The Book of Leviticus gets its name from the Levitical priests who served as leaders of religious services among the people of Israel. Leviticus contains a mix of religious, civil and moral regulations, and at the heart of the book is chapter 19, which contains rules about holiness—especially holiness in social ethics.
Although people today are often suspicious of the word “holy,” with self-righteous individuals being accused of acting “holier-than-thou,” holy is a very positive term in Leviticus. Holiness is the central characteristic of God, and it has multiple meanings for the people of Israel: Separateness, righteousness, justice.
The chapter begins with God saying to Moses: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Because God is holy, the people of Israel are to be holy: Separate from people around them, and both righteous and just in their dealings with one another. Chapter 19 addresses holiness in family relationships, sacrifices, farming, and business, and in the 18th verse of the chapter, love of neighbor becomes central to a life of holiness.
Before speaking of love, Leviticus lays out rules about revering mother and father, keeping the sabbath, and avoiding idols. We fall into idolatry when we put more emphasis on money, possessions, sex, or success than we do on God. “Popular television shows contain a lot of sin,” I wrote in a column for USA TODAY, “but even more idolatry.”
In House of Cards, the idol is power. Conniving politician Frank Underwood schemes and sleeps his way through Washington, moving from Democratic majority whip to vice president to president.
Mad Men idolizes success. Suave 1960s advertising man Don Draper, who reinvents himself throughout the series, believes that “success comes from standing out, not fitting in.” Unfortunately, his “standing out” does terrible damage to his family members, friends and colleagues.
Surprisingly, the idol of the drama Breaking Bad is family. After being diagnosed with cancer, chemistry teacher Walter White builds a drug empire on the belief that he needs to provide for his wife and children. But even a good thing can cause death and destruction once it becomes an idol. At one point, Walt’s wife says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
Idolatry is nothing new, of course. Leviticus warned against idolatry and Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols,” an observation that continues to ring true as people make idols of sex, power, beauty, success, money, and even children. None of these is inherently evil, but they become sinful when they are treated as divine.
The holiness of love
The section ends with a commandment that identifies love as the organizing principle of all the other commandments: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). A person who follows the commandment to love is simply not going to make an idol of sex, power, or money.
Holiness comes from a life of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Leviticus 19 is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it contains this verse which Jesus included in his Great Commandment (Matt 22:39), and which the apostle Paul referenced when he said, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). With love as our yardstick, we stand a good chance of being a holy people who serve a holy God.
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The above excerpt is from the chapter on Leviticus. Written for private devotion and group discussion, the book contains the best in biblical scholarship as well as practical connections to daily life, along with questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. Available in hardcover, paperback, and kindle.