January 1 is the start date for a New Year’s resolution. December is the month to start making plans for those resolutions. Perhaps the most common resolution Christians make is to read through the Bible in a year.
But that resolution runs into a big challenge near the outset: Leviticus. Either the reader breaks his resolution at this point (“Let’s skip this for something more obviously relevant”) or he goes doggedly on without expecting much benefit, let alone enjoyment (“If I can just get through this book, it’s bound to get more interesting”). What’s the benefit of reading Leviticus, let along studying it?
Back in October, Jay Sklar, who recently published a commentary on the book, reflected on some things he learned through spending ten years studying Leviticus. Sklar says his study led to a greater hunger for God’s holiness, fear of God, love for Jesus, and love for his neighbor. It occurred to me, reading his essay, that there were still more benefits to be gained from studying Leviticus.
(1) The better you get to know Leviticus, the more you recognize how much the rest of Scripture presupposes that you know and understand Leviticus. Where did the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 come up with the four things they instruct the Gentile believers to avoid? From Leviticus, where the only laws that explicitly apply to Gentile sojourners have to do with things offered to idols (17:1-9), blood (17:10-12), things strangled (17:13-14: “he shall pour out the blood” requires bloodshed and not strangling), and sexual immorality (18).
Similarly, only if you know Leviticus, where “leprosy” (Leviticus 13-14) is followed by discharges from the flesh (Leviticus 15), will you notice that the two cleansings (as opposed to the healings) in Mark’s Gospel follow the same order: first, a “leper” (Mark 1:40-45) and then a woman with a flow of blood (Mark 5:23-34).
(2) Studying Leviticus makes you realize how weird Leviticus—and, by extension, the whole Bible—really is. God required Israel to draw near to him through offerings—that much is clear at a glance—but the details of the offerings raise questions. Why this here and that there? Why do priests get the skin? What’s the significance of the north side of the altar?
Then there are lists of unclean animals. To some of us, giving up bacon and shrimp would be a hardship, but an Israelite would have had no more desire to eat those things that you would to eat cat. Nevertheless, those laws are strange: godly Gentiles weren’t bound by these laws, nor was anyone else before the Exodus. What makes one animal “clean” and another “unclean”? Why hooves? Why cuds?
There are two chapters about something our translations call “leprosy,” though it isn’t what we call leprosy today, followed by a chapter about bodily discharges. James Jordan has said that you can’t read far in the Bible without stepping into the “deep weird,” and nowhere is that more true than in Leviticus.
An Israelite didn’t have to understand these requirements; he simply had to obey and that obedience wasn’t hard. In that sense, Leviticus contained laws for children, not for adults. It was law for priests, God’s palace servants who hear and obey, not for kings, whose glory it is to search out what it has been God’s glory to conceal (Proverbs 25:2).
But meditating on these laws is precisely how God intended his people to grow into maturity and wisdom, and it is precisely the strangeness of the laws—why these details? what is that all about?—that sparks such wisdom-inducing meditation. No Israelite would consider wearing a garment made out of wool and linen … except that the priests did. In fact, every Israelite had one such mixture, the blue wool tassel on the four corners of his linen garment. Why the general prohibition but these exceptions?
To figure out the answer, we have to know something about wool and linen, about animal fabrics and plant fabrics, about the color blue, about the number four, about priestly holiness, about … well, about symbolism. It’s the symbolism, above all, that makes Leviticus weird to us, and there’s symbolism everywhere. To understand Leviticus, you have to figure out how the symbolism works, what certain things mean. That’s a quest that drives you to the rest of Scripture. To figure out the meaning of seven, for instance, you have to go back to Genesis 1. But it’s also a quest that has a rich payoff, because the more you wrestle with the symbolism of Leviticus, the more you see that that same symbolism runs, consistently, through the whole of Scripture.
(3) Studying Leviticus helps us understand Christ’s person and work better, and it does so not in spite of but because of all those strange details. A commentary on Leviticus that simply tells us that Christ’s death is the sacrifice that fulfills all the Old Covenant offerings has only scratched the surface. The offerings are all different from each other, and each of those different details sheds light on who Jesus is and what he has done. Similarly, only if we understand the symbolism of “leprosy” and bodily discharges will we understand what Jesus’ cleansing of a leper and a woman with a flow of blood tell us about him.
(4) Studying Leviticus helps us understand what it meant for Israel to be the priestly people in the world with Yahweh dwelling in her midst. Before Leviticus, none of the cleanness/uncleanness laws applied. Abraham was not forbidden to eat pork, nor had Moses been, but suddenly, the dietary laws kicked in. Moses’ wife wasn’t unclean after giving birth to Gershom, but suddenly childbirth did make Israelite women unclean.
When did that transition take place? At Sinai, when the tabernacle was completed. The first chapters of Leviticus overlap with the events at the end of Exodus. Aaron and his sons are ordained and present the first offerings (Leviticus 8-9), Yahweh takes up residence in the tabernacle in his glory (9:23-24), and what follows are the dietary laws and other laws relating to clean and unclean.
Uncleanness has to do with death, and as we read Leviticus, we begin to see how God’s presence in the midst of Israel brought Israel under death. Being the priestly people, the people who had God in her midst and had special access to him, was a great privilege and a high calling, but that calling included bearing death, coming under death, in order to bring blessing to the nations.
Leviticus thus makes it clear to us how Israel is distinguished from the Gentiles and for what purpose. Only two chapters in Leviticus contain laws that explicitly apply to Gentile sojourners. Even godly Gentiles, it appears, didn’t become unclean when they touched a dead body or gave birth, nor did they have to keep the dietary laws. Leviticus is the dividing wall that is removed in Christ, and so reading Leviticus helps us understand how Christ bore death—thus fulfilling Israel’s calling—so that now that dividing wall is gone and Jew and Gentile are one body in him.
(5) Leviticus is full of rituals—do this first, then that; put this here and that there—and meditating on them can help us understand how rites and foundational beliefs belong together. Rituals that are repeated over and over get into the psyche of people; they affect their thinking and living far more than words alone.
In the words of Arthur Kay (personal correspondence), “Leviticus especially provided the cult from which the culture of God’s chosen people sprang — the habits and rituals that engender a mindset suitably wired for understanding and living according to the laws of God, both in his special house and in the wider world that is, in a more general sense, also the house of God.”
We no longer offer lambs and goats now that Jesus has come. His life, death, and resurrection have changed things. But if God loves ritual—as Leviticus suggests that he does—then we ought to learn from the rituals here about how we ought to draw near to God.
Far from being irrelevant—a stretch of bad road to get through before you can enjoy the Bible again—Leviticus is foundational to everything that follows, the source of symbolism that the rest of Scripture consistently employs, the temporary dividing wall that shows us what riches we have in Christ now that the division is gone, the revelation of Jesus calling to be Israel in bearing death, and the source from which we continue to learn how to live as God’s people in Christ.
This year, maybe your New Year’s resolution can include the resolve to enjoy Leviticus in all its weirdness, to let the weirdness arouse your curiosity and impel you to keep wondering, to keep asking “What’s this all about?” Those questions are how you grow into a king who understands not only Leviticus but the rest of Scripture as well.
Rev. John Barach, a Theopolis fellow, is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sulphur, Louisiana. Visit his blog for more essays.
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