Introduction to Leviticus


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This evening we begin a series of sermons on the Book of Leviticus. I suppose most Christians find this book, almost uniquely among the books of the Bible, terra incognita. We may read through it as part of our Bible-reading plan, but it alternately bores us and mystifies us. It seems so utterly alien to our modern life. There is almost nothing in it that we do today and much of what it contains, to put it frankly, we would not want to do. We can’t help but wonder how the ordinary Israelite did not find these instructions equally strange or oppressive. It is a book of regulations about this and about that, seemingly endless regulations covering sacrifices offered in the temple, the annual feasts of the liturgical calendar, ritual impurity and its removal, bodily emissions, which animals could and could not be eaten, how to deal with skin diseases, what to do if mildew should appear in one’s house, and more. Perhaps a lighter touch might make this easier to swallow, but instead there is a somber tone to the book. It details severe punishments for a variety of moral and ritual infractions, with sexual sins getting a significant share of the attention. The promised blessings of the Lord that reward faithfulness are enumerated in thirteen verses in chapter 26; the threatened curses for disobedience consume the remaining thirty-three verses of the chapter!

The book, in other words, seems to describe a different world, one so very different from our own that we struggle to make any sense of it. We know it is part of the Bible; we may appreciate that all of these laws were somehow useful to Israel’s spiritual life; and we probably realize that in some way or another all of this looked forward to Christ, but Leviticus remains, nonetheless, a very strange book and one hard for us to find very useful. The fact that it was one of the two or three most important books of the OT for a devout Jew only increases the confusion.

In 2007 a man by the name of A.J. Jacobs published an account of his effort to follow these laws and regulations in his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs is not a Christian but he had at least some appreciation for the role that religion plays in human life. So, for that year, he vowed to follow the Ten Commandments (how little did he really understand what that would require of him!). But not just the Ten Commandments. No, he was committed to be fruitful and multiply, to love his neighbor, and to obey the hundreds of less publicized rules, for example, to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers, and so on. The book is more cute than profound, but it illustrates how far removed Leviticus is from the life of a modern American man.

More significantly in 2012, Rachel Held Evans, a so-called Christian blogger, published her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, recording her year-long effort to reproduce the life of a biblical woman. She pursued a different virtue each month and discovered the hard way that her quest for biblical womanhood requires more than a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It means growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period. Not all of this, of course, is from Leviticus — some of it is from the New Testament — but some of it is and perhaps the strangest parts of the profile of biblical womanhood.

The sub-text of both these books and, alas, especially the latter one, the one written by the Christian, is that a lot of these rules and regulations were bizarre, are nowadays completely outmoded, are or should be something of an embarrassment to Bible-believers today, and serve chiefly to make the Bible to some degree appear ridiculous. In Rachel Evans’ view, the chief lesson of a book like Leviticus is that we all ought to be immensely relieved that we don’t have to live according to such out-of-date and primitive regulations.

On the other hand no serious reader of the Bible can deny that that Leviticus is one of the most important books in Holy Scripture. It is, after all, a book almost entirely of God’s own instructions for life. Most of the book is Yahweh’s direct speech. The book begins, “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” That introductory formula, in one variation or another, occurs 36 times in the book! The bulk of the book consists of divine speeches. If we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, Leviticus is as explicitly, directly, and immediately the word of God as any book of the Bible. Surely if one actually believes that these instructions were delivered directly to Moses from God himself, he or she must be very careful before pouring scorn on them or finding them embarrassing. In fact, like it or not, Leviticus sets before us the entire religious system of Israel. [A. Ross, Holiness to the Lord, 15] Much, if not most, of what distinguished the public life of Israel from that of nearby peoples and cultures is here in this book.

So, before we descend to the particulars next Lord’s Day evening, I want us to consider this evening in a more general way how we ought to think about this book and how we ought to evaluate its teaching. After all, there can be no doubt that the teaching of the New Testament conspicuously depends upon Leviticus. In the Index of OT passages cited or alluded to in the NT found at the end of the Nestle-Aland text of the Greek New Testament, texts from Leviticus appear some 140 times. And we are well aware of how significant to the NT revelation of the work of Jesus Christ are the sacrifices of the OT ritual, the function of shed blood in the sacrificial rites, the Day of Atonement and the Passover, and the office and work of the priesthood, all of which are front and center in the regulations of Leviticus.

