Volume 46 - Issue 3

Leviticus in Light of Christ

By Roland Elliott


Christians have long wrestled with how to read the Law in light of the work of Christ. Focusing on Leviticus, this article defends a proposal for its structure and leverages this as a starting point for reading its laws in light of Christ. The resulting approach considers laws in terms of (1) the purpose of the overarching section to which they belong and (2) how they are expressed in terms of old covenant realities. This provides the tools for nuanced consideration of the degree and manner of how these laws continue to be relevant to daily life in Christ.1


1. Introduction

From the earliest times Christians have sought to understand how the work of Christ impacts the relevance of the Law to our lives. One of the most well-known attempts at making sense of this is the threefold division of the law into moral, civil, and ceremonial precepts (which itself is a development of the earlier twofold division into moral and symbolical precepts). However, when it comes to the task of actually interpreting the Old Testament Law in light of Christ’s work, these divisions are insufficient. Wright has articulated at least two reasons why this is the case:

The main attack upon it is first that it serves no exegetical purpose, in that it is impossible to make clear divisions into such categories when actually studying Old Testament legal texts, and second that it is foreign to the thought of either Old or New Testament.2

He goes on to note a potential response that the proponent of the threefold division might give: the division is meant not as an exegetical tool for reading the law, but as a hermeneutical guide for how it might apply to believers. While this may be true, it leaves us no better off in our search for a Christian approach to the Old Testament Law.

This is most keenly felt when studying the laws in Leviticus, for out of the entire Pentateuch these laws are the least anchored to a surrounding narrative that might serve as an interpretative guide. The next best thing to this would be an understanding of the structure of the book, which could help us to better appreciate the purposes and organization of the laws contained therein. Unfortunately, while there is widespread agreement among commentators that Leviticus is well-structured, the details of that structure enjoy nowhere near the same level of agreement. Indeed, with little exaggeration we could say that there are almost as many proposed structures as there are commentators.

In order to pursue this line of investigation, we will first defend a proposal for the structure of Leviticus, and then we will show how it can guide us in interpreting the precepts of the book in light of the work of Christ.

2. The Double-Chiastic Structure of Leviticus

Our approach to the structure of Leviticus will have a significant impact on the results of our investigation. Rather than approach the question with an a priori commitment to a primary theme, conceptual framework, or presumption about its form, we shall proceed inductively in three stages. First, we identify the natural sections within the text, paying attention to any explicit markers that it provides. Second, we consider how those sections might be connected with one another. And third, we attempt to explain the organization as a whole. The resulting structure can be summarized as follows:

2.1. Stage 1: Identifying Sections

There are various indicators within Leviticus for how to divide successive sections from one another.3 The clearest of these are explicit introductions and conclusions: the holy festivals are introduced by the divine address (23:1–2) and concluded by the statement of fulfillment (23:44); the Day of Atonement is introduced with a divine address to Moses to instruct Aaron (16:1–3) and concluded with the calendrical comment and statement of fulfillment (16:34); the Sabbath and Jubilee year regulations together with the blessings and curses (chs. 25–26) are all part of a single divine speech which is introduced and concluded with reference to Mount Sinai (25:1 and 26:46);4 and the regulations on the redemption of vowed things (ch. 27) are introduced with a divine address (27:1–2) and concluded with a summary statement (27:34).5

The laws on offerings (chs. 1–7) are introduced with a reference to God speaking to Moses from the tent of meeting (1:1) and concluded with a summary of the offerings that have been covered (7:37–38). Sklar argues that this conclusion is only for the priestly regulations (6:8–7:36), since (1) the word used for “law” only appears in these regulations and (2) the order of the offerings (except for the ordination offering) corresponds to the order given in the priestly regulations rather than the regulations for the laity (1:1–6:7).6 But the lack of any identifiable conclusion prior to this7 and the reference to the people of Israel in 7:38 rather than only the priests8 suggest that we should take the conclusion to cover all of the regulations in chapters 1–7.

