In our journey through Leviticus we have highlighted a number of issues that those on the skeptical side of our culture take issue with.
- God doesn’t want Israel to eat shell fish or bacon
- God’s ideas about purity make women leave the community during menstruation
- People must be separated even for non-infectious skin diseases
- God kills the sons of Aaron for a procedural mishap.
- God gives rules about sex, some of which contemporary people find unjust or unfair
So much of the book of Leviticus will confuse, challenge or offend those who are on the cultural left as understood by Jonathan Haidt. The cultural right, may find the book anachronistic but not be insulted by ideas of purity and loyalty. They may easily mentally understand cultural distance and the need to translate ideas and concepts from one time to another and thus simply quietly passing over Leviticus as inoffensive but perhaps somewhat outdated because of Jesus and the new covenant.
What we discover in Leviticus 26 may become a challenge for them too.
“I could no longer tolerate the let downs”
While many may walk away from the Christian faith from the Western cultural left for by judging the morality of the God they find in the Bible, I think many others walk away from the cultural Right for far more practical reasons. Here is a man who says his de-conversion happened over a 10 year period in full-time Christian ministry.
In the last ten years I began to see that no matter how much faith or belief I had God was and did not work. Oh I thought he did. I pretended he did. I duped myself in to believing on some level that he was really there for me. In that time a dear friend who de-converted in 1999 asked me this question: “Steve, what has Jesus really done for you this week, this month, this year?” I came up empty. All the trite answers I could give him were just fluff… stuff I had really stopped believe after many, many disappointments with God.
I wasn’t really looking to leave. I just kept searching for reasons why God was not answering my prayers and helping us. So I left because I could not believe it any more. I could no longer tolerate the let downs.
Blessings and Curses in Leviticus
While this list of blessings and curses may seem strange to us, Bible scholars across the spectrum will quickly note that passages like these were common in similar ancient covenant texts between Gods and people or emperors and people. At the end of the agreement the documents stipulate how fulfilling the agreement will bring good things but violating it will bring bad things.
Parents do this with children too of course. “If you do what I say things will go well. If you disobey me you’re not going to like the consequences.”
While I read a lot written by skeptics and atheists my experience is that MOST people I meet outside of my Christian community are religious to one degree or another. While a lot has been written about the rise of the “nones”, those who don’t identify or practice any religion in particular MOST of them are not atheists or even agnostics. Most of them believe in God, or some sort of God or spirit and might consider themselves “spiritual”. Most of the people I talk to who don’t identify with Christianity will talk about “spirit” or “the guy upstairs” and often express some general sense of moral judgment. Many will simply align with moralistic, therapeutic deism. I call this “common religion”.
This idea is also common in Christian circles. We naturally do it. We who are more actively religious will tend to bank on it more than those who are not. We will tend to pray more, give more, volunteer more, study more, and all that religious activity will tend to raise our estimations of our worth in the eyes of God and raise our expectations about the kinds of protection and insurance God will offer us. When God doesn’t come through according to our expectations, we experience doubt and disappointment and may decide that continuing to invest our time, money and effort in this religious project is a waste of time. Leviticus 26 seems to invite us into this kind of dynamic.
Assumptions Behind our Plain Reading of the Bible
Caught in this dilemma we might begin to wonder whether we’ve got all of the pieces right. People like myself who are trained in Bible reading and religion will offer a number ideas that might expose the fact that even though we saw ourselves as just picking up the Bible and reading what it said, that there were a number of assumptions behind our reading that we weren’t aware of.
- The text was written to Israel. How should our religious and cultural context understand it or you and I as an individual for that matter?
- The text nicely outlines the history of Israel from establishment to exile as seen by Old Testament prophets.
- New Testament believers saw Christ as the fruition of the return to God as seen in the last verses of the text.
- Many Christians scholars see Jesus as the recipient of the curses and us as the beneficiaries.
While these points help resolve some of the problems on some levels other issues open up
- If Jesus received the curses why don’t we simply receive all the blessings all the time?
- There are lots of other passages that seem to cut against a plain reading of this passage
- God undercuts this moralistic and simplistic approach to reading God through circumstances in the book of Job
- Israel had already shown its capacity for rebellion at Sinai with the Golden Calf incident. They seem like a bad bet offering them a conditional covenant. They shouldn’t have the moral credit score sufficient to qualify for this agreement
- Skeptics will account for the lack of data to support the idea that moralism, karma or religious loyalty “works” in terms of outcomes thus making this passage just one more example of the assertion that religious is nothing more than dressed up superstition. Morality may work at a biological level (not eating bad foods, having risky sex,) or a sociological and psychological level (doing or saying stupid things to dangerous or powerful people or groups, etc)
Maybe the passage should just be dismissed as cultural decoration just like the archaic and perfunctory “so help me God” at the end of civil oaths today.
