Leviticus is the place where the best of intentions to read through the Bible often stall out. But it is a book that Jay Sklar—professor of Old Testament and vice president of academics at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri—has studied and written about prolifically. Sklar’s doctoral studies focused on the theology of sin, impurity, sacrifice, and atonement in the Old Testament sacrificial system. He contributed to the study notes of Leviticus for the ESV Study Bible and the introduction and notes for Leviticus for the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible, and he wrote a commentary on Leviticus for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
In this conversation, Sklar outlines five reasons Leviticus is a challenging book to read and understand, as well as to teach:
- It is mostly law, which is unappealing to most of us.
- It is culturally strange.
- It emphasizes ritual, which we tend to assume is meaningless.
- Its laws and teachings appear unfair or unjust.
- It is hard to fit into the larger story of the Bible.
But Sklar also offers keen insights into how to make sense of the book and break down some of the barriers to interest. He also talks about how to present Christ through discussing issues that arise in Leviticus such as slavery, homosexuality, ritual impurity, and disability.
Recommended resources by and from Jay Sklar:
- The Book of Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) by Gordon J. Wenham
- Leviticus (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) by Jay Sklar
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
- Jay Sklar’s page (Covenant Seminary website) which includes audio, video, and a printable resource for preaching and teaching Leviticus
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Jay Sklar: You really can teach the book of Leviticus, although at first glance it seems so strange. My experience has been that that almost gives an advantage because people’s expectations are so low that as you’re coming to the book, just a few key principles that help you understand the book better and then enable you to help others understand the book better. I find that people are just hungry for it. And when they actually see, “Oh, there’s something in here for me as a 21st century Christian,” it’s an incredible blessing to them.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks learn more at crossway.org. Usually, I am in the office of whoever I am interviewing, and that was completely my plan, but of course, like the rest of the world, COVID-19 has changed a lot of my plans. And so today, I’m getting to talk online with someone I’ve had on my list to talk to for “Help Me Teach the Bible” really since the very beginning, when I thought about, okay, who will I talk to about various books of the Bible. Always reserved and waiting for a trip to St. Louis, Missouri has been Jay Sklar. And fortunately he is my guest today, even though the trip to St. Louis still didn’t happen. Dr. Sklar, thank you so much for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Sklar: It is a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me, Nancy.
Guthrie: Dr. Sklar is a professor of Old Testament, and he is vice president of academics at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. His doctoral studies focused on the theology of sin, impurity, sacrifice and atonement in the Old Testament sacrificial system. So that makes him highly equipped to help us with the book that we’re gonna talk about on this episode, that is the Book of Leviticus. From all of that study, he’s used it in lots of ways, he contributed to the study notes on Leviticus in the ESV Study Bible. He wrote the introduction and the notes on Leviticus for the Gospel Transformation Bible. And he’s also the author of a commentary on Leviticus for the Tyndale Old Testament commentary series published by InterVarsity.
Now, Dr. Sklar, I know you’re also working on another big project for a Crossway these days. I don’t know maybe your task is done. Maybe you’re still in the middle of it. You can tell me. And that is this new expository commentary series that you are an editor along with Iain Duguid and James Hamilton. Are you still in the middle of that project, done with that? Where are you with that?
Sklar: We are getting really close to done. The New Testament side is already done. It is one third the size the Old Testament. So I don’t feel too badly about that, but the Old Testament, we’re more than halfway done, I think now and hope to have all our contributions in within the next year and a half or two. Many of the volumes have already come out and it is a tremendously helpful series for those who are not only preaching from the text, but also teaching through the texts. It doesn’t assume knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, but of course the contributors have been very careful in consulting the original languages on the way through and trying to bring out an exposition that is very biblically, theologically aware and Christ-entered in what it’s doing.
Guthrie: Well, I think that is absolutely the case. For the few volumes that have come out, I’ve already opened them up a number of times when I needed to get a sense of a book that hadn’t studied before or getting ready to work on. And I love how concise they are. Even just the way you’ve sectioned it out the most to me, I mean, it just seems like the ultimate help to someone who’s going to teach through one of those books. So I appreciate your work on that. Can I assume that you wrote the section on Leviticus for that?
Sklar: I did not. I did not.
Guthrie: You didn’t? You assigned it to someone else?
Sklar: Yeah. I’ve got a good friend who’s working away on that. And I’ve written… having written one commentary on Leviticus and just turned into the publisher short time ago, a second longer commentary. It wasn’t much left to say for a third commentary in Leviticus. So that’s been given over to somebody else with very capable hands.
