Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Some of the instructions in the holiness code seem relevant only in Israel’s ancient world, while others seem timeless. On the one hand, Leviticus tells men not to mar the edges of their beards (Lev. 19:27), but on the other hand, judges must not render unfair judgments in court but show justice to all (Lev. 19:15). How do we know which ones apply directly today? Mary Douglas helpfully explains how a clear understanding of holiness as moral order both grounds these instructions in God and makes sense of their variety.

Developing the idea of holiness as order, not confusion, upholds rectitude and straight-dealing as holy, and contradiction and double-dealing as against holiness. Theft, lying, false witness, cheating in weights and measures, all kinds of dissembling such as speaking ill of the deaf (and presumably smiling to their faces), hating your brother in your heart (while presumably speaking kindly to him), these are clearly contradictions between what seems and what is.[1]

Some aspects of what leads to good order (e.g., the trimming of beards) may be important in one context but not in another. Others are essential in all situations. We can sort them out by asking what contributes to good order in our particular contexts. Here we shall explore passages that touch directly on matters of work and economics.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966), 53-54.

Gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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Although ancient methods of harvesting were not as efficient as today, yet Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs Israelites to make them even less so. First, they were to leave the margins of their grain fields unharvested. The width of this margin appears to be up to the owner to decide. Second, they were not to pick up whatever produce fell to the ground. This would apply when a harvester grasped a bundle of stalks and cut them with the sickle, as well as when grapes fell from a cluster just cut from the vine. Third, they were to harvest their vineyards just once, presumably taking only the ripe grapes so as to leave the later ripening ones for their poor and the immigrants living among them.[1] These two categories of people—the poor and resident foreigners—were unified by their lack of owning land and thus were dependent on their own manual labor for food. Laws benefiting the poor were common in the ancient Near East, but only the regulations of Israel extended this treatment to the resident foreigner. This was yet another way that God’s people were to be distinct from the surrounding nations. Other texts specify the widow and the orphan as members of this category. (Other biblical references to gleaning include Exod. 22:21-27; Deut. 24:19-21; Judg. 8:2; Ruth 2:17-23; Job 24:6; Isa. 17:5-6, 24:13; Jer. 6:9, 49:9; Obad. 1:5; Mic. 7:1.)

We might classify gleaning as an expression of compassion or justice, but according to Leviticus, allowing others to glean on our property is the fruit of holiness. We do it because God says, “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:10). This highlights the distinction between charity and gleaning. In charity, people voluntarily give to others who are in need. This is a good and noble thing to do, but it is not what Leviticus is talking about. Gleaning is a process in which landowners have an obligation to provide poor and marginalized people access to the means of production (in Leviticus, the land) and to work it themselves.  Unlike charity, it does not depend on the generosity of landowners. In this sense, it was much more like a tax than a charitable contribution. Also unlike charity, it was not given to the poor as a transfer payment. Through gleaning, the poor earned their living the same way as the landowners did, by working the fields with their own labors. It was simply a command that everyone had a right to access the means of provision created by God.

In contemporary societies, it may not be easy to discern how to apply the principles of gleaning. In many countries, land reform is certainly needed so that land is securely available to farmers, rather than being controlled by capricious government officials or landowners who obtained it corruptly. In more industrialized and knowledge-based economies, land is not the chief factor of production. Access to education, capital, product and job markets, transport systems, and non-discriminatory laws and regulations may be what poor people need to be productive. As Christians may not be more capable than anyone else of determining precisely what solutions will be most effective, solutions need to come from across society. Certainly Leviticus does not contain a system ready-made for today’s economies. But the gleaning system in Leviticus does place an obligation on the owners of productive assets to ensure that marginalized people have the opportunity to work for a living. No individual owner can provide opportunities for every unemployed or underemployed worker, of course, no more than any one farmer in ancient Israel could provide gleanings for the entire district. But owners are called to be the point people in providing opportunities for work. Perhaps Christians in general are also called to appreciate the service that business owners do in their role as job creators in their communities.

(For more on gleaning in the Bible, see "Exodus 22:21-27" in Exodus and Work above and "Ruth 2:17-23" in Ruth and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 225.

