Appreciating the Ecological Principles of Leviticus

Leviticus always gets a bad rap when it comes to the students of the Bible. Granted, it’s not as interesting as the opening chapters of Genesis, but Leviticus possesses a rich tapestry of symbolism that most Protestant theologians tend to completely overlook. The slaughter of animals has no context outside the realm of holiness—especially as mirrored through the practice of the Jewish dietary laws. According to the anthropologist Mary Douglas, the laws of cultic purity serve to help impose God’s order and control in the world of creation. On some level, the dietary laws remind us about the sanctity of all life which demands from us humane treatment.

Unclean is not a term of psychological horror and disgust, it is a technical term for the cult, as commentators have often pointed out. To import feelings into the translation falsifies, and creates more puzzles. The technique of delayed completion postpones the meanings until chapter 17. At that point Leviticus commands the people not to eat blood, not to eat an animal that has died an unconsecrated death, that is, an animal that has died of itself, or an animal torn by beasts, presumably with its blood still in it (Lev 17:8-16; see also Deut 14:21). The dietary laws thus support the law against unconsecrated killing. The Leviticus writer’s reverential attitude to life, animal and human, explains the animal corpse pollution rules. ‘Thou shalt not stand upon [profit from] another’s blood’ (Lev. 19:16). The case of the animal’s blood and the case of the human’s blood are parallel. Ritual impurity imposes God’s order on his creation.[1]

The fact is the Levitical laws protect the vast number of animals, limiting the permitted species to just a few species. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas writes in the introduction of her classic study on the dietary laws of Leviticus:

The religion of Leviticus turns out to be not very different from that of the prophets which demanded humble and contrite hearts, or from the psalmists’ love of the house of God. The main new feature of this interpretation is the attitude to animal life. In this new perspective, Leviticus has to be read in line with Psalm 145:8-9: the God of Israel has compassion for all that he made. His love for his animal creation lies behind his laws against eating and touching their corpses. The flocks and herds of the people of Israel are brought under the covenant that God made with their owners, and the other animals benefit from the promises he made in Genesis after the flood, that he would guarantee the regularity of the seasons and the fertility of the ground. The more closely the text is studied, the more clearly Leviticus reveals itself as a modern religion, legislating for justice between persons and persons, between God and his people, and between people and animals.[2]

The Bible frequently is accused of endorsing a theology of “dominion” and is blamed for all the ecological woes of our time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leviticus teaches us that we cannot act toward creation with indifference. Jewish exegetical history has a very strong pro-ecological attitude that contemporary scholars ought to seriously study before criticizing a religious tradition they know so little about.

[1] Leviticus as Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), p. 151.

[2]Ibid., pp. 1-2.