Guthrie: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. All right. Now I know you’ve certainly taught on Leviticus at the seminary level, but I also know you’ve done a lot of teaching on Leviticus for the lay level at churches you’ve been a part of and other Bible studies. In fact, if people go to the webpage at The Gospel Coalition on this episode, you’re gonna find links to a bunch of resources, things Dr. Sklar has written things he recommends and videos and audio of his teaching on the Leviticus. You’ll be able to find that there. But I wonder if you would be willing to begin this way with me, Dr. Sklar, and that is to tell me a little bit about your own development as a teacher. How did that come about in your life that you thought, “Okay, I think I might want to teach the Bible and maybe I have a knack for that”? How did that develop in your life?
Sklar: For me, it actually started when I was in my teens. I was a part of a Christian camp, and I worked as a counselor there. And at our camp, what we did is we sent all of our counselors to training with the group called Child Evangelism Fellowship. It’s a tremendous organization. You may have seen their summer missionaries in backyards, around your neighborhoods. And what they do is they basically teach teenagers how to tell Bible stories and incorporate into those stories the gospel message.
And so I received training at Child Evangelism Fellowship, and then I got to put it in practice all summer long. In a typical summer, I would have 40 different times where I’d be telling a Bible story. And that really, if you can learn how to keep 10-year-old boys paying attention on a hot July afternoon while others are outside playing with balls and swimming and that kind of thing, I mean, it really forces you to learn really quick or else you just lose everyone’s attention. So that was the start and things just sort of grew and developed from there.
Guthrie: So at what point…and I know you said your undergrad was in philosophy, and then you went on to seminary and that your doctoral work was on certainly on things that would relate to the book of Leviticus. I mean, how did that intense expertise or interest in that aspect of the Bible…what brought that about?
Sklar: I kind of fell into it by accident actually. I was finishing seminary and was getting ready to go on for doctoral studies. And I was talking to one of my supervisors at seminary and he suggested, “Hey, if you wanna find a topic that could use some work, you might think about the burnt offering.” And I thought about that for a moment. And I thought, you know, the sacrificial system is a complete mystery to me. I do not understand that at all. That would be kind of interesting to really dig into, to try and figure out what’s going on there. Yeah, how does this work together? What’s God’s purpose and intent and even having this system here in the first place, and that’s what set me off on the path towards studying Leviticus.
Guthrie: Oh, interesting. Let’s start Leviticus this way. Finish this sentence for me. And you can take two or three stabs on it if you just can’t finish it all in one sentence. All right. The book of Leviticus is about…
Sklar: A holy God living in the midst of a sinful impure people, making a way for them to be in relationship with himself and reflect his kingdom and character and glory into the world.
Guthrie: Wow. You got a lot in there.
Sklar: That was a long sentence.
Guthrie: No, but I liked it. I liked it. A lot of good things. All right.
Sklar: Yeah, because one thing that happens is we study the book of Leviticus is that it’s easy for us to miss how relational it is and how missional it is. By relational, I mean that you’ve got the God of the universe who comes and he’s dwelling in his own tent. The Israelites are in their tents. He’s in his glorious palace tent in the midst of this people so that they can come before the Lord. Again and again, in Leviticus, you read that phrase that they bring a sacrifice before the Lord. And so you’ve got that strong relational element. And at the same time, the Lord had said coming into Leviticus, you know, I’m entering into covenant with you Israel so that you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And if you’re being called a kingdom of priests in the ancient world, you recognize, “Hey, hold on a second, priests are here in order to help people in their relationship with God, help people know how to worship God, help people know what it means to walk before God. And if that’s Israel’s job, it means from the beginning, the Lord has given them this mission. They’re to be priests for the world, helping the world to understand who is God, how do I worship him? I need somebody to pray on my behalf, mediate before me.” This is Israel’s role and the book of Leviticus helps them to know how to fulfill that role. So it’s relational and missional at the same time.
Guthrie: Well, when you explain that, I can totally see it, but I don’t think that’s how most people think about the book of Leviticus. They certainly don’t think of it as relational, you know, no warm vibes do they immediately get on the surface in terms of relationship with God, and that they see it as more off-putting perhaps than inviting for people to come to know God. And so that really brings up that there are a number of things that make Leviticus both off-putting if people do get into it and then just challenging for us as teachers to teach. I mean, to me, Leviticus, it’s always the butt of the jokes, you know, when you’re talking about, “Okay, did you start reading, trying to read through the Bible this year,” and, you know, and where does that joke go? It goes to Leviticus, right?