As with the other books of the Torah, the Hebrew title of the book is simply its first word, the Hebrew verb “and he called.” But the rabbis called the book, Torat Kohanim, “Instructions for the Priests.” Our title Leviticus, which comes from the LXX translators two-hundred years before Christ, is similar; it means “Concerning Levitical Matters,” that is, things the Levites need know and do. That is odd in one way, since the term “Levite” occurs only in one short paragraph of the book (25:32-34). [Hartley, xxx] But taking Levitical as a synonym for priestly (for while not all Levites were priests, all priests were Levites), it is easy to explain Leviticus as a name for the book. A great many of the instructions we find in the book were either for the priests alone to keep or would have been communicated to the people by the priests either in words or deeds.

Now the fact is, and this should be obvious and important to any reader, Leviticus is a book of enculturated regulations. It reflects the culture in which it was written and in which these regulations were observed. The regulations it contains were for the people of God at a particular time in redemptive history and in many respects took their shape from the particular culture of that time and place. In some senses this is clear to any well-instructed Christian. For example, Leviticus is the record of elaborate instructions about sacrificial worship given long before the prophecy embedded in that worship was fulfilled in the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross, in the death of the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. It is only because of the rituals ordered and described in Leviticus that we know what John the Baptist meant when he described Jesus as the Lamb of God. There is an immense and immensely important theology of atonement revealed in those sacrificial regulations, but the atonement of which they were the anticipation has now long since been offered. We don’t any longer go to Leviticus to learn how to offer sacrifice, but to learn what Christ’s sacrifice meant and what it accomplished. Or, to put it another way, the work of Christ is not based on Leviticus; Leviticus is based on the work of Christ.

So the book must be read in the light of the ultimate meaning and significance of the rituals it describes, meaning and significance that certainly would not have been as clear to the Israelites in those ancient times as it is to us today. Leviticus describes a system of worship that no longer exists anywhere in the world, that came to an abrupt end in A.D. 70 when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and its sacrificial ritual abolished. For us really to appreciate the regulations that we find in Leviticus it will be necessary for us to exercise our sanctified imagination and place ourselves back in a time long before Christ had come, long before he died on the cross, and long before the NT authors had explained after the fact the significance of what Christ had done for us on the cross.

In a similar way the distinction between Jews and Gentiles has likewise been long abolished. But at the time Leviticus was written it was the function of many of these regulations to make apparent the difference between the people of God and everyone else. Therefore, to appreciate the teaching of this book we must examine its regulations — for example, the regulations concerning clean and unclean foods — in this light, as boundary markers between the church and the world. Those specific regulations have been replaced in many respects. Messianic Jews may observe some of these same regulations if they wish, but they can no longer argue that it is necessary for believers to do so; not since Peter bit into that first ham sandwich. But the principle enshrined in these regulations is trans-cultural and trans-temporal. It really shouldn’t be that hard for us to imagine or appreciate the world that existed when Leviticus was written and when its regulations were in force. The fact is the NT also emphatically teaches us that the followers of Christ are to be obviously, visibly separate from the world and, to be frank, the demonstrations of our separation are probably stranger to the unbelieving world around us than they would have been in Moses’ day. Observing a holy Sabbath day is something so alien to modern American culture that most American Christians can’t themselves any longer imagine being required to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Sexual purity, an important subject in Leviticus, has become a matter of little to no consequence in modern American life. When was the last time you heard anybody, except a Christian in church, talking about the importance of sexual purity? It is taken for granted not only that people, even young people, will have multiple sexual partners, but that it is good that it should be so, if not in fact necessary for our mental health. So much is this the case that the sexual behaviors so sternly forbidden in Leviticus are positively celebrated in early 21st century America.

