Many people make a decision to read the Bible from cover to cover. They make their way through Genesis – the creation stories, the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They make their way through Exodus – the great story of Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. So far, so good.
But then they hit Leviticus, the book of the Levites (or priests), and there they get stuck.
The stories stop and we encounter a huge volume of what seem like ridiculous and irrelevant laws.
So why whould we read this book? What’s the point? Can’t we just skip over it?
Well, here are 3 reasons why I think it’s worth persevering with Leviticus. And who knows, maybe even getting to love it too.
1. Leviticus gives an amazing insight into the culture of Ancient Israel
The laws we find in Leviticus reflect a culture that existed about 3,500 years ago. And just as our laws today tell us much about the people we are, so laws in ancient times tell us much about the ancient people who made them and lived by them.
For example, we live in flats and houses. But we see from Leviticus that the ancient Israelites lived in tents. We go a church to worship; but they went to an open air courtyard that surrounded an ornate tabernacle. We (sometimes) get to throw confetti in our places of worship; but they slaughtered animals in theirs. We live in a culture where the lines between the sacred and the profane are blurred. But their world comprised a system that clearly defined what was pure and impure. What was holy and unholy.
As we begin to understand this very different world and culture, laws that initially seem bizarre start to make much more sense. Take the law, for example, that people should not ‘wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’
At first, this seems completely arbitrary. But when we learn that some of the Israelite priests’ garments were made from mixed materials (wool yarn as well as linen), we see why it was important for Israelites who were not priests not to wear clothing associated with priests. It’s, therefore, a bit like saying today that – unless we are ordained as priests or deacons – we should nor wear a clerical collar.
2. Leviticus derives from Moses – the Biblical character who, apart from Jesus, had the closest relationship ever with God
Leviticus was probably written down many centuries since Moses’ lifetime. But the laws contained in Leviticus were passed down orally from generation to generation since those days - when Moses led the Israelites, after their escape from Egypt, in the wilderness of Sinai.
And so the book tells us what Moses’ understanding of God was. It tells us what he felt God was saying to his people about how they should live.
So Leviticus is one of the five books of the Hebrew scriptures that were known as the Torah or the Law. And that were understood to be the word of God as given to Moses. All the rest of Hebrew scripture is really a commentary on this ‘Law’ or stories about what happened when people did or did not live in accordance with this Law.
So Leviticus, as one of these core books, both reflects the culture of the ancient people it related to and also reflects the values of the Law maker. Who is, of course, Moses - or really God, as Moses hears him.
Our own laws reflect our own law makers – that is, ourselves (formed greatly by our Judaeo-Christian heritage.) For example, we prohibit stealing because we value personal property rights. We prohibit murder because we value human life.
In the same way, in addition to forbidding theft and murder, the Law commands Israelites to leave some of the harvest for the ‘needy and resident alien’ - because God values compassion for the unfortunate far more than maximising profits. Or again, the Law commands the Israelites to love their neighbour as themselves - because God values a world that promotes peace and love.
So Leviticus tells us, through the intimate relationship that Moses had with God, much about the character of God.
3. Leviticus is a very different kind of law book
We might see Leviticus, on first encounter, as a very moralistic book - setting out a lot of Do’s and Don’t’s for the Israelites to follow. But this would be to misunderstand the book entirely.
The essential thing to realise is that all the Law comes as a response to the extraordinary act of grace the Israelites have experienced in God bringing them out of slavery through Moses.
The Law, therefore, is an attempt to codify how the people should live their lives in thankful response to a God with the power and mercy to love them, to hear their cries and to act to save them. And, furthermore, to commit to living among them.
In the first half of Exodus, we see God speaking to his people from a distance. When the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai in the wilderness, God speaks to them through thunder and lightning. But by the end of Exodus, God tells the people to make a special tent called the tabernacle or ‘tent of the meeting’ and we are told that ‘the glory of the Lord’ fills this special tent. And then God calls Moses and speaks to him from the tabernacle.
This is quite a remarkable thing. We see God no longer keeping his distance on top of Mount Sinai. But moving in – to live amongst his people. The tabernacle was set right in the middle of all the other tents that made up the Israelites’ camp. And this is where God now chooses to be. To pitch his tent among them.
Remind you of anything?
Yes, of course, this is exactly what St John sees God doing through Jesus – when he speaks of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us – or, as the Greek literally translates, ‘pitching his tent among us.’
God does not, therefore, give Moses the Law in order to make the Israelites work hard to become a good people whom he can then love. We gives the Law so that those he already loves and has saved by grace might be able to live by that grace and bring grace to others.
All this then helps us to understand why Jesus in the New Testament is so critical of the Pharisees. He sees that they have turned the Law into a burden, that they are teaching salvation through keeping the Law. When, as Jesus sees it, God already loves his people, has saved them and given them the Law as a gift to enable them to live well.
Jesus goes on to give his life on the Cross, showing us that God’s love is so deep that it is totally self-sacrificing for us. We follow Christ not to become good people and merit salvation or being in right relationship with God. We do this in recognition of the love God has already shown for us on the Cross and the opportunity this gives us to start again, to have new life, no matter what a mess we have made of our lives. And following Christ is something we do in joyful and thankful response to the Cross, knowing that this is the way to a truly abundant life and helping to bring about the world of peace, love and justice – that God yearns for.
For example, Leviticus says ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ We could say we need to do this because it’s the right thing to do and a good thing to do. We could say that when we don’t do this, we sin and need someone to save us from that sin.
And all this is true. But the important thing to recognise is that Christ has already saved us from that sin. So it would be better to say that Christ, in his radical and self-sacrificing love, has already saved us from our sins. So, just as his love for us was radical and self-sacrificing, so must our love be for one another. Just as he was quick to hear our cries and to forgive us, so must we be with others. It is by remembering Christ’s radical, merciful and undeserved love for us that we are called to show the same love for others. And we do that by following him and growing in his likeness.
So I hope all this encourages you to give Leviticus a go. And to see why it is such a core part of scripture.
We’ll be reading Leviticus as a group at my church in Chiswick on Tuesday mornings (9.30-11am) starting on 5 June. So, if you are local, do join us. Otherwise, maybe get together with a few friends and read it. And let me know what you think.