Obsolete: A Meditation on the Book of Leviticus

27 Oct

The following meditation was delivered at the First Baptist Church of Benbrook on Wednesday night, October 27, 2010.

Study Leviticus? Are You Kidding?

The Book of Leviticus is the poster child for the neglected books of the Old Testament. I jokingly refer to these portions of the Old Testament as easy to find because these are where the pages of most people’s Bibles are still stuck together. If you have ever tried to read the Bible from cover to cover, your good intentions most likely died somewhere around the fifth or sixth chapter of Leviticus. That is why it comes to such a shock to us that Hebrew children began their memorization of Scripture with Leviticus at the tender age of three. Surely that comes dangerously close to child abuse, doesn’t it?

But this is the Bible that Jesus read, as Philip Yancey reminded us. When asked to name the two most important commandments, Jesus quoted the second commandment from Leviticus 19.18. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law, of which Leviticus is part. And a much as we hate to admit it, when Paul wrote that all Scripture was inspired by God and profitable to us, he was talking about Leviticus, too.

Of course, New Testament believers are quick to say that the new covenant has superseded the old covenant. According to Paul, we have been released from the Law (Romans 7.6), and the law and its teachings were only the shadow of things to come, the reality of which was found in Christ (Colossians 2.13-17). The Law was of value because it led us to Christ (Galatians 3.24), but now it has become obsolete (Hebrews 8.13). Why study what is aging and soon to disappear (see Hebrews 8.13)?

The answer to such a question can only be found in an honest study of the material in question. To borrow a line from Nancy Pelosi that she spoke in regard to Obamacare, “We have to pass it so that we can know what is in it.” We may never know the value of Leviticus as long as we never give it a chance to stand on its own. We have to read it to know of its value.

A Little Background Information

The book that we know as Leviticus was never known by that title in antiquity. As was the custom of the Jews, they called it Wayyiqra from the first word in the book, “And he called.” The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, gave it the title “Concerning the Levites,” a practice the Latin Vulgate continued. The title is not only unappealing, but it is also misleading. The book is more than just a manual for the Leviticus priesthood. The book is the guide for worship, a guide whose author was the Lord Himself. The book begins with an often repeated refrain: “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to Him” (1.1). Why would a follower of Christ not be interested in how the Lord commanded His people to worship Him?

The oldest traditions in synagogues and churches held that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, though the texts themselves do not state that Moses wrote them. Leviticus is a record of what the Lord said to Moses, but the reader is not told that Moses was the one who wrote them down. Which has led many to speculate that perhaps the book of Leviticus was compiled much later than during the lifetime of Moses, perhaps hundred of years later.

A scholar named Wellhausen developed a very popular hypothesis called “the documentary hypothesis” in 1878. According to his theory, the first five books of the Old Testament were a compilation of competing schools of thought within Jewish life, each with their own favorite name of God and own interpretation of covenant relations. The JEDP theory, which stands for the four different streams of Jewish thought, help to explain the supposed contradictions within the Pentateuch, along with some other “problems.” According to this theory, the bulk of Leviticus was written after the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem in 587 BC. It was written to create a new national identity based upon the laws and traditions of Moses, one rooted in the tabernacle instead of the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It also explained the reason for the exile as a failure to worship the Lord properly.

While the documentary hypothesis is quite popular among scholars, it is quite short of certain fact. It assumes that the worship life of Israel progressed from simple, free, and unfettered worship during the wilderness travels to the more complex and highly structured worship during the days of Solomon’s temple. However, this assumption is faulty at best, as a study of any ancient culture will attest. Whether completed during the days of Moses or compiled after his death, it is best to read Leviticus as it is presented to us in the canon, as the words of the Lord spoken to Moses during the wilderness journey from Egypt.

Not An Easy Book To Read

The most vexing question of Leviticus, which is which if any of these commands still apply to us today and by what principles of interpretation do we decide, will have to wait for the study of the book to unfold. For today, let us be content with an introduction to the contents of this often ignored Scripture.

