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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Lawrence Boadt

Reading the Book of Leviticus Today

Jewish tradition has given a very honored place to the book of Leviticus because it contains a significant number of the laws and commandments by which Judaism defines its life and practice. Six hundred and thirteen commandments have been identified in the Pentateuch that are binding on Israel, and of these some 247 occur in Leviticus. The early rabbinic commentators of the Talmud spent many volumes examining the meaning of the statements in Leviticus and establishing practical ways in which they could still be observed many centuries after they were written down. The learned teachers of the law in the first centuries after Christ (from about AD 70 to 500) never tired of debating the myriad ways of understanding the legal materials in Leviticus and elsewhere. This may seem particularly surprising since nearly all of the laws of sacrifice that fill the first quarter of the book of Leviticus had been rendered impossible to perform by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and after the destruction of its Temple in AD 70. It indicates, however, how richly diverse are the contents of the book, that even with the inability to perform so many of its commands, it still remains the most important statement of Torah for Judaism.

It is therefore important to recall that in Judaism Torah does not have the narrow and constricting meaning of “Law” so common among modern people. Torah means “teaching” or “way” and it can be best understood as a means of expressing ourselves before God as a faithful and obedient and beloved son or daughter. Jews always link Torah commands with simultaneous joy. Note the extremely upbeat and positive nature of the Bible's most famous hymn in praise of the Law, Psalm 119 . The opening verses read,

Happy those whose way is blameless, who walk by the teaching of the Lord. Happy those who observe God's decrees, who seek the Lord with all their heart, They do no wrong; they walk in God's ways.

and it continues in this manner for another 173 verses, more than three times the length of any other psalm in the Psalter!

How opposite has been the reaction of the Christian church as it reads Leviticus. Most Christians are horrified by the idea of animal sacrifices, and they consider the questions of what should be eaten or not eaten far too restrictive; many even experience a mild case of disgust at the topics of the purity and impurity of bodily functions. Since many of the actions described in the first half of Leviticus are tied to priestly roles in the Temple, the book has become a negative symbol for Christians who emphasize the so‐called freedom from the Law that Paul speaks of in his letters in the New Testament. Even the current name of the book means basically “That which pertains to the levitical priests,” although in Hebrew it is called simply by its opening word, wayyiqra» (“And he called”). Thus it is very likely that a Christian reader will come to this book with a certain prejudice that it will be boring, irrelevant, and largely supplanted by a newer theology of the freedom of the spirit. This is not a good starting point to discover any treasure in the book, nor to realize, even in regulations that a Christian no longer observes, how profound insights into the mystery of God shine through regularly.

To gain as much appreciation for the book as we can, we need to reflect on its message on two levels. First, we can explore what religious insight and meaning the various laws and practices had for an ancient Israelite. Second, we can look at the major themes it treats in terms of how they reveal the enduring character of God's revelation and divine purpose, which gave direction and vitality to Israel's fidelity and witness through the centuries, and that have become central to Christianity's own teaching. An example of the two levels would be the understanding of sacrifice. Unless we learn the central role that sacrifice played in Leviticus as a primary means of both acknowledging God's saving blessing and also asking for forgiveness, our interpretation of Jesus' own death and the Church's explanation of the Eucharist will be seriously weakened and perhaps even incomprehensible.

The Overall Structure of the Book

Leviticus can be identified entirely with the style and theology of the Priestly source found throughout the Pentateuch. Leviticus is very interested in classifying and listing all things in their proper place, just as the P story of creation does in Genesis 1 or the list of nations does in Genesis 11, 10–32 . It is also very concerned with distinguishing the realm of the sacred from that of everyday life. Most of the topics it treats deal directly with this question of what is appropriate or inappropriate in matters of approaching the divine.

The book has really two major divisions that are quite different in spirit. Chapters 1 through 16 give regulations for matters that are handled directly by the priests; chapters 17 through 27 treat the larger social areas of community behavior and public worship that express the spiritual heart of living within the covenant. In a diagram it might look like the table on RG 127 .

