I’m going to take a chance and suggest that delight is not the first word that comes to mind. Perhaps drudgery would be more accurate. How many well-intentioned Bible reading plans have crashed and burned in this book filled with detailed descriptions of how Israelites could worship and what they could eat and wear?
Yet as Christians we understand that Leviticus is God’s word for our good. Indeed, we believe that Leviticus—like the rest of the Old Testament—helps us understand the work of Christ. That’s what we’re celebrating during The Gospel Coalition’s national conference, They Testify About Me: Preaching Jesus and the Gospel from the Old Testament, now less than two weeks away.
In launching a new collection of resources on Leviticus for TGC’s project Preaching Christ in the Old Testament, I turned for help to Jay Sklar, associate professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 2001. Sklar completed his PhD under Gordon Wenham and focused on the theology of atonement in Leviticus (Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions, Sheffield Phoenix, 2005). He was editor and part contributor to the notes on Leviticus for the ESV Study Bible. Now he is finishing a commentary on Leviticus for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series (InterVarsity Press). We corresponded about how Christians can teach this book and what resources will help them understand it.
Why is Leviticus such a hard book for Christians to understand and enjoy?
There are a number of reasons, but they can be grouped into three main categories. First, the cultural context of the book is so different from our own. We live in houses or apartments; they lived in tents. We go to a building for our worship services; they went to an open-air courtyard that surrounded an ornate tabernacle. We can’t throw rice at weddings in our place of worship; they slaughtered animals in theirs! Add to that the system of ritual purity, impurity, and holiness, and you’re dealing with a totally different world.
Second, we often lose the thread of the larger literary context. Leviticus comes after Exodus 25-40, most of which is focused on instructions for building the tabernacle. Most Christians find this very tedious going (with many falling in the wilderness of these chapters!). Those who stagger their way into Leviticus often find it challenging to remember where we are in the story, or even that Leviticus comes in the midst of a story and is a crucial part of it (more on this later).
Third, it is almost all law. This actually presents two challenges. The first is simply that most of us do not find reading law nearly as interesting as reading stories. Why should we? Stories have tension that draws us in as we watch the plot unfold; law does not. It is just that: law, and if the law does not apply to us directly—which in many cases in Leviticus it does not seem to!—then there is no real hook, nothing to really grab our interest. The second challenge is that many Christians look on “law” negatively, as something restrictive and ungracious. Who wants to read a book full of that?
What must we understand about Leviticus in its original context before we can apply it today?
It’s a good question and assumes exactly the right thing: We must understand Leviticus in its original context, or we won’t be able to apply it today. Let me try to explain this in terms of the three areas mentioned above.
First, we must understand the cultural context. Here’s a classic example: Leviticus 19:19 states that we must “not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” This strikes most of us as totally bizarre. Yet there is a very plausible rationale once it is remembered that some of the priestly garments were made from mixed materials (wool yarn as well as linen, Exod 28:6, 15; 39:29). Since non-priestly Israelites were forbidden from doing priestly duties (Num 3:10, 38; 16:1-40), this prohibition may have been to prevent Israelites from even heading in that direction. In other words, its goal was to make sure the Israelites showed proper respect to the authority structures the Lord had put in place.
Once we get to this point, application becomes fairly natural. In this case, we recognize on the one hand that the New Testament no longer distinguishes the church’s leaders by special clothing, meaning Christians may wear mixed fabrics today. On the other hand, the New Testament teaches that church leaders have a unique role and exhorts Christians to respect that role by submitting to and supporting those in it (1 Thes 5:12-13, 17; Heb 13:17). It’s of course important to note that not every law in Leviticus has a rationale that is easily discerned from the text itself, and this means that good commentaries will be crucially important for understanding background cultural information.
Second, in terms of the literary context, it is vital to remember that Leviticus is part of a much larger story, especially the one told in Exodus. You could tell that story like this: In Exodus the Lord delivers his people from slavery with mighty signs and wonders (1-15) and brings them to Sinai (16-19), telling them there that they are to be his “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” He confirms their kingdom status by entering into a covenant with them as their king and giving them kingdom laws to follow (20-24). But that is not all! He is going to be a king who is near to them, dwelling in their very midst, and this is why he proceeds to give them directions for his tabernacle, his earthly palace (25-31, 35-40). And all of this leads to a very burning question if you’re an Israelite: How in the world can the holy and pure king of the universe dwell among his sinful and impure people? How can he live here—in our very midst—without his holiness melting us in our sin and impurity?!
