Martin Young
Martin Young

Leviticus explained, and why sceptics should leave it alone

If I had to comment loudly and publicly about the play of a rugby match using the rules of golf, I would rightly deserve to be considered an idiot. Similarly anyone who uses the content of Leviticus as an argument against Christianity could with good reason be called the same. Yet I see this done time and time again by people who consider themselves both intelligent and omniscient enough to make public proclamations about something about which they demonstrably know very little indeed. They don’t know that they don’t know it, and global experience suggests that this is the worst and most dangerous type of ignorance.

So, please permit me to explain to those who would parade The Law of Leviticus, or the Old Covenant, in public in order to attack Christianity so that they don’t embarrass themselves again.

One cannot accurately critique Christianity without understanding The Law of the Old Covenant and the massive exchange that occurred under the New Covenant — here I try to describe it in as few words as possible.

The Bible tells the story of Man’s falling out with God, and God’s restoration of the relationship by means of parable, analogy, poetry, prophetic writings, and personal letters with a bit of historical detail as well. It is neither a science book nor a history text, and context is everything. So one is advised not to use a text or verse without knowing who wrote it, to whom it was written, why it was written, and what the conditions at the time were. Leviticus is a supreme example of the need to apply this rule.

The essential story of Genesis is that Man decided to go his own way, break relationship with God and exercise his own free will. And God (I paraphrase) said, “Fine. But you’re moving out to be on your own, and if you want to restore our relationship, you’ll have to do it on my terms. If you want to make things right with me again via your own endeavours, this is what you will have to do. Jump through hoops. This, for the time being, is The Law for being acceptable in my sight.”

God for his own indiscernible reasons chose the Jews, a particularly irascible and fractious people at the time, as his chosen conduit to restore relationship with man. And he gave his people the “ritual” Law contained in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the set of rules by which they could approach him and have relationship with him by being “good enough” to do so.

The Law was by intention impossible to live by, a yoke and burden beyond any reason. Normal people could not keep The Law living a normal life, and breaking just one meant they had broken it all and had sinned. A Holy God could not let sin go unpunished, and to keep themselves in God’s favour, the Jews had to provide a substitute for the punishment that followed breaking The Law, by passing judgement onto something else, by sacrificing an animal that was itself blameless.

So the God of the Old Testament is indeed at the time an angry God, concerned about the welfare only of his own chosen people, keeping them under an impossible burden of rules and regulations, reliant on making amends by animal sacrifice. It is no surprise the Old Testament is a story of wars and conquests, of failures far more than successes, making for the most part neither happy nor comfortable reading.

Christians believe that God then did something truly remarkable. He provided himself as the atonement sacrifice, bearer of blame, in the person of Jesus, who through the crucifixion removed the need for the Law completely. The new deal for every individual was: Exchange all the requirements, limitations and restrictions of The Law simply by accepting the reality and purpose of Jesus.

So, the ritual Law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, applies to those Jews alone who turn down the new deal and should have no influence nor bearing on Christians who have accepted the New Covenant through Christ. To argue that it should is a deception as old as the New Testament itself, something that Paul was preoccupied about and wrote about in most of his letters to the new Churches, and one that continues within the greater church today. Show me a church focused on keeping and enforcing the rules — all too many churches — and I’ll show you an unhappy congregation and a dysfunctional church.

Time and time again the Bible states (paraphrased) “Who would believe this New Deal, that it could be so easy, and require so little from us?” Indeed, The Law remained such an issue in the minds of man that it is no surprise that newer religions like Islam should revert to the process by which man had to again follow rules to be acceptable to God.

The discerning reader will notice that the terms of the New Covenant are such that even the worst of sinners has a “get out of jail free” card and an easy escape from heavenly retribution. Christianity is that alarmingly simple, that “unfair” in our own worldly terms that it is no wonder many still cannot bring themselves to believe it.

So the laws of Leviticus have no bearing on modern Christian thought or practice except as a reflection of the fate that we have escaped, and of the great exchange that took place on the cross.

Anyone who uses The Law in modern criticism of Christianity might as well swap his/her golf clubs for a rugby ball and kick it around the course. Good luck in getting it into the hole, and in avoiding the stares and sniggers in the clubhouse!

