CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Bible Study Helps: Leviticus

Jan 26, 2019

The third book of the Pentateuch is one often ignored and overlooked by Christians, but it is an important part of God’s revelation to us. Jesus for example directly quotes from it (Mark 12:31 – Lev. 19:18), and various New Testament books, such as Hebrews and James, refer to it often.

Thus it is vital that Christians become familiar with it. However, today’s watered-down version of Christianity is not very enamoured with or happy with the heady material found in this book. As Roy Gane puts it:

Leviticus is not welcome in an environment of feel-good, self-help, “cafeteria-style” religion. Nor are other parts of the Bible. George Barna explains why not: “In the last quarter-century it seems that we have learned how to sell Bibles but not how to sell what’s in the Bible. Increasingly, people pick and choose the Bible content they like or feel comfortable with, but ignore the rest of God’s counsel. This tendency seems especially prolific among young adults and teenagers. What can we do to elevate the prominence, credibility, and perceived value of God’s Word in the eyes of a fickle and distracted public?”

But back to the book. The name itself comes from the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, referring to the priestly nature of the book. The priests of Israel came from members of the tribe of Levi. While the book indeed does offer us a priestly manual of instruction, there is much written to the people of Israel here as well.

It of course contains plenty of laws, but it is also narrative. It continues from what was left off in Exodus 40: the setting up of the tabernacle. Lev. 1 discusses the burnt offerings to be presented in the tent of meeting. So we have one lengthy narrative from Genesis through to the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy.

Various major themes are found here. One would be the presence of God with his people. But holiness is certainly a central theme – if not the central theme – of this book, especially found in Lev. 17-26, in what is referred to as the Holiness Code. Allen Ross for example titles his commentary, Holiness to the Lord.

As John Hartley says, “In Leviticus Yahweh makes himself known to Israel as their holy God. Holiness is not one attribute of Yahweh’s among others; rather it is the quintessential nature of Yahweh as God. This is supported by the declaration that his name is holy (20:3; 22:32).”

Or as Michael McKelvey put it:

The holiness of God constitutes the central theme in the book of Leviticus, which, in turn, demands the holiness of Israel. Leviticus 19:1–2 contains the thesis statement for the work: “And I the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” In fact, the holiness motif permeates the book.

Christians today of course need to hear and understand this message just as much as did the ancient Israelites. See this article of mine for more on this vital theme: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/02/02/leviticus-holiness-and-the-christian/

God is holy, and God’s people must be holy as well. Paul Redditt outlines the book with the following four implications of a holy God who resides amongst his people:

Lev. 1-7 The people are to worship God
Lev. 8-10 The Aaronic priests are to direct the worship
Lev. 11-16 The people are to avoid ritual impurity and make atonement when they fail
Lev. 17-26 The people are to be holy

Hubbard and Dearman offer a similar outline to the book:

Lev. 1-7 Instructions about sacrifices and offerings for God
Lev. 8-10 Report: the ordination of Aaron and his family as priests
Lev. 11-15 Instructions on “clean” and “unclean” things
Lev. 16 Instruction for Aaron on the Day of Atonement
Lev. 17-26 The detailed, comprehensive Holiness Code

While so very important for the ancient Israelites, the book speaks to us today as well. Indeed, the issues of sin, the gospel, and the work of Christ make little sense without understanding their Old Testament backdrop, including what we find in Leviticus. Let me draw upon three commentaries to more fully elaborate on this. Says Allen Ross:

For the Christian, the theology of an Old Testament passage or book is incomplete without the New Testament correlation. And the New Testament draws heavily on Leviticus. Many parts of the Gospels simply assume the reader has a knowledge of Leviticus: passages that mention purification after childbirth, washing after the healing of a leper, journeys to the feasts in Jerusalem, separation from Gentiles in eating – all show how completely Leviticus was ingrained in the thinking of the people. But beyond that, the interpretation of the person and works of Jesus the Messiah in books like Romans, Hebrews, and the Petrine Epistles shows that the foundation of the gospel is here in the book of Leviticus.

