones
  • Meat eating us unsustainable in terms of world population
  • Meat eating can raise cholesterol

There are “texts” in the form of books or documentaries like Food Inc that promote positions on these matters. People who may not consider themselves “religious” in any way find these practices a part of their “spiritual” portfolio.

For a rationale and justification they may appeal to

  • Medical and nutritional science
  • Ancient texts of other religions that aren’t popular or terribly common here
  • Modern leaders or activists who are promoting these ideas

It isn’t just about food. Someone may buy their clothing at a thrift shop, it may be about driving a Prius rather than a Suburban, it probably impacts which party they vote for.

Holiness and Morality

Since holiness is all about conduct that someone sees as being right or wrong ideas about holiness and ideas about morality usually come together.

By reputation you would imagine that if you enter a prison you would find a population of people who would do anything to anyone as long as it serves their immediate self-interest. There certainly is that aspect to those who are serving time but if you’d sit down and talk to people you’d learn that many people there would have a code of conduct that they live by, that they are proud of, and that they use to distinguish themselves from others.

  • “I may have done this crime but I’m not the kind of person who would hurt a child…”
  • “I’m not like those other people over there that so _______ and _______”

What you would be hearing would be their interpreted code of holiness. This is how they express their identity, their morality and their worldview. In their code robbing a 7/11 may be a different type of wrong than molesting a child. Sure, they may have killed someone, but they wouldn’t wrong their family like those other people do.

Holiness is not a strange thing for human beings. Ideas of holiness permeate our relational world and our moral lives.

Holiness and Behavior

While people across the political and cultural spectrum have their own implicit systems of holiness, we also find that people are notoriously unfaithful even to the ideas of holiness they hold so dear. It may come through it their inability to abide by the rules they set upon themselves, or it may leak through in rampant self-righteousness or both.

Someone may say to me “Pastor, I want to love and honor God so I’m going to…” as they run down a list of behaviors that they believe honor God and live according to his ways. It won’t be any time at all, however, that they will violate their own rules, even if only they themselves imposed them on themselves. We are all like this, we some of us are just better at covering them up and making excuses about them than others.

Jonathan Haidt tells the story of a psychological experiment designed to test how people’s expressed moral framework correlates with their actual behavior.

The simplest way to cultivate a reputation for being fair is to really be fair, but life and psychology experiments sometimes force us to choose between appearance and reality. Dan Batson at the University of Kansas devised a clever way to make people choose, and his findings are not pretty. He brought students into his lab one at a time to take part in what they thought was a study of how unequal rewards affect teamwork.7 The procedure was explained: One member of each team of two will be rewarded for correct responses to questions with a raffle ticket that could win a valuable prize. The other member will receive nothing. Subjects were also told that an additional part of the experiment concerned the effects of control: You, the subject, will decide which of you is rewarded, which of you is not. Your partner is already here, in another room, and the two of you will not meet. Your partner will be told that the decision was made by chance. You can make the decision in any way you like. Oh, and here is a coin: Most people in this study seem to think that flipping the coin is the fairest way to make the decision.

Subjects were then left alone to choose. About half of them used the coin. Batson knows this because the coin was wrapped in a plastic bag, and half the bags were ripped open. Of those who did not flip the coin, 90 percent chose the positive task for themselves. For those who did flip the coin, the laws of probability were suspended and 90 percent of them chose the positive task for themselves. Batson had given all the subjects a variety of questionnaires about morality weeks earlier (the subjects were students in psychology classes), so he was able to check how various measures of moral personality predicted behavior. His finding: People who reported being most concerned about caring for others and about issues of social responsibility were more likely to open the bag, but they were not more likely to give the other person the positive task. In other words, people who think they are particularly moral are in fact more likely to “do the right thing” and flip the coin, but when the coin flip comes out against them, they find a way to ignore it and follow their own self-interest. Batson called this tendency to value the appearance of morality over the reality “moral hypocrisy.”

Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 62). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

The Split-Self

Why are we like this?

Again I’ll reference Haidt’s image of an elephant and a rider. The rider says “I want to please God, be a moral person, do right by my fellow man and so I will…” but the elephant underneath is making their own cost-benefit evaluation and in many cases, especially when no one is looking do what pleases it. The rider, seeing that the elephant has done exactly what the rider has said he wouldn’t do, then makes up justifications and excuses for their behavior. This is how we work.