So, critics, please by all means challenge us on our beliefs, call us out on our actions, but please do so accurately, and from an informed perspective.

Or risk looking as foolish as you think are those you critique.

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    • Stephen Browne

      You forgot to mention God (and morality by extension) is immutable. Guess the definition of unchanging is different once it’s been through the ridiculous ringer of christian theology.

    • Ms Ann Thrope

      “Christians believe that God then did something truly remarkable. He provided himself as the atonement sacrifice, bearer of blame, in the person of Jesus, who through the crucifixion removed the need for the Law completely”

      Why? Why would God get extremely pissed off, put down a set of ridiculous laws which no one could be expected to adhere to, and then suddenly randomly decide to forgive everything in the most bizarre fashion by allowing his son to be killed? What reason besides misanthropy, schizophrenia and general all-round insanity?

      I truly don’t understand how any thinking education person can continue to believe this.

    • northierthanthou

      This would be a reasonable criticism were it not for the fact that Christians often cite Leviticus as applicable to morals of today, and specifically as an explanation for opposition to homosexual acts. Such Christians are not themselves restricting its significance to the context which you provide. You may say that they are incorrect in doing so, but it certainly does explain why the rest of us often cite Leviticus back at Christianity. If you want to keep Leviticus to such narrow grounds, your argument is NOT simply with the critics of Christianity.

    • Steve from Beep Bank

      Completely agree, Martin. Why should any intelligent individual expect people to live their lives based on a work of fiction?

      For example, as a sane and reasonable person, I’m highly unlikely to suddenly decide to attempt to pilfer “hunny” from a bees’ nest up the tallest tree in the 100-Acre Wood simply because I read about it in Winnie the Pooh, am I?

      Equally, this notion asserted by these so-called atheists that modern Christians should obey the rules set out in Leviticus (or any other Bible book, chapter or verse) simply because it is written down is almost insulting. Ha! Who looks stupid now?


    • Foom

      Reckon Jesus disagrees with you.

      Matthew 5, 17 – 19:
      17 “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

      18 For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.

      19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.


      Not that I care either way; I judge folks by their actions, and the homophobia and misogyny displayed by many religious folks is telling.

    • Stephen

      How condescending of you.

      I would imagine being all knowing and all powerful, god would have built a tome that was relevent for all times? Why should a tome created by the supreme being necessarily need context (interpretational contorsionism even) to make sense?

      It should be understandable to the most simple of us.

    • http://none Richard Becker

      I think Martin has his tongue in his cheek and is kidding us, nobody can really believe this mumbo jumbo.

    • Jan Swart

      Religion is nothing more and nothing less than other people trying to tell you what to think and what to do.

    • Garg Unzola

      Ah religious claptrap. Well, we have ideological claptrap aplenty on thoughtleader so perhaps this isn’t so surprising.

    • GP

      Two words: confirmation Bias.

      This author could go work for Government the way he can spin things.

    • Charlotte

      Substitute the word ‘indoctrination’ for religion.
      And there you have it.

    • Tacuma Cumo

      I am spoiled for choice in critiquing your article. With only 1500 character, it would be impossible if not overly ambitious. Just the title leaves a lot to be desired. Does your argument confine itself exclusively with the Book of Leviticus? I have seen you make reference to Genesis. Regardless, I will let that go.

      What I cannot let go, is this amazing feat of Double Standard: “…anyone who uses the content of Leviticus as an argument against Christianity”; I wonder which opinion do you hold on anyone who uses the content of Leviticus as an argument for Christianity. Surely, if you base your religion on: “Christians believe that God then did something truly remarkable. He provided himself as the atonement sacrifice, bearer of blame, in the person of Jesus, who through the crucifixion removed the need for the Law completely.”

      To remove the need for the Law as you say (call it ritualistic if you so choose), is an ambiguous statement if I ever came across one. Does it now mean under the New Covenant that Leviticus 18:7 which reads: “You may not have sex relations with your father or your mother: she is your mother, you may not take her.” has been done away with? I think you know what that makes you. There is no need to disclose such vulgarity. Often times, Christians have used the scriptures to persecute Homosexuals.

