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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

- Leviticus

by Joseph Parker

Considered as embracing the history of one month only, this may claim to be the most remarkable book in the Old Testament. Containing twenty-seven chapters; ranging its contents under sixteen different categories; and requiring to be actively represented within the space of say eight-and-twenty days, it may, in its own degree, claim an energy not inferior to the book of Genesis. The same fearlessness of treatment is distinctive of both books. The reverent audacity which represented creation as the work of six days whatever the measure of a day may be did not shrink from focalising into one month the whole discipline of life. Moses loses nothing by diffuseness. Even in days that were made long by intolerable monotony in which men lived centuries because of weariness Moses did not shrink from a condensation unparalleled in human literature. His words could hardly have been fewer if he had lived in our time of feverish haste and tumult. To put up the heavens and the earth in one chapter was a miracle in authorship, yet, well pondered, it was the only thing to be done, any poet could have built them in endless stanzas, and any philosopher could have begun the infinite story in a book too large for the world to hold: Moses chose the more excellent way, creating creation with a swiftness that has dazed a literal criticism ever since; literal criticism that has but one season in its dreary year, a year that knows nothing of snow-blossom, or wedded light and song. But this very haste was part of the man. The Moses of poetry required fifty-one days for the revolution of his Iliad; the Moses of revelation only took a week for the settlement of the heavens and the earth, and in that week he found one whole day of rest for the Creator. This action was entirely characteristic of Moses, for he was the most wrathful man as well as the meekest, killing, smiting, destroying, and burning with anger, as well as praying like the father-priest of his people. In a sense obvious enough he was the protoplastic Christ, for was not he who described himself as "meek and lowly in heart," the scourger of trespassers, and did he not burn the religious actors of his day? Moses and Christ both did things with startling rapidity; in their very soul they were akin; they were "straitened" until their work was "accomplished," the Pentateuch and the Gospels have action enough in them to fill innumerable volumes, yet there is an infinite calm in both, the haste being in the temporary framework, the calm being in the eternal purpose.

Think of these seven-and-twenty chapters constituting the discipline of one month. The reflections started by this circumstance culminate in a sense of pain, for who can bear this grievous toil or endure this sting of accusation? There is no respite. Egyptian burdens were for the body, but those wilderness exactions tormented the soul, and by so much made Egyptian memories bright. The trial of muscle is nothing to the trial of patience. Men may sleep after labour, but an unquiet conscience keeps the eyes wide open. This discipline afflicted both the body and the soul, and thus drained the entire strength of the people. This conscious toil must have been accompanied by an unconscious inspiration, a reciprocal action impossible in theory but well understood in spiritual experience. We resume our burdens in the very act of dreading them. We pray the next prayer in the very process of waiting for answers to a thousand prayers to which God has paid no known heed. Yesterday's sacrifice has nothing to do with this day's sin, except to remind us, that to-day must provide its own sacrifice. This was so with the Jews; this is precisely so with ourselves, yet we boast our liberty, and suppose that in leaping one inch from the earth we have broken the tether of gravitation. As put before us in this manual called Leviticus the discipline of the month seems to be more than we could endure, and this we say in ignorance of the fact that our own manual imposes a severer discipline. Our pity for the Jews arises out of the apparently ineradicable sophism that spiritual service is easier than bodily exercise. A most deadly sophism is this, and prevalent yet, notwithstanding the rebuke and condemnation of universal history. It was not in dressing and keeping the garden that Adam failed, but in obedience, in spiritual trust, in childlike simplicity. Not a word is said about indolence; garden-keeping is an easy virtue; but to obey, to trust, to love, to be truly true in all the heart's loyalty and hope, who is sufficient? Not Eve, not Adam, not woman, not man. It was a bold thing on the part of any fabulist to fix the point of failure in the heart; an inspired fabulist may-be, an allegorist under the very touch of God. Yet disobedient man must always be brought back by bodily subjugation, simply because the body responds quickly to the chastisement of justice. The flesh aches, and burns, and begs like a coward that the smiter will drop his lash. Spiritual reproach, affectionate entreaty, argument made strong by a thousand unanswerable pleas, go for nothing; but one stroke of the cutting thong brings the criminal to beg for mercy. It is easier to get at the bone than to get at the conscience. That is the difference between a martyr and a criminal, a man all spirit and a man all body. The Christian manual has but little to say to the body, except through the medium of the spirit, but through that medium it has much to say. Not until the spirit is right can the body be right; but the spirit being right the body becomes a holy temple and a living sacrifice The Jews kept up a magnificent tragedy of symbolism but Christians must represent an infinitely more magnificent tragedy of reality. It was easy to kill a bullock at the door of the tabernacle, or to slay a sheep on the northward side of the altar, or to pluck away the crop of the turtle-dove or young pigeon, and cast it beside the altar on the east part by the place of the ashes; but who can slay a will, or burn a purpose, or give up every pulse of the heart's love; who can nail his vanity to the cross, or shut out the charming world, or slay the pleading senses one by one, or crucify the passion set on fire of hell?