The Apostle Paul talks about this dynamic in himself.

Romans 7:18–19 (NET)

18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!

In Paul’s mind the elephant is “the flesh” and the rider is his conscious, reasonable self trying to restrain the elephant.

Most of the time we try to combat this by talking to the rider in all of us. We reason with the rider, tell the rider what they should and shouldn’t do and if there’s alignment and compliance the rider will agree, but this doesn’t really address the issue because elephant still remains. How do we talk to the elephant?

If God wants to make us holy how does HE talk to the elephant?

The Elephant Isn’t Dumb

Now you might imagine that the elephant we’re talking about is stupid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your inner elephant is brilliant. It automatically manages multiple layers of your self at once, biological, cultural, relational, doing much of this work without your conscious awareness of it or agreement with it for the most part doing so for the sake of your crass self-interest.

You know how it is said an elephant never forgets? Well neither does your elephant. It remembers all the good and bad things that have been done to you or that you have experienced and it is constantly moving towards what it has experienced as being good. You elephant is the embodiment of the idea of “my well-being at nearly any cost” and it is ruthless in its pursuit.

In the story of the Bible that we’ve been working through we’ve seen the lengths to which God has gone to get Israel out of Egypt. While we might be impressed by the miracles and the displays of power in defeating Pharaoh God’s next step in our redemption, elephant and rider both is far harder still. As the hold saying goes, first you get Israel out of Egypt, but now you’ve got to get Egypt out of Israel, and all the elephants under the surface have been strongly conditioned to Egypt.

The riders in the people of Israel at Sinai will boldly declare “we will do all that Yhwh commands us to” but with Moses gone just a short time the elephants within them will quickly build golden calves in order to “make life work” according to the ruthlessly efficient ways that the elephants have always used to “make life work”.

God is going to have to use both strong and subtle means to speak to the elephant.

Elephants Interpret Culture

Americans like to imagine that we are free individuals who march to the beat of our own individual drums. We are naive. Even in that sentence that you probably agree with is the truth that we are all thinking we are beating our own drums but that idea itself is following the communal drum.

Human beings are the most sophisticated social beings that we know of. We are enormously impacted by the people around us and our opportunities and abilities are in most cases determined by where we are in these communal structures.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an accomplished African American writer for “The Atlantic” wrote an article on his experience going to French camp for the summer. What he experienced was that if you interpret the exercise as a competition for mastery of the French language, the cultural equipment that he was given growing up couldn’t compare to what others have. We may say “all men/women are created equal” but some upbringings equip us to thrive or fail in radically unequal ways.

Culture and communal systems beat individual ambition almost every time.

Bring in your Goat For the Sacrifice Next Week

Now if you to a church that holds the Bible in high regard you are already at an advantage because you have decided to discover and pursue holiness in the context of a community. Just sitting home by yourself and deciding “I’m going to do this” won’t be anywhere near as effective as doing it with a group of people.

We’ve know this about a lot of things in the past, achieving sobriety, losing weight, having a good time. Community speaks to the elephant in ways the rider cannot.

Now if I say to you “we’re going to learn from the Bible how to obey ‘be holy because I the LORD your God am holy” and you hold the Bible in high regard, you’ll say “OK Pastor, let’s have it.

What if I then said this to you:

Leviticus 1:3–9 (NET)

3 “ ‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd he must present it as a flawless male; he must present it at the entrance of the Meeting Tent for its acceptance before the Lord. 4 He must lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. 5 Then the one presenting the offering must slaughter the bull before the Lord, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, must present the blood and splash the blood against the sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent. 6 Next, the one presenting the offering must skin the burnt offering and cut it into parts, 7 and the sons of Aaron, the priest, must put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then the sons of Aaron, the priests, must arrange the parts with the head and the suet on the wood that is in the fire on the altar.9 Finally, the one presenting the offering must wash its entrails and its legs in water and the priest must offer all of it up in smoke on the altar—it is a burnt offering, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord.

There is zero chance that next week we’d construct a tabernacle, find descendants of Aaron, bring, kill and slaughter a bull and sprinkle the blood all over the place.