Explanation of the Outline

Chapters 1–16 . The initial collection of various regulations on sacrifice in chapters 1 through 7 is followed by a narrative explanation in chapters 8 through 10 of the proper role and status of the priestly officials, illustrated by Aaron's first major sacrifice under the covenant. Then chapters 11 through 15 contain a collection of rules and distinctions that govern the proper respect for food and bodily functions; chapter 16 follows with an elaborate description of the annual ritual that atoned for and cleansed the people of all guilt from their sins. In both parallel patterns, laws are followed by actions. Neither set is intended to comprise all the laws that must be observed, nor do the rituals described exhaust all ways of celebrating or performing sacred liturgical actions. What they do above all is establish a close connection between the ways we define our lives and the ways we celebrate in worship.

For the authors of Leviticus, this structure emphasizes that holiness is central to Israel's relationship with God, and that holiness may be defined as respect for the sacred mystery of life and for the divine presence that is found everywhere, even in ordinary day‐to‐day life.

Chapters 17–26 . The same spirit of a holiness that sets apart areas of special divine reverence from ordinary ways of acting also governs this second part of Leviticus, which is often called simply “The Law of Holiness.” It has special characteristics that mark it off as a separate set of laws from chapters 1 through 16 . This set can be divided roughly into two parts: chapters 17 through 20 stress the ethical areas of life that bind us socially in communal life; chapters 21 through 25 concentrate on the sacred areas of priestly ministry and worship. They roughly correspond to the same dynamics that we find in chapters 1–16 between commands on ways of life and commands on more directly priestly ritualizing. Chapter 26 concludes this body of law, but it is so impressive in scope that it really serves as the conclusion of the whole book. It reflects much of the specific language associated with covenants. Chapter 27 was added later as an appendix.

The Literary Unity and Diversity of the Book

All scholars today recognize the basic unified viewpoint that the book takes. It is priestly. This means that it gathers together laws and directions that govern activities that should be monitored by the priests in the community. Some of these, as in the chapters on sacrifices and major feasts, have to do with public worship. Others have to do with personal behavior and conditions that affect our proper place before God. These may involve laws on food, clothing, skin diseases, sexual activity, as well as truly ethical decisions about justice, love, and right behavior between members of the covenant community.

All these laws, however, are seen to be part of what separates the sacred from the ordinary. God is holy and not to be treated in just any old way. Judaism and Christianity have always made the transcendence of God a first priority; that is, they have recognized the gulf that divides us as creatures from the one who creates. Certain moments of our lives and certain activities highlight this profound difference. Humans enter into the realm of the sacred that is set apart on a holy day or at a holy place or by the rituals performed by a consecrated (thus “holy”) person. Certain features of our being, too, are holy, such as sexuality, birth, and death, because they are at the heart of the mystery of divine creation and divine control over our existence. They are to be treated with special reverence. Exodus covered the making of all necessary sacred objects and some ordination rites; Leviticus concentrates on how Israel is to act according to holy principles.

Although this theme controls every topic treated in Leviticus, the book was not written all at once. The signs of different groups of laws that at various times were joined into larger and larger collections can be seen when we look closely at the text. As an example, if we read the sacrifice rules in chapters 1–7 quickly, they may appear to be all in the same style. But we could then go back and look at particular expressions. In chapters 1–3 the sacrifices are regularly “brought before the Lord,” so that there will be a “sweet‐smelling oblation” to the Lord. These expressions are rare in chapters 4–5 . Instead, these chapters deal with a special type of offering for sin and use the label, “The Lord said to Moses …” more frequently. They also stress that the priest will make atonement for others. Chapters 6–7 are arranged according to a still different formula, “This is the ritual of …”

Probably, then, there are three slightly different sets of sacrifice laws that have been combined to make up these seven chapters. Again, the style of listing laws in chapters 1–16 is so different from the more preachy style of chapters 17–26 that all commentators have been convinced that we have separate origins for these two halves. Nevertheless, the editors have made this into one of the most unified books that we have in the Pentateuch, second only to Deuteronomy.

The Major Themes of the Individual Sections

Since much in Leviticus is foreign to modern Christian religious observances, it will be worth looking at each division with a few charts and background aids to understanding.

