Christianity and the Jewish laws

Do Christians have to have clothing of one material only?

 

Leviticus 19:19          

19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

 

·       This section in Leviticus follows on from a more profound selection of texts that have been focussing in on relationships between members of the Jewish community and with the wider world.  One of the high points is found in the earlier verses 17-18 where the Hebrew people are warned do not hate your brother in your heart.  They can rebuke him for better is open rebuke than hidden love (Proverbs 27:5).

·       What then is going on with this seemingly crazy (by our standards) demand?

·       Both of these, however, are a part of the Holiness laws growing out of chapter 11.

·       Scholars generally refer to chapters 17-26 as being the Holiness Code.  The word holiness is used frequently throughout this section.  The word holy means separated off.  Something is considered to be holy if it is separated off from the profane, from what is impure or ordinary in life.

·       Israel is called to be holy.  That means, she as been separated off from the nations around her...Leviticus 20:26...You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.

·       The application of this for the people when they moved into Canaan was important...Leviticus 18:3...You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.

·       This idea of separation applied to people, to spaces, to materials and to time.

·       In that section of Leviticus the directions talked about animals that had blemishes of some kind, that stood out from the normal kinds of animals.  They were unclean.

·       What stood in the animal world applied also to the world of men and women.  There were men and women who could be rendered unclean by their actions.

·       But behind this was an understanding of a wider human reality.  Israel as a nation was to be "clean", holy and righteous before God.  This was what separated them off from the pagan nations who were considered as being "unclean" before God.

·       This kind of division goes back to the creation story itself.  There God had separated off the light from the darkness, the water from the dry land.  Animals and plants were created each according to their own kind.

·       The mixing of breeds and the mixing of other natural created materials was seen as going against the way God had ordered the universe.

·       The Jews were to imitate God and this imitation applied to all things, including farming and the making and wearing of their garments.

·       Man must keep things separated out just as God had separated things.

·       Is this not what God had himself done?  He had separated Israel off from the rest of the nations of the earth, making her a people of his own.

·       Thus they needed to make sure they maintained their holiness by maintaining this separation.  Hence the prohibition against intermarrying Deuteronomy 7:3-6...Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

·       This is what is what is applied to both the major events of Jewish life as well as the more mundane and insignificant decisions - what material to use in making a shirt.

·       It reminded the people of how Israel was special in the eyes of the Lord.  She had a place to play in the divine plan and so was set apart for the work of God.

 

 

Reflection:

In the New Testament it is clear that the early Christians understood the Torah and the Laws of Judaism were to have no significant role to play in the life and religious practices of the Christian Church.  The Torah had fulfilled its role of protecting the Jews from wandering away from God and keeping them from becoming just one more nation among the many nations of the earth.  But that time was now over.  Paul even went so far as to say that trying to live by the letter of the Law was to condemn a person to death.  The freedom that had been brought to the world by the Christ was a gift of life.  This New Covenant (the Spirit) thus stood in stark contrast to the ways of the Old Covenant:

 

Romans 4:15...For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

Romans 5:13...sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.

 

From where does the authority to make these significant changes come?  It comes from the Christ event - his incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension.  In Christ there is a whole new way of understanding the realities of human existence a way that is founded in the Son of God and Messiah, Jesus who is the Christ of God.

But that does not mean the Hebrew scriptures were abandoned, although some sought to deny them a place in the world of discipleship.  There were so many of these laws (the mixing of garments and gardens among them) and were they all to be abandoned and if they are discarded, what about all of the other parts of the Hebrew scriptures.  Are they too no longer of value?  Are the Jewish scriptures no longer necessary for a life of grace?

Rather than abandoning them the Church set about re-reading them, understanding them in the light of Jesus Christ.  They saw in the Hebrew Bible all manner of things that were understood to be point forward to a future time, to the coming of the Messiah.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the writings of the prophets (especially Isaiah) and the psalms.  It was to the Hebrew Bible the Church looked in order to establish its legitimacy as the New People of God.

But the Jewish scriptures were not taken up as a book of laws.  The laws could be taken and applied to contemporary situations and problems but they were to be understood as needing to be re-interpreted if they were to have any place in the life of Christians.  A good example of this are the laws applying to the celebration of the Passover.

It was not taken up as a book of do's and don'ts that could be used as life guides for the modern Christian.  It was seen as a collection of divine revelations, rich and diverse insights into the relationship between God and men and women of faith.  Allusions were found in just about every text that could say something about how to understand what God had done and was continuing to do in Jesus.  They were not simply laws for Israel but deep insights into the reality of what it mean to be fully human in a world created by God.

 

Date and background of Leviticus:

It is important to remember that the Book of Leviticus contains nothing but priestly legislation and according to the basics of the Documentary Theory belongs to the Priestly School.  Whatever of the actual dating it seems clear that the Book itself is tied to the period of the Babylonian exile.  Some of it is reflected in the writings of Ezekiel but it is not difficult to see how the priests, at a time of great turmoil and chaos would seek to gather together the various traditions of the nation and bring them altogether into some kind of code.  They were there on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates wondering if this was the end of all of their hopes and dreams, believing God had abandoned his people.  They were heading the way of Israel before them and as Israel was scattered and absorbed into the Assyrian empire, so too they would lose their identity and become a landless, kingless and godless people.

With this in mind it is not difficult to understand some of these seemingly odd laws.  The priest (and the prophets) had sought to keep Israel holy and faithful but had failed in the past.  These new collections of laws would do what the old ways had failed to do:  Keep Israel holy again.  It is against this contextual background the laws must be read.  They are not universal and eternal regulations on which salvation rests.  They were addressed to a particular people at a particular time in human history.

As Christians, we would take these laws and look at them in the life of Christ.  In what ways are disciples of Christ called to be holy?  We do not have to have clothing of a single material but we are not to live according to the laws and customs of the land of "Canaan" if those laws and customs are not in agreeance with the will of God.  That is where this holiness-as-separation comes in and the gardens with a single crop and clothing with a single material can be seen as metaphors for Christian living. God's revealed Word is not dropped it is reread in the light of Christ.


Posted 21 September 2017 in Blog
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