But with respect to both the Sabbath and sex it is also worth pointing out that the regulations of Leviticus much more closely resemble the public ethics of American life through much of our nation’s history than do the ethics of our contemporary culture. Leviticus, in these respects, would not have seemed nearly as strange to an American reader in 1965 as it does to him or her today! Perhaps the culture of that ancient time and place wasn’t so weird after all! Perhaps it is 21st century American culture that is the strange one. There are certainly a great many people in the world today who think our American culture is in many ways genuinely bizarre.

Or consider another example. Right worship is a key concern of the regulations reported in Leviticus. But taking right worship to be a matter of life and death is likewise so foreign to the American mind that even most American Christians give little or no thought to whether their worship is worthy of the living God or, indeed, how they might know whether or not it is. Jay Skar, one of the Old Testament professors at our Covenant Theological Seminary who has written a fine new commentary on Leviticus, reminds us that the overarching question that Leviticus is written to answer is this: “How can the Holy God dwell with a sinful and impure people?” [15] But that is a question almost no one in America today thinks even interesting, much less very important, a  great many Christians included. God will be satisfied with what we give him or he should be is the viewpoint of most Americans. Perhaps our problem with Leviticus is not that its regulations are so alien, but that its concerns are so foreign to our own! But, then, aren’t those concerns also the concerns of the New Testament?

But there is more to this matter of enculturation. Quite apart from the fact that Leviticus represents a distinct moment in the history of salvation and the history of God’s people in the world, Leviticus is also divine revelation that was given in terms of that way of life common to the peoples of the ancient near east. Its teaching must be understood and applied in those terms. That should not be so difficult to understand. Our Christian faith, yours and mine, is and inevitably must be enculturated. Every culture in which Christians find themselves is different and, accordingly, the expressions of the Christian faith that seem most natural in one culture may differ significantly in another. I’m not talking about the essential theological or ethical convictions that all Christians must share, but about the way in which those convictions are expressed and embodied. We are 21st century Americans. We can’t help that. But in many ways, only some of which we recognize, our culture shapes the way we describe and live out our faith. This poses a danger, to be sure, but it is a danger we cannot avoid, for, like it or not, we are all products of our culture. This means that we must be highly sensitive to the difference that culture makes and to the way in which our culture can deafen us to the sound of the Word of God and blind us to its obvious meaning and application. After all, there are many cultures in the world today that are more like the culture of Israel in the 14th century B.C. than they are like 21st century American culture. To be a faithful Christian means many things, but it does not mean that every Christian must look, sound, or live like Christians in America in A.D.  2014. It would be indeed a good thing if we American Christians didn’t live so much like Americans live in  A.D. 2014! As we study Leviticus what we must learn is what the enculturated regulations of Leviticus teach us about the trans-cultural and trans-temporal truths of Christian faith and life. We won’t treat skin diseases or bodily discharges as they did in 14th century B.C. Israel, but purity or holiness, both objective and subjective, justification and sanctification, is as important in our day as ever it was in the days of Moses. We may display or illustrate that purity and our concern for it in different ways than ancient believers did, but, at bottom, it is as important for us to be pure as it was for them. We need to consider Leviticus’ enculturated teaching in some greater detail to make this important point.

The ancient near eastern world was a profoundly religious world, a much more religious world than anything you or I have ever encountered. Herodotus, the 5th century B.C. Greek historian, who knew the Egyptians better than other ancient near eastern people, said of them, “[The Egyptians] are religious to excess, beyond any nation in the world.” Well, a thousand years before Herodotus it was equally true, if not more so, that ancient near eastern peoples were deeply religious. Religion, including its outward manifestation in rituals of various kinds, in the observances of the calendar, in the role of the priesthood and so on, permeated life in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel. It is, of course, supposed to be so in Christian life today. “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all to the glory of God,” said Paul on one occasion. And anyone who takes seriously the teaching of the New Testament is going to be thoroughly religious person, in ways both private and public, in ways both obvious to others and invisible to anyone but the believing man or woman.

