Understanding the book of Leviticus

Recent posts on this blog have explored how Trinitarian, incarnational theology informs our understanding of the book of Exodus. We now look at how it informs our understanding of the book of Leviticus.

Purpose & Title
Exodus concludes with the glory of God’s personal presence filling the newly constructed Tabernacle. Leviticus follows with God calling to Moses from the Tabernacle. In the Hebrew Bible, this book bears the name of its first word: wayyiqra, meaning, he [God] called. The more familiar title Leviticus is from Greek and Latin translations of the book. It was given to the book doubtless because of its many instructions related to the work of the levitical priests. However, much of the book is directed to all the people of Israel, addressing issues related to how God makes it possible for them to live (and not die) in covenant fellowship with himself. In that regard, Lev 11:45 sums up the book’s purpose: “For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Unfortunately, the idea of holy often is viewed legalistically -  reduced to a mere set of behaviors. But in the Bible, to be holy means to be set apart (consecrated) to God. God, who is a Triune Communion of love and grace, has entered into fellowship with Israel - setting her apart as his very own to enjoy fellowship with him. In and through that fellowship, Israel will be what God has consecrated her to be: a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). A priest is an intermediary between God and others. Israel as a people is to be God’s intermediary in blessing the whole world, thus fulfilling his covenant, which says that through Abraham’s descendants, “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

But there is a problem. We learn in Exodus that Israel is “stiff-necked”—she prefers to worship a golden calf rather than God. Thus God must take this profane and unclean people and make her clean so that she can accomplish his purpose for her. And God does so by providing the people of Israel with atoning sacrifices that convert them from rebellion to fellowship with him. It is a common mistake to see these sacrifices as a means by which Israel appeases an angry God. But that is not the case. Rather, the sacrifices are the generous provision of the grace-filled Lord God, who in Exodus is declared to be the Great I-AM of love, patience, mercy and grace. Through his provision, God’s chosen people (despite their sin) will fellowship with him and thus fulfill their covenant calling.

Thus, rather than seeing Leviticus as merely a book of laws, it should be seen as the record of how the Lord God chooses to forgive Israel, creating for her a place of fellowship with him within which she will be blessed and become a blessing to all people. Of course, what we read in Leviticus reaches beyond Israel’s experience under the Mosaic Covenant. It points forward to what God will do in his love and grace to provide a son of Israel (Jesus) as the ultimate atoning sacrifice by which all humanity is brought into fellowship with God.

Long before Israel became a nation, God instituted his covenant with Abraham, promising: (1) a people, (2) a covenant relationship with himself, and (3) a land. The ultimate purpose for all three was to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham. By the time of Leviticus, the first promise (a people) is well on its way to fulfillment—Israel is already a great nation (Ex 1:7). The third promise (land) lies ahead in the Promised Land. Thus the focus of Leviticus is the second promise: covenant relationship with God.

As we learned in Exodus, Israel’s covenant relationship with God (like that enjoyed by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is a gift of God’s grace—not something Israel deserves or earns. Unfortunately, it is common for people to view Leviticus as what Israel must now do to maintain its covenant relationship with God. But Leviticus shows that Israel’s covenant relationship with God is maintained on the same basis as it was given—grace alone. Israel’s deliverance (salvation) and her continuing life under the covenant (sanctification) are both gifts from the Lord God, the Great I-AM who is in himself and therefore in his relationship with Israel, full of love, faithfulness, forgiveness, patience and grace.

The sacrifices enjoined in Leviticus are not a means to appease an angry God. Nor are they a means for Israel to obtain, through their own effort, God’s favor and forgiveness. Rather, these are a means for Israel to respond to the Lord God who has already given himself to Israel in covenant relationship. God himself  provides these sacrifices through which the people may find resolution to any disruptions, because of their sin, to their enjoyment of God’s gift of fellowship with him. The relationship which has been established with Israel by God’s redeeming grace (in the Exodus) is thus sustained not by human effort, but by God’s forgiving grace. Israel will live as God’s people in the same way that she became God’s people—by and through his abundant, creative, forgiving and cleansing grace.

In like manner, we understand that the practical obedience to Covenant Law outlined in the later chapters of Leviticus is not about achieving holiness through human effort, but about living out the holiness (distinctiveness in fellowship), which God, by grace, has conferred already on his people. Only by appropriate response to God’s grace will Israel truly enjoy the fellowship she has been given with God, who has come to dwell with her (as symbolized by the tabernacle with its Tent of Meeting in the heart of Israel’s camp). Thus anything that threatens the presence of God or pollutes his dwelling with his people is to be rigorously dealt with. We must remember this grace-based and thus positive aim behind the atmosphere of severity that appears in some sections of Leviticus.

As followers of Jesus, the book of Leviticus points us to the person and work of our Lord and Savior as our sacrifice for sin and our High Priest. It tells of his covenant love and grace for us, despite our sin. It also tells of our calling to share in his communion with the Father and Spirit, and in his union with all people. Indeed, as Paul noted to Timothy concerning the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, Leviticus is of great value in making us wise for salvation (eternal communion with God) and for instructing us about how to live here and now in communion with God (2Tim 3:15–17).

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