The divine addresses are themselves important organizational elements in Leviticus, even when explicit conclusions are not present. They may be grouped in terms of who is addressed and then by common subject matter. Only in chapters 11–15 are Moses and Aaron addressed together (11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1),9 and the laws in this section all deal with ritual purity. Chapters 17–22 can be divided using the same criteria. Chapter 17 is an address for Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel (17:1–2) regarding the place of sacrifice and prohibition of eating blood. Chapters 18–20 then switch to contiguous addresses for the people of Israel (18:1–2; 19:1–2; 20:1–2) regarding how they are to live with God and avoid the sinful practices of the nations. This grouping is further confirmed by how chapters 18 and 20 bracket chapter 19 with their common subject matter. Following this, 21:1–22:16 is made up of consecutive addresses to Aaron and his sons (21:1, 16–17; 22:1–2) regarding the standards they must uphold as Israel’s priests. Finally, 22:17–33 are contiguous addresses for Aaron and his sons and the people of Israel (22:17–18) regarding the animals they bring for offerings, that they do not profane God’s name in bringing the wrong ones (22:31).10

The remaining two sections do not need to be divided up further: chapters 8–10 make up a single narrative of the ordination of the priesthood and their first offerings, and chapter 24 will be examined in more detail below. Thus, overall there are twelve sections:

  1. Laws on offerings for laity and priests (chs. 1–7)
  2. Institution of the priesthood (chs. 8–10)
  3. Ritual purity laws (chs. 11–15)
  4. The Day of Atonement (ch. 16)
  5. Laws about the proper place for sacrifice and the proper use of blood (ch. 17)
  6. Laws about living with God and not like the other nations (chs. 18–20)
  7. Laws about priestly standards (21:1–22:16)
  8. Laws about standards of offerings for both priests and laity (22:17–33)
  9. Holy festivals to God (ch. 23)
  10. Covenant offerings and the case of the blasphemer (ch. 24)
  11. Sabbath and Jubilee year regulations, with corresponding blessings and curses (ch. 25–26)
  12. Laws on the redemption of things vowed to God (ch. 27)

2.2. Stage 2: Connecting Sections

Having delineated the sections of Leviticus, the second stage of our approach is to explain how they relate to one another. Recognizing the centrality of the Day of Atonement, Morales and others have suggested that the entire book is structured as a chiasm, with chapter 16 (or chs. 16–17) acting as the fulcrum between the two halves of the book.11 Unfortunately, this leads to grouping sections too coarsely in order to make them fit the structure. For example, Morales groups chapters 23–27 and pairs them with chapters 1–7, but we have already seen that markers in the text suggest that chapters 23–27 should be understood as four distinct sections rather than one. Nevertheless, the importance of atonement and the possibility of chiastic patterns should not be dismissed.

If we consider the sections we have already identified, what we find is that the book is structured as a pair of chiasms rather than one, the first spanning sections 1–8 (chs. 1–22) and the second spanning sections 9–12 (chs. 23–27). Starting with the first chiasm, we can see that both sections 1 and 8 deal with offerings and are addressed to both priests and laity, while both sections 2 and 7 deal with the priesthood itself. Continuing this pattern, both sections 3 and 6 deal with the purity of Israel. Although section 6 contains the famous command to be holy in light of God’s holiness (19:1–4; 20:26), we classify this section as purity laws because the primary way Israel remains holy through these laws is by maintaining their cleanness: God separates Israel from the nations to live in his holy presence, to which the proper response is not defiling or profaning anything with the uncleanness of the nations.

The final pair in this first chiasm are sections 4 and 5, which both deal with atonement and sacrifice. As the central pair of this chiasm, it is also noteworthy that these sections exhibit a parallel structure, focusing first on the place of sacrifice, and second on the proper use of blood for atonement. We may explain their relation as follows: section 4 explains the proper way of approaching God (16:1–5) and using blood for atonement (16:6–34) and section 5 explains that these are the only appropriate ways to do so (17:1–9 and 17:10–16 respectively).

While not as clear, sections 9–12 also form a chiasm. That sections 9 and 12 are connected to one another in some way is suggested by the high frequency of the phrase “to the Lord” in these sections (19 times in section 9, 16 times in section 12) compared to the much lower frequency in the other two sections (3 times in total). Upon reflection, it is unsurprising that this phrase would feature so prominently in these outer sections, since they both focus on giving to God what in some sense first belongs to the people—their time, their property, their servants, or even themselves in service at the tabernacle.

Sections 10 and 11 are similarly related to one another, although this is made more difficult to see by the lack of clarity about the meaning of section 10 (ch. 24). Nevertheless, their relation to each other can be seen once we recognize their thematic and structural unity with one another, and their thematic contrast with the outer two sections of this chiasm.