Think of the myriad ways in which devout Christians express their faith in public. Obviously, we attend church on the Lord’s Day and there we sing, and pray, give offerings, and we attend to the Word of God, all activities that appear quite foreign to many of our countrymen who never do any of these things. One of the primary motivations for the development of what has become the modern American evangelical Sunday service is precisely to overcome the unfamiliarity of the modern American with a Christian church service. The Christian service has been remade to be more familiar to non-Christians, something they will more easily recognize and something they will feel comfortable attending. And so it resembles a sales convention or a concert more than the church service Christians used to be familiar with. Much of the ritual has been removed precisely because those rituals are alien to Americans in the 21st century. Whether or not that was a wise thing to do, it is the public demonstration of the fact that our rituals continue to seem strange to outsiders. We submit to baptism, we observe the Lord’s Supper, and we celebrate at least Christmas and Easter. We practice distinctly Christian rituals at the time of marriage or death. And in these and other ways we betray our faith and our moral commitments to anyone who happens to observe them. Still today, there are a goodly number of us who will not work on Sunday. We may put our children in Christian schools. We pray before meals, whether at our family table or in a restaurant. We talk about our faith with others, with believers and unbelievers alike. We make financial contributions to our church and to other Christian ministries. Our preacher last Lord’s Day evening, the Rev. Jenya Kruzhkov, has told us that as a Russian, before he became a Christian, he thought the behavior of Christians ridiculous. Increasingly many Americans do as well. Interestingly, other people who observed the Israelites practice their faith, would have thought a few of their practices odd, but others that seem very strange to us would have seemed quite normal to them.

Indeed, many of the regulations found in Leviticus would have seemed quite familiar to ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians. Sacred space, the architecture of temples, the offering of sacrifices, the significance of priests, the importance of ritual purity, the relationship between sex and holiness, and much more were features of ancient near eastern life long before the Israelites found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai. What was utterly unique in the religion of Israel was not the shape of her ritual life — that had many similarities with that of the peoples around her — but the content of her faith. Her understanding of God was profoundly different from any other ancient near eastern people. Her concepts of sin and holiness were likewise unique. Her understanding of the purpose of ritual worship was also very different from that of her neighbors. [Ross, 21]

What God was doing with the regulations we find in Leviticus is what theologians and biblical interpreters call accommodation. He was using forms and practices familiar to his people and investing them with a new and far deeper and truer meaning. For example, in Egypt or in Mesopotamia, temples likewise played a central role in the religious life of the people. Some of them were remarkable for their size and artistic splendor. The temple at Karnak on the Nile, for example, dwarfs the largest of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. In fact you could put almost all of them in the space occupied by the temple at Karnak. Priests served there, sacrifices were made there, offerings were brought there, and so on. They were regarded as sacred places for which reason lay worshippers could enter only some of their spaces. Only priests could enter the holy rooms where the deities were served. In the temple were found images of the gods. Many of the daily rituals were designed to satisfy the needs of the gods for nourishment or for stimulation. The food that was brought as an offering each day at the great temples in Egypt, for example, was thought to provide nourishment to the image in which the god resided. Food and drink was laid at the foot of the image and, after sufficient time had passed, it was removed, the god having received its nourishment. Because people ate three times a day, the god was given three meals each day. The holy of holies was literally the bedroom of the god, there was usually a bed there on which he slept. [Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, 41-47] You can immediately appreciate both the similarities and the profound differences.

The Israelites also had a tabernacle and then a temple with a holy of holies, worship superintended by priests and sacrifices, the burning of incense and so on, but there the similarity ends. There were no images of their God in the temple. There was no sense that God actually lived in the temple (there was no bed in the innermost room and Yahweh wasn’t fed three times a day); it was only believed that he made his presence known in the tabernacle in the temple in a particularly important way. More than once Israel was taught that the Lord was not dependent upon the gifts of his people. As we read in Psalm 50:12-13: the Lord says, “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” Solomon, in his prayer of dedication, made a point of saying that neither the temple nor the entire earth could contain the living God.