Behaving Honestly (Leviticus 19:11-12)

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The commands in Leviticus against stealing, dealing falsely, lying, and violating God’s name by swearing to false oaths all find more familiar expression among the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. (For more on honesty, see “Truth-telling in the Bible” and “There May Be Exceptions to Truth-telling in the Workplace,” in the article Truth and Deception at www.theologyofwork.org.) Unique to Leviticus, however, is the Hebrew wording behind “you shall not lie to one another” (Lev. 19:11; emphasis added). Literally, it says that “a person shall not lie to his amit,” meaning “companion,” “friend,” or “neighbor.” This surely includes fellow members of Israel’s community; but based on Leviticus 24:19 in the context of Leviticus 24:17-22, it also seems to take in the resident alien. Israel’s ethics and morality were to be distinctly better than the nations around them, even to the point of treating immigrants from other nations the same way they treated native-born citizens.

Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, Founder & Partner at Ellis, Li & McKinstry (Click to watch)

In any case, the point here is the relational aspect of telling the truth versus lying. A lie is not only a misstatement of cold fact, but it is also a betrayal of a companion, friend, or neighbor. What we say to each other must truly flow out of God’s holiness in us, not merely out of a technical analysis of avoiding blatant lies. When U.S. president Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he may have had some tortuous logic in mind under which the statement was not technically a lie. But his fellow citizens rightly felt that he had broken trust with them, and he later recognized and accepted this assessment. He had violated the duty not to lie to another.

In many workplaces, there is a need to promote either the positive or negative aspects of a product, service, person, organization, or situation. Christians need not refuse to communicate vigorously to make a point. But they must not communicate in such a way that what they convey to another is false. If technically true words add up to a false impression in the mind of another, then the duty to tell the truth is broken. As a practical matter, whenever a discussion of truthfulness descends into a technical debate about wording, it’s wise to ask ourselves if the debate is about whether to lie to another in this sense.

Treating Workers Fairly (Leviticus 19:13)

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CEO Don Flow on Being A Good Neighbor to Employees (Click to Watch)

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (Lev. 19:13). Day laborers were generally poorer people who lacked land to farm themselves. They were especially dependent on immediate payment for their work, and thus needed to be paid at the close of each day (cf. Deut. 24:14-15). In our world, a comparable situation occurs when employers have the power to dictate terms and conditions of labor that take advantage of workers’ vulnerabilities. This occurs, for example, when employees are pressed to contribute to their bosses’ favored political candidates or expected to continue working after clocking out. These practices are illegal in most places, but unfortunately remain common.

A more controversial state of affairs concerns day laborers who lack documentation for legal employment. This situation occurs around the world, applying to refugees, internally displaced persons, rural citizens lacking urban residency permits, illegal immigrants, children under the age of legal employment, and others. Such people often work in agri­culture, landscaping, piecework manufacturing, food service, and small projects, in addition to illegal occupations. Because both employers and employees are working outside the law, such workers seldom receive the protections of employment agreements and government regulations. Employers may take advantage of their situation by paying them less per hour than legal workers, by denying benefits, and by providing poor or dangerous working conditions. They may be subject to abuse and sexual harassment. In many cases, they are completely at the mercy of the em­ployer. Is it legitimate for employers to treat them this way? Surely not.

But what if people in such situations offer themselves for substandard employment apparently willingly? In many places, undocumented workers are available outside garden and building supply stores, at agricultural markets, and other gathering places. Is it right to employ them? If so, is it the employers’ responsibility to provide the things legal workers get by rights, such as the minimum wage, health benefits, retirement plans, sick pay, and termination benefits? Must Christians be strict about the legality of such employment, or should we be flexible on the grounds that legislation has not yet caught up with reality? Thoughtful Christians will inevitably differ in their conclusions about this, and so it is difficult to justify a “one size fits all” solution. However a Christian processes these issues, Leviticus reminds us that holiness (and not practical expediency) must be at the core of our thinking. And holiness in labor matters arises out of a concern for the needs of the most vulnerable workers.

Rights of People with Disabilities (Leviticus 19:14)

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“You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:14). These commands paint a vivid picture of cruel treatment of people with disabilities. A deaf person could not hear such a curse, nor could a blind person see the block. For these reasons, Leviticus 19:14 reminds Israelites to “fear your God” who hears and sees how everyone is treated in the workplace. For example, workers with disabilities do not necessarily need the same office furniture and equipment as those without disabilities. But they do need to be offered the opportunity for employment to the full extent of their productivity, like everyone else. In many cases, what people with disabilities most need is not to be prevented from working in jobs they are capable of doing. Again, the command in Leviticus is not that the people of God ought to be charitable to others, but that the holiness of God gives all people created in his image the right to appropriate opportunities for work.