And then we all just say, “Okay, you got to Leviticus and you said, forget about it.” And so, you know, that kind of raises that there are a number of challenges. And so if we’re gonna teach the book, maybe a first challenge is even getting people interested in it, getting them over the hump that they’re going to be able to understand it, that they’re gonna be interested in it, that there is gonna be, you know, people always looking for a practical takeaway. We’ve kind of trained people, I think, unfortunately, in Bible study to want to go so immediately to something — and I’m putting this in air quotes, we’re not in person today, but you can see air quotes — “practical.” So why don’t you just talk us through some of the challenges for us as teachers about the book of Leviticus when we approach the idea of teaching it?
Sklar: Oh, sure. There are many. I mean, one thing I’ve learned over the years, Nancy, is that if you ever wanna kill conversation at a dinner party, I mean, you just tell them, “Yeah, I’ve studied Leviticus the past 15 years.” I mean, it just…it works every time. One of my students, in fact, years ago, he got to the end of Leviticus and he was so pleased with himself. He just wrote at the after Leviticus 27, thanks be to God, not for what was in the book, but just because he made it because we just…we struggle so much.
And I think I’ll just mention five quick things I think that are barriers for us are reasons why we struggle with Leviticus. The first is its genre. Leviticus is almost entirely law. So 27 chapters, chapters one through seven are laws on sacrifice. Chapters 11 through 15 laws on purification. Chapter 17 through 25 and 27 various laws on holy living. And if you look outside of that, you’ve got a chapter of blessings and curses in chapter 26, and then you have very, very little narrative and very few people wanna, you know, go home at the end of a long day and say, I’ll just cuddle up with a book of law tonight. That’s not high. So genre, it’s a struggle.
I think a second thing is it’s so culturally strange to us. We’re reading through and we’re reading about ritual purity and impurity and all these weird sacrifices are being made. And I mean, at my church, I can’t even throw rice during a wedding. And here in Leviticus, I mean, animals are being slaughtered and blood’s going everywhere. So it’s just so culturally strange. And it talks about things that seem so irrelevant today, shaving your head and this kind of thing.
The third thing is that Leviticus has an emphasis on ritual. And I think many of us, in the evangelical world at least, grow up kind of suspicious of ritual. It’s not always true, especially in some Anglican churches and some different Presbyterian churches. There’s more of an emphasis, but many of us grew up looking at ritual kind of suspiciously. And so it belongs to dead religion.
The fourth thing is that some of the laws we read in Leviticus just strike us, frankly, as unfair or unjust. There are capital penalties in Leviticus or in Leviticus 12, a woman is impure twice as long for having a female baby compared to a male baby. And we’re like, “What in the world is going on? That just seems sexist and unfair.” So that’s a fourth thing. I think that the final thing is that we just, we struggle to fit Leviticus into the larger story of the Bible. I hope we will get to this a bit later, but Leviticus actually fits very logically right at this point in the story. But it’s really hard to keep track of that bigger picture in the midst of all the details about loss and sacrifice. So all of those different reasons make it difficult for many of us when we come to Leviticus. Many people who have started reading in Genesis with the intent to make it through the whole Bible fall in the wilderness of Leviticus.
Guthrie: Those are all so significant and they all require of us both as biblical students, but especially as Bible teachers to really do our homework. And, you know, maybe one reason we might avoid teaching this book is just our fear that we cannot deal with these challenges that we won’t have the answers. There are two or three other things that come to my mind. Some of them kind of fit in your five things that make it a challenging book to teach. You mentioned a woman needing to take twice as long for purification for a female child than a male child. Just this whole idea differentiating between ritual uncleanness and what is sinful because we can tend to read these things and equate those two things and not know how to differentiate between them.
Another thing I think is just the whole issue of slavery, which is, you know, there’s some things in the book about what you can do to slaves that we just think, “Wow, I don’t wanna stand up in front of a group and talk about that.” And then, of course, homosexuality. I think of the book of Leviticus as the one that gets pulled off the shelf in terms of arguments made against having any kind of biblical stance in terms of homosexuality, because you’ve got that person who says, okay, “Well, if you’re gonna say from Leviticus that you can’t, you know, a man cannot lie with a man, well, they shouldn’t eat shellfish, right?” How many times have we heard that?
So those are, we’ve got a lot of challenges on the table. So your work is cut out for you. What are some mistakes in approaching the book of Leviticus that you think are commonly made by Bible teachers? Can you think of two or three and maybe it’s two specific passages that they handle a passage a particular way, or maybe it’s just in their overall general approach, some kind of misunderstanding or misappropriation quite often happens in the way you have heard Leviticus taught.