The Truth Beneath Those who Abandon Religion Because It Doesn’t Work
Many on the right and left who leave the faith may not regret the overall cost-benefit analysis they’ve made yet they often have a sense of loss and nostalgia over what they’ve given up. The guy I linked to above didn’t know how to tell his kids.
What strikes me is that it isn’t that they simply give up something that doesn’t work, but that they don’t really exchange it for something that does in the same way. There is no longer a god that has their back so nothing has their back. They are on their own. Pascal and others might suggest that this is a bad exchange. Why not at least hold out some hope. Most don’t simply become immoral people when they walk away from the faith. Many people retain faith without doing much, why not simply join the nominal?
What I hear often in people when they leave the faith is a sense of relational betrayal. They don’t just feel disenchanted or a little foolish for buying into a superstition, they feel betrayed or angry at a god they now declare they don’t believe in. The world isn’t simply empty, it’s hollow now for them. They are not simply alone, they feel abandoned. They don’t simply move on, they are disappointed in a way that adults usually don’t feel about Santa Claus.
Why We Need This Conditionality
While the spiritual wish to embrace the blessings and ignore the curses I think there are good reasons that these texts survive and that we are emotionally drawn to reading them on a flat or plain level regardless of the exegetical complexities.
These Texts Speak To Us of Justice and Love
- We have a deep need to see justice in the universe. We need to know that right will be rewarded and those who are victims of injustice will one day receive justice.
- We need to know that God is paying attention. We need to know that evil will not simply be overlooked and that the wrongs done in secret will be addressed.
- We need to know that God wants the best for us even when we don’t act in our larger self-interest. These texts are framed in a very parental way, that God knows best and we are silly, foolish, and rebellious children sometimes. We all understand at a deep level that a negligent parent is finally worse than a strict one and that abandonment is more opposite of love than punishment.
- We need to know that God has our back and will make good when we strive to do what is right. We need to know that the universe isn’t simply chaos down to the bottom and that goodness and justice done in history will not be simply lost to the decay of time.
- Any relationship will have the tension of conditionality within it. Relationships are made up of a narrative of dynamic exchanges of approval or disappointment. You can’t have a full relationship with a chair. Within this dynamic a good and loving God will continue to train us, mold us, and shape us to conform to his desire as our desires are shaped.
Why We Can’t Handle This Conditionality
While part of us loves and needs this conditionality another part of us fears and dreads it.
- We like Israel don’t have the moral credit score sufficient even to firmly keep our own expectations or right and wrong. We are biased and duplicitous, condemning others for things we ourselves fail to keep.
- If you combine our reading of circumstance with our own self-serving biases we regularly line up with Job’s friends who are quick to condemn their friend who is in misery while blithely congratulating their own moral performance if their circumstance is favorable.
- Israel’s story of failure is our story of failure.
So Where Does this Leave us?
The tension between passages like this and the message of Job and Jesus pulls us back from simplisticly using circumstance to constantly evaluate our relationship with God by good or bad circumstance. We can’t simply dismiss evaluation but neither can we fully embrace it. Beneath our evaluation is always the knowledge that God is not a negligent parent and that in good times and hard God will be with us.
We need to face our inability to “win” by virtue of our moral performance. This should be obvious to us even in our face to face relationships with each other. Our moral credit score is always insufficient.
The structure of Leviticus 26 with the progressive level of curses, which is what we also saw in Leviticus 25 with respect to debt, shows that finally in the end God is for us.
In Leviticus 25 the debtor sinks deeper and deeper in debt until they finally wind up in exile, again as a slave to the foreign power. The debtor can only be rescued by the action of God for his release.
Similarly the rebellious in Leviticus 26 sinks further and further in their rebellion as one misery upon another consumes him. Finally, we see the beaten down rebel relent and humble himself as he is restored.
It is this deliverance that we see in the cross and resurrection. In the cross the debtor goes free. In the resurrection the beaten to death by the just or the unjust are raised. Jesus finally is the culmination of Leviticus 26 in justice, pursuit and restoration.
You might rightly look at all of the competing and contradictory ideas and as is the fashion today embrace a skeptical stance. “So you’re saying God approaches us with conditionality and unconditionality? How can I work with this contradiction?”
The way through the contradiction is to embrace our powerlessness, trust in his deliverance, and live out gratitude. The beauty of gratitude is that it embraces the spirit of the alignment with the will of God without ugly instrumentation. We get to play the benefactor just as God does, which has always been the goal of creation.
We may be skeptical but the joy of gratitude can make it look like a waste of time.