In no spiritual sense, then, is Leviticus an obsolete book. Moses is not dead. The inventors of the alphabet have some rights even in Paradise Lost, and quite a large property in Euclid. It is not grateful on our part to forget the primers through which we passed to the encyclopaedias, though their authors were but our intellectual nurses. In no mere dream was Moses present when Christ communed with him concerning the Exodus that was to be accomplished at Jerusalem, and in no dramatic sense did Elijah watch the consummation of prophecy. Marvellous fables, lies grand enough to be true, ventures heroic enough to be divine, and all massed into coherence without trace of joint or seam; verily it is easier to believe than to disbelieve, to pray than to sneer! The wonder is that Christians should be so willing to regard the Pentateuch as obsolete. This is practically a foregone conclusion, to such an extent certainly that the Pentateuch is tolerated rather than studied for edification by the rank and file of Christians. Without the Pentateuch Christ as revealed in the Gospels would have been impossible, and without Christ the Pentateuch would have been impossible. I venture upon this proposition because I find no great event in the Pentateuch that is not for some purpose of argument or illustration used by Christ himself or by his disciples and apostles in the interests of what is known as evangelical truth. It lies within easy proof that Christ is the text of the Old Testament and that the Old Testament is the text of Christ What use is made in the New Testament of the creation of the universe, the faith of Abraham, the rain of manna, the lifting up of the serpent, and the tabernacle of witness; the sublime apology of Stephen epitomises the Old Testament, and the epistle to the Hebrews could not have been written but for the ritual of Exodus and Leviticus. In its purely moral tone the Old Testament is of kindred quality with the New. Take an instance from Leviticus. Three forms of evil are recognised in one of its most ardent chapters, namely Violence, Deceit, and Perjury, a succession amounting to a development, and unwittingly, it may or may not be, confirming that law of evolution which is as happily illustrated in morals as in physics. Men begin with acts of violence, then go on to silent deceit and calculation, and then close with a profanation of the holiest terms, the early sinners robbed gardens and killed brothers; the later sinners "agreed together" to "lie unto God." It is something, therefore, to find in so ancient a book as Leviticus the recognition of an order which is true to philosophy and to history. But the proof that Moses and Christ are identical in moral tone is to be found in the process which offenders were commanded to adopt. By no sacerdotal jugglery was the foul blot to be removed; by no sigh of selfishness could the inward corruption be permitted to evaporate; by no investment of cheap tears could thieves compound for felony. First, there must be restoration; then there must be an addition of a fifth part of the whole; then the priest must be faced as the very representative of God and a trespass-offering be laid upon the altar, and after atonement Forgiveness would come, a white angel from heaven, and dwell in the reclaimed and sanctified heart, all the past driven away as a black cloud, and all the present filled with a light above the brightness of the sun. What is this but an outline or forecast of what Christ himself said when he drove the hostile and vindictive man from the altar, bidding him first be reconciled with his brother and at peace with society? Christianity is not a substitute for morality; it is morality inspired, glorified and crowned.

