Information Point: Leviticus

Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!

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By @jasonramasami

By @jasonramasami

Quick Overview

Laws. Rules. Regulations. Don’t do that. Or that. Especially on a Sunday.

So many Christians have come to read Leviticus (if indeed they read it at all) for it is outdated, irrelevant, primitive ‘religion’ so gloriously superseded and supplanted by Jesus. We live by grace, of course, not law. Plus, it makes for pretty dry reading.

I understand the fears and frustrations felt when approaching the book of Leviticus, and I admit that it is not one of the ‘love-at-first-sight’ books. But it is immensely valuable to the church, and well rewards thoughtful, prayerful reading.

Leviticus picks up where Exodus left off, speaking straight into the cliff-hanger theological question set up as the glory of God settled in the tabernacle: How can a holy God dwell among a sinful people? The book begins by outlining the sacrifices and offerings that the Israelites needed to make in order to dwell in God’s presence; then it continues with social and ethical guidelines for what it looks like to live in God’s community. It ends with a reminder that God’s covenant comes with the promise of blessings if it is upheld and of curse if it is violated.

This then is the context of Leviticus: God’s people have been redeemed (out of Egypt in the Exodus) but remain rebellious in heart. God is holy (that is, set apart) yet dwells among the rebellious people in covenant with them. The people respond to God’s saving work and their own sin with sacrifices and offerings, living lives that are holy, set apart from the nations around them, to the glory of God.

Historical and Literary context

Like Genesis and Exodus before it, Leviticus is one of five books of the ‘Pentateuch’ which tradition has attributed to Moses. The book is a series of pronouncements from the Lord to Moses, spoken at the Tent of Meeting, and is almost exclusively ‘law’ in this sense. While many biblical scholars would argue that it was composed long after the time of Moses, it is clear that the book establishes traditions and practices in corporate worship which have been followed throughout the life of the people of Israel.

Best-known bits

The stuff about food (Chapter 11) has long vexed and perplexed readers of Leviticus. Everyone knows that Jews don’t eat pork; most know that shellfish is also off-limits; few seem to know why. All manner of arguments have been put forward over the years for why some animals are OK to eat in God’s eyes while others are not. Some have said that the banned foods were simply unsafe to eat in a hot climate before the days of a Health and Safety Executive. Others have suggested that the unclean foods were, in pagan times, considered sacred and this reverence was adopted by the Israelites, only it was inverted so that it was the uncleanness of the forbidden foods which was stressed over their holiness. Perhaps in God’s wisdom there is a particular reason for forbidding certain foods, but we cannot know it for certain. What is clear is that some foods symbolised sin and spiritual defilement, and as such were to be avoided by holy people.

The Day of Atonement (Chapter 16) is the centrepiece of the Israelite calendar of festivals. It is the single day in the year in which a priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple and sprinkle blood, thus making atonement on behalf of the people. The great curtain between man and God could only be passed at the cost of bloodshed, and then the ceremony had to be repeated in perpetuity for the people just kept sinning against God and the priest alone could not atone for their sin. So it is that the gospel-writers tell us about the temple curtain tearing at the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51): here is the fulfilled Day of Atonement where Christ’s blood effects the sacrifice once and for all that the annual ritual of old had failed fully to do so (Hebrews 9 and 10).

The stuff about sex (Chapter 18) makes for difficult reading, not least because it specifically prohibits relations between family members I’d rather not think about in that way! The holiness of God’s people with regard to sex stands in stark relief against the practices of the nations around Israel; the implicit expectation of this chapter is that it will be counter-cultural to uphold these sexual ethics and that temptations will exist not to uphold them (just as I am quite sure there was a constant temptation to eat bacon…) The most private things matter to God just as the most public ones; it is possible to sin against God and to glorify him in the most every-day activities.

The year of jubilee (Chapter 25) is less remembered than it should be. This great celebration occurred every fifty years, roughly once in a generation, when the slaves of Israel would be freed and the poor would receive back their inheritance. The jubilee is the right response of a people who had inherited a land by the gracious act of God: they had been given the land as a free, undeserved gift and were to use it as such. They were not to exploit it, or to exploit their neighbours in it. Instead, they were to cancel debts in the same way they had seen their debts cancelled by God. God’s people are freed people, so they are to be free-ing people. I could use some jubilees in my life: debts cancelled and slates cleaned; community refreshed and begun again.

Under the surface

The big theme of Leviticus is God’s holiness, and how his people might live in sin before him. Under the surface, this plays out in two ways. Firstly, and most obviously, peace must be made between the people and their God. Sacrifices are made, offerings are brought, and feasts are observed as a perpetual reminder of the cost of their sin and God’s righteousness. Secondly, though, peace must be made within the nation, or community, of God’s people. A striking number of the laws of Leviticus reflect how one neighbour lives alongside another; a striking number of the warnings for disobedience reflect the cost inflicted on a wronged neighbour.

Key verses

In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. (16:16)

…for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (25:55)

These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the Lord established at Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses. (26:34)

About Ali Gledhill

Ali lives in London, reads quite a bit, writes a little less, rides a bike, serves the church, avoids eye contact with strangers on the train, and has a website profile at gledhillonline.co.uk.