Leviticus 1–7 : The Topic of Sacrifice

Several different types of sacrifice are named in these chapters:

The Holocaust or Whole Burnt Offering (Lv 1, 1–17 )

This is an animal that is entirely burned on the altar to God. The animal can be one of three types: cattle ( 3–9 ), sheep and goats ( 10–13 ), or birds ( 14–17 ). It must be male and without any blemish. Since the offering is entirely given over to God, it is an act of pure acknowledgement of divine lordship over life. But it is also understood as an atonement for the sins of the offerer (v. 4 ). Yet, later in the Holiness Code, a holocaust could be offered for joyful or thankful moments (see 22, 17 ).

The Grain Offering (Lv 2, 1–16 )

The NAB calls this the “cereal offering,” but in Hebrew the word is simply “the gift offering” (minhah). This may be understood in part as a substitute for expensive animals so that the poor could afford a holocaust. But more usually it was a thanksgiving to God for good crops and to celebrate joyful times. Since only the symbolic bits of grain, oil, and frankincense on the top were actually burned up, the rest went for the support of the priest.

The Peace Offering (Lv 3, 1–17 )

This might better be called a “well‐being sacrifice,” for its main difference from the holocaust was that it was not completely burned up but largely saved and eaten by the offerers and their families. It could be taken from either cattle or sheep and goats, but not from birds. Since this offering was for a group, a bird would have been too small. Like the holocaust it had to be without blemish, but unlike the holocaust it could be either a male or a female animal. Only the fat parts (tail, inner organs and their fat, the two kidneys) were burned to God.

The Sin Offering or “Purgation Offering” (Lv 4, 1–5, 13 )

This sacrifice specifically deals with those times when a sacred thing had been violated, often by accident or without knowing it. The sacrifice was necessary in order to atone for the loss of holiness and proper purity of holy things by an act of cleansing. This required a bull to be killed if the offender were the whole people or a priest; while a goat sufficed for a lay offender. The key part of the ritual was the sprinkling of the animal's blood on the altar. For the lay offender, the blood of the goat was sprinkled on the altar of sacrifices in the outer courtyard; but if it had been a congregational or priestly offense, the blood of the bull had to be sprinkled on the altar of incense in the holy interior and on the curtain that led to the holy of holies where the ark of the covenant was kept.

The Guilt Offering (Lv 5, 14–26 )

This is sometimes called a “reparation offering.” It differs from the sin offering just slightly in its focus (see Lv 7, 7 ). Where the sin offering was to cleanse the defiled sanctuary and persons, the guilt offering is strictly to give back a reparation or “payment” to God for failure in something we ought to have given or done. That is, we have cheated God or a member of the covenant community, and so not only does the wrong itself have to be fixed up, but God must be given a reparation offering over and above the actual amount that was neglected. For this offering a ram is specified, and the blood is sprinkled on the altar itself. It is clearly a ritual of atonement for sin to heal the sinner of guilt.

Instructions for the Performance of the Different Sacrifices (Lv 6,1–7, 36 )

The specific actions of the priests for each of the above types of sacrifice are now spelled out in more detail in 6, 1–7, 10 . Special instructions for the lay participants in the peace offerings are added on in 7, 11–36 . This was necessary because, in these particular sacrifices, the offerer and his party ritually ate most of the sacrificed animal and thus needed instructions similar to those given to the priests. It did not hurt, of course, from the priestly point of view, to reemphasize to those who brought sacrifices their obligation to supply a portion to the priests for their livelihood.

Conclusion (Lv 7, 37–38 )

The last two verses of chapter 7 are an especially solemn closing that underscores for the reader how seriously sacrificial regulations and the importance of this practice for the faith was to be understood.

The Anointing and Service of Aaron and His Sons (Lv 8, 1–10, 20 )

Once the instructions on how sacrifice is to be done have been thoroughly learned in chapters 1–7 , the action can begin. These next chapters deal with the installation of the proper priesthood, that is, Aaron and those descended from him (chapter 8 ); the model performance of the first sacrifices (chapter 9 ); and several crucial problems that need a solution (chapter 10 ). Thus, the section is very well organized even though there are several signs it may have originated from a variety of sources. The description of the first sacrifice in 8, 14–30 seems almost to be duplicated in the octave‐day sacrifices of 9, 1–21 . The story difference is that in the first, Moses actually leads Aaron; in the second, Aaron does it on his own authority.

