A New Testament Leviticus

My grandpa, for as long as I’ve been alive, has read the Bible every morning and evening nearly without fail. Even when he’s on a trip somewhere, his Bible goes with him and he sits to read it during breakfast and before bed. I have one iconic image of this devout man sitting at the table wit his well-worn Bible laid flat out in front of him, his arms on either side of it, a glass of orange juice waiting just within reach. He has an unconscious motion he does with the fingers of his left hand – a small readjustment of his wedding ring – that happens every few minutes. I have always wondered whether that movement meant he read something particularly thought provoking or if it was part of the mental process of reading, a movement that his brain could not do without.

My grandpa and pretty much every other person who has read the Bible cover-to-cover will tell you that one of the hardest books of the Bible to get through is Leviticus, the book of the laws that God gave to Moses for the Jews to follow. It’s a really dry book. When you’re reading it, it feels like you’re being forced to chew on sandpaper. And yet, this book is one of the most important books for Jews who live by its rules daily. Christians don’t follow Leviticus with nearly the attention to detail that Jews do. They have their own rules set down by the Church based in Scripture. But I would argue that certain books in the New Testament do have a hint of the flavor of Leviticus, a sort of legal “do this, don’t do that” feeling about them.

from Scenes from the Life of St. Paul (mosaic), Byzantine School, 12th century. Duomo, Monreale, Sicily, Italy.)
from Scenes from the Life of St. Paul (mosaic), Byzantine School, 12th century. Duomo, Monreale, Sicily, Italy.)

1 Corinthians, chapter 5

For this week in the evening New Testament readings, 1 Corinthians is the chosen text. One of the readings is for chapter 5, a short little chapter containing the very famous reference to a little bit of yeast leavening a whole batch of dough.

“Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (v. 6-8, NIV)

This is actually a fascinating chapter, however, because it talks about a case of incest happening within the church at the time. One member was sleeping with his mother, or, specifically, “his father’s wife” (v. 1).* Paul goes on to chastise the Christians in this community for boasting about this and calls on them to put the man out from their association. He then goes on to give a list of sinners that the Christians shouldn’t associate with, including fornicators, extortioners, and drunkards.

What’s the point of this chapter? It seems like a very specific piece of advice from Paul for a very specific occasion. So why do we read it again during Lent? Do we really have to stop associating with people who do the things Paul lists? In that case, maybe we should be wary of walking into any banking institution in the world. Really, this passage seems a little extreme for our modern times, so why should we give it any credence at all?

Missed Point

In fact, the point of this chapter is very subtly made and does have applications to our modern world, if you can figure out what it is. Most people point to the passage about the “leaven,” but this isn’t the direct point, it’s the explanation of the point.

The point comes in the second verse:

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named[a] among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” (v. 1-2)

The friends of the incestuous couple were proud of it. They were so affected by their associating with this person that they got wrapped up in it and took part in it by condoning and boasting of it. This is what Paul is talking about when he transitions to talking about the leaven. One person can affect an entire group and lead them into many places they wouldn’t otherwise want to go or even should go. A lot of people skip this object example and skip right to the explanation, but it shows just how extreme things can get when you let them go for too long.

“We Can’t Hang Out Anymore”

So if one person can have that much of an effect on others, does that mean that we can’t hang out with certain people anymore?

I don’t know if I would be that literal. It is almost impossible to function without associating with people who are engaged in some of the sins that Paul lists in verse 11. Some are easier to spot than others, such as adultery or drunkenness or railing, which is another term for argumentative or lecturing. I wouldn’t say that we have to cut off all contact with friends who could be characterized like this.

What I would say is that it is essential to evaluate their affect on our lives. When we’re with them, are we, in turn, doing the same things? Am I always drunk with my friends who are “drunkards”? If the answer is yes, then maybe taking a step back from those friends would be good. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if those friends who are putting us in those situations are having a negative affect on us, then it is better for our own spiritual, mental, and sometimes physical health that we distance ourselves.

The Lenten Connection

Okay, fine, that’s great advice and we heard that from our parents when we went to college, etc etc. But what’s the connection to Lent?

The obvious connection is that Lent is a time of purification and abstinence. To make ourselves better people, we might have to abstain from people who don’t help us lead good lives. It really is that simple of a connection.

However, I’m more inclined to look at it another way: for a moment, put yourself in the position of the incestuous persons. Over time, as they continue to engage in their illicit relationship, people start disappearing from their lives. Their brothers desert them one by one until finally, they are left completely alone with only each other. It’s a lonely, hard thing for them. In their isolation, they end up hating each other and their own selves. There is soon nothing good in their lives that was there before. What now?

We can talk about distancing ourselves from people who are unhealthy influences on us. Mostly, however, we don’t think of ourselves as being the problem. In our pride, when we see people putting distance between them and us, we take an attitude of “well, their loss,” as though it doesn’t reflect on us at all. Sometimes this is true, but more often than not, we’re unable to see ourselves as the problem.

Lent is about challenging ourselves. We tend to give up things in order to test our will power, even if we’re not religious. But if we are religious, there is the aspect of self evaluation that goes on every day during Lent. Our fasting and abstinence can become a reminder of something we’re trying to change about ourselves, not just a weight loss program, but a spiritual weight loss, too. When next we don’t have meat or don’t have the soda or don’t have coffee in the morning, we can treat it as a reminder that we’re trying to fix at least some of our flaws during this time. That’s what 1 Corinthians 5 can help us do if we read it with the right idea. It’s not a pleasant idea, but it is probably a necessary one.

I am not a biblical scholar, but it seems like this could be a case where maybe the father’s wife wasn’t blood related to the man, which doesn’t excuse anything, I just find it interesting as an aside to the main point that this phrasing is used by the epistle writer.


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