Starting with the thematic point first, we have said that both sections 9 and 12 deal with things which first belong to people that they can give to God. By contrast, both sections 10 and 11 deal with things that God has given to his people and that they are to revere—his presence, his name, his land, and their freedom as his servants.

Structurally, we see something similar to what we saw in the first chiasm, where each section is made up of subsections that parallel each other. Just as the lamps are arranged each day and the bread is prepared every seven iterations of this (24:1–9), so too is the Sabbath year to be observed every seven years and the Jubilee every seven iterations of this (ch. 25). And just as the divine name, which is a source of blessing if revered (Ex 20:24) but a cause for punishment if misused (Lev 24:10–23), so too is the land a source of blessing if revered but a cause for national punishment if misused (ch. 26).12

2.3. Stage 3: Overall Organization

We turn now to the final stage of our approach to the structure of Leviticus, and note the high-level relationships that exist between the sections and parts of the book. A number of commentators have noted that there is a thematic shift around chapter 16. Hartley13 and Wenham14 characterize it as a shift from cultic or priestly operation to national holiness, while Hill15 and Morales16 characterize it as a shift from approaching God to living in his presence. The latter characterization is superior in that it provides some reason for the progression: once Israel is able to approach God properly they can begin to safely live in his presence. Each of these commentators see this shift covering the whole (or a large part of) Leviticus, but in our case it is restricted to the first chiasm. Thus, we can say that this first chiasm is concerned with “laws of presence,” made up of “laws of approach” focused on how to properly approach God in sections 1–4 (chs. 1–16) and “laws of life” focused on how to live in his presence in sections 5–9 (chs. 17–22).

Building upon this, the second chiasm instructs Israel in how to specially honor God, which is a unique privilege and responsibility they have in virtue of this life with him that he has made possible. This is not merely about living appropriately in his presence—something already covered in the laws of life—but about how they are to use their privileged position to honor God with what is theirs (sections 9 and 12) and what he has given them (sections 10 and 11). Accordingly, we shall classify this second chiasm as the “laws of honor.” As with the laws of presence, we can also detect a shift in focus between the first and second half of these laws. Sections 9 and 10 focus on Israel honoring God with their being, by humbling themselves before their savior and provider, regularly giving up time to dedicate special days and feasts to him, and revering his name above all else. Sections 11 and 12, on the other hand, focus on Israel honoring God with their belongings, by recognizing that these ultimately belong to God and that they are blessings from him.17

In order to better understand the relationship between these two chiasms we can liken the nation as a whole to an individual priest. A priest is made holy by being set apart for service in the tabernacle, and he maintains his holiness by upholding his cleanness according to the priestly laws of life in section 7 (Lev 21:1–22:16). But it is not enough for a priest to merely maintain his holy status—he also needs to live it out by doing what such a status enables him to do, namely perform his priestly duties.18 On the other side of this “priestly analogy,” the nation of Israel is made holy by God choosing them as his people and redeeming them from Egypt (Exod 19:1–6), establishing his presence among them (Exod 40:34–38), and enabling him to access him through the first half of the laws of approach. The laws of life show Israel how to maintain this holy status, and the laws of honor show them how to live it out.

This proposal has a number of features that commend it for serious consideration independent of our aims here: it proceeds from clear organizational indicators within the text itself, and makes no upfront assumption about how many parts it should have; it does justice to the well-recognized high-level progression from laws about approaching God to laws about living with him; it accounts for every section in the book, without relegating chapter 27 (section 12) to an appendix; and it provides an explanation for the role of chapter 24 (section 10) within Leviticus.

3. Christ’s Fulfillment of Leviticus

Having defended the double-chiastic structure of Leviticus, we now turn to the task of interpreting its laws in light of the work of Christ. Of course, we must say that Christ fulfills the law (Matt 5:17), but the question before us is how this fulfillment works for the laws we find in Leviticus. Why is it that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves still holds importance (Gal 5:13–14; cf. Lev 19:18), but other purity laws like those involving clean and unclean animals have only symbolic significance to believers (Acts 10:13–15, 28; cf. Lev 11)? Why is it that Paul can repeat the reasoning used in the Jubilee year regulations when talking about slaves and masters (Eph 6:9; cf. Lev 25:42–43), but say that we are no longer bound to revere certain days as special (Col 2:16; cf. Lev 23)? To be clear, our question is not how we can know which laws still hold some relevance—this can largely be determined by study of the New Testament—but rather to understand why the laws of Leviticus were influenced as they were by the work of Christ. In other words, we wish to glimpse what the New Testament authors saw when they looked at Leviticus in light of Christ.