The details of chapter 8 fulfill the requirements for proper priestly performance of the sacrifices. Verses 1–13 carry out the commands on the appointment of priests found in Exodus 29; verses 14–30 correspond to the sacrifice laws in Lv 1, 1–5, 13 .

In chapter 9 three events are recorded: the first sacrifice of atonement for Aaron and the priests ( 9, 8–14 ), the first sacrifice to atone for the whole people ( 9, 15–21 ), and finally, the blessing over the people ( 9, 22–24 ). This text reinforces the lesson that sacrifices must be done correctly and with a special awareness of their sacred character. Only if they are done with such careful reverence will the glory of the Lord be present in their midst ( 9, 6.22–24 ).

In chapter 10 , the lesson about God's holiness is driven home with still greater force. In the first case, verses 1–5 , even the sons of Aaron will be stuck down if they fail to observe the proper awe and correct manner of approaching the divine presence. In the second case, verses 6–11 , the priests must refrain from a number of behaviors that would profane the sense of holiness in the performance of their duties. These include improper dress, stepping beyond the boundary of the Tent of Meeting, and using alcoholic beverages. But they are also given the positive duty of teaching the law in its entirety to the people (v. 11 ). And in the third case, verses 12–20 , the correct manner of eating the sacrifices is dealt with. It is illustrated by an unusual exception that tests the rule: Eleazar and Ithamar don't eat the sacrifice as they should but give it all up as a burnt offering to God. Their excess zeal is permitted because it offered to God what they were entitled to have for themselves. If they had instead done the opposite, and taken part of God's share for themselves, one is left to imagine the death they would incur as punishment.

So then, chapters 8–10 serve two functions. They show how the laws in chapters 1–7 are performed by the true priests (see the diagram RG 127 ) and they fulfill the instructions given in Exodus 25–31 . Those chapters gave the Lord's commands both for building a tent and ark, and for consecrating priests. But only the building program was completed by the end of Exodus. Only now does the priestly consecration finally take place. We could show the development by another diagram, on RG 130 .

In this schema the Levitical editors have inserted Exodus 32–34 from the older J story of the covenant between the commands to prepare the sanctuary and priesthood and their fulfillment, both from P. This links the covenant to the regulations on worship by interlocking sections of one with the other; at the same time it integrates the two traditions of J and P. Note that it also reinforces the notion that the people easily fall into idolatry and transgress the holiness of God and so need the careful priestly performance of the cult to preserve their proper relationship to God.

The Laws of Purity (Lv 11, 1–15, 33 )

These chapters take up four separate types of uncleanness associated with living beings:

The Levitical editors have made a number of important distinctions within these categories. In chapter 11 , for example, some animals are considered clean, that is, fit for eating, while others are not. In general, those same animals that are unclean for eating also contaminate anyone who touches their dead bodies. In the third category, contagious diseases, special procedures are required for each different case: if it is a human skin disease, the person must be quarantined; if it is a fungus on a house wall, the building is quarantined; if it is a matter of sexual emissions, different rituals are prescribed for men and women.

These purity laws are based on a simple consideration, namely that many areas of human life touch the mystery of the divine, and in those areas there can be nothing that is impure or unworthy. This does not just apply to sacred spaces such as temples, or sacred moments such as birth, marriage, and high holy days; it also includes those areas of everyday experience that touch issues of life and death, including the mysterious power of sexual activity and the sometimes dangerous loss of blood and other bodily fluids.

Uncleanness refers specifically to those situations that prevent us from approaching the divine in a worthy manner. They cannot be taken lightly. The final word on the question of those who defile God's house by appearing in it in a state of uncleanness is a warning that it will cause their death (Lv 15, 31 ). At one point, also, the command to avoid swarming insects as unclean is identified with loyalty to God himself, and its violation defiles God's own holiness (Lv 11, 44f ). Moreover, the laws can have devastating effects on the individuals involved. For example, if the skin disease does not go away, the person can be permanently exiled from the community.

Many scholars have debated the reasons why some animals are considered clean and therefore edible, while others are forbidden. Frequently they argue for a primitive science of hygiene that recognized that the unclean animals were possible carriers of disease. An example would be the pig, long known to be a possible bearer of trichinosis. Others argue that the real basis is a religious reflection on the proper order of creation as told in the Genesis creation stories. Only fish that swim, birds that fly, and animals that graze fulfill the normal pattern of God's plan; all others seem to be not quite perfect—flightless birds such as ostriches, sea creatures that walk like animals, animals that crawl close to the ground like insects, etc. A little of both views may well have influenced the theologians who made up the lists. We just do not know.