Or as Derek Tidball puts it:

The gospel, which presumes a knowledge of sacrifice and atonement, of law and grace, of sin and obedience, of defilement and cleansing, of priesthood and temple curtains, makes little sense without it. Leviticus serves as a preliminary sketch of the masterpiece that was to be unveiled in Christ. The fullest exposition of the relationship between Leviticus and the gospel, of course, is to be found in the letter to the Hebrews. Leviticus forms a foundation not only for the gospel but for Christian living. While the New Testament draws up new maps to guide the moral and spiritual life of the Christian, it does so by making use of the earlier charts of Leviticus. Particular applications may have changed, but the guiding ethical principles remain as firm as ever. Without Leviticus our Christian experience would be a house without a foundation.

Finally, as Mark Rooker comments:

The Law, holiness, the sacrifices, the tabernacle—all the essential elements of Leviticus—find their meaning in Christ, who uniquely fulfilled the law, lived a perfect, sinless life, died as a sacrifice for sins, and was the presence of God incarnate. These themes are like streams that flow through biblical history as well as through the rest of the pages of Scripture until they converge in the person of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Thus Leviticus, like the Bible as a whole, is about the person and work of Jesus Christ and finds its ultimate meaning in him. To ignore this section of the Word of God is to diminish our understanding of the long-anticipated one who has now brought us our great salvation!

Leviticus expository and devotional commentaries

Mathews, Kenneth, Leviticus (PTW, 2009)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Holy (David C. Cook, 2003)

Leviticus critical commentaries

Bellinger, W. H., Leviticus, Numbers (UBC, 2001, 2012)
Gane, Roy, Leviticus, Numbers (NIVAC, 2004)
Harrison, R. K., Leviticus (TOTC, 1980)
Hartley, John, Leviticus (WBC, 1992)
Hess, Richard, Leviticus (EBC rev., 2008)
Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi, Leviticus (AOTC, 2007)
Radner, Ephraim, Leviticus (BTCB, 2008)
Rooker, Mark, Leviticus (NAC, 2000)
Ross, Allen, Holiness to the Lord (Baker, 2002)
Sklar, Jay, Leviticus (TOTC, 2013)
Tidball, Derek, The Message of Leviticus (BST, 2005)
Wenham, Gordan, Leviticus (NICOT, 1979)

My preferred recommendations might be Hartley, Rooker, Ross, Sklar and Wenham.

Happy studying and reading.

[1211 words]

11 Responses to Bible Study Helps: Leviticus

  • In Leviticus, we are blessed with the presence of God as Moses is the only human being that saw God in person as ‘Spirit and not flesh’. Moses was, in a literal sense nuked to the extend that he glowed in the dark (he had to cover his face before he would give audience). In this, we can calculate who and what God is – pure energy that powers all known powers for in every atom is the spirit of God that gives it its power. In this, as Moses said, the spirit of God is in every mountain; in every heart; in every mind and Jesus said: ‘render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what is God’s’. We are challenged throughout our life to render to who it belongs.
    Thus, God made himself known to mankind – not only his word but also his being. We are but a mere creation of an almighty power that was created in the image and likeness meaning co-creators and the rules of our creation can be found in Leviticus which is the word of God direct to us.
    John Abbott

  • Thanks John. But not quite. God is not ‘pure energy’. He is a personal, spiritual being. And no, the spirit of God is not ‘in every mountain’ etc. That is pantheism, or at least panentheism, but not biblical Christianity. And no, Moses was not nuked, nor did he glow in the dark. Yes, God created all things, upholds all things, and sustains all things, by divine providence. Because of him all things exist. But he is not some impersonal force found in everything. That is the stuff of Sci-Fi, or Star Wars ideology, but not biblical theology.

  • This reminds me. Many people, Christian or not, are aware of Jesus’s command to love your neighbour as yourself and think it was some kind of innovation. They somehow forget that it was actually a Levitical command/restatement (Leviticus 19:18). And being part of Leviticus means also being part of the prohibition against homosexuality and other sexual immorality (Lev 18 especially v.22).
    Loving your neighbour is completely compatible all along with punishing homosexuality and other immoralities (Lev 18:29). No contradiction but all part of being holy and right before God.

    Something else about loving your neighbour that often gets overlooked. Too many people again thinks from the Good Samaritan parable that the neighbour means everyone else regardless of background. Not too long ago, I took a closer look at the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) and realised neighbour does NOT mean everyone regardless of background but defined as people who showed mercy. And Jesus did NOT contradict that definition (Luke 10:36-37).
    So the neighbor that you are to love is NOT everyone regardless of background but people that showed mercy. That’s what I realised.

