We often make two, critical mistakes when we read the book of Leviticus. First, we are to busy looking for imperatives and applications that we miss the meaning (and, therefore, the real applications). Second, we isolate Leviticus and don’t read it as part of a larger story. Let us begin with the first issue.
We, Christians who hold the Bible as the sole authority for life and Godliness, must stop reading the Bible selfishly. The Bible was, first and foremost, written to reveal God’s glory; it was not primarily written to solve all of your problems. Often, our first question when we come to a text is: “What does this passage have to do with me and what are the applications?”. These are not bad questions, but they shouldn’t be the first questions we ask when we come to a text. Unfortunately, they have become the first (and often the only) questions we ask when we read a passage in the Bible. This is why many of us measure the quality of a book based on the number of imperatives we should follow rather than the theological richness and what a book reveals about God. When we bring this attitude to Leviticus, it is no wonder that we get bored and apathetic. Leviticus doesn’t have any commands (that I could find) that are directed at Christians in the twenty-first century. It describes a system of religion that we no longer practice (with good reason (see Romans 6:14)) and which our Western sensibilities find violent and bloody†. We need to change our focus when we read the Bible. In the “solutions” section, I discuss a means to remedy this ailment, but for now I will continue to consider the second problem that contributes to our attitude of indifference toward Leviticus: poor Bible reading practices.
The second issue stems from the fact that we, speaking for the Church in the United States of entertainment, simply do not read enough of the Bible in one sitting. I do not mean that we are not listening to enough sermons, reading enough ‘Christian’ books, or spending enough time with our Bible’s open (although this is the case for some); I simply mean that we do not read large sections of the Bible in one sitting. When was the last time you read a book in one or two sittings? Have you ever done this? I encourage you to start a habit of doing this as it will help in many different ways (which is the topic of another blog post). With respect to Leviticus, we miss out on the context and the questions behind the book largely because we have not read Exodus in one or two sittings right before reading Leviticus. Understanding the context and questions provided in Exodus helps us understand the importance of Leviticus. To prove this, have you ever noticed that in most English translations, Leviticus starts off with the word “then” or “and”? While Leviticus is a separate book, there is a seamless continuation of thought from the book of Exodus where we have just seen the glory of God descend on the Tabernacle in the midst of an grumbling and idolatrous people. One of the questions posed in Exodus is: “How will a holy and faithful God dwell in the midst of an unholy and unfaithful people?". Leviticus offers many answers to this question, but we miss this because we have not read Exodus recently or very well. The Bible is literature and, if we forget to read it a such, we are in danger of forgetting how to understand God’s revelation about Himself.
So what can we do to understand the book of Leviticus? I believe there are at least two steps (corresponding to the mistakes noted above) we can take to better understand and appreciate this book. First, we need to understand how to read the Bible. Second, we need to ask the right questions.
The first step to understanding Leviticus better is simply to learn how to read the Bible better. I’ll have another blog post on this subject soon to which I will defer, but the basic premise is that we must understand that the point of the Bible is not primarily so that we can read it and do something. The primary point of the Bible is so that we can read it and know more about who God is and what has done, is doing, and has promised to do. With this attitude, Leviticus becomes valuable because it describes how God interacted with Israel in the past and reveals aspects of God’s character.
Second, to better understand Leviticus, we must ask the right questions. In my opinion, the key is to ask questions of what happened before this book and what happens after. As I described earlier, one of the key questions when coming to the book of Leviticus is “How can a holy and faithful God dwell in the midst of an unholy and unfaithful people?”. This question is established in the latter section of Exodus (Exodus 15:22 - 40) where we see Israel alternatively praising God for His salvation and grumbling. Agreeing to a covenant with God and then breaking the second commandment by making an idol. God still chooses to dwell in the Tabernacle among with people (Exodus 40:34-38), so how is this going to work? With this in mind, Leviticus begins to take shape, not as a boring book of rules, but as a description of God’s requirements to approach Him. We should also consider how Leviticus impacts the rest of the Bible. A good question along these lines is: “How do we see the principles taught in the book of Leviticus applied throughout the Bible?”. For example, the book of Leviticus makes it clear that sin requires a payment and not any payment, but a payment of life (see Leviticus 17:11). Atonement only comes through blood (which represents life). If we don’t understand this, the sacrificial death of Christ will not make sense. Understanding what is established in Leviticus is critical for developing a full understanding of what Christ did (read Hebrews (especially chapters 9 and 10) for more on this).
I challenge you to take some time to read Leviticus in, at most, two sittings and then read through the book of Hebrews. It will take a lot of time, but it will also be extremely profitable and you will come away with a better appreciation of Leviticus, the Bible, and the Lamb of God: Jesus Christ.
† - Based on the NASB translation, the word “blood” occurs seventy two times in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus is 27 chapters long, so this works out to 2.667 times per chapter (on average).