Sklar: Yeah. Well, I mentioned a couple of different things. Three come immediately to mind. One is that we can have a tendency when we’re approaching Leviticus out of this deep desire to be Christ-centered and to bring the focus on Jesus, which is tremendous. And I hope that’s what characterizes our heart whenever we’re preaching or teaching. But as a result of that, we can sometimes leapfrog from Leviticus to the gospel. And we don’t take time to try and understand, well, actually, what did this mean in its original context?
As we’re looking at the book here, what did this mean to an Israelite? I’ll put it this way when you’re reading in Leviticus, one of the first questions and most important questions you’ve always gotta ask is what would this have meant to an ancient Israelite wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land? And if you can begin there, I think it helps from some of the leapfrogging that sometimes happens when we read a passage and just immediately start to talk about a New Testament reality. Sometimes we do that, especially by way of allegory. And I think you’ve gotta be really careful about not going down a strongly allegorical approach because that ends up being so subjective. The text ends up meaning at the end of the day, just what you think it means. So understanding its original context, that would be a really important starting point.
A second thing or mistake that we sometimes make when it comes to Leviticus is and I’ll tie this back into your observation, that Leviticus, this is one of the books that is often brought up these days in the conversation about homosexual practice. And then that’s because in Leviticus, 18 and 20, there are 2 verses that are some of the most explicit verses in the Old Testament, prohibiting homosexual practice.
As people look at those verses, and especially for those who would say those verses, yes, they are addressing homosexual practice, but they no longer apply today. And you ask, “Well, why do you think they don’t apply anymore today?” And one of the answers that sometimes given is while those verses are about impurity. And we know that in the New Testament, those categories of a ritual purity and impurity are set aside. And so, you know, we can eat any food that’s clean these days because ritually impure foods were now said to be pure. And the argument goes the same thing is happening here with these verses prohibiting homosexual practice, the concern is ritual-impurity, and that’s no longer a concern.
Well, the problem with that argument is that it doesn’t recognize that Leviticus actually talks about two different types of purity. It talks it’s about ritual impurity, which does not come from something that sinfully. Having a baby makes you ritually impure. And God said, be fruitful and multiply, right? In Leviticus, this actually surprises people. Sometimes it’s not typically sinful to become ritually impure. You’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply, that involves having relations, and relations make you ritually-impure. It’s not sinful to become ritually-impure. So ritual impurity is just this state of being that doesn’t come from sin. It’s not sin to enter into it, but it’s very different than what Leviticus thinks of as moral impurity.
Moral impurity is always rooted in sin, is always an expression of sin. And Leviticus 18 and 20, the matters that those chapters are addressing, they focus primarily on sexual immorality and illicit worship, both of which are in this moral impurity category. So it’s really important when you’re approaching Leviticus to keep those two categories straight, because you can make a big mistake in reading verses like those found in Leviticus 18 and 20, if you put them in the wrong category.
Guthrie: That’s really helpful.
Sklar: Yeah. So a third thing to think about is the approach we take to law. And there’s a lot of law in Leviticus. And sometimes we focus on what’s come to be known as the second use of the law, which is the law shows us of our need of a savior. That’s a very biblical use of the law. Galatians chapter three, Paul makes this use of the law when he talks about the law is this teacher to lead us to Christ, shows us our need of Christ.
But what we often miss is what Calvin called the third use of the law, which is captured in Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” That is that it guides us in good ways. And in approaching Leviticus, I think we have to be careful not just to come and say, okay, somehow this verse I’m looking at is gonna show me my sin so that we almost train people if that’s the only approach you take. It’s like you come to Old Testament law to be condemned.
Well, the Psalmist in Psalm 119, longest psalm in the Bible, he delights in the law. He can’t wait to get that. He burns with desire for the law. And remember when he’s talking about the law, he’s talking about at the least the first five books of the Bible, including Leviticus. He burns with desire for the laws of Leviticus. How can that be? I think it’s because he understands that laws reflect the values of the law giver. That makes sense to us. Why do we have laws against murder? Because we value life. Why do we have laws against stealing? Because we value the right to private property.
Laws reflect the values of the law giver. And that means when we come to Leviticus, we actually have this beautiful opportunity to get a window into the heart of God himself because his values are on full display. And so a positive approach to the laws, I think really helps people to see, wow, there’s so much to gain from reading Leviticus.