Doing Justice (Leviticus 19:15-16)

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“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:15-16)

This short section upholds the familiar biblical value of justice and then broadens considerably. The first verse begins with an application for judges, but ends with an application for everyone. Do not judge court cases with partiality, and don’t judge your neighbor unfairly. The wording of the Hebrew highlights the temptation to judge the external appearance of a person or issue. Woodenly rendered, Leviticus 19:15 says, “Do not do injustice in judgment. Do not lift up the face of the poor one and do not honor the face of the great one. With rightness you shall judge your neighbor.” Judges must look through their preconceptions (the “face” they perceive) in order to understand the issue impartially. The same is true of our social relationships at work, school, and civic life. In every context, some people are privileged and others oppressed because of social biases of every kind. Imagine the difference Christians could make if we simply waited to make judgments until knowing people and situations in depth. What if we took the time to know the annoying person on our team before complaining behind his or her back? What if we dared to spend time with people outside our comfort zone at school, university, or civic life? What if we sought out newspaper, TV, and media that offer a different perspective from what we are comfortable with? Would digging below the surface give us greater wisdom to do our work well and justly?

The latter part of Leviticus 19:16 reminds us that social bias is no light matter. Literally, the Hebrew says, “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” In the language of the courtroom in the previous verse, biased testimony (“slander”) endangers the life (“blood”) of the accused. In that case, not only would it be wrong to speak biased words, but it would be wrong even to stand idly by without volunteering to testify on behalf of the falsely accused.

Leaders in workplaces must often act in the role of an arbiter. Workers may witness an injustice in the workplace and legitimately question whether or not it is appropriate to get involved. Leviticus claims that proactively standing in favor of the mistreated is an essential element of belonging to God’s holy people.

On a larger level, Leviticus brings its theological vision of holiness to bear on the whole community. The health of the community and the economy we share is at stake. Hans Kung points out the necessary interrelationship of business, politics, and religion:

It should not be forgotten that economic thought and actions, too, are not value-free or value-neutral...Just as the social and ecological responsibility of business cannot simply be foisted onto politicians, so moral and ethical responsibility cannot simply be foisted onto religion…No, ethical action should not be just a private addition to marketing plans, sales strategies, ecological bookkeeping and social balance-sheets, but should form the natural framework for human social action.[1]

Every kind of workplace—home, business, government, academia, medicine, agriculture, and all the rest—have a distinctive role to play. Yet all of them are called to be holy. In Leviticus 19:15-16, holiness begins by seeing others with a depth of insight that gets beneath face value.

Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (New York: Continuum, 1993), 32-33, quoted in Roy Gane, The NIV Application Com­mentary: Leviticus, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 352.

Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself (Leviticus 19:17-18)

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The most famous verse in Leviticus may be the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This imperative is so sweeping that both Jesus and the rabbis regarded it as one of the two “great” commandments, the other being “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29-31; cf. Deut. 6:4). In quoting Leviticus 19:18, the Apostle Paul wrote that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).

Working for others as much as for ourselves

The crux of the command lies in the words “as yourself.” At least to some degree, most of us work to provide for ourselves. There is a strong element of self-interest in working. We know that if we don’t work, we won’t eat. Scripture commends this motivation (2 Thess. 3:10), yet the “as yourself” aspect of Leviticus 19:18 suggests that we should be equally motivated to serve others through our work. This is a very high call—to work as much to serve others as to meet our own needs. If we had to work twice as long to accomplish it—say one shift a day for ourselves and another shift for our neighbor—it would be nearly impossible.

CEO Ron Johnson Founds Company on the Reciprocal Strategy of Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Providentially, it is possible to love ourselves and our neighbors through the same work, at least to the degree that our work provides something of value to customers, citizens, students, family members, and other consumers. A teacher receives a salary that pays the bills, and at the same time imbues students with knowledge and skills that will be equally valuable to them. A hotel housekeeper receives wages while providing guests with a clean and healthy room. In most jobs, we would not stay employed for long if we didn't provide a value to others at least equal to what we draw in pay. But what if we find ourselves in a situation where we can skew the benefits in favor of ourselves? Some people may have enough power to command salaries and bonuses in excess of the value they truly provide. The politically connected or corrupt may be able to wring large rewards for themselves in the form of contracts, subsidies, bonuses, and make-work jobs, while providing little of value for others. Nearly all of us have moments when we can shirk our duties yet still get paid.

