The Least Popular Book in the Bible – Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18
Thomas J Parlette
“The least popular book in the Bible”
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18
I was at a lunch group with some of the other area Presbyterian ministers this week, and as always, we got around to the topic of what we were planning to preach on this coming Sunday. The overwhelmingly popular choice was the passage from Matthew – not surprising, the Gospel text usually wins out. A couple were planning to preach from Thessalonians and one was picking the Psalm. It got around to me and I said I was planning to preach from Leviticus. And there was a moment of silence. Finally someone asked, “Why?”
Why indeed, you might ask. I would venture to say that Leviticus is probably the most unpopular book in the Bible. In our three year lectionary cycle, this is the only passage from Leviticus that is included, and even so, it’s only an optional text – not even the first choice.
Samuel Balentine, a scholar who has written a commentary on Leviticus tells the story about how he went to a large book store in Richmond Virginia to buy a copy of another commentary on Leviticus written by a distinguished colleague that was part of a well known series on all the books of the Bible. But when he located the shelf – every other book of the Bible was represented, but not Leviticus. So he asked the clerk if they had a copy in the back room somewhere. The clerk checked the computer and said that the Leviticus volume had been bought 8 years ago and no one had ever asked for another copy. So the store never bothered to re-stock it(1). Eight years, and no interest at all. It’s lonely being the least popular book in the Bible.
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why Leviticus is so unpopular. It’s filled with all sorts of rules and regulations that are outdated in our modern world. It’s chapter after chapter of what to eat and what not to eat – what to wear and what not wear – and how to properly offer various sacrifices to the Lord. On the surface there would seem to be very little of spiritual value that we can find in the book of Leviticus. So it has been largely ignored in Christianity.
Yet, despite its lack of popularity in Christian circles, the book of Leviticus is considered by many to be the very center of the Torah. David Stewart writes, “Arguably, Leviticus is the most important book in the Hebrew Bible – it is the “lively centre” of the Torah, or Pentateuch, a kind of canon within the canon…”(2) Walter Kaiser points out that this section, chapter 19 might be characterized as a “brief Torah.”(3) And at the core of this important book are some verses that Christians know well”
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s tempting to lift out these verses we know so well out of Leviticus and ignore the rest of the book that we don’t like so much. But it’s important to know the context. So let’s consider for a moment what is going on around this Holiness Code of Leviticus.
To recap a bit, the Hebrews have been led out of Egypt, God has begun forming them into the nation of Israel and now they are camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, awaiting further instructions. Moses makes his first trip up the mountain to talk with God and when he comes back down he gives the people this message, that we find in Exodus 19:6:
“The Lord says, The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
The people agree, “OK Moses, that’s fine, we will do that.”
Moses goes up again, brings back the Ten Commandments, he goes up again and the people abandon the commandments and make a golden calf. Moses is furious. The people still don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. It is during this time, encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, trying to figure out what God means by a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, that the book of Leviticus is written. The whole point of the book is to try and figure out how to be holy. We’ve been called to be a holy nation – now, here’s how to do that. That’s the goal of Leviticus. And the first verse of our text for today says exactly that, it echoes that verse from Exodus – “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy.”
To begin, let’s be clear about what being “Holy” means. Our call to be holy really isn’t about living a pure life, trying to be perfect in everything we do and say. Being holy is not about making sure your personal halo is polished and ready to go every morning. That’s not it. The root meaning of “holiness” is “to be separate, to be set apart.” To be different. Our God is different and we are called to be different as well.
We are called to be a separate people. Not that we are supposed to close ourselves off from everyone and everything around us – no, not in that sense. But separate in that we live life a different way. Separate as in being IN the world, but not OF the world, as Jesus would later put it. Being holy is being set apart. In fact, a better name for this most unpopular of biblical books might be “How to set yourself apart”- for that’s what it is to be holy.
So our charge? – Be Holy.
And here’s how to do it. Be holy this way.
Set yourself apart from the rest of the world by living this way. And in chapter 19 of Leviticus, there is a laundry list of instructions that aren’t included in our reading – here’s how to eat a sacrifice made to the Lord, leave some of the harvest behind for the poor and the foreigners. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t swear falsely. Don’t cheat anyone or keep someone’s wages overnight. Practice justice. Many of the same themes we find in the Ten Commandments. And then we come to the summary of the whole thing – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here in the largely ignored book of Leviticus, this is where Jesus gets perhaps his most famous ethical teaching – the one that even non-Christians can recite – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Or actually, more precisely;
“Don’t bear a grudge or seek revenge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”
Be holy – live differently from the society around you. That’s what we are called to do.
Be holy this way – love your neighbor as yourself.
If you belong to God, if you are in relationship with God, if you are one of God’s people, one of God’s children, then it matters how you live. How you live – the ethics you live by – set you apart from others. Be holy this way – love your neighbor as yourself!(4)
Which begs the question, “Who is my neighbor? Who exactly am I supposed to love?”
Or, as some people ask the question, “Who am I allowed NOT to love? Who doesn’t belong? Who am I supposed to exclude? Who is beyond the reach of God’s grace?”
But as Paul Rader points out, “There is very little wiggle room within which to maneuver here: at least seven different words are used to describe those Israel is obligated to care for – poor, alien, neighbor, laborer, deaf, blind, and fellow citizen.”(5) Love your neighbor as yourself – which means even those people you assume have no value or worth.
As Sarah Breuer writes: “Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they’re NOT obligated, which people, under which circumstances are out of reach of God’s love and therefore are beyond the call of God’s people to ministry, Jesus’ call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God’s love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made.”(6)
Be holy this way – love your neighbor as yourself. Even those who you think are not deserving. Even those you think are living in sin, beyond God’s reach. Love even those whom you would call un-loveable – or even despised.
The is an old story about Father Abraham himself, that one day he invited a beggar to his tent for a meal. When grace was being said, the man began to curse God, declaring that he could not bear to hear the name of the Lord. Seized with righteous indignation, Abraham drove the blasphemer away. When Abraham was at his prayers that night, God said to him, “This man has cursed and reviled me for fifty years, and yet I have given him food to eat every day. Could you not put up with him for a single meal?”(7) Love even those who seem un-loveable and undeserving, for no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Leviticus, the least popular book in the Bible, calls us to be holy – come to think of it, maybe that’s why it’s so unpopular, because it calls us to be holy, be set apart and to live differently from the world around us.
And we are called to be holy this way – love your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs the whole teaching of God.
May God be praised. Amen.
- Samuel Balentine, Leviticus, John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 2002, pg. 1.
- Marvin Ellison, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 2011, pg.196.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 2011, pg. 199.
- Paul Rader, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XXII, No. 6, p.32.
- Ibid…pg. 33.
- Ibid…pg. 33.
- Ibid…pg 33.