Chugging my way through the 400th Anniversary Edition of the King James Bible, I discover the narrative pace slackens consideerrraaaabbbbbllllyyyy towards the end of Exodus and the beginning of Leviticus.
Having knocked together the world and all that ‘creepeth’ on it in a few pages of Genesis, the fine detail and multiple repetitions of exactly how a Tabernacle should be built, the intricacies of priestly vestments and the finer points of ‘burnt’, ‘sin’, ‘meat’ (which isn’t) ‘waving’ and ‘heaving’ sacrifices are inescapably precise. And the punishments for waving what you should be heaving are heavy indeed.
Phew. Much like the Greek myths which are from a similar period in history, one senses a good deal of tradition, mythology, symbolism and practical wisdom merged together. Eating the meaty remnants of your ‘sin offering’ for two days is fine, but chew on it on the third day and you might well feel ‘unclean’ in what are often warm lands.
It is sometimes said that the Old Testament God is a fierce one. Indeed He describes Himself as ‘A jealous God’ during the Ten Commandments. But the precision of his strictures and fear of his wroth explains to me something I encountered when we lived cheek by jowl with a very Orthodox Jewish community in North London.
I think I knew that anything which doesn’t have both cloven hooves and chews cud is ‘unclean’ – pigs failing on cud. I wasn’t so clear it includes anything with paws. Our old dog used to like a curious sniff at passers-by – especially those wearing long black silk coats.
I always used to pull him close, but I now understand why the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill used to skirt and look terrified of him. Physical contact could have demanded a shower and a change of clothes.
I feel rather guilty, looking back, that I wasn’t more aware. I might not have known ’em, but the Old Testament rules are crystal clear for those who choose to follow them. Paws are out. People do live in myriad different ways