Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Leviticus: Human Effing Sacrifice

Welcome back. We’re slogging our way through Leviticus, and ended the last post with the story of a young man stoned to death for the victimless crime of blasphemy. The Bible tells us this was just. Do you believe that? It might be worth thinking about (as might the implications of the answer you come up with).

So next we swing from brutal killings to a little concept called the Sabbath Year. Basically, it’s letting your fields go fallow once every seven years. My understanding is that giving your fields a rest now and then is a good thing, though I have no idea whether doing so every seven years is ideal or merely a product of the Bible authors’ obsession with the number seven.

That number obsession shows up again in the Jubilee, which occurs every fifty years. The Bible specifies this as the year after seven sevens of years has passed. And the festival associated with it starts on the tenth day of the (wait for it) seventh month. In the year of Jubilee, you’re not supposed to sow fields nor reap whatever grows on its own. The claim is that God would make it such that the harvest in the year before would be so great that they’d have enough food left over to get all the way through the jubilee year without harvesting anything new (actually, it makes this claim for the year before every Sabbath year as well).

That last bit? That’s what we call a testable claim. I should be interested to see if anyone trying to follow these Biblical instructions actually sees a dramatic increase in crop yields in that one year. However, my brief sojourn into the internet seems to indicate that nobody has followed the jubilee rules for centuries… possibly because they’re bullshit and didn’t hold up in actual practice.

And the Jubilee has some… odd… rules regarding property. I’ll see if I can summarize them.

In the year of Jubilee, the Israelites are to return to their own property. Even if they had previously sold it, it now reverts back to them. Because of this, whenever you sell property you’re supposed to pro-rate the price of the land based on how many years remain until the next Jubilee. Basically, the Jews are forbidden to actually sell their land, but are only allowed to sell the right to use their land until the next Jubilee.

This sort of implies that peacefully acquiring land on a permanent basis from Israelites is impossible.

In addition, land that has been sold can be redeemed (bought back) before the jubilee year. If the original owner can meet the price, it has to be sold back to him.

Interestingly, dwellings in walled cities are an exception. These can only be redeemed within a year of the sale, and after that they belong to the buyer forever. They are not returned in the jubilee. Houses in unwalled villages are treated like other property (can be redeemed at any time and must be returned in the jubilee). Interestingly the Levites (one of the tribes, of which Moses and Aaron are conveniently members) get additional exceptions, in that they are allowed to redeem city dwellings at any time, and get them back in the jubilee at any rate.

Say, remember when I told you the publishers of the version I’m reading include “helpful” section headings that aren’t in the original text? The next one is titled “Kindness for Poor Brothers.” It’s funny, because while yes, this section includes a number of instructions on kindness owed to fellow Israelites, it’s also the section that instructs them that they can buy slaves from the nations around them, who will be their possession forever and can be passed down by inheritance just like any other property. Kindness to poor brothers indeed!

And for the record, among the kindnesses owed to poor Israelites is that if they sell themselves into servitude to cover their debts, you have to allow relatives to redeem them, or release them at the jubilee for free. Of course, you may also remember earlier when we discussed how you can manipulate even other Israelites into becoming permanent slaves.

Then we get into eleven verses on the blessings God will give the Hebrews for obedience, followed by thirty-three verses on the punishments for disobedience. So you see where the priorities lie.

Now we’re (finally) into the last section of Leviticus. This discusses the treatment and valuation of things – and yes, people - given to God. And there are a few different levels of gifting things to God. At one level, things (and people) are dedicated to God but can be redeemed (bought back) by paying money to the priests. This section sets the value at which the priest should allow you to redeem those things and people. As in, yes, it sets a monetary value on people.

Of course this shouldn’t be surprising by this point. Since the Bible pretty clearly states that people can be bought as property, that implies that they do in fact have a monetary value. In this section we learn that the value of people depends on age (basically adults in prime working years are worth more than the very old or the very young) and gender (females are consistently valued at just over half the value of a male of similar age).

Property dedicated at this level follows the same rules as selling property to others – it gets valued according to the time left until jubilee, and has to be returned to the owner for free at the jubilee. If the person doesn’t want it back at that time, it becomes the permanent property of God (which means, in practice, the priests), just as a thing devoted.

Which brings us to the second level of giving things to God: devoting. Something “devoted” to God is his permanently, can never be redeemed, and is considered “most holy.” It is here that we find the big bombshell of this portion of the text.

“Lev 27:28 But no devoted thing that a man devotes to Yahweh, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to Yahweh. 29 No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.”

Just to make that more clear, the footnotes add that the phrase “who is to be devoted for destruction,” can also be validly translated as “that is set apart as an offering to the LORD.”

Human. Fucking. Sacrifice.

Why the fuck do we never hear about this passage? It surprised me to see it, and as I said in my introduction, this is not the first time I've read up through this section. I think that it's just one of those things that is so at odds with everything you've ever been told about what the Bible says that you just kind of read past it without even acknowledging what it means.
Anyhow, I just had to look it up and see what Christian sites had to say on the subject. The apologetics I found on this are pathetic.
For example, one claims that this whole passage is simply a warning not to make rash vows to God. Along the lines of “if you make a vow that involves devoting someone permanently to God, you should know that you’ll never see that person again so you shouldn’t do it.” Except that nothing in the passage says, or even remotely hints, that devoting people to God is a practice to be discouraged. In fact, defining them as “most holy,” is fucking active encouragement to do it. And also, in the context of a society that clearly views other human beings as property, the idea of seeing one killed is nowhere near the disincentive it would be for us today. This excuse is bullshit.

Another apologetic says that this really means that a person devoted to God simply belongs to him for the rest of his life, which he will live out in service to God until his natural death. Which completely ignores every common understanding of the phrases “devoted for destruction,” and “put to death.”

The apologetics have two things in common. The first is that they all claim the God of the Bible does not, and never did, ask for or accept human sacrifices. The second is that they arrive at this conclusion by completely fucking ignoring what the text literally says!

It’s right there. God accepted human sacrifices, and considered them to be among the most holy of gifts. The god of the Bible is a blood god, as savage and primitive as the people who created him. And even leaving aside the question of human sacrifice, there will be ample demonstration of that fact in upcoming Bible books as well.

There’s a few short verses on tithes after that, but this basically brings us to the end of Leviticus. And not a moment too soon. When next we come back, we’ll be starting the Book of Numbers.

You guys take care!

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