Reading Leviticus

When most believers try to read the Bible in a year, they’ll begin with Genesis. By the time they get to Exodus 25, it isn’t as easy because the readings are step-by-step instructions about the tabernacle, its construction and furniture. Then, once you get to Leviticus, the average reader becomes so despondent that some give up the project altogether. However, there’s a difference between reading and understanding. Once Leviticus is understood, it makes sense.

Let’s look at the bigger picture, and we’ll see how Leviticus is actually a book of grace. First, return with me to the Garden of Eden. There, God and humanity had perfect fellowship that was uninterrupted. Until, that is, sin entered the picture. Afterward, God removed humanity from Eden, where His presence dwelt, and, eventually, humanity began to have to sacrifice an animal to atone for their sins. The first mention of an altar appears after the flood, and it was built by Noah. Just so we don’t forget, God offered the first sacrifice. Remember when Adam and Eve knew they were naked? They sewed fig leaves to provide clothing, but a little later on, God made for them garments of animal skins—which suggests that the first sacrifice was made then.

What does Leviticus have to do with Eden, you ask? What God wants more than anything is for humanity to dwell (tabernacle) with Him. He chose Israel as the vessel for this goal, but, first, Israel has to set the stage for all humanity. The tabernacle is the way that God can live among His people, and how His people can dwell before Him. Because God is holy, He cannot let sin, an injustice against heaven’s laws, go unpunished. However, because He is holy, He balances wrath with grace by offering ways that humanity can avoid judgment. Some Protestant readings of Leviticus suggest that the book is a way for Israel to not incur His wrath, and because humans are depraved they deserve God’s wrath and judgment. They might even point to Leviticus 10:1–2 as a proof of that. I read it differently. Leviticus is a book of grace where God offers to Israel how He can remain among them, and how they can dwell before Him in holiness.

Reading Leviticus reveals clusters of chapters that focus on various sacrifices and their meanings. The beginning and ending chapters consist of this material. As we move inward, we’re met with laws regardings priests, and further inward we’re shown the purity laws that must be followed. Once we reach the middle of the book, we’re introduced to the Day of Atonement—the one day that the high priest may enter the holiest place behind the veil, in God’s very presence, and make atonement for the entire nation. Encompassing the whole of the book is the theme of holiness.

God calls Israel’s attention to Himself as a recognition of all that is holy. You’ll often read God give instructions and then declare, “I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8). He, then, demands that Israel follow His ordinances and commandments as a show of their commitment to Him and as an exhibition of their own holiness (Lev. 18:4, 30; 22:31–32; 26:46). He always warns Israel against societal conformity. He does not in any way want Israel to do as the Egyptians did, nor as the Canaanites do (Lev. 18:3, 24–28). This is an especial notable concept for American Christians. We will not be judged on how American we are, and our level of patriotism will not be the standard. Our allegiance to Jesus will be. Holiness in Leviticus extends to how God is worshipped (Lev. 10:1–2), sexual relations (Lev. 18:6–22; 20:10–21), and how we regard our neighbors (Lev. 19:16–18; 19:32; 20:9). The second greatest commandment that Jesus gave originated in Leviticus. It isn’t a Christian command so much as one that God gave His people as far back as the covenantal relationship.

For the Christian, Leviticus and the theme of holiness is important. We have been recreated in holiness, so we are no longer slaves to sin but righteousness (Rom. 6:15–19). God has called us to holiness (1 Thess. 4:7), and without holiness we shall not see God (Heb. 12:14). This is but one concept that is as important to us as Christians as any, and it originates in Leviticus.

One reply to “Reading Leviticus

  1. This is a great article!

    When teaching OT ethics,I have used Walter Kaiser’s TOWARD OLD TESTAMENT ETHICS, and I found some of your insights comparable to many of his. In my judgment that is a high compliment.

    Liked by 1 person

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