What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus?

Recently, I was asked some interesting questions:

Do you think that gay people should be put to death?

And since that verse doesn’t say anything about women lying with other women – are lesbians ok?

What about putting adulterers and anyone who curses their parents to death?”

The questions were asked because, in a previous post on this site, I wrote:

“If the Bible gave the impression that same-sex sexual relationships were something which God was not particularly bothered about, one could be forgiven for not being too concerned about this. The Bible, however, makes it clear (Leviticus 20:13) that this is something God takes seriously. “

Now, someone might read that and say “But – hold on. That’s in Leviticus. Surely Christians don’t take Leviticus literally?”

Indeed, all the passages mentioned in the questions I received come from Leviticus:

Leviticus 20:9 “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.”

Leviticus 20:10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. “

Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

In other words, the basic question is “What are Christians supposed to do with Leviticus, and especially with some commands in it that sound very strange to modern western ears?” Or, to put it another way “What would Jesus tell us to do with Leviticus?” And I believe that is an extremely important question – and one that is not asked often enough. And I think the reason for that is that it is not an easy question.

Jesus and the Scriptures

My starting point is “What did Jesus say about the Old Testament? What was his view of Scripture?” I set this out in my earlier post, referred to above:

The words of Jesus, as we find them in the New Testament, point us to the Bible as the way to know what behaviour is pleasing to God. When Jesus is tempted by Satan and, in reply says “It is written” and then quotes the Bible (Matthew 4:4, 4:7, 4:10), he clearly means “What God has said in the Scriptures is the final word, and there is no arguing with it.” We never find Jesus saying “It is written that thou shalt not, but I say unto you that it is OK.” On the contrary, he condemns those who permit the written word of God in Scripture to be set aside. And so we read in Mark 7:6-13: “He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ” ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”” For Jesus, what is written down in Scripture is the word of God, and it is not negotiable. Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. For Jesus, holding fast to God’s word in Scripture is crucial; setting it aside is unacceptable.

So what about Leviticus?

If that is Jesus’ view of the Old Testament in general, what does he say about Leviticus in particular?  e.g. Does he ever quote Leviticus?

In fact, there are eight verses or passages from Leviticus that Jesus quotes or refers to – most famously Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” But the important one for our purposes is Leviticus 20:9. (The others are 14:1-32, 18:5, 19:12, 24:9 24:20 and 27:30.)

Leviticus 20:9 (“For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” ) is quoted by Jesus in the passage quoted above from Mark 7 (and also in the parallel passage in Matthew 15):

“And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. “

The key words here are: “the commands of God”, “For Moses said”, and “the word of God”. Jesus uses those phrases to describe the words he is quoting – including the words “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” Which raises the obvious question “Does Jesus believe that anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death?” And, following from that, does this mean that Jesus expects his followers to think that anyone who curses their parents should be put to death?

On the face of it, it looks like the answer to those questions must be “yes”. The accusation that Jesus is making against the scribes and Pharisees is that they hold their own tradition in such reverence that they are prepared to ignore and hence set aside what God says. The unspoken assumption is that what God says in his commandment is correct and not be set aside. Jesus states that the commandment is from God, and hence he clearly believes that it is correct. It seems pretty clear from these verses that Jesus believed that the death penalty was commanded by God, and that what God commanded was correct. And it certainly appears on the surface that he believed in the death penalty for those who cursed their parents.

But didn’t something change with Jesus?

However the matter does not end there. Acts chapter 10 records an incident that took place a few years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Simon Peter, by then the leading figure among the followers of Jesus, had a vision. He was hungry at the time, in his vision, he saw “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds.” A voice said “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” The upshot of all this was the Peter realised that God was showing him that he should not call any person common or unclean. The barrier between Jew and Gentile that was a basic part of Old Testament law had been done away with by Jesus. At the same time, it was clear that all the food laws in the Old Testament – which categorised several foods as unclean, and therefore off-limits – were also done away with. And where in the Old Testament were most of those food laws found? The book of Leviticus!