Say that the ritual was sanitary rather than doctrinal or theological. What then? All divine things are first sanitary, but not necessarily bounded by that term. By admitting that the ritual was sanitary we begin an a fortiori argument of infinite cogency, instead of abandoning the definitely theological position. If the body requires so much care, what of the spirit? If the laws of bodily health were revealed, has no message been delivered to the soul? Is cleanliness vital, and purity quite unimportant? Is leprosy deadly, and internal cancer most harmless? No degradation of the Deity is more obvious than the thought which bounds his revelation and his discipline by the wants of a body which must die, or by an occasion which is as mechanical as it is transient. It would, too, be a circumstance wholly unprecedented if God had suddenly changed the level of his movement, by coming down from the purpose to crush the serpent's head and reinstate his own image, to the direction of ablutions, donations, and ordinances, without metaphysical meaning or religious intent. The irony would involve profanity. In the estimate of such a book as Leviticus something is due to the argument founded upon harmony. Something, too, is due to the history and genius of names. To call a stone upon which flesh is burned for sanitary purposes an altar is to mock the very spirit of every honest paganism; and to call a health-officer, or inspector of nuisances, a priest is to be frivolous at the expense of decency. The larger interpretation is generally the right one, right by virtue of its nobleness, and right by virtue of the effects which must follow its practical application. It is along this line that one of the most powerful arguments for the inspiration of the Bible reveals itself. Take, for example, this very book of Leviticus: do not, in the first instance, vex the mind by the mere detail, but inquire into the central thought and purpose of the writer, and let the detail adjust itself. Grant that the innermost thought of the book is the idea which may be represented by the word cleanness. That term fixes the point of inspiration, and not only its point but its measure and quality. Anything else may be simply incidental and illustrative; it is enough to seize the inspired term and magnify it by natural evolution into its whole meaning, so that every point of the area may be covered. It will be found that the practice of genuine cleanness, chemical as well as mechanical, will be followed by a philosophy, and that the morality of cleanness will be followed by a theology. Accustom a man to look out for bullocks and rams and lambs "without blemish," and he will find that he cannot stop at that point; he has begun an education which can only culminate in the prayer "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me," though no word of that holy thought was named in the original instructions. This view of inspiration need not create any alarm, for it has been invariably adopted in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus Christ, and by its adoption the central purpose of each parable has been relieved of every complication arising from the use of merely pictorial and symbolical terms. Of necessity it is only the thought that can be divinely inspired, because the words are part of the common speech of the world and are tainted by misuse, or burdened with grievous responsibilities. Thus God is put to disadvantage by having to employ terms which have been disennobled by mutilation and false setting. But this difficulty is wholly got rid of by looking for the inspired thought, the one idea, the sacred purpose, the spirituality that cannot be polluted or defaced. If, therefore, the idea of Leviticus is cleanness it is useless to deny its inspiration; it is useless, too, to imagine that cleanness is a commonplace, for all history proves the contrary, and useless to attempt to put partial cleanness in the place of absolute cleanness, for then by parity of reasoning partial honesty would be sufficient, and partial sanity would be the same thing as a sound mind.

That this view is not fanciful may be tested by applying its doctrine to any and every part of the Bible. It dissolves every difficulty, and invests the record with complete and immutable authority. Take one or two perplexing instances for the purpose of illustrating its philosophy. For example, the command to offer Isaac: the frivolous objections to the account as it stands in the English version cannot but be well remembered; grammar has attempted to rearrange some of the words; the customs of heathen nations are supposed to have suggested the mechanism of the offering; and so, by external processes, men have tried to bring the narrative within the lines of probability. But why this elision of the word "burnt" and the heathenising of the term "knife" when the central thought of the incident is so evidently noble, that central thought being that all we have is God's, and that nothing, how dear soever and tender, is to stand between the heart and absolute obedience to the divine will? The frivolity which quibbles about the fire and the knife, quibbles about Dives and Lazarus, because of Abraham's bosom and the realism of the rich man's body suffering at the very moment when his flesh was buried in the earth. Thus the spirit is sacrificed to the letter, and inspiration is either impoverished or debased. Look for a moment, in further illustration, at such a book as the Song of Solomon. Again and again it has been pointed out that a Song so luscious in its love is surely not an inspired poem; it is unworthy of a place in so sublime a book as the Bible; it is infatuated sentimentalism; it is the very disease of love. I venture to deny the charge, and to claim inspiration for the Song. What is the central thought of the poem? It is the supreme love of the soul for Christ. That is the inspired thought; as for "the kisses of his mouth," the "cheeks comely with rows of jewels," the house of cedar, and the chariot of the wood of Lebanon, these are but struggles to express the inexpressible; and therefore to quibble about the head being as most fine gold, the neck being like the tower of David, and the eyes being as the eyes of doves by the rivers of water, is to sacrifice that which is substantial to that which is incidental, and to displace inspiration in favour of the formalities of mechanism.

