Light from the Sidra

Vayikra ('And he called...')

Torah: Leviticus. 1:1-5:26 (6:7)* Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23

Ideas have consequences

Of all the statements in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, the opening sentence of the second chapter is the most arresting: ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’

When Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Dawkins in a TV confrontation that the statement was anti-Semitic, Dawkins acted shocked: ‘Anti-Semitic? It was supposed to be a joke!’ Dawkins has never had a well-developed sense of humour at the best of times but the second sentence reveals that Dawkins was deadly serious: ‘Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror…’

I’m not saying Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite but the Chief Rabbi was right. The sentence was anti-Semitic (far worse was that it was blasphemous) but not for the reason he suggested. Central to Lord Sacks’ objection was Dawkins’ use of ‘Old Testament’ which, the Chief Rabbi asserted, was an echo of the canard that the Tanakh and its ‘god’ had been replaced by Christianity. Although some misguided ‘Christians’ believe the Tanakh is redundant due to having been superseded by the ‘New Testament,’ both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus worship the ‘God of the ‘Old Testament.’

Dawkins’ charge is not only anti-Semitic but also anti Christian precisely because Jews and Christians believe the Tanakh is the Word of God. The 39 books that comprise the Hebrew Scriptures are not fiction, but fact, and if Yahweh, the God of the Jewish patriarchs is as ‘unpleasant’ as Dawkins claims, the people who created him must also be possessed of the same ‘unpleasant’ characteristics. If God did not create man in his image, man most certainly creates gods in his image, which accounts for the many religions that exist. Dawkins is not only lacking in the sense of humour department, his logical faculty often appears to be on the blink.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the importance of the opening words of Vayikra: ‘And he [God] called to Moshe…’ The Torah is almost universally regarded as the world’s greatest ethical system. However, if the opening line of the book of Leviticus is a lie, and if God did not call Moses and reveal to him his laws, commandments and precepts, and if the book on which witnesses in western courts of law are now obliged to swear is itself unreliable, then not only is the God of the Tanakh a fictional character but also the much hailed ‘Judaeo-Christian values’ are constructed on a tissue of lies. It thus turns out that the code of law on which western civilisation is founded is a foundation of sand and that Jews and Christians are nothing more than a bunch of saps.

Almost eighty times in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy the words, ‘The LORD said’ appear. Over forty times in the Prophets, God ‘spoke’. Did the LORD really speak to Moses and the prophets or did he not? If he did, we must pay heed to his revelations. We might not like what the Creator has to say to us but we had better listen. If he did not speak directly to Moses and the prophets, the Hebrew Scriptures carry no more authority and have no more claim on our obedience than the Bhagavad Gita, the Popul Vuh or Old Moore’s Almanac.

The Jewish author of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament begins his epistle by reminding his readers that ‘In times past God spoke in many and different ways to our forefathers through the prophets.’ No other people can claim to have had the Creator of the cosmos reveal himself and his truth to their ancestors. Only the Jews can make that astonishing claim.

And when God called to Moses in Lev. 1, what did he reveal to him? ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Anyone—when (one) among you brings-near a near-offering for YHWH from domestic animals: from the herd or from the flock you may bring-near your near-offering. If an offering-up is his near-offering, from the herd, (then) male, wholly sound, let him bring it near, the entrance of the Tent of Appointment let him bring-it-near, as acceptance for him, before the presence of YHWH. He is to lean his hand on the head of the offering-up that there may be acceptance on his behalf, to effect-ransom for him…’ (Lev. 1:2-4. The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. Everett Fox).

The first thing God told Moses after the Mishkan, the Tabernacle’ was constructed was how the Israelites were to approach him. And just as we saw in Gen. 4, when Cain and Abel engaged in the first recorded act of worship, we are accepted only on the basis of sacrifice. Only when the ancient Israelite approached YHWH in faith with an offering from the herds or from the flock could he or she find acceptance with God.

The temple no longer stands but the principle remains the same. How tragic that even among religious Jews who profess to believe the Torah is from heaven, few pause to consider that by circumventing the laws regarding sacrifice, they may as well be saying that the unchanging God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a figment of the imagination of the ancient scribes.

If the book of Leviticus is from God, then both Jews and Gentiles should give it the attention it deserves. It is not enough to believe God exists; we must live as though he does. 

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