Guthrie: As you say that it makes me think about some of the passages in Leviticus in terms of what they show about what God values and, you know, he would value yes, sexual purity. He also values treating the Sojourner and the poor well and dealing with people with kindness. On first reading, some things can seem so harsh, but if you understand what’s underneath that, you see, okay, God, in so many ways is protecting the vulnerable underneath so many of those laws.
Sklar: Absolutely. So a great example in Leviticus, 19:9-10, you have these verses, which talk about not gleaning to the edge of your field or not harvesting to the edge of your field, I should say so that the poor and the widow and the orphan can come into the fields and clean. And if you think, okay, laws reflect the values of the law giver, you get to ask, “Well, what values of the Lord are on display here?” And you can begin to see, okay, by telling Israelites not to harvest the whole field, but to leave some for the poor, he’s on the one hand saying, “I value showing compassion to those who are less fortunate. That’s a high value for me. In fact, I value that more than I value maximizing economic profit, really value.”
And on the other hand, you get to see, but wait, the Lord also says, leave the field so that they can come in and they can glean. In other words, he also values work and he writes a law like the gleaning law in such a way that he gives a chance for those who are less fortunate to still have dignity because they get to put in a hard day’s work for their food. And so one simple law begins to demonstrate multiple values of the Lord that then teach us how to lean into the world as his followers.
Guthrie: I mentioned earlier that it’s a little bit challenging though, for us to deal with some of these passages about slavery. In those sections about slavery, are we seeing God’s goodness towards that vulnerable slave or how do we work with those?
Sklar: That is a great question. And I’m very glad you asked it. Let me begin by actually taking a step back. In many of the translations today that use the word slavery, in many of those instances, it would actually be more appropriate to translate with the word servanthood instead of slavery. And I start there simply because when we, as modern Westerners hear the word slavery, we can’t help but think of the chattel slavery that existed in this country and others in the 1700s, 1800s and beyond, and with chattel slavery, the slave is a piece of property that you can do anything you want with. And the reason I think we need to avoid that kind of language is because that type of slavery is actually forbidden by the Bible. If we had followed the Bibles laws in the Pentateuch about slavery and about kidnapping, which is absolutely forbidden, what we know in America as the slave trade would have never existed.
And so a starting point here is to recognize that in the ancient world, much of what the Old Testament is talking about is what we might call indentured servanthood. That is to say somebody often because of debt entering into servanthood or service of another, in order to be able to clear that debt, in order to pay that debt off. And once you’re there, you begin to see that for the Israelites, what the Lord actually requires of them is to be such a good master, that those who enter into service under them experience what the Israelites themselves experienced having the Lord as their master.
Another way to say this is everyone in the Bible is a servant of somebody. You’re a servant of God for good. You’re a servant of the evil one, but you don’t get away from servanthood. And the challenge for the believer in the Old Testament was to model God’s masterhood, if you will, in such a way that the servant actually, and there was a law on this and Deuteronomy, actually so enjoyed being with the master that they said, “I want to serve here in a lifelong way.”
Guthrie: That’s really helpful. You talked earlier about five challenges, and I think you’ve helped us with this overcoming this challenge about it being mostly law, demonstrating how it reflects the values of the law giver. The second thing you said was a challenge is that it’s culturally strange. Yeah, you just think, I mean, when I think of Leviticus, I think blood, blood and more blood, you know, almost like a, it’s almost like there’s a flashing sign, like at some old diner on the side of the street and sin demands blood, sin demands blood. That’s not the only culturally strange thing about it. So talk to us about how we deal with that challenge.
Sklar: Yeah. And as I enter into this, I’m just gonna add one final thought onto the slavery question, which again, such a good question and so involved. It’s hard to feel like you could ever do it justice and just like a 90-second clip. But I would say you mentioned earlier that I’d written a commentary on Leviticus, it’s in the Tyndale series. And I actually have in that commentary, “additional note” that goes through and begins to address some of the other questions that we have that touch on this issue of slavery. So I just wanna mention that as a resource for those who wanna dig further.
In terms of the culturally strange aspect, the thing that has been most helpful for me, as I read through Leviticus is this doctrine known as accommodation. And accommodation. Let me begin by saying what it does not mean because that that word can have a negative connotation sometimes. It does not mean that God accommodates his values to our values. That’s not what the doctrine means. The doctrine is actually very positive. It means that God, because he is the master teacher, he communicates his values to us in ways that we can understand.
John Calvin used the image of a nursery worker who lisps to her children, speaks in baby talk to them so they can understand. This is what God does with us. He speaks to us in ways that we can understand. And because he is speaking to an ancient people in the book of Leviticus, it means he’s often addressing cultural issues that are current to them, but are foreign to us. And it means he is using cultural artifacts and illustrations, which are common to them, but which are foreign to us. And that’s why the book seems so hard for us to understand.