      I am perplexed, how does one come to terms with a double standard between Old Covenant and New Covenant (as you say)? God changed his Omniscient…

    • Simon Howell

      It seems to me that the problem with the belief/non-belief debate, with reference to bible quotes, is not so much what is quoted as justification but that it is quoted in the first place. The bible, by most accounts, was written with many innuendos, metaphors, and prophecies, etc. As such it provides a fountain of contradictory or paradoxical sayings and sentences which are then politicised and used in the aforementioned debate as ‘proof’ or justification by either side. If you cut up most books into saying there would be a number of contradictory sentences. Each time this is done however BOTH sides abstract individual sentences out of their context in order to justify their truth claim. This is just a bad argument strategy, irrespective of the truth of the matter and results in what we see today – tit for tat arguments that go on for ever and prove nothing.

      Personally I think this undermines both sides of the debate – people have made careers out of being evangelical atheists, spreading the ‘truth’ of their own gospel in the same way that evangelical theists do. What is interesting to me is that if the possibility exists for two competing truth claims, what does that say about the truth of the matter?

    • Barbara

      Yes, I realize that indeed it seems ludicrous that all of The Law would be waived in return for accepting the sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross. – What one needs to understand is the purpose of The Law: it was created to show man that it is IMPOSSIBLE to earn one’s way into salvation and heaven as fallen, sinful man. – As for Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, allow me to give an analogy. If someone is caught exceeding the speed limit and gets stopped by a traffic officer who issues a fine, that fine HAS to be paid – but not necessarily by the person who committed the offense. Someone else can pay on their behalf. That is what Jesus did for man – for whosoever will believe and accept His payment for their sins. – This is incomprehensibile to the rational, logical mind – it has to be received by the spirit. If anyone reading this would like to put it to the test, I challenge them to ask God to reveal Himself to them and wait and see what happens …! :-)
      P.S. The Christian faith has one marked difference to all other religions: it is the only one in which God – motivated by His love for His creation – reaches out and does something for man; in all others you have to work your own way towards enlightenment, an arduous task indeed.

      Blessings !

    • Momma Cyndi

      ??? so modern day christianity no longer believes in the ten commandments because they are in the old testament – or is it a cherry-picking deal where they get to chose some passages and turf out others that don’t suit them ???

      GOOD GRIEF but you religious types are a confusing bunch!

    • Mr. Direct

      I sent the church back for a full refund because I could not understand the user manual.

      It is pointless to debate these topics because, quite simply, the bible is no longer relevant for the times. We are so far beyond it’s level of understanding that is simply cannot hold up to detailed scrutiny. There is so little that no longer makes sense, there are too many variations, and too many arguments about small details when clearly the book needs a solid rewrite.

      If there was a God, alive and well, She would surely correct this.

      If She does not, then we will forever doubt this old pathetic book, and if She does, we would most likely never believe her without a couple of serious fireworks.

      If She were to give us something to prove her existence, then I hope She will do something useful like punish all the pedophiles and rapists by making their junk fall off.

    • The Praetor

      I have always maintained that the Old testament was given for a different time, and that the New Covenant brought by Jesus replaced it.

      This due to the fact that it was impossible to abide by, and also the fact that the words of the old testament was misinterpreted and changed by man to satisfy their own agenda, and therefore that Jesus cursed the teachers and High priests.

      The Praetor

    • Martin Young

      I’m interested in knowing from those who posted comments on what basis they believe what they do?

      What experience and research have gone into your opinions? Have you looked at both sides of the God debate, or are you picking a side instinctively and/or by gut feel? Or from books you have read – probably the same ones that I have, on both sides of the argument. Or is it simply out of personal choice to accommodate your own lifestyles?

      Many of these comments contain statements similarly based on ignorance of context, cultural norms at the time the Bible scripture referred to was written, or misinformation/propaganda common in skeptic writings. Who of you have examined all sides of the debate and made a judgement based on balance of all the arguments?

