Learning to Fear and Love Leviticus with Ghanaian Bible Translators


Most North Americans and European Christians never read the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Perhaps most African Christians also refrain from reading this “bloody book” (even if it is for a somewhat different set of reasons.) Leviticus is filled with rituals that promote purity and “strange” blood-sacrifices.

I recently was privileged to spend several days reading through a translation of the Old Testament book of Leviticus with the Likɔɔnl translation team whose people inhabit rural areas in Ghana’s Northern Region. The experience was energizing as the team realized there were “lines of connection” between the priestly social vision of the Old Testament and the priestly social vision of their local traditional religion. Even though there is still a lot of work to do to apply those social and theological visions to contemporary life, beginning the process is energizing.

What are some of these possible “lines of connection”? The team explored similarities and differences between the specific practices of sacrifice in Leviticus and in traditional African religious practice exploring the symbolic relevance the sacrifices enact. When were sacrifices necessary and what do they teach us about dependence on God and the land, and harmony between the inhabitants of the land, concern for the poor etc.? The translation team observed priestly notions of maintaining bodily purity for individual and social bodies. This is relevant not simply for nostalgic value. If the ancient practices seem too restrictive, one wonders how do the dominant socio-economic models operative in the contemporary world treat individual and collective human bodies or even the bodies of our fellow creatures? What notions of purity do they enact both positively and negatively? How do Christians in contemporary contexts draw from their religious resources in the ways they interact with the different social agendas operative in our world today?

Rather than looking at Levitical practice as inferior to say the work of the prophets, David Pleins argues that the social vision of the priests as expressed in Leviticus is comprehensive. It includes “shrine, community, household and the disenfranchised.” The priests and the practices they mediate governed the social order of their day. They were concerned with “purity” and “holiness” so that the people would live in harmony with God, the land, with each other. The Priestly code is remarkably concerned with the poor and the priests attempt to establish themselves as “champions of the poor.” The priestly vision of the Levites was calculated to ensure that Israel retains the land and escape the judgement which leads to exile in Babylon.[1]

Similarly, African traditional religious practice, despite the many abuses it has endured from religious and secular sectors, practices a diplomacy from which contemporary nation state socio-politics could learn. And even though contemporary Africans treat illnesses through hospital visits, surgeries, pharmacies, and paracetamol (Tylenol), nevertheless, the traditional social vision of the Levites and traditional priests still has something to offer them. It is not simply “archaic” or “backward” as the dominant worldview of Americans and Europeans has asserted. Traditional priests enact a social practice that is deeply concerned about integrating peace between humans, God, and the earth that contemporary social, political, economic and medical practices often misses.  Studying a cross-section of any urban location in the world attests to the fact that there is much about the contemporary post-enlightenment social project which does not lead to social wholeness.

There is no doubt that the “lines of connection” between Levitical, traditional, and contemporary religious life still need to be theologically and socially constructed for today. (The book of Hebrews itself could be viewed as one Christological rereading of Leviticus for the early church.) How this is done in contemporary African societies is the concern of African Biblical Hermeneutics. There is a need to look at the text critically “with both ancient and contemporary eyes.”[2]

One thing that is of interest to me as a North American who has sojournered in Africa is what my own Lutheran-Christian community, which spans greatly differing contexts across space and time, might learn from this dialogue for its own diplomatic social practice of human community living under God in mutual stewardship of a shared creaturely existence on this earth? What is our priestly vision as a church? How do we care for the poor among us? The refugees? What do we do to care for human bodies from womb to grave? Is our vision comprehensive or piece meal? Is it life-giving for church, community, household and the disenfranchised? How do we speak our social vision to a world with competing visions many of which lead to death rather than life?

[1] J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction, 1st ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 61-70.

[2] Eric Anum, “Comparative Readings of the Bible in Africa,” in The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends, ed. Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000), 457–73, 471.