So I’ll give you a couple of, of examples. In Leviticus, 21:5 priests are forbidden from mourning by, “They cannot shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards, or cut their bodies.” Leviticus 21:5. And you and I read that and we’re like, “What in the world is going on? I’ve never thought about in the process of mourning, shaving my beard or cutting my flesh or something like that. Why is this here?” Well, if you back up to Leviticus 19:27-28, you read the Lord, they’re saying, “Don’t cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. Do not cut your bodies for the dead.” In other words, that’s giving us a hint that in Israel’s day, it was a pagan practice to have certain types of, to do certain types of cutting to your hair or to your body as you were mourning the dead.
And so all of a sudden that helps us to understand, oh, well, no wonder the Lord would tell priests not to do those things because the priests of all people could not imitate the pagan culture around them. They had to be holy. So there’s a practice that seems very strange to us, but what’s common in Israel’s day. So cultural practices can make Leviticus seem strange to us and that’s often where you need just a bit of commentary help to get some insight into what was going on there historically. But then there are also cultural artifacts. So as the Lord’s explaining things to Israel, he talks a lot about ritual purity and impurity. Now for us, this is a very strange concept if we grew up in a Western context in the 20th, 21st century.
In other parts of the world, this is actually a very familiar concept. If you go to India today, they’re very familiar with ideas of ritual purity and impurity. And in Israel’s day, many of the nations around Israel and in, within Israel itself, this was a concept that existed. And so the Lord is the master teacher comes along and he says, “Oh, look, there’s this concept that exists in this culture that I can use to teach them about my holiness.” It would kind of be like if he came to us today and was giving us laws about going to church and told us, “And when you go to church, men, I want you to take your hat off.” Well, the reason he would say that is because taking your hat off, when you enter into a building as a way to show a sign of respect.
That’s part of a kind of a cultural concept that we have in the 21st century, or at least that we had. It’s beginning to fail, but that that’s a concept that would have used. That’s what he’s doing with ritual purity and impurity. So when he says to the people, Hey, when you’re coming to my tabernacle, make sure that you’re ritually pure. It’s like a way of telling them, make sure you take your hat off.
I’ll tell you a very brief story. I once had my class. One of the assignments was you have to follow as many laws of Leviticus as possible for an entire week without getting arrested. And so the class did this exercise and they kept a journal and turned the journal in at the end of the exercise. And so I start reading through the journal and one of the last ones I read, I get to day three and one person, he just had one entry line. It was, “I really miss bacon.” But what typically happened is, as I read through this class full of journals around day three or four, almost every student made an observation like this. For the last three days, I have been focused on maintaining ritual purity and cleansing myself of ritual impurity. And all of a sudden, it hit me if God cares this much about ritual purity and impurity, how much more about moral purity and impurity? Wow, we serve a Holy God, right?
And so the Lord is making use of this cultural concept to teach his people the importance, not simply of ritual impurity, but of moral impurity, which I’m sure many of your listeners are already thinking of Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for missing the point. You know, you’ve cleaned the outside of the cup and dish, but the inside are full of greed and shame. You hypocrites, you should have begun with the insight. You’ve missed it in other words. Those ritual laws meant to teach you about moral issues.
Guthrie: And if we think he’s just being harsh, then let’s go back to your original statement about Leviticus, which is how relational it is. You know, why does that purity matter? So that we can be in relationship with a Holy God. We always seems like we always have to be putting Leviticus demands for holiness in that framework. All right, ritual, you said, yeah, we think of ritual…that makes me think of what is that statement. That guy got so popular for doing some kind of like rap about a while ago. You know, it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship and certainly ritual fits into that. So that’s certainly a perception we have of Leviticus. How do we overcome that challenge?
Sklar: I think one of the starting points is to begin to think about, well, what rituals do we have today and why do we use them? And once we begin to go there, we begin to realize, well, the rituals we have, they surround things like weddings and birthdays and funerals and the birth of a baby. And all of these events are surrounded by ritual in order to set the day apart or the event apart as special and as important. Once we are there, we then begin to look at ritual in a different light. We begin to see that actually the reason that we have rituals and use rituals, it’s not because we think things are stuffy or boring or rote. It’s actually the opposite. We have them because we think things are so important. We have to mark them out in some way, garner our attention, focus our energies, and spend our resources to mark this important event.