The categories covered in Leviticus 11–15 do not exhaust the realm of the clean and unclean. The Passover regulations of Exodus 12–13 deal with old leaven, which was unclean; Deuteronomy 20 demands purity conditions for waging war in God's name. But the four areas found in Leviticus usually touch those matters that come under the supervision of the priests, often require one or more sacrifices for the purification of the individuals affected, and might involve situations where the unclean person joins those who come into the Temple and would thereby consciously or unconsciously defile God's dwelling place.

The Day of Atonement (Lv 16, 1–34 )

In one sense, chapter 16 takes up where the story left off in chapter 10 with the death of Aaron's sons and the need for atonement. In another sense, the ritual of a Day of Atonement described in this chapter heals all the cases of uncleanness and impurity that have defiled the land during the year. It thus sums up the proper response of the people to the dangers of impurity named in chapters 1115 . In a still larger sense, it is the climax of all the laws on sacrifice, priestly service, and purity from chapter 1 on, since they all involve the need for atonement at one level or another. The sacrifices always include some atoning function; priestly service risks constant danger of some fault in its performance that may demand atonement; and, of course, all daily cases of impurity need atoning. Going further, verse 21 tells us that the Day of Atonement ritual was to purify the people and the land of both unintentional and intentional sins and transgressions.

The actual rite is probably pre‐Israelite. Similar ceremonies of transferring the sins of the people onto animals and then slaughtering them were known in many ancient cultures, including those of both Babylon and Rome. Similarly, smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal on the walls of a temple to purify it was done at Babylon. The reference to Azazel in verses 8, 10, and 26 remains uncertain. It probably refers to an ancient belief that there was a desert demon by this name that claimed the goat sent out to it. But there is no evidence for belief in any such demon here—it is a poetic way of casting out sin into the realm ruled by evil powers, the desert. It is as though the people said to the goat, “Go to hell!”

Chapter 16 carefully describes each step. It lists first the proper procedures and clothing for Aaron and any future high priest to enter the presence of God in the holy of holies; then it outlines each step of the ritual, including the prayer and hand gestures over the goat; and finally it closes with a command to do this forever. Yom Kippur, with its themes of atonement and repentance of the whole community, still occurs on the ninth day after Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) each fall. For the mixing of past and present, this passage should be compared to the parallel directions for Passover in Exodus 12 .

The Holiness Code (Lv 17, 1–25, 55 )

In chapters 1–16 all the topics dealt with things that needed to be observed or performed to overcome the barrier between God and human beings. Thus even the sacrifices can be included under the rubric of concern for being clean before God. Chapters 17–25 take up the opposite and just as necessary qualification of holiness: what we do positively to relate to God. The first sixteen chapters center on removing the blocks to our relationship; chapters 17–25 propose building new blocks in communal action in imitation of God. Actually, both areas overlap considerably with one another, and there is an excellent harmony between chapters 1 through 16 and 17 through 25 .

There are nevertheless some differences. The style of 1–16 was largely listing what had to be done, but 17–25 is more like a sermon exhorting people to fidelity. Almost all of the first sixteen chapters were ritual requirements; most of 17–25 deals with ethical and social obligations. In 1–16 the accent fell on what we as mere creatures need to do to bridge the gap to the divine; in 17–25 the accent falls on how a holy people live in the image and likeness of God. In many ways the Holiness Code of 17–25 resembles the homiletic style of the book of Deuteronomy and the impassioned warnings of the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 22 for a good comparison with Leviticus 18–20 ). It probably originated in the same period as Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, near the time of the Exile of 587 BC, or a little earlier. It is also a moving call to holiness and integration of all aspects of our lives around God as our central concern.