As Kloosterman notes, our thinking about fulfillment has been unhelpfully shaped by the aims of the traditional threefold division of the law: this division encourages us to think about fulfillment in terms of continuity and discontinuity, when instead we should think about it in terms of organic growth and maturity brought about by Christ.19 Similarly, Sklar notes, “If what we see in the Old Testament is an acorn, what we see in Jesus is a magnificent oak.”20 Essentially, Christ fulfills the law by “fully filling it out,” that is, by encapsulating in himself the true substance of which the law is a mere shadow. This does not mean that all laws are equally applicable today as they were when given to Israel at Sinai, but rather that our question needs to change from “does this law continue to apply today?” into “how is the true substance of this law filled out in Christ, and how should we therefore think about it in light of his work?” With this question in hand, we will look at how we can proceed from the structure of Leviticus as a starting point in coming to an answer.

3.1. The Laws of Presence

The laws of presence (Lev 1–22) cover four areas of the Levitical system that make living in God’s presence possible: offerings, priests, purity, and atonement. As we saw above, each of these areas corresponds to a pair of sections within the first chiasm of Leviticus, one within the laws of approach and one within the laws of life.

Starting with the purity laws, their aim is to regulate the daily lives of the people of Israel, teaching them to separate the clean from the unclean in order to avoid profaning God’s holiness. We have mentioned that there is a shift in focus between the two halves of the first chiasm—from a focus on approaching God to a focus on living in his presence—and this shift is clearly visible in the purity laws. The purity laws of approach (Lev 11–15) are concerned with the state of the people as they approach God at the tabernacle. As Morales notes, this focus is clear from the concern for separating uncleanness from the tent of meeting (12:4, 15:31) and the bookending of the section with references to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, who died for improperly approaching the tent of meeting (10:1–3; 16:1–2).21 By contrast, the purity laws of life (Lev 18–20) are concerned with the state of the people as they live with God and his people. This difference is evident in how uncleanness is treated: in the first set of laws people need only cleanse themselves before approaching the tabernacle, whereas in the second if someone becomes unclean they are to be cut off from the people.22

This distinction between the purity laws of approach and the purity laws of life provides a natural account of why Christ brought an end to the former (Acts 10:13–15, 28; Rom 14:14) but the latter are repurposed as guides for believers (Gal 5:13–14; Rom 13:9–10). Because of Christ, the temple is no longer a building external to God’s people, but is rather constituted by God’s people through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). Since the laws of approach presuppose the need to approach a temple (or tabernacle) outside of ourselves, and since there is no longer any such temple, it follows that these laws can no longer serve as a guide for our daily lives like they did for Israel. By contrast, Christ did not stop us from living with God—quite the opposite! Because of Christ, God now indwells believers by his Holy Spirit, and since this is the same God who gave the laws of life, we can still look to them for wisdom in this life we have with him.

Something similar can be said for the other laws of approach and laws of life, since they share the same purpose with the respective purity laws. However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the laws of life simply continue in Christ whereas the laws of approach simply do not.

Regarding the laws of life, although their purpose remains, they were originally expressed in terms of old covenant realities, and therefore need to be interpreted in light of how those realities have changed. Among the laws of life, the purity laws are unique in how independent they are of these old covenant realities: they focus primarily on the daily lives of God’s people rather than the particular Levitical expressions of atonement, the priesthood, or offerings. Accordingly, when we apply Leviticus to life in Christ, we find that the purity laws of life are primarily influenced by the differences in daily life while the other laws are often radically altered by Christ’s fulfillment of the Levitical system. This is why Paul can quote the command to love our neighbor as ourselves without any modification (Gal 5:13–14; Rom 13:8–10), but must recontextualize the notion of sacrifice to a covenant where animal sacrifices are no longer required (Rom 12:1). The latter captures the purpose of the sacrificial laws of life, but within a radically different expression.

Regarding the laws of approach, although their purpose is completed in Christ, it does not follow that they have no relevance today whatsoever. Rather, they continue to have typological relevance, in that they help us to understand and appreciate the work of Christ. For example, these laws express the incompatibility of uncleanness with God’s holiness—which is still true—and the need for atonement in order to approach him—which is now provided by Christ.

