3.23 The Holy and the Common
"You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean" (Lev 10:10).
This became the watchword of Israelite life: discerning between clean and unclean food, behavior, animals, people. Even normal bodily functions could cut a person off from God's Presence until ceremonially atoned for (Lev 15). Although all uncircumcised men were by definition unclean (a fundamental cultural attitude), the focus of Leviticus was on internal community standards, not relations with outsiders.
While certain aspects of later Biblical faith emphasize heart and motives, Leviticus is all about the details of behavior -- food, body, actions. Obedience was enjoined by the covenant, it was the mark of faithfulness. It is significant that one of the five books of Moses, as well as a large part of Exodus, is given over to regulations. This shows the critical role of rules in both the Israelite community and the Jewish religion. The role of rules was twofold: 1. to create a wall against outsiders. There was to be no borrowing of customs from neighboring tribes, no co-habitation or tolerance. 2. to purify the community by setting and enforcing standards, and identifying and excluding deviants.
Where there are laws on the books, there must also be lawyers and enforcers. The class that administers the laws holds the keys to social power. In a religious society, it will be a priestly class, which serves as an intermediary between the god(s) and the community. In Israel, God appointed a tribe of religious specialists, the Levites, whose job it was to enforce the injunctions and to offer sacrifices for those who transgressed them. The priests had more than religious authority, they also had police and judicial power.
Law binds a community together. However, if law is the primary social tie, the society is oppressive. Law is constraint, obligation, forced compliance. Community is volition, commitment, shared beliefs. Tyranny results when law does not flow from community consent. One of the questions about Israel is whether the people ever gave their consent to the body of law that God imposed upon them. There are several verses where the people collectively swear obedience to God's laws:
"You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in his ways, that you will keep his decrees, commands and laws, and that you will obey him" (Deut 26:17).
Having given these assurances, the people then quickly erupted in some form of complaint or rebellion, which showed at the very least a lack of comprehension of what was required. But more likely, and more seriously, these episodes demonstrated a lack of heart willingness to join themselves to God's purpose. Surely a people who have pledged heart and soul to becoming the people of God would not balk at every difficulty and yearn for "the leeks of Egypt." Unlike Moses, few Israelites accepted and internalized a Covenant identity. Most of them acted like current-day army draftees, continuously unhappy at their lot and eager for their term of enlistment to expire. This was a crack in the foundation of the Covenant itself, which led to the annihilation of the generation that experienced deliverance from Egypt.