The best introduction to Leviticus begins in Exodus 25. Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law (Exodus 19-24). Afterwards, Moses was given detailed commands regarding the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-31). When Moses returned to the camp, he was horrified to see the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). After disciplining the children of Israel, Moses returned to the mountain to get another set of tablets and some more instructions regarding the Tabernacle and the priests (Exodus 33-40). The book of Exodus ends with these words,

34Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 36In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; 37but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. 38So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (Exodus 40.34-38)

Consider the last 16 chapters of the book of Exodus when hearing the first word of the book of Leviticus,

1The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When any of you brings an offering to the LORD, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock. (Leviticus 1.1-2)

The commands given to Moses, and recorded in Exodus, concern the construction of the Tabernacle. In a way, the commands given to Moses as recorded in Leviticus concern what is to be done with the Tabernacle now that it was finished.

What Is The New Covenant Value of an Old Covenant Book?

At this very point, new covenant believers stumble, wondering why they should invest any time in studying an “obsolete” covenant from which they have been “released.” Perhaps the key comes from the best commentary on the book of Leviticus ever written: the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. The apostolic writer,

3Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. (Hebrews 8.3-6)

Of course, Christians focus on verse 6 where the old covenant is inferior to the once mediated by Christ, but we should not miss that the Tabernacle was built to be a shadow and a copy of that which is in heaven. In other words, for those of us who plan on worshipping around the throne one day, there might be something for us to learn from the Tabernacle and worship life built to be a copy of the one in heaven.

But let us be more clear about the current value of reading and studying Leviticus. First, the greatest value of studying the book is to develop a heightened sense of the holiness of God and of the need for our own personal and collective holiness. The Hebrew word for “holy” is used 152 times in this book. The word for “unclean” is used another 132 times. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” seems to be the major theme of the book, a theme repeated for New Testament Christians by Peter (see 1 Peter 1.16). Certainly, a key verse is found in chapter 10:

You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses.”(Leviticus 10.10-11)

As Gary Demarest wrote in his commentary on Leviticus, “This business of discernment is critical, especially among those who all too casually sum up the gospel with the words, ‘God loves you no matter what.’ A study of Leviticus may be the best hope for enabling us to make distinctions between the holy and profane, the clean and unclean in our day” (Mastering The Old Testament, 3:27)

Another practical value of studying Leviticus is that it will produce a heightened awareness of the presence of God in every dimension of our life. God is not confined to the Tabernacle, nor to the church building. Leviticus reminds us that God is present in every aspect of our lives. Leviticus is just as much concerned with the proper way to present offerings as it is the proper time to pay a laborer his wages (Leviticus 19.13) or with the sexual purity of His people (see Leviticus 18). Surely there is a practical word for our culture today, a culture that is determined to separate spirituality from morality.

One final, practical value of studying Leviticus is that it helps us to understand the sacrificial death of Christ for our sins. In the words of Gary Demarest,

The entire concept of atonement, in which the death of an animal in some way substitutes for the death of a guilty person, is so foreign to contemporary, Western thought that proclaiming that Jesus Christ died for our sins may have very little meaning to the vast number of people around us. It seems as though our inability to probe the meaning of sacrifice for the atonement of the guilt of sin has resulted in our presenting the gospel primarily as a means by which people may find meaning or self-fulfillment. The meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament is our only way to understand the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross for us. (Mastering The Old Testament, 3:27-28)

Demarest makes a marvelous point. The gospel message is very clear. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God demonstrates His love for us in presenting Christ as a sacrifice of atonement. Christ shed His blood in our place, on our behalf. There may be no way for us to understand this other than to dive deeply into the worship manual of the Old Covenant where the sacrificial system was most clearly explained.

I am under no illusions that our journey through Leviticus will be as easy or as obviously practical as a study of James. However, I am hopeful that a study of the law that leads us to Christ might help us to understand the Christ who died for our sins and the holy life He calls us to as reborn and redeemed believers.


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Posted by on October 27, 2010 in Sermons - Leviticus


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