Why? Because I am the Lord. And by “the Lord,” God means Yahweh. (That’s usually indicated in the “small caps” typeface. It’s a shorthand way of indicating that the biblical manuscripts are referring to the divine name without actually writing the unwritable name of the creator. Anyway, in today’s reading from Leviticus (19:26-37), we get a host of seemingly unconnected commandments, but they are all strung together with the refrain, “I am the Lord.” That tells me a lot about God and his law.
Why shouldn’t we eat meat with blood in it? Why shouldn’t we round off the hair on our temples or trim the edges of our beards? Why should we respect our elders and shelter the foreigner within our towns? Why should we be honest in our trade? Why should we bother keeping all of these commandments? Because God is God and that’s all you need to know. There’s a danger in reading this in the voice of a parent speaking to an obstinate child: “Why? Because I said so and because I am your mother/father!” That’s not what I hear in this. Instead, I hear a call to faith.
Keeping all these statutes isn’t about making God happy. It’s about making sure we remember that God is God and that he’s our God. In particular, I think the repeated use of God’s proper name emphasizes that point. In a time when lots of gods were thought to dwell in different parts of the world, Israel is taking steps to remember that they have one God. When they wear their hair in funny ways, they are proclaiming to themselves that they belong to Yahweh—their God. Each of these acts is an act of possession—a declaration that the adherents belong to God as his own possession, giving them the right to name him as their own.
But what does that mean for us? I got a haircut yesterday. I trimmed my beard on Monday. I might treat my parents with respect, and I might use fair practices in trade, but I don’t do those things because Leviticus 19 tells me to. I think we have to start with the core purpose of these commandments—to remind God’s people to whom they belong. When we evaluate what biblical laws we are supposed to keep (and which ones we are allowed to dismiss), that should be our starting point. Does ignoring what the bible tells us to do undermine our ability to have a right relationship with God?
If it helps me to remember that I belong to God, then I should eat kosher. And if I need to grow out a bushy beard to declare to the world that I am a child of God, then I should let it grow. But I suspect that for most of us (and this is a collective thing, not just a personal decision) we can figure out what is helpful and what is not. The scary thing, of course, is when those societal norms change. Patriarchal systems are declining, but we’ve learned for the most part that such changes don’t signify that our relationship with God is diminished. But Sabbath rest has long gone away, and I might argue that has lessened our collective sense of our createdness. What about same-gender relationships? What about dietary laws? What about immigration issues? When is the bible applicable, and when do we leave it aside? Well, it depends on whether the practice reminds us that God is God and that we are his people or whether in fact the ancient commandments might actually undermine that truth.