by Alyssa Robinson
How do we approach Bible stories that leave us discontented? To try to wrap my head around some of the weirdest Scriptures, I’ve explored historical and cultural contexts, possible translation errors, and Levitical laws to which the people were adhering. Usually when I take these interpretation possibilities into consideration, I’m better able to understand the story or apply it to modern times.
But the book of Leviticus, as a whole, stumps me. Today I’m going to examine one Scripture, specifically in Leviticus 21:16-24. Before I do, I’d like to discuss the purpose of Leviticus.
Let’s be honest, Leviticus is not the most interesting or exciting book to read. I’ve heard Leviticus described as a bridge between Exodus and Numbers. I think The Bible Project explained it best. At the end of Exodus, God told Moses to build an ornate tabernacle to create a holy space where God and the people can reunite. It’s a callback to the Garden of Eden. God is attempting to repair the broken relationship with God’s people. Moses completed the holy tent and at the end of Exodus the tent is filled with God’s glory.
At this point in the story, The Bible Project and I start to disagree. In this article, they say that because of the Israelites' rebellion against God, God forbids Moses from entering the holy tent he had built. But that’s not the way I read it.
Exodus 40: 34-35
The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
I don’t interpret that as Moses being forbidden from the tabernacle for wrongdoings, but that the tent is a place so sacred and holy that even the most righteous could not enter. It does seem odd, though, that God told Moses to build this holy space and specifically called it the “tent of meeting” and then didn’t allow anyone inside it. However, that changes.
If we jump to Numbers, it begins with, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Wilderness of Sinai…” So Moses does eventually step into the holy meeting place. What changed? The book of Leviticus bridges that gap. It is a book of restoration.
Leviticus begins with God calling to Moses from inside the tent to provide him with instructions. From here, the entire book of Leviticus turns into a manual on how, when, and where to worship God. The book gives instructions on how to offer sacrifices for every occasion, what clothes to wear and what not to wear, how to clean yourself, how to become a priest, what is expected of the priests, etc.
Side note: our worship practices have definitely changed since the times of Leviticus. Check out this week's episode of the Life + God Podcast in which the Men In Progress ask the question, "Can I worship in the sanctuary of my Peloton, boat ramp, or golf course?" You can listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.
God is restoring God’s relationship with the Israelites by setting them apart from other pagan faiths of the time. The Israelites are doing things differently so they don’t fall into the cultural habits in which they’ve been raised. I imagine that when you’re in a community that is collectively changing every cultural norm you’ve ever known, God stays top of mind whether you want it or not.
So I guess I understand the need for creating community and restoring connection with God, but that’s where my understanding ends. I don’t know if you’ve actually read through Leviticus, but some of the rules that God puts in place make my skin crawl. And this brings me to our focus text today. This is just one of the rules that God delivered to Moses about the requirements of priests to approach the altar of God.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. Indeed, no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who is mutilated or deformed, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord; I sanctify them.” Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the Israelites.
The only word I can think of to describe this text is ableist. While preparing to write today’s blog post, I desperately researched ways we could have misinterpreted this text. I thought maybe the word “blemish” could have been referring to internal blemishes, meaning sin. Although the Hebrew word for blemish is used to describe sins in some texts, that is not the case here. It means what it says: physical defect. Not only that, but my research revealed more I didn’t want to hear. In the Talmud, the list of physical “blemishes” that a priest can’t have are extended to baldness, flat nose, bowleggedness, black skin, red skin or albino, and many others. So my research only made it worse.
My next hope was to research interpretations of Scripture through the lens of Christ. After all, because of Christ’s love and sacrifice we are no longer bound by the laws of Leviticus. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled the law, which is why, as Christ-followers, we aren’t bound by the rules and regulations of the Old Testament. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the law.” Colossians 2:13-14 says that God "forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”
But it still bothers me. Why did God ask this of people in the first place? Why did God have a problem with people deemed as “blemished” approaching the altar? I’ve always been told that we are all created in the image of God: Imago Dei. And yet they didn’t meet the standards of perfection to approach God?
My natural inclination when reading Scripture like this is to try to explain it away. Have you ever heard the term “buffet Christian?” This was a term that I learned when I was in middle school. A man who was teaching at a youth retreat made it seem like the worst thing to be is a buffet Christian. He described it as picking and choosing what you want to believe or follow from the Bible, as if you’re at a buffet. He was basically implying that “it’s all or nothing” when it comes to Scripture. This ideology was not helpful to my spiritual growth as a teenage girl. What does that mean for scriptures that diminish women? What if I don’t have a problem with the scripture itself, but the way it’s being taught? What do I do with the stories of the Old Testament that seem so counter to the God I know and love?
Thus, I intensified my study to be able to have answers and explanations to every question I’d have about scripture so nobody could accuse me of being a buffet Christian. I dug into study guides, interpretation books, apologetics articles, historical resources, and more. If I was forced to accept all of Scripture to be a Christian, I planned to know exactly what I was reading. I was the quintessential church kid, involved in three Bible Studies per week. You might be reading this and thinking, “Good for you, Alyssa. Way to dive into the Word.”
But I wasn’t reading Scripture because I wanted to or because I was drawn into God’s story. I was a prosecutor building a case. I wanted the knowledge and capability to approach every debate with sniper-like accuracy and precision. I didn’t want to leave any holes in my argument and, as a result, I inadvertantly dismissed the mystery of God.
But God has a sense of humor.
The irony is the more I studied, the less I knew. Shoutout to Socrates, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” More research just led to more questions and more doubts. And, leave it to God to add a flourish to the irony, it was in the moments of being completely bewildered and lost that my faith started to grow.
Doubt leads to holy questions. Holy questions lead to wonder. Wonder leads to the Divine.
I don’t understand Leviticus 21:16-24 or Deuteronomy 25:11-12 or 1 Peter 2:18, and the list could go on and on. Not only do I not understand them, I don’t live by them. The Bible is not “all or nothing” to me; it’s a resource that provides one of many ways to experience God.
In the Methodist church, you’re encouraged to bring your intellect to Scripture reading. In fact, this is a direct recommendation from the United Methodist Church website:
"Perhaps the Bible is best put to use when we seriously answer these four questions about a given text: (1) What did this passage mean to its original hearers? (2) What part does it play in the Bible's total witness? (3) What does God seem to be saying to my life, my community, my world, through this passage? and (4) What changes should I consider making as a result of my study?"
When I apply this method to the Leviticus scripture reading, the conclusion I personally come to is the following:
- The Israelite people had a completely different understanding of what it is to be blemished than I do. I see people who are different from me as a celebration of God's diverse creation, and all the ways people are made in the image of God.
- Within the total witness of Scripture, the theme of Leviticus is God seeking restoration with God's people. It's not about the individual rules, but the immense effort of God to reconnect with us.
- I think what God is trying to communicate through this passage is that God is holy. This is not a message to be taken lightly. We are all blemished in some way, and we should continue the spiritual work of self-improvement to honor the holiness of the Divine.
- I should consider some changes in attitude when approaching the Bible. It is not my responsibility to defend Scripture or explain it. I can simply use it as a resource to grow spiritually.
Let this be my word of encouragement to you. There will be stories you read in the Bible that you don’t like or understand. There will be people who teach or preach Scripture in a way that is incompatible with the attitude of Christ. My hope for you is that these moments of frustration become a starting point, not an ending point. Have doubts, ask questions, let those questions lead to more questions, and explore the weird stories of God with wonder and ever-expanding love.