  • That surprises me, Bill, because I thought it was the 2 Chronicles that were hard for many to get through…you know, all those genealogies that seem dreary but are actually quite important.

    But it was this that caused me to best understand Jesus’ sacrifice, why He had to shed His blood for us: Lev 17:11….

    “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” I also read, admittedly from a rather unreliable source, that it was this verse that caused a physician to rise up and say bloodletting was all wrong and the cause of so many deaths when the Scriptures clearly stated the life of the flesh is in the blood. They were literally draining the life out of their patients.

    Anyway, we can use all the help we can get to understand the Bible, so I think this article with its references is a very good and important thing. Thanks!

  • Amen. I must admit I find it surprising when people say they love God but are apparently not interested in what He had to say. Mark Wong is absolutely correct – the God of the Old Testament is Jesus – He and the Father are one and they have not changed their nature. If you believe that God has changed what He is saying you are likely worshiping a pseudochrist and the scriptures warn that that will likely do you no good. People need to understand when the O.T. says “Jehovah said” you can transpose that in your mind to say “Jesus said” because they *are* one. People may find it initially confusing but the more I have studied it the more I have found just how completely logical God’s plan and the Apostle’s doctrine is. Leviticus is heavy going – it was designed to be. The New Testament was made easy so we can just trust the Apostles and follow their instructions but if you want to know more about God and follow up the reasons why the Apostles said much of what they said, books like Leviticus are there to study.

  • Hi Bill,
    Thanks for another great Bible Study Help.
    I love how the Old and the New Testament come together.
    In reference to John’s comment above, what is your understanding of the radiant face of Moses.
    Thanks
    Kyle

  • Thanks Kyle. Hey, if you met God your face might be a bit radiant too! We are not told exactly what this was all about, so some silence may be wise here. We certainly do not need to get airy fairy and weird here. Anyone being in the presence of God would be impacted in some form – likely even physically. So there is no need to read into this anything more than there is. The emphasis of the text (Exodus 34:29-35) is the glory and majesty of God, not how it may have impacted a mere human.

    But most importantly, we have NT commentary on this. Paul makes it clear (2 Cor. 3:7-18) that as great as the Old Covenant was, the New is greater. And that glory lasts, while that on the face of Moses faded.

  • Jesus answered the question. .How do I get to heaven? With the statement “keep the commandments. ”
    He followed with “That’s not enough” but He never recinded His original ststement.
    Pretty important?

  • Thanks Bill. I found Leviticus terribly dry on my early readings. Recently I listened to CDs by Scott Hahn on Hebrews put out by Parousia media, and they were terribly helpful. Leviticus and the whole Aaronic and Levitical priesthood were instituted by God after the Golden Calf rebellion. Before that, God had told the people of Israel they would be a nation of priests. Such priesthood was exercised by the first born of each new generation, in all 12 tribes. This tied back to Adam and down to Shem, son of Noah, who was held by the early Jewish scribes and the early Christian church doctors to be Melchizedek; recognised by Abram as his patriarch when he tithed to him. But righteousness was critical for such priesthood, and Shem alone was righteous of all the first born lineage. The golden calf incident required a new, heavily rules-based economy, which would speak of and be fulfilled in Jesus.
    I am stunned by context. I admit I was once arrogant, like your Spirit-filled friend. Now I know there is a wealth of knowledge I will never know, and I utterly need the advice of sages. Not the present pope and his cabal, but time-proven doctors of the Church AND learned rabbis (for contextual purposes). We are little children, scraping surfaces and endlessly rediscovering that which was once common knowledge.

  • Thanks Bill for this article and your previous one back in 2015. I have just finished studying the book of Leviticus and the statement “be holy, as I am holy” by God, really makes sense to me now, in real depth. The Israelites were not to copy either the pagan practices of both Egypt, from where they had just left, or Canaan, into which they were about to enter. The distinctiveness by which they were to live morally, physically and spiritually rendered them as a shining light to the nations around them. God has worked a huge desire in me to live in a similar way, as a result of the rich look into this book. Eph. 5:8

Leave a Reply