The Case for Leviticus

I think it’s fair to say that Leviticus isn’t on everyone’s top 10 Bible books. I’ve heard it cited as boring, irrelevant, and barbaric. It’s true that not a great deal of action happens in it, bar two of Aaron’s sons being punished for offering improper incense (chapter 10), and on the surface there’s not much of a message of hope beyond a sometimes frightening list of rules. Some of these laws do indeed seem from modern Western eyes little short of barbaric, while others are just plain weird.

However, there is definitely merit in reading it, which I will attempt to briefly outline below. I’m not going to go into great detail or explain every law, but I hope to at least give enough of an outline to kindle your interest!

The law itself actually starts in Exodus 20, with the 10 Commandments:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”.

By Exodus’s end, Israel had set up the tabernacle, a sort of temporary moveable forerunner to Solomon’s temple, and the glory of the LORD descended on it (Exodus 40), meaning that God had made his dwelling with them. As such, Leviticus can be regarded as a sort-of lease- if a holy God was going to dwell with them, they had to be holy too (11:44, cited in 1 Peter 1:16).

The first seven chapters go into the (often pretty graphic) details of the sacrificial system. Sacrifices in of themselves were nothing new (see Cain, Noah, and Abraham) but the Mosaic law formalised them.

They were atonements for sin, aids to prayers of petition, and symbols of peace with God. For Christians, all this should sound familiar! Indeed, these chapters enhance our understanding about the sacrifice on the cross in a way we don’t get elsewhere.

After this we have a section on the ordination of the Jewish priesthood, starting with Aaron and his sons (who, as mentioned before, don’t seem to take their job seriously).

This precedes a difficult section on cleanliness and uncleanliness (11-15). There is a temptation to conflate “unclean” with “sinful”, but this is not the case, for example, a husband and wife having sexual relations would be unclean (though such an act is clearly not sinful). The state of cleanliness or uncleanliness dictates what you can or can’t do, such as give peace offerings (7:19-20). In most cases, uncleanliness occurs when there is some kind of bodily fluid or risk to health involved, which would suggest that these laws are at least in part designed to avoid spreading disease. It effectively meant that you were in a temporary state of being unable to approach God or be with his people, and would have affected everyone at some time of their life.

What is most interesting is that these states of uncleanliness were often resolved by bathing, which I speculate is what evolved into the Baptism that John the Baptist was giving (I could be wrong, please say!).

Then comes the day of atonement (chapter 16), in which the sins of the nation were forgiven. Again, this is full of symbolism, pointing to the cross (Hebrews 9:7-14), not just from the sacrifices but also in the role of the priests, who intercede for the nation in the most holy place.

Chapters 17-22 elaborate further on what it means to be holy. Most of the laws in these chapters are designed to show that Israel is distinct from other nations because God is with them (18:1-4). It is in Chapter 19 we find the second part of Jesus’ golden rule “Love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18), which would suggest that there are strong implications, in this chapter at least, for us as Christians.

A description of holy times (23-25) precedes perhaps the most important section of the book, that is the covenant promises and warnings (26). They point forward to the future blessings they would get if they kept the law, and the curses they would get if they did not, which ultimately came true in the Babylonian exile.

But even there we see that God is gracious even before this happens (26:40-45), saying that if there are some among the remnant who believe, that he will remember the covenant, and not destroy them completely.

Chapter 27 concerns vows about dedicating things to the sanctuary and seems somewhat out of place, given the previous material. However, it does give context to figures such as Samuel later on.

Once you’ve read Leviticus, it becomes clear that God is holy, holier than you can possibly imagine. It is difficult and hard work, but I think it deserves a chance. It might lift the veil a little.

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One Response to The Case for Leviticus

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading (06/07/13) | This Got Me Thinking

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