Yahweh’s presence at the temple was indicated by the Ark of the Covenant, itself, among other things, a unique demonstration of the fact that God’s relationship with Israel was established by grace — he entered into a covenant with Israel in defiance of Israel’s ill-desert — and required in response holy living on his people’s part. The ethics of the worshipper played little to no part in the relationship of ancient near eastern peoples with their gods, but with the tablets of the Law of Moses stored in the ark itself, it was made clear that how Israel lived, the faithfulness, purity, and goodness of her life, had everything to do with maintaining her relationship with Yahweh. There was nothing magical or mechanical in Israel’s temple worship, or shouldn’t have been. It was not do ut des, “I give to you so that you will give to me,” and the fact that Israel so often slid into precisely that way of thinking about her temple worship is indication enough of how natural that way of thinking was to the ancient near east, as it has been among all peoples ever since.

The question for the Israelites was how to love and how to serve and how to maintain fellowship with a God of terrible holiness who had nevertheless loved them and brought them into covenant with himself. The gods of the ancient world were hardly holy in the moral sense. They were as petulant and selfish and vindictive as human beings. Worship was intended to manipulate them, not love them. To be sure, there would have been among some priests and people some higher motivations mixed together with ancient near eastern pagan worship — all human beings have been made in the image of God and have the law of God written on their hearts and so sometimes people are better than their theology — but it is perfectly clear that Israel’s worship, such as it is described in Leviticus, for all its similarities in outward form, represented a radically different worldview and was the expression of a radically different faith in an utterly different God. [Ross, 27-28]

Holiness in its most basic sense refers to separation or distinctiveness. Yahweh expected Israel to be different from the people around them, different in the ways the living God himself is different from sinful human beings. As we will read again and again, Israel was to be holy because Yahweh is holy. For an Israelite holiness meant not only ritual purity and right worship, but also and always moral integrity, justice toward others, kindness and generosity to the poor, and sexual purity. Her worship had to be consistent with God’s nature as the one, living and true God who created the heavens and the earth, who summons all men to reflect his character, and who in love and grace shows mercy to those who trust in him. That understanding was no part of ancient near eastern worship; that sense of moral distinctiveness that was demanded because they were worshippers of a god of terrible and wonderful holiness and mighty love. That was Israel’s faith alone.

Now back to the odd and unfamiliar ritual life of Israel. The fact is for all that we do know about ancient near eastern religion and Israel’s ritual life we do not and cannot today fully explain all that we read in Leviticus. There is comparatively little explanation given as to why this was done or that, why this was required or that. Take, for example, the distinction between clean and unclean foods that we will encounter in chapter 11. A great deal of fruitful research has gone into explaining why in the ancient world one animal was clean and another was not, research we will survey at the proper time, but the fact is we are not given an explanation in the Bible itself. The Israelites would have understood the distinction well enough, but it makes little sense to the ordinary Gentile reader of the Bible in the 21st century, and we cannot know for an absolute certainty exactly upon that distinction rested. Why was the cow acceptable and the pig not; beef but not bacon? On the other hand, it is well for us to remember that our public behavior, behavior that makes perfect sense to us is passing strange to people from other cultures. Even with regard to food. Koreans eat dogs but we recoil at the thought. Or consider another illustration, several illustrations in fact, of cultural norms that we accept but cannot fully explain.

I read two great books on my vacation besides those more directly related to my work: Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, who, as it happened, died just a few months ago, and The Boys in the Boat. The former is about the suffering of an American POW in the Second World War (who, as it happened, was rescued from the terrible consequences of his ordeal by an encounter with Jesus Christ). The latter is about the University of Washington nine man crew that won Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936. Interestingly, different as the stories told in those books are, they intersect at those Olympics in Berlin. Louis Zamperini was a distance runner at those same Olympics. Both books also have this in common: they include a story of romantic love, of longing for it and finding it. You can hardly tell the story of a human life, no matter when that life was lived or why you think it important, without telling about the individual’s romance and marriage. Romance, courtship, and marriage are fundamental dimensions of most human lives.

