26You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. 27You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD. 29Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity. 30You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD. 31Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God. 32You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. 33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. 35You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. 36You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the LORD.
What sets apart a people from other peoples? I mean, in a general sort of way, not necessarily religious or spiritual. The various answers could include: language, diet, dress, customs, familial relationships, physical appearance, histories, relationship with surrounding nations, government, philosophies, myths, their sense of the sacred, and so forth.
What set apart Israel from her surroundings? It should have been (because Israel failed in places) her obedience to the commands of the LORD, in a relationship of covenantal trust and faithfulness. Everything about Israel's difference vis-a-vis the nations that surrounded her should have been her special relationship to YHWH. Israel did not fail completely, but in time prohibitions against idolatry and other sins were ignored and the judgment of God came down on Israel as she became scattered among the nations.
When we examine the particular commands of YHWH for Israel, the commands themselves were not onerous -- an arbitrary burden to make life difficult -- but rather, the commands reminded Israel of her special standing before God, the commands brought rest and assurance, the commands showed justice and mercy, the commands enabled Israel to thrive even in a hostile environment.
For instance: Verse 26, "You shall not eat anything with its blood," seems like a slam against blood sausage (sundae) lovers but it's not. Blood shed in the sacrifice was sacred. Blood symbolized life of the sacrificial victim. Since life is sacred, blood (symbol for life) is sacred. See Leviticus 17:11, "the life of a creature is in the blood." Verse 28, "You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD." (I think we've had this discussion before more than a year ago about whether it's OK to get tattoos. If you have one, I will not suggest that you get it removed, unless the tattoo is causing some obvious problems, physical or otherwise. If you don't have one, I suggest you refrain from getting one. My opinion.) What's going on here in Leviticus? Ornamentation/ disfigurement of the body is nothing new. In fact, it's one of the most ancient of religious practices. That was the problem. The pagans that surrounded Israel commonly had their bodies lacerated or disfigured as signs of mourning to secure the attention of their deity. Or marks indicated some allegiance to their deity. Israel's God needed no displays to get His attention. A simple prayer would do. A heart turned toward Him would get His full attention. In times of crisis, prayer and fasting would be sufficient. Verse 34, "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." Israel's God was not just a temple deity. Israel's God was much more interested in how Israel lived with one another and with others outside of the covenant. Israel's God was and is a gracious and generous deity. Israel's God was full of mercy and compassion, as He is now. To treat strangers/aliens as citizens means to recognize the other's standing before God, the standing that comes from being human, as ones created in God's image. Plus, Israel had a special identification with being aliens since they were aliens in Egypt and YHWH showed mercy to alien-in-Egypt-Israel. Verses 35-36, "You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." In the ancient world, there was no bureau of weights and measures; cheating was commonplace; in fact, that's what you expected whenever grains were sold or money was exchanged. Not so for Israel! As a people called to be holy in imitation of the Holy God, Israel was called to live up to higher standards. Honesty was the baseline for human relationships, including economic relationships. When honesty prevails, we might even argue, the whole community benefits. Cheating always costs someone something.
A brief look at some of these commands for Israel should remind us as NT believers that God's commands, directives, and principles -- God's word -- are just as beneficial, life-affirming, recipes-for-thriving, and shalom-filled as they were for Israel; but only more so because of Jesus and the reality of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Furthermore and finally, as Israel's distinctiveness had everything to do with her relationship to YHWH, let us be challenged and encouraged to remain faithful to our own covenantal promises to our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us live in deep faithfulness to Him as He is always faithful to us.
Let's pray: Father God, we thank you that your word is the word of life and a lamp unto our feet (Psalm 119:105). Help us to love you by keeping your commands (John 14:15). Help us to know that your intentions for us are always good, always for our thriving. May your presence be with us in a strong way today. In Jesus' name, amen.