Answer: Leviticus, which begins by explaining the sacrifices that address sin and enable them to worship this king rightly (Leviticus 1-7).
Answer: Leviticus, which provides them with priests to intercede on their behalf and lead them in worship before the king (Leviticus 8-10).
Answer: Leviticus, which gives them laws to teach them how to deal properly with impurity (Leviticus 11-15).
Answer: Leviticus, which provides a yearly ceremony to remove every last ounce of sin and impurity from the kingdom (Leviticus 16).
Answer, Leviticus, which provides a whole series of laws in other areas to direct them in living like a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Leviticus 17-27).
In short, while we look at Leviticus as a burden, the Israelites looked at it as a life preserver! It was the very thing that taught them how to live in relationship with this king who had just entered into covenant with them and descended into their very midst (Exod 40:34).
Finally, in terms of law, there are two basic interpretive guidelines to keep in mind. The first is where law happens in the story: It does not come before redemption but after it. The law that begins in Exodus 20 and extends through Leviticus is not given to the Israelites so that they might be saved. Rather, it’s a gift from their redeeming Lord, given to guide them in living as the “kingdom of priests and holy nation” he calls them to be. I appreciate how my colleague Michael Williams puts it:
God did not send Moses to Israel with a new method of forging relationship, one that would set aside the grace of God’s promises to Abraham, a plan that said in effect: If you keep the law, I will save you. It is precisely the other way around. Obedience flows from grace; it does not buy it. The exodus [i.e. redemption] precedes Sinai [i.e. law]. . . . Far from setting aside the promise of grace, the law was given to those who had been saved by grace in order to show them how to live in that grace. Thus Sinai does not bring fresh bondage but rather proof that the old bondage had been broken. In fact, we can speak of the law as a further act of grace, a gift to God’s people that serves his covenant and gracious purposes. Thus the call of the law is to translate God’s grace into action (Far As the Curse Is Found, 150-51).
Once this is understood, it makes perfect sense why the longest psalm in the Bible—Psalm 119—is a celebration of the Lord’s law: The psalmist understood it as a gift, and like any of the Lord’s gifts, was “delighted” in it “(v. 24) and crushed with longing” for it (v. 20). Indeed, it strikes me that Psalm 119 is a good litmus test for our theology: If we do not understand how the psalmist could write these things—and Leviticus was part of the law he so longed for!—then our theology of the law has a serious shortcoming.
The second interpretive guideline to keep in mind is that laws reflect the values of the lawgiver. We can see this quite readily with our own laws: we prohibit stealing because we value personal property rights; we prohibit murder because we value human life. In the same way, the Lord commands the Israelites to leave some of the harvest for the “needy and the resident alien” (19:10) because he values compassion for the unfortunate far more than maximum profit. Or again, he commands to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18) because he values a world that reflects his love and peace.
Identifying the underlying values of a law then helps us as we try to understand how it can still teach us about what it means to live as the Lord’s people (even if the particular law no longer applies). This is often easier said than done, mind you! Good commentaries are certainly a help in this regard (see resources at end). I also find Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God a very helpful resource, especially chapter nine, where he lays out a hermeneutic of how to interpret and apply OT laws. (He now gives an abbreviated description of this approach in his chapter “Preaching from the Law,” found in Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching.)
How does the New Testament help us interpret Leviticus?
I guess there are various things we could note in answer to that question (for example, the New Testament makes clear that Jesus’ atoning death means that atoning sacrifices are no longer necessary). But I usually find myself thinking in the other direction: how does Leviticus help us understand the New Testament? This is because Leviticus does not happen in the context of the New Testament world; rather, the New Testament world happens in the context of a world that already knew and understood Leviticus. The author of Hebrews is constantly making the point, “If you really want to understand who Jesus is, and what Jesus did, and how much GREATER he is than anything else, you need to understand Leviticus!”
For example, it’s only when we understand the sacrificial system of Leviticus that we can understand what it means that Jesus came and “made purification for sins” (Heb 1:3; cf. Lev 4). It’s only when we understand Leviticus that we can understand his atoning sacrifice wipes away every vestige of sin and impurity so powerfully that we can walk “with confidence into the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19; cf. Lev 16 and esp. 10:1-3!). And it’s only when we understand Leviticus that we can understand that the sinlessness and purity and power of Jesus the Great High Priest is immeasurably beyond that of any levitical priest that ever lived (Heb 7:26-28; cf. Lev 9:7; 16:6)!
