Living by the Book of Leviticus

I'm a minister, and not too long ago I led a small group from my former church in Boston through an experiment of living by the Old Testament book of Leviticus for a month.

If you've even heard of Leviticus, what probably comes to mind is that obsolete part of the Bible devoted to animal sacrifice, kosher food and bizarre commandments pertaining to skin infections and improper sex with your father's daughter. Skeptics know it as ammunition for homosexual haters or as a target for animal-rights activists. Many Jews regard it as awkward and outmoded. Its unfamiliar terms and references render it apparently irrelevant for modern readers.

Nevertheless, since Leviticus is in the Bible, I thought it worthwhile as a minister to at least give it a look. But since Leviticus was meant to be lived rather than simply looked at, it made more sense to give it a try. Maybe living Leviticus would show us whether it was really so irrelevant or not.

What this meant for our group was experimentation with everything from building makeshift tabernacles in one woman's apartment to eschewing shaving and making reparation payments to people we had wronged. Needless to say, it was a very interesting month.

Clearly the biggest challenge with Leviticus is what to do with its emphasis on animal sacrifice. Goats, birds, bulls and rams were regularly slaughtered not only to atone for wrongdoing but also as a way of expressing gratitude, making peace and celebrating abundant harvests.

These days, however, animal sacrifice breaks more laws than it keeps. Besides, not even the most orthodox Jews sacrifice animals any longer. No animals were harmed during our Levitical month, but still, we were left to wonder in the first place why so much seemingly senseless slaughter had been commanded by a God who purportedly loves all creatures.

What we didn't realize until we dug a bit deeper was that the majority of animals sacrificed in Leviticus weren't so much burnt as they were cooked. Animal sacrifice would have smelled a lot like a summer outdoor barbecue. And not only was the sacrificial meat grilled, but it was accompanied by offerings of baked grain and poured drink too. And all of this occurred three times a day. The sacrifices that atoned for sin gave thanks and made amends, fed people too.

Viewed this way, to eat three meals a day and be thankful for them is a participation in the ancient practice of Levitical sacrifice. To sacrifice acknowledged that all we enjoy in life comes to us as gift. We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards.

For some of the participants in the Levitical experiment, to sacrificially eat also meant to purchase food that was humanely procured and organically grown. It cost more, but the sacrifice was a way to respect the gift and the giver. Other participants were motivated to share their food with hungry people in our community. This sacrifice made amends for all the ways that participants had selfishly thought only of their own hunger while ignoring the needs of others.

Living By Leviticus

I love to cook. Culling ingredients from local farmers' markets, chopping and prepping veggies, slowly sautéing or braising with a variety of spices, and then presenting a meal to partake can be a genuine religious experience for me. That food and festivals are centerpieces of every religious expression made it no surprise that food and festivity find so much expression in Leviticus too. In addition to seven chapters on animal sacrifice — aka barbecue — there is a whole chapter devoted to religious festivals. Leviticus is the party book of the Old Testament.

For my family, meal preparation is often accompanied by music. Gratitude is given prior to eating, and a time of spiritual reading and prayer follows. The meal itself is a time of connection and basic obedience to that chief of Levitical commands: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Such a practice makes food taste better too.

Daniel M. Harrell is the author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). He is Senior Minister of Colonial Church, Edina, MN and also author of Nature's Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith (Abingdon, 2008). Click here to find out more about Daniel.