The Old Testament: Leviticus II – Mistakes and Uncleanliness

I was a messy, disorganized kid.  I bathed on a regular basis and my clothes were clean, but the people who know me well will be perhaps surprised to learn that my bedroom was usually a disaster zone.  You had to watch where you stepped and you had to work hard to find empty space on any visible surface (like my dresser). This drove Dad crazy and he would order me to clean my room often.  I was fine with this, for cleaning was a snap: I would take my hand and slide everything behind the dresser.  There, out of sight.  Clean.

This system worked fine for me.  Dad, on the other hand, had assumed I had done what he’d asked, but when he noticed my understanding of cleaning up he would explode.  I’d made the mistake of 1) not doing a good enough job cleaning up and 2) not taking my father all that seriously.  I wasn’t trying to get my father stirred up—no human being would ever willfully push him until his anger surfaced (trust me)—I probably just didn’t see the point.  Still, Dad kept trying.  He probably assumed I’d get it right eventually.

Dad’s a clean, organized person (as is Mom), and so I think it baffled him that his son was anything but.  It took years for me to learn to pick up after myself but I eventually towed the line.  Maybe my Virgo traits were just being stubborn, taking their time to surface.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t making mistakes like these during the time of Leviticus. It seems like it wouldn’t be a book of the Old Testament without angry God surfacing.

Just ask Aaron and his two sons.  Nadab and Abilu mess up some steps in one of their rituals before God. What exactly they do is unclear. He kills them anyway. Seems hard to learn your lesson if you’re not around to do differently. But then if you can be stricken down for making an error, I might not test the waters. Maybe this is why Aaron seems to have NO reaction to this. Really? I’m trying to picture my father in the same situation and seeing a different result.

But following the ritual isn’t something the average person worried about—their heads were full of worrying about what they could and couldn’t eat (animals with split, completely divided hoofs, chews own cud, yes; sea creatures with fins and scales, yes; pork, no) and when they could have sex with women (i.e. NOT during the seven days she was menstruating, a time when she was “unclean”). In fact, women were to be avoided altogether when they were “unclean.” (Good thing we have revised this mentality.  Can you imagine women calling out of work one week every month for being “unclean”?)

In fact, perhaps anticipating how difficult it would be to adhere to all of these policies, God made sure people understood that when they made mistakes and touched the wrong animal or a woman when she was “unclean,” they were only shunned for a short period—they would be “unclean” until evening (11:25).  I’m sure the priests wished they’d been so lucky when it came to their mistakes.

If the earlier books of the Old Testament made clear how violent society was back then, Leviticus reminds you—at length—how dirty everyone and just about everything was.  Seriously.  It’s hard to avoid reaching for your bottle of Purell while reading this section.

If I were a pig during this time, though, I would have been thrilled. But the more you think about these rules—keeping them in context—it’s clear as to why: sanitary reasons.  Since pigs carried more diseases than the other animals allowed, they were banned all together.  Sure, perhaps you could have cautioned people about proper cooking, etc.  But some things never change.  People tend to have thick heads when told to do something. So no pork. Not to eat or touch.  And apparently, you had to watch out for people with semen stains on their clothes (22:4).

I get why people would be reluctant to touch certain things. I don’t, however, understand why the testicles of the livestock offered for atonement had to be in good shape (22:24).  This seems like ensuring that the transmission on a car has been inspected and tuned up right before you demolish it.

One of the great things about being a kid—and perhaps an adult—in our culture is that you can experiment, make mistakes.  This is how we learn.  But kids need limits—and this is why some things are off limits.  You also need to know that perfection is rarely—if ever—obtained.

But since so many of the laws set down along with the Ten Commandments demand compassion and understanding, it seems strange that such intolerance would surround rituals here. Can’t adults be afforded SOME leeway?  Also: given how specific these rules are, I don’t know how people lived without constant fear—how could you NOT mess up? And when you did, there was no father who could stand up for you; rather, you went right to jail, did not pass go—automatically guilty. And I thought having to pick up after myself when I was a kid a big deal.

About virgowriter

Brad Windhauser has a Master's in English from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Santa Fe Writer's Project Journal, Ray's Road Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, Northern Liberty Review, and Jonathan. His first novel, Regret (a gay-themed thriller set in Philadelphia) was published in 2007. You can read more about (and buy) it here: His second novel, The Intersection, is being published by Black Rose Writing September 2016. He is one of five regular contributors to On his solo blog, he is chronicling his experience as a gay writer reading the Bible for the first time: Follow his work at:
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