Learning to Love Leviticus
Perhaps the fact that it is catalogued under "Humor and Entertainment" should tell us how to rightly appreciate A. J. Jacobs's best-selling 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In the course of a fascinating year, Jacobs tries to obey literally the 700-plus commands he finds in the Bible—including stoning an adulterer, offering an animal sacrifice, and upholding all the jots and tittles of the Old Testament law. Clearly, taking the Bible literally does not always mean taking it seriously.
More recently, Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans undertook her own experiment in "living biblically" by following for a year all the Bible's passages about women's behavior. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is Evans's subversive way of revealing that no one—not even the most conservative Christian—takes the whole Bible literally, and that to do so is both impossible and silly.
Both books, while unfortunately mocking in their own ways, nonetheless underscore some persistent misunderstandings about the Bible:
How the Bible has come to us. Scripture is placed within the context of ancient cultures in the Middle East. It comes dressed in all the particularities of history and geography, which God took seriously when he spoke to us through various people who lived in them. To treat all of Scripture as if it were written directly into today's world is to imagine that God himself thought the world would never change and that we could just keep on obeying all the rules. That is absurd, as we shall see.
How laws function in society, then and now. Sometimes laws are like statutes—expressed in general principles. Sometimes they are cases or precedents from which judges draw principles that can be applied to different situations. Sometimes laws reflect a whole culture's way of thinking about life.
The Old Testament laws are like all of these. They exemplify how God wanted certain kinds of situations to be handled. They embody values and objectives, on the assumption that people would understand how to extrapolate from a particular case to a general principle and apply that to new situations. So to take all of the Old Testament laws at face value is to misunderstand their original intent in the first place.
How commands can function in relationships and communication. If I hear someone on the street shout, "Freeze! Put your hands behind your head!" I need to know two things. First, who is shouting? If it's a police officer—someone whose authorized command I need to submit to—then yes. Second, is he addressing me? Likely the answer is no. It's addressed to the guy who just robbed a street vendor and is running away. So the command has authority because of who gave it, but it is not addressed to me in that moment. It claims my respect—I should not break the law in that way either—but it does not claim my compliance.
Next time you come to London, ask your taxi driver if he is obeying the law. Doubtless he'll answer, "Yes, Guv."
Then ask him, in that case, where his bale of hay and bag of oats are located. Remind him of the English law, never repealed, that requires London-licensed hackney cabs to carry those items for the horses that originally pulled them. Clearly he stands accused of not literally obeying the law. But he will probably retort, "You can't be serious." We all understand that an ancient law passed in the days of horse-drawn transport no longer applies to vehicles with engines. Mind you, it does embody a principle about how to care for a working animal, and that remains relevant—we'll come back to that.