When considering each of the areas covered by the laws of presence (offerings, priests, purity, atonement), we must avoid the temptation to abstract them from their place within Leviticus. Each area appears on both sides of the chiasm for the laws of presence, indicating that they each serve multiple purposes; and it is in reference to these purposes that we approach the question of relevance. So, it is not the offerings as such that are only typologically relevant, but the offerings as a means of approaching God. The offerings as a part of life with God, on the other hand, find a place in the new covenant as something relevant to our daily lives, albeit with an expression that has been radically altered: we now offer sacrifices of praise (Heb 13:15), spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5), and our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). We have seen something similar for the purity laws, and something similar can also be said for atonement and the priesthood.

3.2. The Laws of Honor

Having identified the laws of honor (chs. 23–27) as a unit within the structure of Leviticus, we have been able to recognize their role in the theology of the book. The laws of approach play a role in Israel becoming holy through God’s presence among them, the laws of life outline their responsibility in maintaining this holy status, and the laws of honor show them how to live out this holy status, calling them to honor God with what is theirs and what God has given them.

Now, the way a holy status is lived out is always connected to the way it is established, as we see with the priest who lives out his holiness by performing the very duties he was set apart to do. In Israel’s case, they live out their holiness by living out their new identity as God’s redeemed people, called to live with him in the promised land. This purpose ties the laws of honor together, and gives us a path forward in reading them in light of Christ.

Similar to Israel, believers today are redeemed to belong to God and are called therefore to honor him above all else. As Paul urges the Corinthians, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19–20).23 Later, in the same letter, he exhorts them, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31). Unlike Israel, however, Christ did not merely redeem us from a foreign nation but from sin itself, and he did not merely secure a life with God in a temple external to ourselves but a life with God who indwells us by his Holy Spirit. So, the redemption and life we find in Christ are fully filled out versions of the redemption and life originally granted to Israel.

The consequence of this is that when it comes to their fulfillment in Christ, the laws of honor are similar to the laws of life: their purpose remains applicable after Christ, but their expression in terms of old covenant realities needs to be reckoned with when working out that application. Specifically, the laws of honor more closely resemble the non-purity laws of life, since Christ has filled out the redemption and life of God’s people, and thereby radically altered the way we are to live out that redeemed life in honor of God. This continued purpose with altered expression explains why the New Testament authors saw fit to repurpose the laws of honor without simply repeating them.

Consider, for instance, the Levitical calendar (Lev 23). The weekly Sabbath was a way for Israel to remember and celebrate God’s sanctification of them by his life with them in the temple in the promised land.24 Similarly, the annual festivals were ways for Israel to remember and celebrate God’s redemption of them and provision for them in the land he was to give them. The purpose of such laws is clearly still applicable today: it is right and fitting to celebrate God’s sanctification and redemption of us, and remember our dependence upon him. But the particular expression of these laws in Leviticus celebrates a specific history that is no longer shared by all of God’s people: we are not sanctified by his presence in a temple, we are not redeemed from a foreign nation, and he does not provide for us in a particular land he promised our forefathers. It is in virtue of this continued purpose with altered expression that Paul can assure us that we are not bound to celebrate certain days as special (Col 2:16–17) and yet call us to uphold the Lord’s supper until he returns (1 Cor 11:26).

Consider also the laws of redemption for the Jubilee year (Lev 25:8–55). These laws begin and end with the rationale that Israel and the land ultimately belong to God their redeemer and therefore it is wrong for Israelites to withhold redemption from one another (25:23, 55). Again, the purpose of such laws remains relevant today: we are to live in light of the fact that all of creation belongs to God, and that as his redeemed people we are all his servants. Unlike with Israel, however, our redemption in Christ does not bring with it special privileges to any promised land in the present.25 Thus, Paul does not call Christians to uphold the Sabbath or Jubilee years, but he does call masters to treat their slaves well since both serve the same Lord (Eph 6:9). And just as God’s redemption of the Israelites was supposed to motivate them to show mercy to their poor kinsmen (Lev 25:35–38),26 so too the mercy and forgiveness shown by God to us in Christ is supposed to motivate us to show mercy and forgiveness to others (Luke 6:32–36; Col 3:12–13).