And that means I’m actually challenged now when I read Leviticus to think about, wow, if they put this much emphasis on ritual when it comes to worship, it’s because worshiping a Holy God was really important. It was worth setting aside time for, it was worth setting aside resources for, it was worth being inefficient, even in how you spent your time. Do I view God’s worship as that important?
Guthrie: Good question. We have disdain for ritual. I’m just realizing, you know, right now during the COVID-19 virus and here we are in May, and this is the time when there’s so much lamenting that they can’t have a high school graduation, or college graduations, or a wedding because we can’t gather for those things. So if we think of ourselves as, “I disapprove, I don’t like ritual.” Well, maybe we do more than we think.
Sklar: Right. Great point, Nancy.
Guthrie: All right. So then your other two challenges I think are so significant. The second to last one is that so many of the laws and the teachings in Leviticus seem unfair and unjust. The one that I’ve done a little bit of work with is that statement in Leviticus about priests. And it talks about how men with certain defects with certain physical defects cannot serve as priests. And one, I was speaking at an event just for families dealing with disability.
And so I wanted to deal with that verse because what I knew was it, it wasn’t simply that people looked at that and they saw it as unjust or unfair, but that as people who they’re in their families were dealing with disability, it hurt their feelings. It seemed like the world around them showing disdain for the person in their family who is dealing with disability. And you could think, if you read it on the surface, that so is God, “What? They’re not good enough to come into God’s presence?” I mean, that can be very good.
Sklar: Yep. Yep. So what did you do?
Guthrie: I’m asking you to answer. Well, here’s what I said about it. Well, it kind of connects with the very last one, which I think is so significant, then your fifth one was, it’s hard to fit into the larger story of the Bible because I think that’s a big conclusion I’ve come to in terms of the book of Leviticus, we simply cannot divorce it. As you said earlier, you know, from where it fits in the larger story of redemption. And I think it, and as I remember…I mean, this was like 10 years ago. Okay. But as I remember, I think what I communicated was it’s actually very good news that in this shadow of what is to come, that this is a shadow of what it means for being welcomed into God’s presence that he’s saying, he’s not going to allow any of the impact of the curse to continue in the lives of his people forever. And we would have to say, you know, that all of these kinds of things that they all reflect, in fact, so much of Leviticus, doesn’t it?
So many of the things we think are strange, we look back and we say, “Oh, this is a change from how things were in Eden.” And so he’s saying, okay, this, we can’t enter his presence with this because he’s saying, you know, these things that are impacts of the curse, I’m not gonna put up with them in my world forever. And I won’t allow them into my presence. And I think the same thing we could say about this, about disability in Leviticus, that it’s really good news because God says, “I am going to deal with this fully. And finally, this is not the way things are going to be in my world and in my people forever.” And that it’s actually a sign of his intention to redeem all things, to heal all, to renew all. So you can improve on that probably.
Sklar: Yeah, no, I think that’s really great Nancy there, you know, there are at least two different approaches…there’s, well, probably more than two, but one of them to pick up on what you were just saying, notes that the tabernacle is very clearly meant to make people think back to Eden. And so, I mean, you see this in different ways Eden, you entered from the East, the tabernacle you enter from the East.
In Eden, we read that in Genesis three, God walked in the garden and the Hebrew word there, hithalech, is actually not the most common way to talk about walking. So it’s like walking to and fro, and in Leviticus 26, God says, “I’m going to hithalech in your midst, in the tabernacle.” In Eden, there’s gold, in the tabernacle, there’s gold. In Eden, you have angels guarding the way to the Tree of Life. In the tabernacle, you have angels guarding the way into the Holy of Holies. So there’s this clear enrich symbolism between the tabernacle in Eden. And so one line of explanation goes along the lines that you are just there. And that is so what you’re to see there is to reflect the perfection that was seen in Eden as well.
And so that’s one way of answering the question. And in that regard, it does become this and look at where the world is going to this in the redemption that comes in and through Christ.
The second explanation is that the priests who are the Lord’s representatives are not to have any physical blemishes in order to symbolize the Lord’s completeness and perfection. And so that’s another reason or possible reason. And these two could be working together.
I mean, we have to acknowledge where the text doesn’t explicitly say. So we’re trying to fill in the gaps here from the rest of the picture of the Bible. But there’s a third point that’s really important to make. And that is, as you read through that chapter, it’s limited because chapter 21, one thing becomes very clear and that is that these sons of Aaron who are forbidden from entering into service in the tabernacle because of a physical blemish, they still get to eat the priest’s food. And that’s significant because this food comes from the Lord’s altar. This is the king sharing food with his servants. And if the king shares his food with you, as David did for Mephibosheth, who also had a physical disability, it means that you are valued and under the care of the king and you dare not speak or belittle against anyone who eats at the king’s table. And so in the ancient world for these priests to still have this food made crystal clear to the rest of the nation, this is the kings honored servant. You dare not speak against him.
