We’re starting a new series for Engage Magazine on the laws found in Leviticus. Variously considered to be irrelevant, outrageous or just plain weird, Christians often struggle to make sense of the Levitical laws. Guy Brandon starts the series with a fresh look at the ban on mixed-fibre clothing.
‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ (Leviticus 19:19)
‘Thou shalt not wear polycotton trousers, for this is an abomination.’ (author’s paraphrase)
The continuing relevance of plenty of Old Testament texts is disputed, but if there was ever a verse that Christians ignore, it’s this one. The ban on mixed-fibre clothes is discarded out of hand, without a second (or even first) thought. Whatever significance it might have had at the time – and that might seem far from clear – it has zero impact on the lives of most Christians today. Advertise the fact that you do it and you’ll probably get more than a few odd looks.
But there it is, in the Bible, so it must have been important at one point. And if it was important, then how do we know it’s not still important, unless we understand why it was there in the first place? Have we been sinning all along without knowing it? This is a text with both religious and sartorial implications.
Three Decrees of Separation
To quote the line in the context of the whole verse: ‘Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ The second decree is ignored as frequently as the third, while the first we might view with puzzlement. Why would you want to breed different types of animals together – the success of which tends to be patchy at best, if the sad example of the geep is anything to go by? This decree recalls those of Leviticus 20:15-16, which are also concerned with unorthodox forms of animal husbandry.
The concern for keeping things pure and distinct – whether animal genomes, crops or clothes – resonates with the wider context of Leviticus. One of the overriding concerns of the book is the distinctiveness of the Israelites from the culture and practices of their surrounding nations. This is supposed to be manifest in every area of life. Time and again in Leviticus comes the exhortation to ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (see 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). The Israelites were to consecrate themselves and not follow the customs of their neighbours. ‘You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.’ (Leviticus 18:3)
To be holy [qodesh] means to be set apart. The language of distinctiveness and division in Leviticus is similar to that of Genesis 1, in which God divides [hibdil] the water from the land, light from darkness, male from female. In Leviticus, the emphasis is on remaining distinct from the nations; whilst the Old Testament displays openness to the Gentile nations, for this text and this point in time the challenge was keeping their nascent and fragile religious identity within a hostile pagan environment.
The issue that God takes with some of these practices is clear. These were polytheistic nations who worshipped many gods and did not recognise Yahweh. Alongside this, and often as a part of their pagan worship, there were many customs that conflicted with the values and commandments the Israelites were supposed to hold and observe. Sacred prostitution, child sacrifice, divination and magical rites were all part of the landscape of Canaanite religion.
Similarly, the laws of Leviticus 18 and 20 ensured that the categories arising from marriage, family, gender and species are maintained, however we view the importance and/or clarity of those today. There is a sense that the Israelites are to be distinctive, and to maintain boundaries, in every area of life.
Suit as a Symbol
This appears to be where the laws around crops and clothes fit in. They have symbolic, if not moral significance: the purity of the Israelites’ clothes and fields was an outward sign of the religious and moral purity they were also supposed to display – a reminder to themselves and others of how they were supposed to live. Not committing adultery and not wearing mixed-fibre clothes both show distinctiveness, albeit in rather different ways.
We are under grace, not Law (Romans 6:15), and yet, at the same time, ‘not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’ (Matthew 5:18) The Law still applies, even if not always in its original form. What, then, is the spirit of the law in Leviticus 19:19? If the purpose of that law was to act as a symbol of holiness, how might we achieve the same today?
An analogue might be wearing a cross: an inward or outward sign of distinctiveness (depending on how visible it is), for ourselves or others. Setting Sunday apart from work might be another, though the Sabbath laws had religious and moral as well as symbolic value.
And, in fact, there is no reason why we should not continue to observe the ban on mixed fibres itself – not because it still applies in its original form, but because the spirit of the law requires symbolic as well as practical distinctiveness, and taking the trouble to choose your clothes in a way that deliberately reflects that is as good a way as any to act as a small, everyday reminder of God’s holiness.
But it’s probably not one you’ll want to talk about too much in public.