Leviticus is the gospel of the Pentateuch, glistening with purity, turning law into music, and spreading a banquet in the wilderness. But its ritual is dead. This is hard to believe; hard because religious vanity is fond of ritualism, and ritualism makes no demand upon the deepest conscience: yet ritualism had a divinely-appointed function in the education of the awakening mind, and was the only influence which could hold the attention of a people to whom freedom was a new experience. Spectacular religion is alphabetic religion, and therefore to revert to it is to ignore every characteristic and impulse of manhood and progress. But they who say so, must be prepared to complete the philosophy which that contention initiates. It is not enough to dismiss ritualism on the ground that it has been displaced by spiritual worship; admit that such is the case, and other and broader admissions are involved in the plea, and can only be shirked at the expense of consistency. It is generally admitted, for example, that the Old Testament law has been displaced by a New Testament principle. So Ritualism and Law, in their ancient forms, have passed away. But let us be careful. When we say Ritualism and Law, we mean in reality the letter, and it is evident that if any one letter can be displaced every other letter may be outlived and completed. And what is "the letter" but the symbol of flesh, visibleness, objectivity, historic fact and bulk? The Apostle Paul went so far as to say that even Christ was no longer known "after the flesh" yea, though he had been known after the flesh, that kind of knowledge was for ever done away, and another knowledge had permanently taken its place. The Church has never adopted the whole meaning of that teaching. Willing enough to consign Leviticus to the shades, the Church still clings to some sort of bodily Christ, the figure of a man, a bulk to be at least imaginatively touched. This is easily accounted for without suggesting superstition, and yet it might be done away with without imperilling faith. We are held in bondage by a mistaken conception of personality. When we think of that term we think of ourselves. But even admitting the necessity of this, we may by a correct definition of personality acquire a higher conception of our own being. Instead of saying that personality is this or that, after the manner of a geometrical figure, binding it to four points and otherwise limiting it, say that personality is the unit of being, and instantly every conception is enlarged and illuminated, the meaning being that personality is the starting point of conscious existence, not the fulness but the outline, not the maximum but the minimum, the very smallest conception which the mind can lay hold of, the Euclidic "point" to be carried on into ratios and dimensions which originate a new vocabulary. We do not, then, define "God" when we describe him as a "Person," we merely begin to define him; in other words, we say, God cannot be less than a Person, what more he is we must gradually and adoringly discover. So far as Christ is concerned there is one enlargement of his personality which no school of thinkers will dispute, rhetorically expressed by M. Renan, when he says of Jesus "A thousand times more living, a thousand times more loved since thy death than during the days of thy pilgrimage here below, thou wilt become to such a degree the Corner Stone of humanity, that to tear thy name from this world would be to shake it to its foundations." If ritualism has been displaced by spirituality, and if law has been suspended by a principle in other words, if the local has made way for the universal why shrink from the admission that limited personality has been exchanged for unlimited Influence? If along that line of thought any sincere and reverent mind can go out in adoration and thankfulness, why embarrass its noble and ennobling rapture by unprofitable, because indeterminable, discussions upon the metaphysics of personality? I have no difficulty whatever in realising the personality of Christ, and in that recognition I find the strength and joy peculiarly needed by one order or quality of mind, so much so that without it life would be decentralised and prayer would fail of its destiny, but where other minds can find rest and inspiration it is better that they should live high up in sunshine than that they pine in the prison of darkness. In the one case profit is possible; in the other death is certain.

Contemporary judgment and charity may be assisted, in view of the ever-enlarging future, by imagining the writer of Leviticus face to face with the Church of the present time. Note the extreme singularity of the circumstances. We say (some hardly knowing what they mean) that the book is inspired, yet no ordinance of it is perpetuated; we say that the book is canonical, yet no ritual obligation is binding; on no account could we permit the elision of the book, yet no one observance would we reproduce. We claim, too, that our religion has in some way absorbed, fulfilled, completed, and abolished the book by consummation, in other words it is claimed that Christianity is Judaism interpreted and glorified. From our standpoint, particularly if we are clerically minded this construction may be satisfactory, but the immediate question is, How would Moses regard nineteenth century worship, say of a Low Church and Evangelical type, as the true evolution of Leviticus? Where is the resemblance? The eye that can see the similitude is surely looking through an adapted medium. Yet the mystery would be dissolved if the book of Leviticus were not open to reference. The man is the completion of the child, but the child is no longer in existence: the fruit is the fulfilment of the blossom, but the blossom is no longer available for comparison or contrast. Christianity is the consummation of Leviticus, but Leviticus remains, unlike the child and the blossom, and offers a series of dissonances or dissimilarities, of the most positive quality. Yet if Moses were living now he would be unchurched if he refused to identify the meaning of Leviticus in the service of the Christian sanctuary the Papist nearest in gorgeousness, the Protestant claiming to be nearest in doctrine, and the Nonconformist Moses would, in the absence of inspiration, be, in this matter, the arch-heretic of the century.

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