The Big IF
“If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you..” I grew up with a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” on our kitchen wall, my mother’s nod to her British roots. At some point in life I knew it by heart.. The conditional ‘if’ that placed Kipling’s poem in Victorian and Colonial English context gave one the option of raising one’s head above the human din or sinking into life’s rut. It didn’t really offer the alternative consequences for what happens if one ignores the good advice. That’s where Leviticus differs, offering a starkly different theology where IF is a fork in the road, with the wrong decisions leading into calamity and exile.
The book that began with the divine call to enter one’s inner heart of holiness, as Moses was invited to enter the sacred tent of time, ends with a warning. If we will not live up to the promise, discarding the life of holiness proscribed in these chapters, each one of us and the collective will pay a steep price. It is, however, our choice, as instructed here by the Creator:
אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃
“ If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments..” (Va 26:3)
This IF begins the last two chapters of Va’Yikra that offer a series of potential rewards/blessings or punishments/curses. The list of warnings is far longer than the potential joys. Scholars have proven that the covenantal language used here is identical to the tone of legal treaties signed between vassal states and their superior powers. The Assyrian Empire, ruling over Judah in the 7th century BCE left behind documents that may have been the inspiration for the covenant imagined by the writers of Leviticus for whom the Vassal Lord is not the Assyrian monarch Esarhaddon but rather YHWH. What’s interesting here is that the writers or editors of this section of Torah left us with a theological model in which God is metaphorically seen as a moody monarch who imposes obligations and threatens reprisals if people fail to observe the laws. This may seem obvious to how we imagine the biblical god nowadays - but it’s a pretty new idea actually. The God of If is a cultural construction, inspired by the politcal model of a certain time and place. The rest of chapter 26 fouses on the obligations to pay dues to the tabernacle or temple - with dire punishment to those who don’t. This too seems to copy the conditions imposed on Judah by their overlords.
If is real - and we know well that climate crisis is the result of our human folly - with some redemption still possible IF we move fast. But how do we think of our relationship with the divine, nature, essence of life not as a vassal overlord with harsh conditions but rather as a source of life that loves us dearly no matter who or how we are? It is, as many have suggested, never too late to reimagine a theology that better serves our complicated, lesser vassal or colonial, here and now.
Want to learn more, discuss your thoughts and feelings about Va’Yikra and Below the Bible Belt? Join me on Monday July 25th 2022, 1pm ET for our first hour long Zoom Study Session. Link here:
https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89433380921 Meeting ID: 894 3338 0921
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