In fact, even in the gospels, Jesus had effectively said that all foods were clean. And he did it in the very same passage in Mark 7 in which he strongly upheld the instructions in the Old Testament about honouring one’s father and mother. He says “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” and then Mark adds an explanatory note: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)

In other words, Jesus does not treat all Old Testament commands in the same way. Some he stands by, others he appears to actually tighten up on (see, for example, Matthew 5:21-22, 5:31-32), and others he sets aside. What are we to make of this? And specifically, what about putting to death adulterers, men who lie with men, and those who curse their parents?

Which laws stay? Which laws go?

At this point we run out of easy answers. However, a lot of great minds have pondered this question over the last 2000 years. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which dates to the 17th century, condenses a lot of that wisdom in its chapter entitled “The Law of God”. It says that the Old Testament laws can basically be divided into three categories, which it calls “moral, ceremonial, and judicial.” Moral laws are about what is morally right and wrong, and include the 10 commandments. These are about our duty to God and to other people. The ceremonial laws included the laws about things that were “clean” and “unclean”. They also included all the regulations about the temple and about sacrifices.  These laws, according to the Westminster Confession, have been done away with, for, as New Testament makes clear, these things have been superseded by Jesus. All the sacrifices in the Old Testament foreshadowed his sacrificial death on the cross. Once that had happened, there was no need for those sacrifices.  And so, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “All these ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the new testament.

The third category of laws is the one that interests us here – the judicial (or civil) laws. The Confession does not define these closely, but says that God gave these laws gave to the people of Israel as “a body politic”. In other words, these laws were for the administration of justice. The confession says that they “expired” when the ancient state of Israel as a political entity expired (presumably with the capture of Jerusalem with the Babylonians), and place no obligation upon anyone now, except as they embody general principles of justice.

And it seems to me that this judicial law presumably includes the penalties for various crimes – including the death penalties for adulterers, men who lie with other men, and those who curse their parents.

There are a couple of questions that arise here. One is about whether it is really that easy to divide Old Testament laws into those three categories. The answer is that while it isn’t really possible to do it neatly, the general principle does make a lot of sense, and works pretty well for most of the Old Testament law.

The kingdoms of this world – and a kingdom that isn’t

The other question is more important. Where in the Bible does it say that these judicial laws have expired? The New Testament speaks clearly about the end of the distinction between Jew and Gentile and clean and unclean – and it also speaks plainly about the end of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Does it say anything about the end of judicial laws?

And here it seems to me that, while the Bible does not say so in so many words, it does hint that this is the way it is.

It starts even before the fall of Jerusalem. With Jerusalem under siege, the prophet Jeremiah tells the city to surrender: “Serve the king of Babylon and live.” What that meant, of course, was giving up the independence of the Israelite kingdom of Judah – the people who had been given the judicial laws. And, more importantly, it meant serving a pagan king whose laws would be quite different from the judicial laws given by God in the time of Moses. To serve the king of Babylon was to say good-bye to those laws.

And after Jerusalem fell, we find the same thing. We read about people like Daniel and Nehemiah, who live in exile and serve the kings of Babylon and Persia, and who are politically loyal to them. Indeed, Nehemiah was accused by some of wanting to rebel against the Persian Empire, and he protested his loyalty. There was no question of wanting to break free and set up an independent nation with its own laws.

And this continues on in the New Testament. In New Testament times there was plenty of hostility to the Roman Empire from the Jews, and there were revolts against Roman rule. Jesus gave no encouragement at all to that sort of sentiment, and early Christians also rejected it. Roman emperors may have been deeply flawed tyrants, but Peter nonetheless wrote: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (I Peter 2:13-15)

And the key moment comes in the trial of Jesus before Pilate, when Jesus is being accused of being a rebel against the emperor, and Pilate asks “Are you the king of the Jews”, and Jesus answers “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus is not interested in assuming worldly political power, and the authority that goes with it – authority that would mean he could replace the questionable laws of the Romans with God’s just laws. And the evidence that his kingdom is not of this world?  The fact that his servants do not fight. Political authority in this world depends on the use of force. Followers of Jesus do not use force to set up his kingdom, and impose his laws.

And that is because followers of Jesus have a different agenda – the agenda of Jesus. Our agenda is not about political legislation and imposing God’s laws on people. Rather, as Jesus told Pilate “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The purpose of Christians is to bear witness to the truth. That is about proclaiming a message – a message that calls people to have Jesus as their king. It is about invitation rather than imposition.

What did Jesus have to say about public policy?

Two other comments.

First, I think it is very significant that Jesus never spoke about how kings should do their jobs. That isn’t because he thought they were doing a good enough job. He clearly wasn’t impressed by Herod, and called him “that fox”, which was pretty scathing. It is as if Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in talking about what laws rulers made and what the punishment was for various crimes. And it wasn’t just Jesus. Daniel and Nehemiah didn’t feel inclined to tell the pagan kings they served under how to do their jobs, and neither did the apostles. It is, perhaps significant that the only New Testament figure who criticized a king was John the Baptist – who didn’t criticized Herod for the way he was ruling, but over his personal relationships: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The important thing was not whether Herod was, as king, keeping to the Old Testament judicial law; it was whether he, as an individual before God, was keeping to the Old Testament moral law.

Second, it seems that the only matters of public policy that the New Testament has much interest in is that rulers would preserve order and freedom. Paul, writing to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-2), says I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” The big priority was basically that rulers would allow people to lead a peaceful and quiet life. In other words, pray that we would be spared tyranny, war, and a breakdown of law and order. These seem to be the only real political concerns of the New Testament.

And so . . .

So what does Jesus want his followers to do with these verses in Leviticus? I think it is pretty clear that he wants us to think about how they apply to us as moral laws. In Mark’s gospel, his interest was in people honoring their parents, not the punishment for those who didn’t. I think that it is pretty clear that it is the same with the other two verses. They are about what is morally right and wrong, about the kind of sexual relationships God wants people to have.

And yes, it is true that Leviticus doesn’t say anything about same-sex relationships between two women. But we need to remember the way that Jesus addressed moral questions, by basically asking people to look at the principles behind the laws. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says (Matthew 5:17-22)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And having warned them against relaxing the commandments of the moral law, he then proceeds to tighten them – by going back to the principles behind the laws:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

And so, later on, when he is asked “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?“, he responds by calling them back to the principles behind the law. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” The fact that God made people male and female is the basis for marriage, and for sexual morality. And hence the early Christians understood that the principles laid down in God’s law about men lying with men also applied to women lying with women. Paul speaks (Romans 1:26-27) about dishonorable passions, by which he means: “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.

So – do I think that Jesus wants his followers to advocate the death penalty for the activities described in Leviticus 20?  Do I think he wants his followers to advocate that those activities be criminalized? No, I don’t. That was not Jesus’ concern. His concern was that his followers look at themselves, and seek to live righteously before God – not seek to impose righteous judicial laws on society. And that is closely connected with the fact that his kingdom is not of this world.

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2 thoughts on “What does Jesus want us to do with Leviticus?

  1. We never find Jesus saying “It is written that thou shalt not, but I say unto you that it is OK.” “You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Along the same lines but instead, “..thou shalt” becomes “it is not OK.”

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  2. Indeed. Very like the way he takes the commands about adultery and murder and goes beyond them.

    In this case, we need to remember that the original context is civil law, and in particular the matter of compensation. Hence in Leviticus 24 it says:

    “”Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.
    You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.””

    I don’t think Jesus is saying “Don’t claim compensation or raise a court case if you have been wronged.” He is saying “Don’t use those words from the Law to justify taking revenge, and feeling that you have to get your own back.”

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