Who could have predicted that I would become fascinated (some might even say obsessed)
with the connections between Luke 17: 11-19 and Leviticus 13-14; as well as the origins and implications of shamanistic rituals within the holiness ceremonies of Israel's priesthood? Not me - but I am intrigued and wildly engaged in trying to understand what all of this means. And I am increasingly clear that my focus has something to do this quote from Walter Brueggemann:
The book of Leviticus articulates an old and perennial agenda in Israel in which there is an awareness of the radical "otherness" of YHWH who cannot be approached casually, but who can be hosted only with rigorous, disciplined intentionality. This agenda is rooted in Israel's profound sense of the character of this God who is, at the same time, faithful and ominous. That sense of God is perhaps intensified in a season of cultural danger. This reality may provide a clue for our appreciation of the codification of older material in exile or soon thereafter. It is curious of course that by the time of the exile (the season in which Leviticus was formalized)... there was no longer a temple In Jerusalem where sacrifices could be offered and cultic holiness could be practiced. This may suggest that the extended inventory of sacrifices and related materials in the book of Leviticus is to be understood not as a manual for practice, but as a liturgical, aesthetic act of imagination of what the world of Israel is like when it is known to be focused upon glad responses in obedience and sacrifice to YHWH.
(Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination, p. 74)
In other words, the experience of a broken people in exile can be redeemed only by honestly entering the darkness of grief, reconnecting a failed past with the present through a thorough confession, embracing a radically renewed trust in God's incomprehensible grace, and waiting for the Lord to infuse our imaginations with a new vision. Imagination is NEVER a product manufactured by human will but always an inspired gift from beyond our control. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gathers together cultic rituals from Israel's pre-history - ceremonies that suggest a linkage between holiness and social justice - in order that life beyond exile in Babylon might be saturated in careful living and social equality. "The term holiness," Brueggemann writes, "bespeaks separateness, almost in the manner of an elemental religious taboo, the affirmation that God is so different and distinct from Israel that Israel dare not draw near to God or be in God's presence except with the most careful preparations and qualifications." (Brueggemann, p. 67) At the same time, such intentionality towards God has:
... an ethical direction so that (holiness) may also refer to righteousness and justice according to the requirements of the Torah. The term has such rich and varied usage precisely because it seeks to articulate what is most characteristic, and therefore most hidden and inscrutable about God.
After revisiting the scholarly works of Bernard Anderson as well as Robert and Mary Coote on this matter, I am clear that Brueggemann is on solid ground: Leviticus looks backwards in time to Moses and" the Sinai tradition of covenantal commandments" through the lens of priests enduring the shame of the Jerusalem Temple's destruction and the grief of exile after 587 BCE. The final redactors of Leviticus incorporate traditions and practices that likely extend back as far as 1500-1250 BCE, yet their wilderness story is always informed by the realities of 550 BCE and beyond. These priestly editors may be writing of Moses and the physical desert but their true wilderness involves finding their way through the wreckage of political, spiritual and emotional exile within the presence of the Living God. As Brueggemann notes about an earlier Torah passage in Exodus: "If these are episodes told, shaped, and imagined in the sixth century (as now it may be thought for much more of the narrative), then it is possible that the "pharaoh" of at least these particular plagues is readily understood as Nebuchadnezzar, the great and feared Babylonian ruler who assaulted and conquered Jerusalem." (p. 54)
The upshot of such a critical awareness is the chance to see that any episode of the narrative can be read with references to any encounter with overwhelming, abusive power; consequently, the theme of YHWH versus Pharaoh functions not as historical reportage, but as a retelling of paradigmatic confrontation with reference to a particular tyranny and a particular or anticipated rescue.
Where once I was bewildered by the detail of the holiness rituals and ceremonies in Leviticus -
especially from my training within the non-conformist Reformed tradition - I now understand the character of Leviticus to be both a celebration of ancient Israel's relationship with YHWH, and, a collection of activities designed to restore wholeness to a people broken by either of sin or disobedience. Leviticus is more about reconciliation and grace than I ever imagined. First, there is personal and community reconciliation. Then, in chapter 19, there is a call to healing between strangers and aliens - the second great commandment of Jesus in the New Testament - love of neighbor.
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be with you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-34)
Then there is the great chapter of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 wherein the blessings of Sabbath rest take on economic and political significance. "A corpus of commandments that has its focus on cultic purity... readily spills over into the secular (that is, the non-cultic dimensions of life) so that holiness becomes a practice of neighborly justice." (p. 73) Indeed, the whole of Leviticus "underscores the cruciality and urgency of the practice of obedience, of holiness that takes the form of justice." (p. 73)
Now remember that my investigation into Leviticus started with St. Luke's retelling of a healing involving Jesus and 10 lepers. In all the other settings, Jesus instructs the healed ones to go and present themselves to the priest. So I wondered what this was all about. In the next installment of this unfolding reflection I will outline the complex and clearly prehistoric healing ritual described in Leviticus that seems to be born of Semitic shamans, worship in the Tabernacle and later Temple and then the disruption of exile.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
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