And if the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots, and if it appears to be deeper than the surface, then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house and shut up the house seven days. . . If the disease breaks out again in the house, after he has taken out the stones and scraped the house and plastered it, then the priest shall go and look. And if the disease has spread in the house, it is a persistent leprous disease in the house; it is unclean. And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place. – Leviticus 14:37-45
But if the priest comes and looks, and if the disease has not spread in the house. . . then the priest shall pronounce the house clean, for the disease is healed. And for the cleansing of the house he shall take two small birds, with cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop, and shall kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water and shall take the cedarwood and the hyssop and the scarlet yarn, along with the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the bird that was killed and in the fresh water and sprinkle the house seven times. . . So he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean. – Leviticus 14:48-53
Carl Sagan used the phrase “a candle in the dark” to describe science’s ability to dispel the darkness of superstition and replace it with the light of reason. I greatly admire Carl Sagan and fully subscribe to this view of science. If the second half of Exodus is all about managing human behavior in a legalistic, mostly rational fashion, the first half of Leviticus would seem to be about managing the natural world through superstitious and even barbaric rituals. I have found it a distasteful and sometimes disturbing read, and I look forward to its conclusion after just a few more chapters.
Some would call me a bleeding heart, and I am undeniably sensitive to the suffering of other creatures, but I also think I rank fairly high on the jaded scale and enjoy intellectualizing and depersonalizing things. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel somewhat sickened by the senseless murder of animals that Leviticus prescribes as a solution to so many human concerns. I should admit that I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and a relatively strict one, but I don’t think you need to eschew meat to feel sorry for animals that die in religious ceremonies.
It seems so senseless to kill an animal in order to atone for a perceived failing or to thank God for an apparent bit of assistance, but that is what Leviticus repeatedly and graphically commands the Hebrews to do. God gives Moses the run-down: a bird for this, a lamb for that, an ox for another thing. Here is what you do with its blood, this is what you do with its organs, and don’t forget to do this with its hide, its bones, and its empty carcass. The instructions are detailed and go on for chapters. Animal sacrifice is not unique to the Bible, of course; plenty, perhaps all, ancient cultures practiced it. But after the surprisingly modern, practical legal code laid down in Exodus, the shift to the utter superstition of Leviticus is depressing.
Yet even in these dark pages I find a silver lining. A glimmer of early scientific thinking shines through in Leviticus 14, in the discussion of how to handle a leprous house. What is being described in the excerpt at the top of this post sounds very much like moldy spots on the inside of a building. The solution is reasonable: clean it out, board it up for a bit, and wait. If the spots spread or come back, tear the thing down and scatter its pieces away from human residences. In this scenario it is humans who must take proactive steps to protect the health of the community by isolating and fighting diseases through non-magical means. This basically scientific approach to rotten houses probably saved some lives in the ancient world.
Still, just a few verses later it’s back to killing birds and doing voodoo with their blood. Experimentation with various flora and fauna probably led to some medicinal discoveries, but such an outcome is not foreseen or implied in Leviticus. The spirit of this book is that the sacrifice of animals is pleasing to God. There’s not much I can say to that except no. Just no.
On a somewhat lighter note, in my opinion, Leviticus contains a couple of fun, fantasy-like reference to a mysterious demon named Azazel. Here are the passages:
And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. – Leviticus 16:8-10
And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. – Leviticus 16:26
The footnote for Azazel says “The meaning of Azazel is uncertain; possibly the name of a place or a demon, traditionally a scapegoat.” I’d like to think that Azazel was some kind of pre-Judaic demon or god whose existence was still acknowledged by early Hebrews and who still commanded some degree of respect, fear, and accommodation during Moses’s time.
Unless we’re going to hear more about demons from the mists of time, though, it’s time to be done with Leviticus ASAP.