Sunday, February 25, 2007

Alternate universe

Some parts of Leviticus make me wonder what planet some of these people come from. Today's reading, which has a bunch of sexual prohibitions in it -- and there's a surprise in the middle of it too -- is one such part.
The Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. ...

" 'Do not take your wife's sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.

" 'Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.

" 'Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor's wife and defile yourself with her.

" 'Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

" 'Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

" 'Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it....
Leviticus 18.1-4, 18-23
There is a whole lot of other stuff in the parts I deleted -- like don't have sex with both a woman and her daughter, don't have sex with your sister or your mother, this sort of thing. What strikes me is that if I have this right, these were common practices in either Egypt or Canaan or both.

And right in the middle of all this is the prohibition against killing your children in a religious ceremony (a practice that nonetheless continued hundreds of years later). And the prohibition against male-on-male sex. And sex with animals.

The prohibitions are unambiguous, but neither does the Lord obsess about these things.

And now the question is: are these commandments like the ones about shrimp and bacon, or are they like the ones about murder and adultery? Did they apply only to the Jews, or are these commands for everyone? Or is the right answer that
verse 18 (wife's sister as rival)
applies universally
verse 19 (sex during a woman's monthly period)
depends on local habits
verse 20 (neighbor's wife)
applies universally
verse 21 (killing your children)
applies universally
verse 22 (male-male sex)
applies only to Jews
verse 23 (sex with animals)
applies universally
? Well, that doesn't look very likely to me. It seems more likely that this list probably applies universally -- that is, these proscribed activities are prohibited for anyone wanting to please God at all times -- rather than saying most of them are in that category except this one and that one.

Which of these should a pluralistic society try to legislate? Ah, that's a harder question. The answer in the US has varied over time. I'll go out on a limb and say that the state has a right and a duty to enforce the one about "Don't kill your children in a religious ritual," religious freedom be damned.

But as far as pleasing God -- it sure looks to me like this is a universal list. Not that anyone will go to hell for any of these things (a murderer on a cross next to Jesus went to heaven, right?), but for any of us that want to walk in God's ways, and want to know whether these things are displeasing, the simple answer is that they are.

By the way, I'm not writing about these because they're the most important issue when it comes to pleasing God, but there seems to be a lot of confusion and dispute about these today. And it did strike me that "don't kill your children" is in the midst of these other prohibitions.

No comments: