From A House to A Home
If we could summarize Exodus and Leviticus conceptually, Yahweh Elohim would be saying: "Build me a house so I can make a home with my people." Exodus focuses on the building of that house, Leviticus focuses on making that house a home. What might this imply about our own families and close relationships?
In almost twenty-six years of ministry, working within vast and diverse sample pools, I can say I have witnessed only a few relationships that were exemplary and inspiring. How can this be? Relationships are made of individuals, and exceptionally few individuals have the inner health, overall maturity, and interpersonal know-how on how to create deeply fulfilling bonds with others. This is truer in families than any other category of relationship, where everyone's low baselines and familiar spirits aggregate, and therefore, compound. It does not have to be this way!
In the Creator's Exodus-Leviticus quest for a home with His creation, we learn conceptual absolutes without which no relationship can thrive in wholeness and fulfillment. Even though Leviticus focuses on the Divinity-humanity relationship during a specific timeframe in redemptive history (the Mosaic era), the conceptual understructure is unchanging.
A Healthy & Knowing Leader
Someone has to set the right direction and culture.
Throughout Leviticus, Yahweh makes it emphatically (and frighteningly) clear that He is the leader in the relationship with Israel. He sets the direction and culture, and for the relationship to be holy, healthy, and happy on both sides, Israel needed to cooperate with that direction and culture. God did not assert His leadership because He is insecure, unstable, and needs a power high to feel okay, but because His epistemology is truly the most promising for the relationship.
Ponder how quickly that relationship devolved into chaos and misery when an unhealthy and unknowing person was in charge. Aaron led the people to create and worship a golden cow (Ex 32). Miriam led them to a leadership power struggle, her own leprosy, and a seven-day delay (Num 12). Korah, Dathan, and Abiram also led them to a leadership power struggle, a nationwide schism, and the death of 15,000 people (Num 16). A healthy and knowing leader has to be.
From A House to A Home
In a family, the actual leader is not always clear. Many Christian families claim the man is the leader, but anyone close enough to scratch and sniff knows it is often or always the woman. In some families the parents have more or less bled out their authority and let the teenagers set the direction and culture. Of course they would never say it quite like that, but a few hours of proximity and observation reveal quickly who is actually in control.
After the Fall, God's ideal domestic operational structure was for the man to be the healthy and knowing leader (Gen 3:16, Ps 78:3-6 NASB, Col 3:18). This is not always possible, however. A significantly unhealthy and unknowing man can lead his family to dangerous places. A woman is never, never, never to allow anyone to lead her into sin or unhealthy zones--not her husband or pastor or children or girlfriends or momma or president--anyone. Additionally, a man might be absent physically or mentally (work schedule, disability, illness, emotional disengagement and passivity, etc.), forcing the wife/mother, by default, into the function of healthy and knowing leader. This is certainly the case in single parent families.
In the rare (very rare) case where both the man and the woman are at a high level of overall maturity and relationship know-how, the couple reenters that original egalitarian ideal God set forth in the beginning (Gen 1:26-28)--and hoped to reanimate in the New Covenant (Gal 3:28). In all my years as a born-again Christian I have seen only two families, both with multiple children, in which the husband and wife were both at such a high level with God and themselves that they could reanimate the Genesis 1 co-ruling ideal.
In other home-feeling relationships--close friendships, romances, spiritual relationships--the leadership dynamic is variable. It can go in one of three directions: up-down, down-up, across-across. These directional power dynamics are critical to understanding the nature of relationships.
In an up-down dynamic, you are the person in the relationship with significantly more leadership (influence, gravitas, leverage). You are relating downwards with the other person. Do not assume this automatically means condescension, it does not. It can mean condescension, though, if you are unhealthy and choose to flex that pedestal arrogantly.
For example, a noticeably advanced spiritual leader in the kingdom of God often relates in an up-down dynamic. Again, this does not automatically mean condescension or Old Testament-style hierarchy, but the common sense recognition that such-n-such leader is at a place in God and in life that most of who surround him/her are not. The most fruitful spiritual leaders are those who can stay true to their spiritual level, yet simultaneously relate to surrounders on their level, and create upward pathways by ministering to them with skill and power.
The up-down (and down-up) dynamic gets sticky and icky in romantic relationships. The romantic passion and sexual attraction create a level playing field that feels balanced, but daily life eventually reveals how mature and relationally skilled each partner actually is. If there is a sizeable differential in maturity and relationship skill, there will be a sizeable differential in the power dynamic. The more mature and skilled partner will possess greater power by virtue of his/her know-how, emotional self-control, behavioral self-control, and measured communication ability; but the less mature, less skilled partner will rely on power tactics used in the past to close the gap and gain the upper hand. This does not mean the relationship is hopelessly doomed, but it does mean many challenging conversations will be had. If both persons are consistently humble and zealous about doing it right, the maturity and skill gap can be closed and the power dynamic can gradually evolve into balance.
In a down-up dynamic, you are the person in the relationship with significantly less leadership. You are the Down person relating upwards with the other person. Do not assume this means you are idolizing them or letting them control you. It may mean that, sure, but it may not. You may be in the less powered position structurally (a minor, an employee, a congregant, etc.). Or, you may have the self-awareness and humility to know your maturity or relational skill is inadequate, and therefore, you accept your need to learn from someone else while in a weaker, more vulnerable position. We learn and grow the most from being the Down person with a safe and knowledgeable Up person.
In an across-across dynamic, both/all persons in the relationship have balanced power, or close to it. You are relating directly across with the other person and they are relating directly across with you. Helpful synonyms of this dynamic are interdependent, collegial, egalitarian, balanced.
As with the up-down and down-up power dynamics, the across-across dynamic can be forced by structure (government, management, church administration, etc.) or inspired by maturity level. In a friendship or romance or spiritual relationship or any non-structural relationship, when each person is at a high level of overall maturity and relational know-how, the power is balanced or very close to it.
Someone has to set the right direction and culture.
For any kind of relationship to be a true, trusted, holy, healthy, happy home, there has to be a healthy and knowing leader (or leaders) who can set the right direction and culture. God modeled this forcefully through His Levitical relationship with Israel, then teemed Scripture with hundreds of other verses guiding us to adapt and apply the concept in our relationships.
Some things have to be eliminated or downgraded on both sides.
When we read Leviticus we are puzzled, sometimes secondhand stressed, by the pedantic sacrificial system God required. The ritual tedium, even drudgery, makes the casual reader feel negatively towards God--this bloody, violent, terrifyingly demanding God. Key phrase: the casual reader. To the Spirit-illuminated reader, dazzling gems about God and relationships flash intermittently beneath the Level 1 narrative about blood atonement. Psalm 119:18 (NIV): Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. Ephesians 1:17,18 (NKJV): ...the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened...
Sacrifice Tunnel Vision
I imagine some Israelites thought, Why all this sacrifice for Yahweh? Sure He promised to bless us greatly in return, but why are these sacrifices so one-way and fussy? What has He sacrificed for us?
We tend to have the same "sacrifice tunnel vision" in our human relationships. Do we not often feel we are giving more and sacrificing more than the other person(s)? While this may be true sometimes, at other times it is not true, but a matter of perception.
What Yahweh Sacrificed
For any relationship to be holy, healthy, and happy, there must be bidirectional sacrifices. Some things will have to be eliminated or downgraded on both sides continually. What did Yahweh give up to be in a relationship with Old Testament Israel?
First, God had to relocate. He moved His visible presence from heaven to earth. To sacrifice all that glory, perfection, paradise, euphoria, worship, gratitude...to live in a tent next to fallen, headstrong humans? Never say the sacrifices were one-directional! Have you ever relocated to be closer to someone you loved, or someone worth developing a relationship with? Relocating is a sacrifice, for several reasons. The Mount Sinai descent (Ex 19) was God arriving in town with a Uhaul. Leviticus was God unloading the Uhaul and organizing His apartment.
Second, as I wrote about several weeks ago in The Glory Issue, God had to miniaturize His glory, and adapt it to the time-space-matter parameters of earth, to be in a relationship with Israel/humanity. At the Sinai descent, He modified that glory into a mountaintop storm of fire, smoke, thick cloud, thunder, and lightning (Ex 19:16-18). To move into the completed tabernacle and travel with Israel in mobile form, He modified it again into a smaller pillar of fire and pillar of cloud (40:34-38). We could never fully appreciate or grasp, in our earthly human form, these glory modifications by a God who "fills heaven and earth" (Jer 23:24) and whose facial glory alone can incinerate a human (Ex 33:18-23).
Psalm 113 says God has to humble Himself to simply look at the earth. Imagine how much more so to move to earth and modify Himself for earth! Psalm 113:4-6 (NKJV, underline mine): The LORD is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, who dwells on high, who humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth?
For any relationship to be holy, healthy, and happy there must be two-way sacrifices; things have to be eliminated or downgraded on both sides. Resist "sacrifice tunnel vision" when reading Leviticus. Yahweh sacrificed more than we can appreciate and grasp to be in a relationship with Old Testament Israel, and eventually us.
Sacrifices in Our Homes & Relationships
The immediate danger of solipsism (advanced self-centeredness) is the curse of blindness and metaphorical retinitis pigmentosa. In relationships, solipsism blinds us to only recognize the sacrifices we are making, while minimizing or missing altogether what the other person might be giving. This often happens when someone is giving in ways that are different than what we are giving, or, different than what we are used to. If we are narrow-minded or self-absorbed we will minimize or miss altogether their contributions to the relationship, which are very real to them.
This does not mean the sacrificial system on both sides cannot be negotiated. It should be talked through diligently, and as much as possible, adapted for the good of the relationship. But, before you fire off emotional accusations that the other person is not giving or sacrificing enough, let them speak for themselves and explain their own reality. Then, after a thorough dialogue has happened, you can form a more accurate conclusion and response.
Nonetheless, the bottom-line remains: some things have to be eliminated or downgraded on both sides for a house or any relationship to become a home. Both/all individuals have to have enough time and energy to garden the relationship into a lush and beautiful flower grove.
A Clear Hierarchy of Values, With Incentives & Deterrences
The culture must be well-defined, with positive and negative possibility.
In Leviticus and the Torah, God scrupulously defined the intended culture of His relationship with Israel, the core values He would prioritize and defend above all else and expected Israel to do the same. A scripture summarizing that culture nicely is Deuteronomy 4:6-8 (NASB):
So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole Law which I am setting before you today?
God says their relationship culture would be one of "wisdom and understanding", one of consistent prayer and consistent answers, one of "statutes and judgments that are righteous", one that displayed a unique greatness. The many pedantic commands in Leviticus and the Torah, then, simply practicalized the values that would create this culture.
The Values & Culture of Your Home, Relationships
I am surprised sometimes by the non-intentionality of many, maybe most, relationships regarding values and culture. Heck, that was me during my early adult years. Most people make an awkward, emotionally manic, inarticulate attempt at addressing values only during volcanic frustration or fighting ("You never...You always...Why don't you...I wish you..."). Would it not be more relationally gifted (with much better results) to address values intentionally, during times of calm? The fatal error we make is, staying in or getting in close relationships because the other person satisfies one or two of our core values, but does not satisfy our larger value structure.
Every relationship--in the home or any home-feeling relationship--has to be framed within a clear hierarchy of values, which produces a distinct culture in the relationship. This framing only happens through honest dialogue, but also requires self-awareness and basic information about values. Is it time for you to have the values and culture conversation in your close relationships? Aim for a list of the 5-7 cornerstone values that will produce the culture you desire. When you finish it, you could create a values acronym that would serve as a banner, a reminder.
If that conversation is impossible or repeatedly unproductive--because of their intractability or a simple mismatch of values--that relationship needs to be distanced from or terminated altogether. Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?, Amos 3:3 (NKJV) asks rhetorically. It is beyond the scope of this chapter how this applies to marriages, parent-child relationships, or any other relationship requiring nuance and other considerations.
Incentives & Deterrences
In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God articulates a stunning set of positive and negative consequences for cooperating with or violating the values He defined. Throughout Israel's Old Testament history we see a reification of both, pleasurable consequences (blessings) for joining God in creating the relational culture He articulated, and negative consequences (curses) for resisting that culture and trying create a reality apart from Him.
Sowing & Reaping, Blessings & Curses in Relationships
One of the lost laws in relationships is that they must come with incentives and deterrences. The New Testament language for this is "sowing and reaping" (Gal 6:7), though it mirrors the Old Testament sometimes and also uses "blessings and curses" (Heb 6:7,8, 1Co 16:22, Gal 1:8,9). Hebrews 6:7,8 combine sowing-reaping and blessings-curses in the same passage.
How do your children behave when they sense there will be no negative consequences for violating family absolutes? How do nonmature lovers or spouses behave when they feel they can get away with anything, whether it is a loose tongue or a loose libido? How do neglectful or abusive parents escalate when they are not held accountable? Solomon tells us. The overwhelming majority of people, even Christians, escalate wrong behavior if they sense negative possibilities do not exist. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of people need deterrences. Ecclesiastes 8:11 (NKJV): Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. The literal Hebrew (mala asa) for "fully set in them to do" is "full to do" or "filled to do" (see NASB footnote). No deterrences causes 99% of people to fill themselves up with more courage to misbehave.
On the other hand, incentives, reaping pleasurable harvests, and blessings are inspiring to us all, right? Who does not want promise lands? Who does not want rewards for their investment in the right things? And, isn't it true that tangible, felt progress inspires even more progress? When you see yourself losing weight, feeling better, thinking clearer, sleeping better, and a musculature starting to carve out, does it not adrenalize you to keep going and invest even more? The same enabling, emboldening mechanism that fills wrongdoers with courage to do wrong operates inversely with rightdoers. While the lack of deterrences emboldens misbehavior, the presence of incentives emboldens right behavior, choices, and longterm diligence. You see, secular psychology and B.F Skinner did not pioneer reinforcement theory, the God of creation revealed it in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28, and the entire Scriptures. Praise His name!
How do we apply this in the home and home-feeling relationships? With children and youth, it is generally better to be direct about incentives and deterrences. They like (deep down) and need specific boundaries with specific ramifications to develop properly psychologically and socially. Be careful to equally emphasize both: too much reward talk and they do not learn penalties; too much penalty talk and they do not learn the promise lands they could attain.
Adult relationships require more creativity. If you do not present your personal "blessings and curses" at all, you enable people to exploit you, at worst, mildly disrespect you, at best. If you present your blessings and curses too aggressively, you will seem anal or filled with defense mechanisms or simply not a delightful person to enjoy life with. You will have to get creative. Tell occasional stories of when you put your incentives or deterrences to work. Put them to work in little ways (to indicate you are willing to use them in big ways, if need be). Ask them what their incentives and deterrences are, but give specific scenarios, do not ask for an entire thesis (which will inevitably cue them to ask you, or at least give you space to share also).
Other Concepts in Brief
Leviticus has many other laws, commands, and statutes holding kernels of truth regarding home-building and relationships. Here are three more in brief.
What You Eat, What You Touch
Leviticus 11 lays out a tiring number of hyperspecific laws on clean and unclean foods (v1-23) and unclean touching experiences (v24-40). The timeless concept? What we "eat"--take in, consume, accept, believe--can be clean for the relationship, making it holier, healthier, happier, or it can be unclean for it, making it sicker and darker. Leviticus 11 goes further. We do not even need to eat something unclean, just "touching" it--watching it, listening to it, tolerating it, entertaining it--can make you and the relationship more unclean and sicker. What you "eat" and what you "touch" outside the relationship manifests inside the relationship.
The Little Things are Gigantic
Leviticus is so detailed, so technical, so pedantic that we are forced to probe the mind of Yahweh and ask why. The casual reader will stop at Level 1 and walk away with mild irritation, or even disgust, at such a God. Read Scripture with the Spirit, ask more intuitive questions. An omniscient, omnibenevolent God is not pedantic because He is obsessive-compulsive. He is trying to emphasize something many people already know: the little things are actually gigantic. It is the little foxes that ruin your home and your relationships (Song 2:15). It is the small nuts and bolts that hold the entire structure together. In your relationships, are you so impatient and goal-oriented and big picture that you are unknowingly unscrewing nuts and bolts, unknowingly letting foxes into your vineyard, unknowingly eating and touching unclean things? Not recognizing who around you has eaten or touched unclean things?
Throw Parties for the Relationship
Leviticus 23 lays out the feasts of the Lord, annual times of happy celebration of the relationship between Yahweh and His people. Do you periodically celebrate your closest relationships? Or do you assume, wrongly and dangerously, they will always be there? Have you withered into a relational dryness and laziness that fails to viscerally appreciate, and all-out celebrate, the blessing that this relationship is? Leviticus is not only about meticulous negative reinforcement, but also the wonder and pleasure of a holy, healthy, happy relationship. But we have to diligently practice Leviticus' conceptual understructure to turn a house into a home worth living in, an association into a relationship worth calling "my heart's home".