What does it mean to preach Leviticus in proper relationship to Jesus and the gospel?
It means to remember that its laws come in the context of the Lord’s redeeming grace (Exod 1-19). As such, the laws were meant to guide the Israelites in a proper response of obedient love to their king, in this way enabling them to carry out their mission of reflecting his character in the world and spreading his kingdom of blessing in all the earth. (Here’s where we need to remember that the Israelites were to be a kingdom of priests [Exod 19:4-6], and priests are there to help other people know what it means to be in right relationship with the Lord.)
Once this is done, a Christian is then in a position to read these laws in the context of the Lord’s redeeming grace as found in Jesus. As such, Christians see the principles these laws teach as guides for how to respond with grateful obedience to our king, in this way enabling us to carry out our mission of reflecting his character in the world and spreading his kingdom of blessing in all the earth. (Here’s where we need to remember that we are also called to be a kingdom of priests! 1 Pet 2:9)
To state this even more simply: just as the Israelites read Leviticus in the context of the Lord’s redeeming work in the exodus, Christians read Leviticus in the context of the Lord’s redeeming work in Jesus. And just as the Israelites understood the laws of Leviticus as direction for how the Lord’s holy people worship him in grateful obedience and love, Christians understand the principles behind these laws as direction for how the Lord’s holy people worship him in grateful obedience and love.
Would you caution preachers and teachers in any way as they proclaim Jesus from this book?
In light of the previous answer, there are at least two cautions. First, law must be set in the context of redemption. When this is not done—and when we preach on law it usually is not!—we become moralists: “Do this! Don’t do that!” Someone who is soaked in the gospel of grace—and who remembers the context!—takes a different approach: “In light of what the Lord has done for you, do this; in light of who your redeeming Lord is and who he has called you to be, don’t do that.” A moralist leaves you with the feeling that there are things you must or must not do to earn the Lord’s favor. A gospel preacher or teacher leaves you with the feeling that the Lord’s favor has been so richly shown in his redemptive acts that the only proper response is grateful and loving obedience to him.
The second caution is simply to remember that proclaiming Jesus does not mean one stops at the cross. As the above makes clear, Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross is always the starting point for Christian preaching. By this I do not mean that every message must have a separate point that mentions Calvary; rather, I mean that God’s redemption in Jesus is the context of the message (see above). But what must be remembered is that Jesus has not simply saved us from something, he also calls us to something. He calls us to respond to his redemptive grace in every aspect of our lives; he call us to be that “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”
To take a practical example: Let’s say we are preaching or teaching on the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). We would miss the point if we simply said, “You and I don’t keep this command perfectly; we have sinned; we need someone to save us from our lack of loving; we need Jesus.” Of course all of that is perfectly true, but we are far closer to the point when we say something like this:
The Lord redeemed his people in his patient and merciful love and called them to reflect that love in their relationship to him and to one another. Indeed, just as his love was radical towards them, so must their love be radical to one another, being as quick to care for and forgive one another as they were with themselves. So too with us: Jesus’ love for us is inexhaustible in its mercy and it is this same love he calls us to show one another (John 15:12). It is by remembering his radical, merciful, and undeserved love for us that we are able to show the same radical love to others (cf. Matt 18:21-35). Go then, as those who have been loved with a love indescribable, and share that love with the world!
What books, sermons, and articles would you recommend for teaching the gospel in Leviticus?
Aside from the resources mentioned above, everyone teaching on this book would be greatly helped by having two particular commentaries. The first is Gordon Wenham’s The Book of Leviticus. One reviewer called it the best commentary he had ever read on any book of the Bible. It is clear, concise, readable, and usually ends each chapter with very helpful bridges to New Testament application. The second is Allen Ross’s Holiness to the Lord. Ross is an Old Testament scholar who combines the best of Old Testament scholarship with helpful discussion of how to teach or preach each chapter. It is not always as thorough as Wenham’s in the details, but a wonderful complement in terms of how to teach or preach the book.
I must confess that I have not listened to many sermons on Leviticus. I did a short series once (seven sermons), addressing introductory issues, atonement, and most of the sacrifices. Here’s the interesting thing about that series: it was for a businessmen’s Bible study that started with about 70 men and ended with 80 to 85. In other words, by God’s grace it actually grew. That’s not what we expect for a series on Leviticus, though I guess it’s really no surprise: if the psalmist delighted in it, shouldn’t we as well?