Leviticus Revisited: A 21st Century look at a difficult book
(Before I begin, I want to give a HUGE thanks to my son Connor for proofreading and providing many excellent grammar and editorial suggestions that have made the flow and readability of this blog just that much better. Thanks Connor!)
Oh come on! Admit it! You love Jesus, you aren’t quite sure about Paul, but you can’t stand pieces of the Old Testament. You can’t stand reading them, you don’t understand them, and when you’re doing a one-year read-through of the Bible all you want to do is to get through them without being thoroughly disgusted. And I bet out of everything in the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus is most likely pretty high on your “can’t stand it” list. Am I right?
Here’s the thing. Reading through a One Year Bible plan is a great way for a person to make it all the way from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 without falling asleep or feeling the enormity of reading the whole Bible. I give great props to the men and women who thought through those reading plans and gave us a format to enjoy this book in its entirety. Unfortunately that same format just gives us snippets of the books we are in. So, if we take Leviticus as an example, a book with 27 chapters, we are in for six or more weeks reading about blood and gore (Leviticus 1:15), stoning (Leviticus 20:10, 24:16), homophobia (Leviticus 18:22), priests being burned up for making silly mistakes (Leviticus 1:7), slavery (Leviticus 25:44) and ridiculous-sounding laws like “Do not wear clothing woven of two different kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). Yuck! We want action and adventure. We want miracles – the good kind. We want Grace with a capital G! It is hard to read a book like Leviticus in snippets and try to get the point of why God would want this included among his holy books. In order to do this Leviticus needs to be read as a whole and in the right context.
So here is what I would like you to do. Take a breath. Slow down. You already believe God’s word speaks to us. Great. If that is true then we can’t pick and choose which words speak to us; we have to listen to them all, including the book of Leviticus. But “What,” you might ask, “could this book possibly say to me today in the 21st century?” The key is in the question itself. You are living in the 21st century. You have more knowledge today than the Levites did when Moses wrote this book for and about them. You know Jesus!
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe the Old Testament can stand on its own as a revelation from God. Yet, if we leave it by itself, we do ourselves and the Lord a great disservice. As I said, we know Jesus, and while the material in the Old Testament was all part of God’s plan, so was Jesus. That means we not only have permission, but also a duty, to read the Old Testament in our 21st century context and that means with Jesus fully and brightly in our rearview mirrors, alongside us in the car, and leading us down the road through our windshield.
And what did Jesus bring us? He brought us The Good News. Good News of what? Salvation. Eternal Life. Heaven on Earth. Life with God. Redemption from sin. Life victorious over death. Keep all this in mind as we go back and take a tour of Leviticus at a very high level. As a person reads Leviticus, a book written to and for the Levites who were the priests of their day, they may ask questions such as; “Why is this book here?” and “How does this book relate to Jesus?”
Chapter-by-chapter Overview of Leviticus:
1-7: Requirements made for the sacrifices offered for our sins
8-10: The duties and dangers of being a priest
11-15: How to make unclean things clean again
16: Rules for the Day of Atonement
17: Blood for atonement
18: Protecting the land!
19-22: I am The Lord! I sanctify them – all of them.
23; Take a vacation. Spend time with me. Please, don’t work!
24: One law for both citizens and aliens
25: Back to the land – Jubilee. Who the real Redeemer is
26: Rewards and consequences of obedience – but always the door is open to come back – Grace!
27: Things have value, but they all belong to the Lord
Chapters 1-7: These talk about atoning sacrifices. Atonement for the sins we do whether we know about it or not. Over 25 times the sacrifice is told to be a male, the first male, the choice one – and the one without blemish. (Spoiler Alert: I’m talking about Jesus!)
Chapters 8-10: These show in great detail the rugged work, life and death work, of being a priest. And it all involves work to bring a sinful people closer to their God. We need to appreciate our pastors!
Chapters 11-15: These chapters are all about making what has become unclean, clean again. Hmm. A lot of us like to think we were innocent on the day we were born. So what happened? Do any of us think we are innocent today? Do we want to be made clean? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are interested in what chapters 11-15 have to say. But of course you live in the 21st century. You know the Gospel. You have the Good News of what it takes to make things clean again. Just read John 3:16.
Chapters 16-17: These chapters can be a little gory again, but they are rituals for atonement, i.e., saying I’m sorry.
Chapter 18: This is the chapter that many people don’t like. It’s infamous for its verse about homosexuality (18:22), but that is clearly not the point of the chapter. The chapter mentions an evil old god named Molech who comes back four times in chapter 20, but the point is from verses 24-30. Your actions have consequences to the entire land and God is pleading with you not to do the things that others did before you. God really cares about the land. And why wouldn’t he, after all, He created it!
Chapters 19-22: These take on the theme of “I am the Lord”. This is where the Big Idea of the book is. Look at verse 20:26 “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.” Look at all that is packed in here:
1) You are to be holy to the Lord. Not to your neighbors or the latest activist group.
2) You are separated from other people. See #1.
3) Why are you separated? To be His! Take a look at Isaiah 43:1
“But now thus says the Lord; He who created you O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel; do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; YOU ARE MINE!” (emphasis mine)
Chapter 23: Who doesn’t want chapter 23???!!! God is telling us to chill out and take a bunch of mini vacations. How great is that?
Chapter 24: This chapter brings in justice. There is only one law for all humans. The Jews were not above and beyond the aliens living with them. Neither are we.
Chapter 25: Here we are brought back to the land – a land flowing with milk and honey. The Lord is asking us to take care of the land and he recognizes that people need a place to call home. Compassion at its finest.
Chapter 26: This chapter brings me back to Jesus. Look at the flow here:
If you keep my commands good things happen (verse 3)
But if you don’t then watch out (verse 14)
And if you still don’t… (verse 21)
And if you still don’t… (verse 23)
And if you still don’t… (verse 27)
But if you finally confess and come to me, I will give you grace (verses 40 and 42)
Chapter 26 unequivocally says that grace has been in action since creation. All we need to do is confess and come back to God and he will remember us as well as the covenant he made with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. That, my friend, is the Gospel. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ!
If one were to sit down and read Leviticus all the way through in one sitting with all this in mind, they would see a story. A story of remarkable clarity and enormous grace. The book is plain and simple. It says to us that we all are going to mess up in all things, big and little. It says that there are consequences to our actions. More than that, however, the book gives us a home and a Father. The book gives us a land that is beautiful. And the book gives us a way out that is so difficult that no one could ever do it, which is why it points to Jesus, the only one who could.
When you read the Bible (ALL of the Bible) remember to keep all that you know in perspective. Read all the books for what they are, individual parts of God’s story. And then, no matter where you are, in public or in private, raise your hands in the air and shout “Hallelujah!”