Moses should have quit while he was ahead. If only the Torah had consisted of the “two books of Moses” instead of five. And ended with Exodus, a historical account of repression, courage and perseverence. And he delivers the Ten Commandments, the equivalent of the U.S. Constitution. A rather short document which assumes people of good will can figure out the rest.
Although I prefer George Carlin’s distillation of the tablets into Three Commandments.
THOU SHALT ALWAYS BE HONEST AND FAITHFUL, ESPECIALLY
TO THE PROVIDER OF THY NOOKIE.
THOU SHALT TRY REAL HARD NOT TO KILL ANYONE, UNLESS,
OF COURSE, THEY PRAY TO A DIFFERENT INVISIBLE MAN
THAN THE ONE YOU PRAY TO.
THOU SHALT KEEP THY RELIGION TO THYSELF.
But Moses faced an age-old problem. He was the leader of a tribe over which he was losing control, as first evidenced by that golden calf incident at Mount Sinai. To make matters worse, God told him all those people who had been subjected to Pharaoh’s tyranny were incapable of participating in the new order. He had to make them crisscross the desert for 40 years until they all died off (including Moses himself).
Forty years is a lot of time to kill. So, what does Moses do? He decides to expound on the Ten Commandments just in case the Israelites did not get it. If the Ten Commandments was the Constitution, Leviticus is the U.S. Code.
Think of Leviticus as a compilation of responses to unimagined behavior. But it did not end with Leviticus. For example, today in Alaska, it is illegal to wake a hibernating bear for the purpose of taking its picture. Why? Because you know some fool tried exactly that. As comedian Costaki Economoupolous (real name) suggests, the penalty for violating this law? “Death by bear.”
Imagine Moses watching over his flock and each time he observed behavior which seemed out of place he made a note to himself. “You need to tell the people ‘DON’T DO THAT.” Some of them make sense though you would hope unnecessarily.
- Finding lost property and lying about it. (L6:3)
- Having sex with your mother. (L18:7)
- Marrying your wife’s sister while your wife still lives. (L18:18)
- Cursing the deaf or abusing the blind. (L19:14)
- Making your daughter prostitute herself. (L19:29)
Some made sense at the time, especially those related to sanitation or proper preparation of food, problems hopefully addressed by the invention of the refrigerator and the USDA.
However, when you have 40 years, there was no telling what people would do to kill a few hours or days.
- Letting your hair become unkempt. (L10:6)
- Picking up grapes that have fallen in your vineyard. (L19:10)
- Mixing fabrics in clothing. (L19:19)
- Eating fruit from a tree within four years of planting it. (L19:23)
- Selling land permanently. (L25:23)
It makes one wonder how portions of Leviticus could possibly have been penned contemporaneously. If, as reported, the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert, were they ever in one place long enough to grow grapes or fruit trees? Or who would take out a 10-year mortgage to buy land if they knew they would soon move on to the next location?
If this looks or sounds remotely familiar, maybe that is because we have our own restless tribe with its own golden calf (or one with dyed golden hair). Out of power, they are adrift in a political desert with lots of time on their hands. So, they have decided to fill that time by creating their own version Leviticus including:
- Do not give nourishment to voters in line even if they have to wait hours to enter the polling place.
- Restrict the right to assemble unless you are a Canadian trucker or headed to DC.
- Make up non-existent justifications to ban books.
- Challenge election results whenever you lose.
- Accuse anyone who supports gay rights of being a pedophile.
- Claim to be pro-business unless a private corporation disagrees with your bats**t policies.
- Decry “cancel culture” whiling trying to cram LGBTQ Americans back in the closet.
As you know, I am not a believer but there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from the evolution of religion. Despite my Jewish heritage, I admire the change in tenor between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (once you get past Exodus) is about power and control. Written approximately 15 centuries later, the New Testament speaks of comfort, mercy, peace and a thirst for righteousness.
Is present-day America capable of a similar enlightenment? I do not have the answer. If it does, I hope it does not take another 1500 years.
For what it’s worth.