I finished reading Leviticus last week. If there’s a book in the Bible that Christians want to avoid reading, it’s Leviticus. Or maybe Ezekiel. I actually loved reading Leviticus this year in my chronological reading. (That’s my favorite way to read the Old Testament.) This is not a theological study that I’m offering here. I simply want us to all know that the Bible is for us: the plain, everyday believer. Actually, we are all the same kind of believer; there’s no hierarchy in the faith (2 Peter 1:1).
God has done a lot of work in my heart, teaching me who He is and how His Word connects together. I’ve shown up for that too. I’ve put in a lot of work to get to a place where a few of the layers of Leviticus makes sense to me. It’s taken work to be able to read Leviticus with awe of how God reaches out for humanity.
I want to start there because often we tell a story that reading and understanding the Bible is easy. That you simply show up (which is most of the battle) and it all falls into place and it isn’t ever confusing or hard to process. That has not been my experience. It has been my experience that it is worth the effort and that small work done frequently will pay off in the long run.
Let’s start somewhere besides Leviticus and make a few points that drastically affect what we’re reading.
What’s the point anyway?
What’s the law all about? Is God demanding and exacting and just wants to see if people will try to follow ridiculous steps to earn His favor? Is God just trying to spoil all the fun in life and watch people trying to please Him and failing over and over? Reading the New Testament has everyone saying, “Well, of course not; how absurd.” But then we get back into some of the Old Covenant and wonder how on earth it connects to what we know about God.
Romans 13: 8-10 says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Then we see, smack in the middle of Leviticus, “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (19:18)
Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matthew 22:36-40, “ ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The point of the law is to guide the people in loving God and in loving others. The laws were added because of sin (Galatians 3:19). See the book of Numbers. The people sinned and God added more laws as guardrails, but the people kept sinning. It’s the continual pattern of humanity under the Old Covenant. Did the law save them? No, thank God; they would have been without hope. (Go read Galatians for more.) Just as Abraham was saved by faith, just as we are saved by faith, the people under the law were too. The law was a guide to help the people love God, love others, and show the world what God was like.
Do we recognize this God?
I’ve read some commentators and Christians who act as if the God of the OT and Jesus are not the same God. Malachi 3:6 tells us, “For I the Lord do not change.” Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” And one of my favorite verses in the Bible, Hebrews 1:3, says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,”
Jesus and the Old Testament God are the same God. God didn’t morph into a new a character when Jesus came on the scene. There isn’t a mean scary God of the Old Testament and then Jesus whom we all love. Jesus is the Creator God coming personally to fulfill both sides of the covenant because humanity can’t fulfill their side. He is the Creator God coming to redeem and reconcile His creation.
The presuppositions we take into the reading of the Bible matter. They can derail us from the start or give us an entirely new lens for evaluation.
A premise for understanding
One of the things that I’ve learned in studying the Old Testament is that a lot of the law was shaped around distinguishing God from the false gods of other nations. The people were to be set apart, priests to show God to the whole world (Exodus 19:4-6). Leviticus also tells us this in 18:2-5, and 20:22-24. A good portion of the laws were simply to distinguish their habits and worship practices from the cultures around them (see the issue about offering sacrifices with honey in Leviticus 2:11) and we shouldn’t make up other reasons for them without Biblical support. Honey isn’t bad, in and of itself. All Scripture has a definite cultural context.
Deuteronomy is a recap of the previous books. It’s a speech- we might even say a sermon- from Moses to the people before they cross the Jordan and before he dies. In Deuteronomy 6:24 Moses says, “And the Lord commanded us to do all these statues, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.” God sets up ways for His people to flourish and fulfill their mission of making Him known. His ways are for the good of people. He is a good God, then and now.
Now on to Leviticus
Right Relationship with God
Leviticus starts out explaining the different types of offerings. The first ones, the burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace offering, all end up being a pleasing aroma to the Lord (go check out 2 Corinthians 2:14-16). Then we move on to sin offerings and guilt offerings and suddenly we’re removing organs and burning parts and flinging blood and we want to stop there, right? Let’s just leave that alone and be grateful that we don’t have to do that anymore. Nope, don’t miss the gravity and the beauty.
Sin is serious. It’s an offense against God that must be made right; we can’t just wave sin away or brush it off. Sin requires payment. That would be a heavy place to have to stay, but God graciously doesn’t leave us there. God makes the way; the sacrifice is a covering for sin. All the different sections end with a phrase like this, “and the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.” This is how the people could be in right relationship with God.
Right Relationship with Others
God clearly taught the people how to love Him well. The sacrifices may have wiped the slate clean with God, but they didn’t clear responsibility with other people. Chapter 6 points out that deceiving your neighbor was committing a breach against the Lord. God takes how we treat other people very seriously. He was also required to make things right with his neighbor. We could call this restitution or compensation and we see the same thing mirrored in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. We would all do well to consider this, possibly for a long time, and how this affects our own lives.
What did loving your neighbor look like? Chapters 19-20 specifically talk about ways that they should treat the people around them. God cared about how they treated their parents, the poor, the sojourner, the workers, the elderly. God cared about sex remaining in the marriage covenant (see chapter 18). Sexual behavior set the people apart from the pagan nations surrounding them (18:3-5). God even cared about how they treated the land (Leviticus 19:23-25; 25:3-7, 19-22).
The law delves into the priesthood, and- lest we get weird ideas about them being special people with super spiritual power- they had to live by even more laws than other people. The priests were selected by family line and were restricted by age (Numbers 8:24-25) and physical ability (Leviticus 21:17-23). They lost other “rights” for this job (Joshua 13:14), and they had to make atonement for themselves before they could offer the sacrifice to make atonement for others. Right after the consecration of Aaron and his sons (chapters 8-9), directly in the next chapter (10, I felt like I shouldn’t have to put that there, but there you go), two of Aaron’s sons are killed for not doing things God’s way. We really are getting the message that humanity keeps messing it up, right? The priests are not the answer, just like keeping the law didn’t save anyone.
This is a great place to jump forward and read Hebrews 5, 8-10. Hebrews 10:11-14 says, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 9:15 says, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” And what phrase do we see repeatedly through the second half of Leviticus? “I am the Lord who sanctifies them (Leviticus 21:15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). God does the work. God has constantly been coming after His creation.
There’s a section about the feasts, which involved resting. They weren’t supposed to do work, or ordinary work, on those days. The first one listed is the sabbath, which was for refreshment. God says he rested on the seventh day and was refreshed (Exodus 31:17) and that the people were to rest from their work on the seventh day so they could be refreshed (Exodus 23:12). The whole point was resting from work and even celebration in some cases (Leviticus 23:39, Deuteronomy 16:11,14). God cares deeply about His people. Even here in the midst of what we consider a bunch of rules, God is making a way for His people to live refreshing and joyful lives.
Leviticus is a beautiful book that shows how God was making a way for people to be near Him and for Him to dwell with them. God dwelling with people is a theme throughout the Bible (Leviticus 26:11-12, Ezekiel 37:27, 2 Corinthians 6: 16-18, Revelation 21:3). God wants to be with us. He made the way for that to happen and we can see it in every story on every page.
I love that we have free access to so many resources for understanding the Bible in 2018! What a gift to be alive now.
After Class podcast series on the Old Testament (scroll down to episodes 2-4 at the very beginning)
The Bible Project Leviticus video
Exploring my Strange Bible podcast series “Torah Crash Course 1-3” (again, almost all the way at the beginning)
Blue Letter Bible resources
The Bible Project Leviticus Q+R (especially for context on purity laws, which I didn’t discuss here)