Sunday School in the Slaughter House

When I was in seminary we were given the assignment in our church education course to write a children’s Sunday School lesson out of the Old Testament. One seminarian decided to use this passage and decided that for his Sunday School lesson he would take the children on a field trip to a slaughter house in their community to watch cows be killed, dismembered and packaged for our consumption.

The teacher looked at the student like he had three heads.

“Do you actually imagine that the parents of your church will let you do this? How do you imagine these suburban children will respond to the killing and dismemberment of a large animal before their eyes? Do you think in the context of their upbringing they will be able to derive any spiritual significance from that? Do you imagine you’ll have a job anymore with that church?”

I understand what that seminarian wanted to do. While the seminary teacher was right in his challenges, the seminarian had a sense of how to talk to the elephant. At the same time, however, the cultural context of suburban children witnessing for the first time the killing and slaughter of a cow would be very different from ancient Hebrew children who would have been accustomed to living with animals, raising them and killing them for food.

God Talks To the Elephant in Leviticus

God talks to the elephant in the book of Leviticus.

  • He talks to a community because the elephant really only learns in community
  • He talks through rituals and symbols in order to instill communal values because the elephant majors in rituals and symbols.
  • He talks in terms pertinent to Israelites in the Ancient Near East, in terms they can understand, because those would be the terms of their elephants. We will have to do a fair amount of cultural translation to see what he has to say to us.

 Jacob Milgrom is probably the world’s best scholar on understanding the cultural context of the book of Leviticus. He was a Jewish scholar who taught for years at Berkeley. He devoted his life’s work to trying to understand the book in its cultural context. This is what he discovered.

Values are what Leviticus is all about. They pervade every chapter and almost every verse. Many may be surprised to read this, since the dominant view of Leviticus is that it consists only of rituals, such as sacrifices and impurities. This, too, is true: Leviticus does discuss rituals. However, underlying the rituals, the careful reader will find an intricate web of values that purports to model how we should relate to God and to one another.

Anthropology has taught us that when a society wishes to express and preserve its basic values, it ensconces them in rituals. How logical! Words fall from our lips like the dead leaves of autumn, but rituals endure with repetition. They are visual and participatory. They embed themselves in memory at a young age, reinforced with each enactment.

Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (p. 1). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

 Table and Altar are One

We’ll have to spend more time in upcoming weeks talking about the why and the how of many things in the book of Leviticus, but I just want to tease you with one small observation when it comes to food and sacrifices.

Jacob Milgrom made this observation early on in his research on the book.

Thus, when I started to research Leviticus, I found myself on the ground floor. Early on I discovered that rituals are meaningless in themselves. Only when seen as a set of symbols do their inherent values come to light. I shall cite an example from the same dietary laws. Quadrupeds that qualify for the table must chew the cud and show split hoofs (11:3*). These criteria sound absurd. But consider: they effectively eliminate the entire animal kingdom from human consumption, except for three domestic herbivores: cattle, sheep, and goats. Moreover, these are the same three animals permitted on the sacrificial altar (17:3*). The implications are clear. All life is sacred and inviolable. Only these three stipulated quadrupeds are eligible for the human table because they are eligible for God’s altar/table. The dining table symbolically becomes an altar, and all the diners are symbolically priests. (In Judaism, the equivalence of table and altar is carried further: just as the priest must wash [Exod 30:17–21*] and salt the meat before offering the sacrifice [Lev 2:13*], so must the diners ritually wash their hands and salt the table’s bread, which represents the sacrifice.) Above all, the table is transformed into a sacred altar and the meal must be treated as sacred—a time for thanking God for the repast (cf. Lev 7:11–13*), requesting a blessing for the future (Num 6:22–26*), and engaging in conversation befitting the sanctified meal.

Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (p. xii). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Jesus Speaks to the Elephant

We’ll continue to work this as we work the book of Leviticus but for now we can see where table and altar come together.

Hebrews 10:1–4 (NET)

1 For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship.2 For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. 4 For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins.

If you thought that a blood sacrifice would speak to the elephant, what about seeing a friend offer himself up on your behalf. In Jesus the altar becomes the table and the table becomes a time of thankfulness for God’s provision for us, a request of blessing for the future and the process by which we become holy, like Jesus was holy.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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