But you are aware, I’m sure, of how differently cultures give expression to the nature, the happiness, and the obligation of such love between a man and a woman. For example, in our culture the commitment to marry is accompanied by a ring that the man gives to the woman, a diamond ring. During courtship and after marriage certain occasions are observed year after year, notably Valentine’s Day and one’s anniversary. The fact is, and I know this firsthand from my pastoral work, if those obligations are neglected, if the man forgets their anniversary or ignores Valentine’s Day, no matter that February holiday is more the invention of the floral industry than a custom with a rich and longstanding tradition, I say, if the man forgets he will be thought to have betrayed his duty and neglected his wife, even seriously betrayed them. But, of course, other cultures don’t give rings at engagement and they don’t have Valentine’s Day. They have customs that are very different from ours even though they express the same things. In a culture it is not at all uncommon that people do not know where such customs came from (whether engagement rings or Valentine’s Day), but they know very well the importance of observing them.

In our culture only the woman gets a ring at engagement; in other cultures both the man and the woman get a ring and in still other cultures nobody gets a ring. In our culture the ring is almost universally worn on the third finger of the left hand and in other cultures it is worn on other fingers of the hands. Nowadays it is de rigueur to give a diamond engagement ring but a century ago it was more likely that the ring would have another stone in it than a diamond. But nowadays young men realize if it isn’t a diamond, it isn’t an engagement ring; at least it’s not the engagement ring she will be happy to receive. The necessity of a diamond in the engagement ring is largely the result of an advertising campaign begun in the 1930’s by the De Beers diamond cartel. Who knows that and who cares? A young man will still spend a lot of money to buy a diamond ring.

And on and on it goes. We shake hands, something the Japanese do not do. They bow but it never occurs to us to do that. Why? No one really knows; it is just the way we do things. Why, for example, was it the case for centuries that it was expected that a man would take off his hat when he entered a building and even more so when he entered a church? [Sklar, 48] Men understood that it was their duty to remove their hats, it demonstrated respect, but they would have been hard-pressed to explain precisely why. Whether or not one could explain the custom, failure to remove one’s hat was regarded as a breach of etiquette. This illustration reminds us further that customs change over time. What was expected of men in a previous generation may be entirely forgotten in the present generation. I see fellows in church with baseball caps on all the time. It bothers me because I was raised with a different set of expectations, but it doesn’t bother them at all; they would be surprised to learn they had offended me. Well, you see, because Leviticus is enculturated revelation this will also be so of some of what we will read in the book. It may well be that even a devout Israelite couldn’t have explained to you precisely why certain things were done in those days. The behaviors originated long before and the explanation for them had long since been forgotten. The Israelites would know for what purpose a thing was done, and they would be sensitive to the importance of doing it, but as to why that particular thing had to be done, or by what principle that particular custom was made necessary they might not have been able to say.

For example, in Leviticus we will read that the touching of a dead body defiled a person and made it necessary for him or her to be purified. That makes a certain kind of sense. A corpse is the ultimate expression of death and there is something repulsive about death. But why then were a woman who had just given birth or people who had just had sex also ritually impure? After all, childbirth is the ultimate expression of life, not death, and sex might be thought to be similar in that respect, life-giving, not life-taking. [Sklar, 48] There may be blood-loss in childbirth, but touching a corpse would not necessarily mean touching blood. And so it goes. Rituals, we will see, are invested with importance and meaning irrespective of what may have been their original rationale, a rationale the worshipper may or may not be aware of. That is culture for you and spiritual culture as well.

Leviticus is the law of God enculturated in a particular time and place. That is why much of it seems odd to us. We don’t live in that time or place. If we did Leviticus would seem more obvious and straightforward. Our task will be to strip way the cultural trappings and find the timeless truth that was communicated by those rituals and by those laws. That will prove easier than you might think, not least because the New Testament has so much to say about these same things: priests, temple, sacrifice, holiness, and so on. The fact is Leviticus, when read with an open mind and a reverent spirit, will teach us the Christian life more comprehensively than virtually any other book of the Bible. That ought to make it very interesting to a serious-minded Christian who wants to live for Jesus Christ.