      Each objection raised here has rational and reasonable counterarguments beyond the scope of this forum, each of them blog-worthy to some extent, but I’m not pushing my luck with the editors:)

      But virtually every one could be started and ended off with the same paragraphs I start and end this blog – that here in the comments is a fine display of preconceived ideas /propaganda not based on accurate study and knowledge. I rest my case.

      Simon – there is one critical event that points to the truth about God and everything to do with him, and that is the resurrection story of Jesus.That one event is a deal maker or breaker. Anyone really interested in finding out the truth for themselves should look there.

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Martin, I have no issue with your view that context is everything, that the Bible is the story of a certain groups’ relation with the God they believe in. I think I have seen Leviticus most often quoted in response to the homophobic arguments put forward by Christian fundamentalists. I think that is fair, if you quote a text to support your moral authority, surely the same text can be applied to question the validity of that argument?

      What I do find interesting is that in essence your argument is that YOU understand the text, whilst the critics don’t. That those who do not interpret the text in the way you do should be considered uninformed or even foolish? How is it that you have special access to this understanding? Is it that a non-christian cannot understand the text until they become christian? How then will they find God in reading the text, or is some text accessible and some not?

      I think that you have to accept that the text is open to all for their own interpretation, and that particularly if you use this text to support an argument the same text can be used to refute that argument.

    • Martin Young

      Gary, the Old Testament makes no sense without the New Testament. Paul’s writings in the New Testament focus very firmly on the need to abandon The Law in favour of the New Covenant, and looking back into the Old Testament scripture in Isaiah etc. predicts this change. So it is not simply ‘my’ interpretation, but the correct one, certainly in Paul’s view anyway.

      Atheists and fundamental Christians alike make the mistake of interpreting verses without taking the whole Bible into account, and the ‘right’ interpretation is there for all to see – those who can be bothered to look at any rate.

      You can make the Bible support anything you like if you ignore these principles, and religious and secular groups have made full use of this.

      So it is not simply a question of interpretation – it is about cherry picking in the extreme.

    • Charlie

      “It is neither a science book nor a history text, and context is everything”

      This is what makes it such a contentious book. Strange how the interpreting of the context has changed over the years as societies have changed.

      “I’m interested in knowing from those who posted comments on what basis they believe what they do?”

      A whole answer will be to long, the short answer would be lack of evidence of god/s. I do find it odd when people say things like this, “I challenge them to ask God to reveal Himself to them and wait and see what happens …!” maybe it’s a Christian thing that only they can understand.

    • Garg Unzola

      @Martin Young:
      Yes, I have looked at both sides. I’m a recovering Protestant and I went through the brain damage that is Sunday school all the way up to their version of graduation. Why would I do this? So that I make an informed decision. Of course by the time I learned about gay sex I decided that just eyeballing something is sometimes enough to make a judgement call without having to experience things too hands-on, as it were.

      I prefer the Carl Sagan approach to religious people as opposed to the Richard Dawkins approach, whereby the virtues of a materialistic world view are espoused instead of having the shortcomings of the ‘demon-haunted‘ world view lambasted.

      Of course, science doesn’t explain everything, but in most cases I’d rather be content with not knowing instead of maybe knowing something for certain that just isn’t so.

    • proactive

      … intention first was to skip this one! Unfortunately, succumbing to it in the end:

      Sorry for ignoring Leviticus, because it is with difficulty to x-ray the though processes and circumstances of people living 8,000 to 2,000 years ago. The set of morality prevailing than has undergone some drastic metamorphism.

      Considering that it was the first positive attempt to write a Covenant for a small number of humans living together peacefully in the near east, with dignity and some rules- it was quite a remarkable achievement and deserves respect!

      The reflection of today’s complex morality can be searched for in our present Constitution and those who wrote it by attaching some laws, can still be questioned to explain how come- whist they are still alive!

      Why not ask the judges on the bench of the Constitutional court?

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Martin I assume we agree that if a fundamentalist uses Leviticus in isolation, thus ignoring the whole, that their argument may be countered on the same basis? How else does one refute the homophobic statements using Leviticus as their rationale?

