Lessons from Leviticus: Part 3, Holiness and Grace

The Hebrew verb that animates the book of Leviticus is hivdil, meaning "to divide." 

All through the book, the Israelites, and especially the priests, are to mark distinctions and to make separations. Leviticus is about "dividing" the pure from the common and the clean from the unclean: "This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean." (Lev. 10.9b-10)

These acts of hivdil harken back to the creation story in Genesis, where God creates order from chaos via divisions, like dividing the light from the darkness. It's also a division that separates Israel from her pagan neighbors, setting her apart as a holy, consecrated community of priests. Hivdil, then, is how we create the holy:

You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev. 20.26)
All of this makes sense, but it also creates some problems for Christians who see in Jesus a willingness to transgress against the purity codes to embrace the unclean. Readers of Unclean will wonder how its author views the imperatives of hivdil. The Levitical impulse to make divisions between the clean and the unclean is "the bad guy" in Unclean. If so, can hivdil be rehabilitated? 

I think it can, and this may be the most important lesson I've learned from Leviticus. 

To start, let me set aside one of the most common objections to Unclean. Specifically, you can't have a community, even a welcoming community, without creating some boundaries and distinctions. A community without boundaries, like shared commitments or binding promises, isn't a community. 

I think this is one of the weaknesses of Unclean, how it can leave readers with a generic vision of "inclusion." Just love everybody! Which, of course, we should. But in practice this tends to water down to mean liberal tolerance among atomized individuals. There's no welcoming community extending a difficulty hospitality in that vision. Just a bunch of liberals who say to each other in the public sphere, "I'm okay, and you're okay." Progressive Christians love the message of Unclean, but if Christian inclusion and hospitality just mean non-judgmental tolerance--I'm okay, and you're okay--one hardly needs to read my book to get that message. Just watch a lot of TV. Non-judgmental tolerance is the ethic of our age. You don't need God or Jesus or Unclean to learn this.

All that to say, were I to rewrite Unclean today I'd have added nuances that push back upon a simplistic message that moral and communal boundaries are intrinsically bad. 

Anyway, putting that issue aside, here's what I think is the big lesson of Leviticus and its call to hivdil.

Simply put, holiness is the the prerequisite of grace. 

Start by recalling the points from Parts 1 and 2 of this series. The primary goal of Leviticus was to establish Hebrew monotheism in the mist of Canaanite paganism. And the most important tool in this effort was hivdil, the making of distinctions and divisions.

Of course, hivdil had a social aspect, Israel adopting particular, and even peculiar, lifeways that set her apart from her neighbors. The dietary laws are a prime example here. And yet, the most important aspect of hivdil wasn't cultural but theological

Specifically, all the work and worry to confess, establish, and live with the holiness of Israel's God was critical to the establishment of Hebrew monotheism. The paganism of Israel's neighbors was animistic and pantheistic, worshiping the spiritual potencies at work within creation. By contrast, the holiness of Israel's God recognized God as Wholly Other. The heart of Leviticus is establishing this division between God and creation. This division, this ontological labor, was the heavy theological lifting that extracted the Hebrew faith from the pagan, pantheistic matrix of the ancient world. 

Yes, yes, yes, Leviticus is bizarre and strange. But if you keep the ontological labor of hivdil in view, you come to see that Leviticus is, perhaps, the most important book in the Old Testament. 

So, the work of hivdil was critical to establishing the ontological Otherness of God. And this brings us to the key insight: God's Otherness is absolutely necessary for a doctrine of grace. Grace is a gift, a gift that comes to us from the Outside, as a divine interruption. Grace is grace because is crosses over a vast unbridgeable abyss, a chasm so great we cannot cross it from our side. It is the Otherness of God that makes grace an experience of God's free, unprompted, unilateral movement of love toward us. 

And without grace, there is only magic, being pushed and pulled in the competitive arena among rivalrous, fickle, and capricious creational powers.

My point here is that you can't get Jesus without the prior work of Leviticus. You can't have an experience of God's grace without a prior experience of God's holiness. You have to stare into the abyss, helpless, before the surprise at seeing a bridge cross over to you. There is no unmerited and unconditional gift without ontological Otherness. Without God's Otherness there is only spells and incantations. 

As I said, holiness is a requisite for grace. God had to be separated from creation to establish God as God, to extract relationship with God from the pagan and magical. This theological work had to happen first before anything else could happen. Before grace there had to be God. And once that work was completed, once we were clear about God, the path was paved for the revelation of grace. 

For grace to be experienced as grace an ontological boundary had to be crossed. 

Leviticus established the boundary, and in Jesus God crosses it in grace. 

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