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.

The Law in the Intertestamental Period

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35).[1] The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon.

When the exiles returned Maccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset.

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities.[2] The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community.[3] Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs. 

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community.[4] Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last.[5] Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing.[6] Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten.[7]

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear.[8] However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community.[9] Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.[10]

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education;[11] to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.[12]

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets.[13] The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading.[14] The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years.[15] Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, [16] so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both.[17] The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.[18]

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses.[19] Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue.

[1] What’s unclear is if all Deuteronomy, or Exod. 21–23, or some other portion of the law was intended by this command. We call Torah Gen–Deut., but that may not have been what Moses meant.

[2] Josephus seemed to posit that some might have lived in cities (Wars 2.8.4), but Philo posited that they lived in isolated villages (Quod Omn. Prob. xii [76]) and cities (Hyp. [11.1]).

[3] 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.6, 12; Quod Omn. Prob. xii (75).

[4] 1QS I, 13–15.

[5] 4Q266 fr. 11; 270 fr. 7 ii.

[6] 1QS viii, 6.

[7] Quod Omn. Prob. xii (82, 84); 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.5.

[8] Philo Som. 2.18; cf. Contra Apion 2.18. The Theodotus Inscription on a first-century Judean synagogue read that the synagogue was “for the reading of the Torah and studying the commandments.”

[9] Cf. Bab. Tal. Taan. 4.2–3; 4 Macc. 18:10–11.

[10] Philo Vit. Cont. 9–10; Cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.18.

[11] Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27

[12] Bab. Tal. Sot. 7.7, 8; Bab. Tal. Yoma 7.1–3.

[13] Bab. Tal. Megillah 4.1–5; cf. 3.4–6; Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14.

[14] Acts 13:15; 15:21

[15] Megillah 29b

[16] Bab. Tal. Gittin 5.8

[17] Cf. John 7:14–15. On the literacy of Jesus see Tor Vegge, “The Literacy of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son: On the Literary Study in the Words of Jesus,” Studia Theologica 59, no. 1 (2005): 19–37.

[18] Megillah 4.4

[19] Acts 12:12; 17:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; et. al.

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