Thinking more broadly, if we have a wide range of choices in our work, how much of a role does serving others make in our job decisions, compared to making the most for ourselves? Almost every kind of work can serve others and please God. But that does not mean that every job or work opportunity is of equal service to others. We love ourselves when we make work choices that bring us high pay, prestige, security, comfort, and easy work. We love others when we choose work that provides needed goods and services, opportunities for marginalized people, protection for God’s creation, justice and democracy, truth, peace, and beauty. Leviticus 19:18 suggests that the latter should be as important to us as the former.

Be nice?

Instead of striving to meet this high calling, it is easy to relax our understanding of “love your neighbor as yourself” into something banal like “be nice.” But being nice is often nothing more than a facade and an excuse for disengaging from the people around us. Leviticus 19:17 commands us to do the opposite. “Reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Lev. 19:17). These two commands—both to love and to reprove your neighbor—seem like unlikely fellows, but they are brought together in the proverb, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5).

Regrettably, too often the lesson we absorb at church is always to be nice. If this becomes our rule in the workplace, it can have disastrous personal and professional effects. Niceness can lull Christians into allowing bullies and predators to abuse and manipulate them and to do the same to others. Niceness can lead Christian managers to gloss over workers’ shortcomings in performance reviews, depriving them of a reason to sharpen their skills and keep their jobs in the long run. Niceness may lead anyone into holding onto resentment, bearing a grudge, or seeking revenge. Leviticus tells us that loving people sometimes means making an honest rebuke. This is not a license for insensitivity. When we rebuke, we need to do so with humility—we may also need to be rebuked in the situation—and compassion.

For a fuller discussion of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself in the workplace, see "The Command Approach in Practice" and "The Character Approach" in Ethics at Work Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.

Who is My Neighbor? (Leviticus 19:33-34)

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Leviticus teaches that Israelites must not “oppress” resident foreigners (Lev. 19:33). (The same Hebrew verb appears in Lev. 25:17, “You shall not cheat one another.”)  The command continues, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34). This verse is a particularly strong example of the unbreakable connection in Leviticus between the moral force of the law (“love the alien as yourself”) and the very being of God, “I am the Lord your God.” You do not oppress foreigners because you belong to a God who is holy.

Resident aliens, along with widows and the poor (see Lev. 19:9-10 above), typify outsiders lacking power. In today’s workplaces, power differentials arise not only from nationality and gender differences, but also from a variety of other factors. Whatever the cause, most workplaces develop a hierarchy of power that is well known to everyone, regardless of whether it is openly acknowledged. From Leviticus 19:33-34, we may conclude that Christians should treat other people fairly in business as an expression of genuine worship of God.

Trading Fairly (Leviticus 19:35-36)

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This passage prohibits cheating in business by falsely measuring length, weight, or quality, and is made more specific by reference to scales and stones, the standard equipment of trade. The various measurements mentioned indicate that this rule would apply across a wide spectrum, from tracts of land to the smallest measure of dry and wet goods. The Hebrew word tsedeq (NRSV “honest”) that appears four times in Leviticus 19:36 denotes character that is right in terms of having integrity and being blameless. All weights and measures should be accurate. In short, buyers should get what they have paid for.

Sellers possess a vast array of means to deliver less than what buyers think they are getting. These are not limited to falsified measurements of weight, area, and volume. Exaggerated claims, misleading statistics, irrelevant comparisons, promises that can’t be kept, “vaporware,” and hidden terms and conditions are merely the tip of the iceberg. (For applications in various workplaces, see “Truth-telling in the Workplace” at www.theologyofwork.org.)

A woman who works for a large credit card issuer tells a disturbing story along these lines:

Our business is providing credit cards to poor people with bad credit histories. Although we charge high interest rates, our customers’ default rate is so high that we can’t make a profit simply by charging interest. We have to find a way to generate fees. 

One challenge is that most of our customers are afraid of debt, so they pay their monthly balance on time. No fees for us that way. So we have a trick for catching them off-guard. For the first six months, we send them a bill on the 15th of the month, due the 15th of the following month. They learn the pattern and diligently send us the payment on the 14th every month. On the seventh month, we send their bill on the 12th, due on the 12th of the next month. They don’t notice the change, and they send us the payment on the 14th as usual. Now we’ve got them. We charge them a $30 service charge for the late payment. Also, because they are delinquent, we can raise their interest rate. Next month they are already in arrears and they’re in a cycle that generates fees for us month after month.[1]

It is hard to see how any trade or business that depends on deceiving or misleading people to make a profit could be a fit line of work for those who are called to follow a holy God.

Name withheld by request, as told to TOW Project Editor William Messenger at a meeting of the Fordham Consortium at Seattle Pacific University, August 5, 2011.