Lessons from Leviticus: Part 7, Death, Animals, and Protecting Our Humanity

A lot of our reaction to Leviticus depends upon what we are comparing it to. Comparing Leviticus to modern, liberal sensibilities makes us perceive the book as barbaric and inhumane. But different contrasts cast the book in a more compassionate light. 

For example, just by chance, I was working my way through Leviticus while watching the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. (Our family got a free subscription to HBO with a new cellular plan, so I was finally able to watch the show.) As I wrote about recently, Game of Thrones is known for its barbarity and brutality. In this, Game of Thrones is closer to the world of Leviticus than modern America. And as I went back and forth between Game of Thrones and Leviticus I always experienced relief upon returning to the world of the Bible. In contrast to the barbarism and brutality of Game of Thrones, the world of Leviticus was more ordered, more ethical, safer, and more humane. 

In short, we tend to judge Leviticus with modern moral sensibilities instead of seeing it as the ethical and political revolution was at the time. Leviticus speaks into a world of full callous violence, sociopathic torture, routine rape, and child sacrifice. Leviticus speaks into a world like that of Game of Thrones

Seen against that backdrop, we see how Leviticus is a training manual in becoming a human being along with the creation of a humane society. Leviticus cultivates and guards human and humane sensibilities. Leviticus is a school of the heart. 

Consider, for example, how Leviticus treats the killing of animals.

It is noteworthy that humans were created by God to be vegetarians. Genesis 1.29:

Then God said [to Adam and Eve], “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food."

As we've learned in Leviticus, the blood of living creatures is their life, and in the beginning humans were not allowed to take the life of anything, human or animal. This alone is a humanizing impulse, this deep and sacred recognition for all animal life. Our modern concern for animals rights and suffering finds its origin right here in the Bible. 

Allowing humanity to eat meat appears as a divine concession after the flood. Genesis 9.1-3:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything."
But as just noted, this concession is only granted if humans recognize that, in eating animal flesh, they have no right to the life of an animal. The life of the animal, the blood, is God's alone and must be returned to God. As Genesis 9 continues:
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind."
Note this: "I will demand an accounting from every animal." Leviticus codifies how that accounting would be done in the life of Israel. Perhaps the oldest sacrificial law in Leviticus is found in chapter 17, specifying how the slaughtering of animals was to be conducted:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people." (Leviticus 17.1-4)
Every time an animal was slaughtered for food it had to be taken before the Lord. This is clearly a burdensome requirement, but we can see the humanizing logic. Humans, to remain human, cannot become inured to killing. The death of each animal has to be marked and given sacred recognition. Otherwise, callousness accumulates and spreads like a cancer. Indifference to killing becomes the norm. In all this, we see how Leviticus is guarding the heart. 

Which should give us pause. When it comes to using animals as food, who is more barbaric, more callous and indifferent? Us or Leviticus? 

And as Jacob Milgorm observes, protecting the heart also seems to be the driving logic behind all the bizarre food prohibitions we find in Leviticus. 

We love making fun of Leviticus for banning shrimp and bacon from the Hebrew diet. Seems like such a waste. But such jokes miss the deeper, humanizing insight. 

To be sure, great barrels of ink have been spilt trying to find a uniting theme about why some animals are deemed unclean in Leviticus, and not fit for eating, and others deemed kosher. None of these attempts have been fully persuasive. And yet, our curiosity and perplexity here misses the deeper point. The point to be noted isn't why certain animals are considered unclean, but the fact that most animals are unclean

What we tend to miss is how incredibly restrictive Leviticus is when it comes to eating animals. And here again we see a humanizing logic. After the flood, yes, a concession is made to allow eating animals, but that concession is very, very restrictive. When it comes to animals, humans were not allowed to become omnivores. Killing is thereby profoundly restricted. As Milgrom writes, "The Israelites are asked to go beyond the abstention from blood, which is enjoined upon all people. They are to discipline their appetites further by narrowing down the permitted animals to a few. In this way they may aspire to a higher level of life, which the Bible calls qadosh, or holy." 

In all this we can see how Leviticus is protecting and cultivating humaneness. A last word from Milgrom: "[By] virtue of his training and piety, [the ancient Hebrew] soul shall never be torpefied by his incessant butchery but kept ever sensitive to the magnitude of the divine concession in allowing him to bring death to living things."

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