“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.”
Leviticus 18:3 (NRSV)
This past weekend we were with friends at the lake. It was a wonderful weekend. We lay in the sun and on the water. We took a boat ride in which the hum of the engine and the rocking of the waves lulled our friends to sleep. We watched a good movie together that resonated with profound lessons about the contrast between life and religiosity. We drank a luscious red wine and ate a rich mixture of crackers, cheese, fruits and veggies. We explored new ideas. We shared both joys and heartaches. We spoke into one another’s lives.
Our friend raised his glass multiple times during the weekend in what is an important ritual for him, and offered the Hebrew toast “L’chaim” which means “to life.”
When you look at the Great Story God is telling from Genesis to Revelation, there are a few simple themes woven throughout. One of them is the theme of life and death:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
We continue our journey today through the ancient sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus. If you’ve been following along I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the whole thing gets a bit surreal to our 21st century western sensibilities. In today’s chapter, we encounter a host of rules centered mostly around sex. The key to unlocking the message is in the third verse (pasted at the top of this post).
The Hebrews had just escaped from being slaves in Egypt. They were headed to the land God promised them in Canaan. They have been immersed in Egyptian culture for hundreds of years and they are about to experience Canaanite culture. Neither culture was particularly healthy.
In Egypt, the ruling families were known to practice incest in the belief that they were keeping the royal bloodline pure. The Pharaoh and his family were considered deities and the thinking went that if the royal family only bred from among each other that they wouldn’t be tainted by any non-deified humans. Of course, we know today that his is a really bad idea. Consider the famous King Tut. Extensive research on Tut’s mummy reveals that the boy king behind the famous hoard of golden treasure was far from what we would consider god-like. He had a club foot, probably walked with a cane, and he had abnormally wide, feminine hips for a boy. These are likely genetic issues stemming from the fact that his parents were brother and sister.
By the way, before we get too judgmental on the ancient Egyptians, it should be noted that the whole “pure blood” philosophy among royals carried on in Europe for centuries. J.K. Rowling didn’t just make up the “pure blood” notion for the fictional wizarding world. The royal families in Europe are a dizzying mixture of marriages between relatives.
In ancient Canaan, the local tribal cultures had their own mixture of unhealthy sexual practices which spilled into their local religious practices. Ritual worship of pagan gods such as Molech included strange sexual practices and the sacrifice of human children by burning them.
So, as we read through today’s chapter we have to realize that it was a prescription against cultural and religious practices from Egypt and Canaan that were unhealthy for individuals and society as a whole. It’s back to the theme of life and death. These things don’t promote life and its healthy regeneration. These things bring destructive havoc on people, relationships, and society. Underneath the rules lies the same old theme: life and death. God is once again saying, “I want you to choose life by living in such away as to avoid those things you’ve seen in Egypt and will see in Canaan which are really unhealthy and contribute to destruction and death.”
Which brings me back to last weekend with our friends which was so full of life. Our bodies rested, our souls refreshed, and our relationships were strengthened. We tasted and drank in goodness spiritually, emotionally, relationally as well as in the literal food and drink we enjoyed together. Our activity and our conversations were life giving. And that’s always what God wants us to choose.