      The point we disagree on then is whether you as Martin have some kind of privileged position in understanding this complex text written in a context very different to our own. Is it because you believe, because you consider the whole, how is that you understand Paul but not fundamentalists and not atheists? That you have the confidence to state that you know definitively what Paul meant?

      As to the basis of my belief, it is nothing better than belief itself. Faith cannot be underpinned by science nor reason nor authority e.g. a sacred text. The Bible in my view, which is one of many possible views, is simply one account of humanity’s relationship and attempt to understand this entity beyondand within them which they label God. As such Christianity has one slice of the pie, it’s mistake is to view that slice as the whole pie and to thereby deny any other pie holders their own slice?

    • George

      Martin the opening paragraph and remaining content of the article leave one with an overwhelming feeling that if I should choose to change the rules of golf to the rules of rugby then I can. In addition I can use whatever means and in-congruent reasoning to justify it.

      Thereafter I can criticise and ridicule anyone who makes negative comments or plainly points and laughs in my direction, even if it may well be what I deserve. Religion is emotive and as believer in the existence of God I can understand the lack of objective reasoning. What I fail to understand is how after putting pen to paper and reading it that you can convince yourself it is worth sharing. Nevertheless you are entitled to your opinion.

      Your earlier comment about the Old Testament not making sense without the New Testament must surely be because the period between the Crucifixion of Christ and the first version of the New Testament was a time when “Man” decided what would work best for him and the lifestyle he sought rather than follow what had been ordained by the “Law” and that this newer easier life and “happy” God is what you would prefer to believe in rather than have an “angry” God forced on you. Once approved by the powers that be within the Church structures at the time (inclusive of their edits) the New Testament was circulated and indoctrinated using the Church as a distribution channel and voila here you are writing about the wonderful choice you have made, why it is right and…

    • Chris Martin

      God cannot die. Who would would looking after the universe and counting the hairs on everybodies’ heads during the down-time? (assuming he/she/it exists).

      Jesus was not God if he said “if you are not with me you are against me”. That is a false dichotomy – a logical fallacy that God would not make himself/herself/itself guilty of.

      Jesus did not die on the cross. Pilate did not want it, and it was his soldiers who were in control throughout the crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were complicit. They drugged him, took him down after only a few hours, nursed him back to health, and sent him far away to cause no more trouble.

      On the road to Damascus Paul was waylaid by a bunch of Christians in the hills armed with a large mirror to reflect the sun, and a loudhailer.

      Before you look for miracles look for a logical explanation.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Martin Young

      My mother was a Catholic Sunday School teacher and my father was an elder in the NG Kerk. I spent more of my childhood in a church or having bible lessons and bible study than I had hot dinners! Calling me ignorant of christianity isn’t really the best argument.

      We did a (rather naughty) experiment a number of years ago whereby we got a priest, a pastor, a domanee and a minister together. None of them could agree what a passage in the bible meant.

    • Ben

      Why do you single out Atheists for this criticism, when we reference Leviticus most often in a reactionary fashion after having it thrown at us by Christians?

      As a gay, I see little point for us to counter with the new testament when it is old testament verses being used against our freedoms and often very lives.

    • Pilgrim

      Martin, the law is only a master IF we follow it so that God will love us. However we are still to follow His rules because we love Him.John 14:23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This means we are not to follow the law for the sake of following the law.

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17 but to follow the the for Christ’s sake. For example Jesus is the sacrificial lamb he replaced the animal sacrifice commanded by God.

      Chris have you heard of the Trinity? Jesus is the physical manifestation of God. God is spirit and He cannot die in that sense you are right. You can define a human as a trinity. Body Mind and Conscience. Your conscience is not physical so is it not you?

    • Wally Barber

      Mmmmm…. so Jesus was wrong then, or was He. He said:
      For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
      I wonder why He said that, did he not know what God had planned?

    • William Boyd Spencer

      Once again you have taken scripture out of context.

    • Techy

      Conspiracy Theories do not qualify as logical arguments unless your comment is meant to satire. The Roman soldiers were expert executioners. If they were given a job to kill someone, then that person would be dead when they were finished. Your point on Paul made me laugh, so I suspect that satire was the objective here?