A Beautiful Blueprint.
It’s tempting to dismiss much of Leviticus as simply a record of what happened in the past. The dry dusty details are rejected either for their weirdness or quaintness or because they clash with the ideals that secular society prizes so highly today. Not so. The truth is that amid those dry dusty details are gems of great worth and enduring principles of humanity that have great value and relevance today. The trick with Leviticus is not to pick and choose what we do and do not like; it’s to understand from a whole-Bible perspective what still applies and what does not.
Far from being old-fashioned, irrelevant or primitive, Leviticus contains a beautiful blueprint for society. Take chapter 25 for instance. If most of the beginning of the book is mainly addressed to priests and of limited relevance, then a large part of the end of the book, the other side of the central pivot of the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, is much more practical and much more relevant.
Chapter 25 is about the Year of Jubilee, as wonderful a custom as any you will find in the Old Testament. We associate it with a significant anniversary of a monarch’s reign – like when we celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 to mark 60 years of her reign. It’s a time of celebration and commemoration, but with no practical consequences. But in ancient Israel it was quite different – both more joyful and more practical.
The word comes from a Hebrew term denoting a ram’s horn, and the blowing thereof to make important occasions (Lev. 23:24). Horns were to be blown on the Day of Atonement at the end of every 49th year to mark the beginning of the 50th year, the Jubilee Year.
It came round regularly in perfect sequence with the Sabbath years every seven years, and is deeply bound up with the same ideas of rest and restoration. Just as we need to rest every week, and just as the land needs to rest every seven years (25:1-7), so society needs to be restored every 50 years. It’s all too easy in human experience for society to become broken, mis-aligned and out of balance, whether through unfortunate circumstances or deliberate exploitation. In 50 years you build up a lot of injustice, a lot inequality and a lot of imbalance. Leviticus’ Jubilee is designed to right all those wrongs.
Property is to be restored to its original owners (25:13), so that no one can lose their land indefinitely and so that no small elite can gather too much power and resources into their own hands. Hired workers are to be released (25:39-41), so that no one need face indefinite servitude with no hope of release. Slaves were to have a get-out clause to buy their freedom, with the price coming down the closer you got to the Jubilee (25:47-53). Again, this prevented anyone getting trapped in endless slavery. And even those who couldn’t afford to buy themselves out, were still to be set free in the Jubilee (25:54-55).
This is not a socialist re-distribution of property, but something far better. This is a layer of protection to cover the worse off in society and a cap to prevent anyone from getting excessively rich at the expense of their peers. Today we see far too much property accumulated into the hands of far too few – how badly do we need a Jubilee which sees some of that land/property/wealth given to those who have little or none? Likewise, how badly do we need mechanisms to lift people out of low-paid menial employment and to address modern-day slavery, which still plagues our world? Looks like Leviticus isn’t as irrelevant or out of touch as we thought.
Chapter 25 goes further. It doesn’t limit itself to prescribing restoration, but speaks about wider protection from exploitation. Verse 14 enshrines the principle of not taking ‘advantage of each other’. Verse 37 proscribes against lending money at interest or inflating food prices. Verse 46 rules against treating fellow citizens ‘ruthlessly’. What do we see here? We see concern for the poor and timeless principles of human decency – look after those who have fallen on hard times. Don’t exploit them, give them a hand up. It lays down beautiful ideals for how to treat one another, which, if lived out by everyone, would allow society to function properly and smoothly. Again, this has much to speak to us today in our sophisticated global 21st-century lifestyle, where the poor are still trampled on, where exploitation is rampant and where people are regularly trapped by cycles of debt and high interest traps.
We’re not too advanced to need Leviticus – we’re too dysfunctional to do without it. we don’t have to live in tents or observe ceremonial rules, but we do need to fight for social justice. Leviticus gives us a mandate to not just pray against poverty but to act against it, and to take our church initiatives into the corridors of power so that malpractice and injustice can be tackled through government legislation. If injustice is systemic, then so must its cure be.
This is a beautiful blueprint for society. Had it been properly implemented, it would have made for a wonderful life of stability and prosperity for all. As God Himself says in verses 18-19:
“Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live in safety.”
God’s way is best. When things are done His way, no one misses out and everyone has enough. But when we do things our way, lots of people miss out and far too may people have barely enough to survive on. Sadly this Biblical blueprint was never fully implemented, either there in the desert, in Israel when they settled in the Promised Land or at any time since. Like in every other respect, we have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still learn and benefit from Leviticus. Starting today, it still gives us a chance to emulate God’s heart of justice and make reforms which will look after the poorest among us. In modern guise the applications may look quite different, but the underlying principles could do so much to make our society better.
Leviticus paves the way for what Jesus has done for us by paying our debts and redeeming us out of our slavery to sin. That’s reason enough to cherish it, but even if you don’t believe the spiritual aspect of that at least pay attention to the beautiful practical implications. If God has forgiven our debts, we should forgive those of others. Even if you don’t believe in God you should be able to see how chapter 25 could improve life for many.
Also let’s pause and acknowledge what a positive picture this is. Very different from many people’s preconception of an angry Old Testament God only interested in punishing infractions and imposing petty rules. On the contrary, what we see here is a God who cares, who wants the best for His people, and who goes out of His way to look after those who would, left on their own, get trampled on by the world. God is good, both in Leviticus and everything else in the Bible. Never lose sight of that.
So in Leviticus 25 we see care for the environment and a principle of sustainability to abide by. We see restoration of property, cancellation of debts, emancipation of slaves and protections for the poor. This all adds up to a picture of rest, justice, harmonious relationships and hope for those fallen on hard times. It spells out reasons for joy and cause for celebration infinitely more compelling than the length of time since our monarch ascended to the throne. God is on the only throne that counts, and His heart is, as it has always been, for justice. It’s time to start doing our bit.