Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Quasimodo Need Not Apply: Leviticus 21

I have really struggled with this chapter of Leviticus. Leviticus 21 provides the regulations regarding the priesthood in Israel, and there are some logical aspects in these rules. Then there are some that just boggle my mind.

First, let’s look at the logical ones. The chapter opens with regulations on the behavior of priests. Who they can marry, who they can defile themselves for, and how they can shave. Take the middle one first: being in the presence of death brought ceremonial uncleanness. The priests were to only be present for immediate family, not for just anyone who died. This likely was not meant to address being in the place of someone who just suddenly dropped dead.

This is meant to help prevent any of the priests spending all their time at funerals or hauling body parts around and instituting creepy behavior. Or even instituting an inappropriate level of ancestor veneration. Both were to be avoided. The other two are more about public demonstration of righteousness, to the point of being a little bit over-the-top just to create the stand-out effect. They are a little odd, certainly, but not too bad.

It’s the second half of the chapter that bugs me. Throughout this section, there is a list that is best described as disqualifying disabilities. As someone who was turned down from doing what I wanted to do in life due to a disqualifying disability, I am not a fan of the idea to start with. That someone simply looks at a piece of paper and says “No, you can’t do this” based solely on a medical report bothers me. Especially when the condition is not self-caused.

Honestly, if you cut off your own arm with a chainsaw when you were drunk, then being disqualified from two-armed jobs is really your own fault. If you were born with only one arm, though, and told you couldn’t be a bank teller for lacking one, that would be wrong, would it not?

Yet that is what this section essentially provides for: certain people are not allowed to serve as priests, simply because of physical deformities, including those not their own fault. This also includes anyone who has eczema at the time, or a broken arm, but those will heal and are not permanent.

The hunchback, though? Or the, ahem, crushed testicles? (Leviticus 21:21 ?)

This sounds unfair. It is, seemingly, unfair. God is supposed to be merciful and loving, but God is threatened by the approach of Quasimodo? That does not follow. However, if we look at the Law in general, we find a couple of general principles that run under Old Testament Law. Old Testament law, typically, either:

Is for the benefit of those who live under the Law. or,

Is for the benefit of those outside of the Law that they may know the One True God of Israel.

Really, that sums it up. Either loving Yahweh your God with everything, which averts judgment, or loving your neighbor, which spreads the knowledge of the Yahweh, your God.

So to what benefit is the prohibition on Quasimodo in the Holy of Holies? It is hard to find one, but I would present this to you: the prohibition is against certain duties, but Leviticus 21:22-23 show that the injured or deformed are still to be counted among the priests. They are still to be fed by the people, and they may still teach of the ways of God.

What they cannot do is be left to handle the religious duties while the more physically robust go out and supplement their incomes doing other things, like ramping up the field production. The handsome men must stay connected to the sanctuary area as well, and cannot abandon their responsibilities. I think there is something here related to that idea: it is not so much about God being intimidated by dwarves as it is about people pushing dwarves to the margin of society and ignoring them. It would we all to easy to leave the “unfit” at the sanctuary and head off, form another sanctuary, and split the religion in twain.

That would be unacceptable.

That is the best I can do with this portion. It makes me uncomfortable, but I see very little to clarify this any better. We know from the whole counsel of God that He is merciful and loving. We also know that He is healer and there is unexplained suffering in this world.

And we know that He Himself bore our sins and our shame, that we never need bear it ourselves again. That is where we go: when we need wisdom, to the One who gives it, and to the One does right, no matter what we think.

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