Guthrie: That’s beautiful. Well, we’ve used up most of our time talking about the challenges and left very little time for talking about the opportunities of Leviticus. So as I think about some of the parts of Leviticus, I think about that first part being so much about the sacrifices that we’ve got a section about the priest, and we’ve got this whole section about what is clean and unclean. I mean, that there’s incredible opportunity in Leviticus 16 with the day of the atonement. So many things, but maybe you can pick out two, three, four opportunities. Like when you’re getting ready to teach Leviticus, you’re like, I get to talk about this today from this beautiful rich book. What are some of those things that come to mind for you?
Sklar: Well, I’ll answer the question in two different ways. If I’m just thinking of a, I’ve got one session on Leviticus, I wanna help people understand it value at what kinds of things so I wanna get across, well, then I really want to get across to people the importance of understanding that law is a reflection of the values of the law giver and to try and illustrate that in different ways. Because if I can do that, I mean, most of the book is law. I can really help people to begin to think about Leviticus in a whole new way and see law as a window into God’s heart instead of just some rule that’s there to follow.
If I’m not doing it all at once and I’m thinking about a larger series, then I’m beginning to think about a teaching series that focused on Jesus in Leviticus. So the burnt offering, perfect place to talk about Jesus atoning sacrifice. The fellowship offering, perfect place to talk about celebrating Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Ordination of the priests for public worship, perfect opportunity to talk about Jesus as our great high priest. So you could take back kind of approach. You could look at the gospel in Leviticus, begin with holiness God as a Holy God, then to our sin, which of course speaks to our need of forgiveness and of repentance and atonement and finally, of mission.
I mean, all of these themes are very clearly laid out in Leviticus, even things on ethics that we don’t normally think of when we come to Leviticus. Leviticus 9 is a great place to talk about blessing those who treat us poorly. Leviticus 10 is a great place to talk about leading others into sin. Leviticus 18 is a great place to talk about protecting the sexually vulnerable in society. Well, and I just wanna encourage whoever might be listening, that you really can teach the book of Leviticus.
Although at first glance it seems so strange, my experience has been that that almost gives an advantage because people’s expectations are so low that as you’re coming to the book, just a few key principles that help you understand the book better and then enable you to help others understand the book better, I find that people are just hungry for it. And when they actually see, “Oh, there’s something in here for me as a 21st century Christian,” it’s an incredible blessing to them.
Guthrie: I think that’s exactly right. And that’s a good place to bring it to a close perhaps, Dr. Sklar, but maybe you could close by you’ve already spoken a little bit directly to that person teaching, but encouraging them to, with the potential blessing of teaching this book. I wonder if you would just close by speaking directly to them once more with your personal challenge, for how to best prepare both personally in terms of heart preparation, as well as study preparation.
Sklar: So when you’re coming to Leviticus, the heart preparation is in many ways asking the Lord to help you believe there is something here for a 21st century Christian today, and that what you were going to be studying in this book is actually part of the good news of the gospel. That’s an important part of the heart preparation so that you approach it with this attitude of faith. Actually, “Lord, if the Psalmist burned with desire for this book, there must be something good here.” I believe that helped me to see what it is.
In terms of study preparation, Leviticus is a challenging book simply to study inductively because as we said, it makes you so much of cultural realities that we’re unfamiliar with. So this is where you do well to have some form of commentary by your side, that you can begin to dip into reading the introduction of one or two commentaries and excellent commentary is that of Gordon Wenham, “Book of Leviticus.” He was my doctoral supervisor. He writes very clearly a very engagingly, one commentary reviewer said, “This is the best commentary I’ve ever read on any book of the Bible.” And so having that kind of resource by your side is going to be incredibly helpful for you as you begin to work your way through this book.
If you want just a very simple overview, Fee and Stuart have written a book “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” and they have an excellent Leviticus overview. I finished my PhD and I came across that book and I thought, “Oh, let’s see what they say.” And it was only seven or eight pages long. And I learned something from it and I was almost discouraged, but they’ve done such a good job. So those are a few different places to go as you’re reading through the book.
Guthrie: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Sklar, for helping us teach the Bible. We appreciate it.
Sklar: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks, Nancy.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more about crossways gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.