If you came in to my house and saw a list of rules on my fridge that said: “you shall not mix bleach and Windex, you shall not mix cement and water in the toilet, you shall not mix dirty clothes with clean clothes,” what would you conclusion be? Would you conclude that I am a purist and that I like to keep things separate so as to distinguish myself from the other houses in the neighborhood? Or would you think that I have entirely distinct reasons for each of my rules? Mixing Windex and Bleach creates a dangerous gas. Mixing cement and water in the toilet ruins the piping and clogs the toilet. Mixing dirty clothes and clean clothes makes for poor hygiene and difficulty in determining what needs washing. My rules have absolutely nothing to do with me being a purist or wanting to distinguish myself from the houses around me. But if you read some commentaries on Leviticus, you would think that such broad generalizations are a good way to interpret what is going on in this book of the Bible.
For example, Leviticus 19:19 forbids the mixing of fabrics, the mixing of animals, and the mixing of crops. Many commentators thus conclude that these rules are all about purity and keeping things pure. However, this approach is no better than concluding that my list of rules on the fridge is about purity and keeping things pure. To understand the rules you need to understand the background behind them – God was not giving random rules about separating some things. I’d like to tackle this list in Leviticus and demonstrate that there are clear and intelligent reasons behind these rules and that in none of the cases is it about “keeping things pure” or because “God doesn’t want anything mixed.”
First, let’s take note that Deuteronomy helps to shed light on Leviticus by expanding upon what Leviticus says:
“You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:19 ESV)
“You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together. You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 22:9-12 ESV)
(1) “Nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” & “You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.”
What Leviticus says generally “two kinds of material” the book of Deuteronomy specifies with details “wool and linen.” Why would this be a rule? Well, that is simply explained by asking, “who does God command to wear clothing made of two kinds of material?” The answer is found in Exodus 28:2-5:
And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.
The priests were wearing this type of clothing and so the rest of the people were not allowed to. This isn’t terribly different from how our laws forbid people from dressing in police uniforms and thus impersonating officers. God made rules where only the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies and the priests could go as far as the Holy Place. If people dressed in clothing similar to priests then commoners could make it into the Holy Place or perhaps even break in to the Holy of Holies. There’s also the issue about the treasury of the Lord and the fact that priests could go in to it… This rule has absolutely nothing to do with preserving clothing purity or purity in appearance, because the priests wore mixed clothing and they were holier than the commoners who were not wearing mixed fabrics. The religious institution God created is what produced this rule.
(2) “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” & “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard”
First, it’s important to notice that “forfeited” is the wrong translation and that the word here (קדשׁ) never, at any point in the Bible or outside of the Bible, ever means “forfeit.” This is the word for “holy” and is used here as a verb meaning “to become holy.” Mixing the crops makes the field “holy.” What does it mean for them to be holy? In Num 18:8 the holy things of the people of Israel were given to God and then God gave them to the priests as their portion – mixing your field means that it is to be given to the priests. The result for the person mixing their field is that they don’t get to sell or eat of their crop and for them it is “forfeit,” but the main idea here is that the priests are the ones who receive that harvest. Why is this the case? First, let’s take note that there is nothing bad about mixed fields, in fact they seem to be better – the crop becomes holy – too holy for a common person to eat. Second, let’s remember that the priests were given land to harvest. This, in an agricultural society that doesn’t use fences to box off fields, means that there are only two ways to distinguish the property of a priest from the property of a common Israelite: (A) property stones – stones that were set up to mark where one person’s field ends and another’s begins… the big problem in all ancient cultures is that people kept moving these stones and thus stealing from each other (Deut 27:17); (2) the common fields were unmixed and the priests had mixed fields. The stones can be moved at night, but you can’t un-mix the crop of your neighbor’s field without someone noticing your large plant-transplanting operation. The priests had their property dispersed in different parts of the land, “cities of refuge” and so there needed to be a way that across Israel the priests could have their property protected by something more than just boundary stones. If a priest was growing grain and his common neighbor was growing grain then the neighbor could move his stone under the cover of night, take the property from the priest, and no one could prove anything to the contrary. However, if the priest has rows of grain, wheat, barely, and other vegetables and his neighbor only had wheat, then any moving of the property stone could easily be demonstrated. The only way to accomplish this very common stone-moving scam is for the commoner to imitate the content of the priest’s field and then move the stone when no one is looking. Thus, the law indicates that if a commoner makes his field mixed then he forfeits his entire crop to the priests. AKA: don’t bother trying to steal the priest’s property, you are the automatic loser. Once again, an intelligent reason based on the religious and social system of the day, having nothing to do with “purity” – mixed fields are holy and unmixed fields are common.
(3) “You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind” & “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together”
At first glance you may wonder, “is there truly a relationship between these very different verses?” And this would be a good question to contemplate, unless you’re aware of one important fact: the word being translated “breed” never denotes “breeding” in the Bible. First, a quick comment on denotation and connotation: “to lie down” literally means (denotes) “to lay down on something” but it can be used to imply things (connotations) like: (a) he gave up the battle [he lay down]; (b) he had sex with her [he lay down with her]; (c) he died (he lay down and did not rise]. The word literally means “to lie down” both inside and outside of the Bible. It also implies sleeping (Ps 139:3), beastiality (Lev 18:23), and to lay exhausted from a burden that is too heavy (Exod 23:5). The translation would then literally be “you shall not make different kinds of animals lay”, which COULD by way of connotation refer to sex or it could refer to laying exhausted under the burden of the cart. Which, by the way, is common symbolism in the Bible: (1) Jesus offers you an easy yoke – he’s the main animal pulling the cart; (2) Paul doesn’t want you to be unequally yoked with unbelievers – you being the main animal doing the work while the other one tries to wander off or is too small to properly fit the yoke with you. In this case, the second view where the connotation of laying exhausted is being used makes far more sense in terms of how Leviticus and Deuteronomy parallel and explain each other in these two portions and also with how the rest of the Bible uses yoking imagery. Also, mules (a cross between a horse and a donkey – a mixing of two animals) are spoken of as good things (1 Kings 1:44) and not bad things. So, once again there is no concern for purity here. As a side note, consider rules such as “do not muzzle the oxen as it treads out the grain” and how Paul applies that to pastors – the rules of fairness given for animals were obviously meant to be applied to humans as well, since humans are worth of at LEAST the same fairness that animals received. Also, the righteous person has concern for his animals (Prov 12:10).
Rushing to make generalizations is usually the best way to rush in to error and miss all of the actual meaning of the text. Many have read Deuteronomy 4:1-8 and concluded that the laws were given to make Israel distinct from the other nations and so laws about purity of appearance of clothing, fields, and beasts were given. However, that is not the emphasis of Deuteronomy 4:1-8. To quote the text, “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” The emphasis is on the nearness of God and the righteousness of the rules, not on difference in appearance between the Israelites and the nations. As we have seen, all three of these rules are about righteousness – keeping non-priests out of the temple, keeping the priest’s fields safe from theft, and keeping animals from abusive work (which obviously applies to people if it applies to animals, according to the Apostle Paul). Moses was not wrong to summarize the laws, including the ones discussed here, as “your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut 4:6) – the peoples would be impressed by such wise rules of righteousness that defeated the scams of the day and called for fair treatment in labor, but no one would be impressed by random rules about keeping some things pure in appearance.