In structure, 17–25 can be divided into two parts: (a) chapters 17–20 , which cover ethical demands on the whole community, and (b) chapters 21–25 , which deal primarily with priestly matters of public worship. Each part has a well‐ordered progression:

  • Part 1 ( 17–20 )

    • 17, 1–16 All sacrifices must be done at the central sanctuary; there must be great reverence for life by respect for the blood—it is not for human consumption but to be given back to God.
    • 18, 1–30 Sexual behavior must be regulated by careful respect for appropriate human relationships, so that lust and orgiastic urges are controlled and that Israel does not become as carnally bankrupt as its pagan neighbors.
    • 19, 1–37 Contains a wide variety of norms for dealing with one another as members of the covenant with God; and as verses 19–36 make clear, far differently from the way the Canaanites behave. The laws are especially concerned with protecting the rights of the weak so that there will not be a degraded serf class as was found among the Canaanite city states.
    • 20, 1–27 Repeats many of the commands already given but adds penalties to each, often severe in respect to idolatry and incest. Once again it ends with a warning to avoid the practices of the Canaanites.
  • Part 2 ( 21–25 )

    • 21, 1–24 The role of priest demands wholeness and particular witness, so special rules governing marriage, deformities, and uncleanness are spelled out.
    • 22, 1–33 Regulations for the wholeness and fitting perfection of the animals sacrificed are made parallel to those governing the priests.
    • 23, 1–44 The annual feast days must be regulated with the same care as the priests and sacrifices. This section treats the weekly Sabbath as the model feast ( 23, 2f ); and then seven annual feast days: Passover, First Fruits, Weeks, New Year, the Day of Atonement, Booths, and the eighth day after Booths.
    • 24, 1–23 Still further regulations of worship follow. These explain how the lamps and the showbread in the sanctuary are handled; also the death penalty for blasphemy is explained by a concrete case.
    • 25, 1–5 A special concluding description of the sabbatical year every seventh year when no planting may be done; and of the jubilee year, every fifty years, when all property and debts return to their original owners. Both probably originated as acts of acknowledgment that God owned the land. Now they are explained as acts of social justice to restore help to the poor and landless.

These laws are an ideal code and it is not absolutely certain that some of the most idealistic among them, such as the very unlikely jubilee year, were ever put into actual practice. They stand together, however, as a vision of Israel living completely under the dominion of God and in obedience to the divine will—they are holy as God is holy, and all Israel's actions respect the integrity and purpose of God's creation. This is made clear over and over again in these nine chapters by repeating the formulas “I the Lord am your God,” “I am the Lord,” or “I the Lord am holy.” To these is often added the reminder “I the Lord led you out of Egypt.” Israel, who received such divine compassion, must always act in turn out of a like compassion for others!

The Conclusion to the Holiness Code (Lv 26, 1–46 )

This is the true conclusion to the Holiness Code, but it stands apart by its form as a series of blessings on all who keep, and curses on all who violate, the covenant. In this way, it now stands as the general conclusion to chapters 1–16 and 17–25 . The regulations on approaching God in worship and obeying him in society have been spelled out, and now Israel must choose. Its covenant structure resembles very closely the vassal‐treaty form discussed previously in Exodus 19–24 , and it has strong similarities to a closing list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 27.

It also reflects the thinking of the priestly editors at the end of the Exile. Not only does it foresee both blessing and eventual curse for disobedience, but it adds a short concluding word on a renewed blessing and a promise that God will not forget his covenant with Israel completely (vv. 40–46 ). It is imbued with the spirit of the exilic prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that God was about to instill a new covenant, written on the hearts of Israel, so that no longer would obedience come in response to an external law but would rise from an interior consent born of the knowledge and love of the Lord. It is at this point that the original book of Leviticus ended on a note of great hope for the future.

The Appendix on Gifts Vowed to the Sanctuary (Lv 27, 1–34 )

This section was added sometime after Leviticus was completed to take care of an important problem that touched on holiness: how to handle various offerings that were vowed to the Lord but were not always appropriate for sacred use. These include such diverse subjects as persons, animals, houses, land, firstborn animals, objects vowed, and tithes. If something is not fitting to be consecrated to God, it should be sold for money for the sanctuary or be exchanged by the offerer. But once even impure offerings have touched the sanctuary, they are not to be simply returned to ordinary life again.

While these are important areas, they can be subject to rash vows by people. Note Jesus in Matthew 5, 3–9 condemns those who vow to God what belongs to the support of their parents.

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