Living Leviticus: Who Could Do It? Who Would Want To?

It is entirely possible to be a church-going Christian for 40 years and never hear a sermon preached solely from the Book of Leviticus.

Leviticus is the third book of the Hebrew scriptures (i.e. the "Old Testament") that contains the laws, large and in minutiae, that God gave to the Israelites. Most people might be familiar with its odd edicts against, for instance, eating lobster or shaving your sideburns, and laws ordering menstruating women to sit in a tent apart from the rest of the community for the duration of Aunt Flo's visit.

When viewed through the lens of modernity, Leviticus seems to be an arcane, strange and wholly irrelevant book.

Take, for example, what it has to say about zits.

"Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, `Unclean! Unclean!"' Leviticus 13:45 proclaims. "As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp."

As an acne-battling teenager, had my pastor highlighted that particular verse from the pulpit, I would have lost faith in the God of love.

Why would God care about the condition of our skin? Or what kind of meat we eat? Or whether we wear a cotton-polyester blend T-shirt? Or ask us to sacrifice pigeons to atone for our sins? Or need to remind us not to have sex with our stepmothers, nephews or pets?

It's no wonder, then, that many pastors, preoccupied with attracting -- not repelling -- people choose to ignore Leviticus altogether.

Daniel Harrell is not your average pastor. Call him an ecclesial Captain Courageous or a foolhardy glutton for punishment, but a few years ago, while he was a minister at Boston's congregational Park Street Church, Harrell launched a preaching series on Leviticus. More than a few folks thought he was crazy.

"Leviticus is that graveyard where read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans go to die," Harrell says. "They looked at me as if I were attempting sermon suicide -- or worse, homiletical homicide (Leviticus would kill our congregation.) Who'd get up on a Sunday
to hear a homily on mildew?"

(Leviticus not only mentions that God is concerned about mildew, but actual types of mildew: "He is to examine the mold on the walls and if it has greenish or reddish depressions that appear to be deeper than the surface of the wall, the priest shall go out the doorway of the house and close it up for seven days.")

Throwing caution (and mold) to the wind, Harrell did more than just preach about Leviticus. He convinced 19 of his congregants to join him for a month-long experiment in "living Levitically" -- trying to obey all of the laws (in spirit if not in substance as most municipalities, including Boston, frown on animal sacrifice, even for religious purposes) put forth in Leviticus.

Harrell has chronicled the adventures of his would-be Levites in the hilarious and thought-provoking new book How to Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.

While the book is peppered with laugh-out-loud anecdotes, Harrell's aim was quite serious. Many Christians simply dismiss Leviticus and its odd edicts as the "old law" -- one that Jesus fulfilled, replaced with grace and is no longer applicable to believers.

But if Christians really believe that God gave all of the Bible to humankind to show us how to live, then what does Leviticus mean to faithful living?

Inspired by A.J. Jacobs' book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author, a journalist and agnostic Jew, attempted to adhere to the biblical laws for 12 months, Harrell decided the best way to answer lingering questions about the laws of Leviticus was to attempt to follow them in real life.

Following Leviticus' laws -- keeping kosher, not cutting their beards, keeping their bodies and their homes as meticulously clean as possible, and strict adherence to Sabbath-keeping -- was as difficult as Harrell and his flock had anticipated, but even more rewarding than they could have hoped. The stories of their Levitical adventure are also far more entertaining and enlightening than most readers will expect.

Rather than affirm the idea that you can either embrace grace or the law, Harrell found that a faithful life involves both. No one can be perfect by following Leviticus' laws. They're impossible. And realizing that leads, necessarily, to the understanding that no one can be perfect apart from God's grace.

Still, Leviticus illustrates that there is nothing too small for God to care about (even mildew and zits), and nothing too big. Grace might cover all, but knowing and trying to follow God's law -- the greatest of which Jesus said was to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love God with all our hearts, minds and spirits -- can be transformational as well.

"The thing that struck us in doing the Levitical month was the simple power of obedience," Harrell said in a recent interview. "The discipline that comes with trusting God, or a tradition of faith or a community, and how that discipline can truly shape your life toward good things (be they grace, commitment, devotion, etc).

"Because we're so used to the disconnect between our beliefs and our behavior, integrity has become something of a quaint notion consigned to the past. But I'd like to think that it still matters and that somehow it's still worth pursuing," he said. "Otherwise, why bother believing?"

A version of this post appeared originally via Religion News Service.