3.3. The Laws Outside of Leviticus

Before we conclude, let us comment on how what we have said relates to the broader task of reading the laws of the Pentateuch in light of Christ. In Leviticus two things coincide that need not coincide in general, namely (1) the theological purpose of a passage containing laws and (2) the purpose of those laws within the old covenant. These happen to coincide in Leviticus because the theology of the book is centered around the Levitical system and expressed through laws that define that system. But these need not coincide in general, and we must show care when applying lessons learned from Leviticus to other books of the Pentateuch. We may be able to categorize laws found in passages outside of Leviticus in terms of the purposes we have identified from the structure of Leviticus, but this will not necessarily help us understand the theological purpose of those passages in their contexts. And the analysis of laws in terms of purpose and expression may be of use when applied to passages containing laws, but unless the purpose of such passages requires that all their laws serve the same purpose within the old covenant, this will likely not help us to determine the relevance those laws have today.

For example, we have said that the purpose of the Sabbath is to remind Israel of God’s sanctification of them, achieved by his living among them. The coming together of God and humanity is central to the covenant with Israel as well as a major theme in the book of Exodus. Given this, it is natural to read the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1–17 as a reflection of this theme, with the Sabbath commandment (20:8–11) bridging the commandments about God (20:1–7) with the commandments about our neighbor (20:12–17). If the purpose of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is to reflect this coming together that God has achieved through Israel, then it would be natural to read this as a type of the unity between God and humanity achieved by Christ. On the other hand, with respect to each law’s purpose within the old covenant, we have already seen that the Sabbath commandment should be understood as a law of honor whereas the other nine commandments should likely be understood as laws of life. Thus, studying the Ten Commandments as a passage in the context of Exodus yields a different (though not contradictory) result to studying merely the purposes of the laws mentioned therein. The former does not help us to determine whether the Sabbath commandment is still a guide for daily life in Christ, and the latter does not help to discern the theology of the passage within the context of the book.

4. Conclusion

We have arrived, then, at a method for reading the laws of Leviticus in light of Christ. When approaching a law (or set of laws), we start by analyzing it in terms of two components: (1) the purpose of the overarching section to which it belongs, given by the structure of Leviticus, and (2) the particular way it is expressed in relation to old covenant realities. Insofar as a law serves a purpose which has been completed by Christ, we should seek to understand it typologically when reading it in light of Christ, rather than try to find some guidance in it for our daily life. In this regard, we have said that because of Christ we no longer need to approach God in a temple external to ourselves, and that therefore the purpose behind the laws of approach remains relevant only in a typological sense. We no longer need to purify ourselves before approaching God, provide atonement for ourselves or our community before enjoying fellowship with him, or rely on human priests to meditate our communion with him, because each of these roles is fulfilled by Jesus.

On the other hand, we continue to live in God’s presence and he continues to deserve honor, and so the purposes behind the laws of life and the laws of honor remain relevant to the way in which we live our daily lives in Christ. In such cases, the expression of the law (or set of laws) plays an important role in how we read it in light of Christ. This is because even if the purpose of such laws remains relevant, the particular expression they have within Leviticus may depend on things that have changed since they were originally given. Broadly speaking, there are three options here: (1) a law may be expressed in terms of old covenant realities that have been radically altered by the ushering in of the new covenant, (2) it may be expressed in terms of ancient practices or features of life that have changed with the passage of time, or (3) it may be expressed so generally as to not depend upon anything that has changed between the giving of the law and the coming of Christ. To the extent that the old covenant realities have analogues in the new covenant we may repurpose the law, with the remainder being left to a typological reading; to the extent that the ancient practices resemble modern practices we may repurpose the law; and if the law has a general expression then little, if anything, needs to be done in order to repurpose it—as in the case of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18).

It is noteworthy that these options resemble the traditional threefold division of the law into ceremonial, civil, and moral. This aligns with the suggestion we mentioned at the outset, that the threefold division can be seen as an account of the categories of application rather than as an exegetical tool. It tells us the possible outcomes of our hermeneutical method, but not how we should arrive at these outcomes. Our proposal recognizes these categories (or something resembling them), connects them to a broader hermeneutical method, and provides an exegetical framework for applying this method to Leviticus.

[1] Thanks to Dr Nathan Lovell from George Whitefield College in South Africa for his guidance and feedback on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to the anonymous referee(s) who helped improve the overall clarity of this paper.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament: A Survey of Approaches, Part I,” TynB 43 (1992): 205.

[3] For a discussion of the structural indicators within Leviticus, see John E. Hartley, Leviticus, rev. ed., WBC 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), xxx–xxxv. Hartley groups chapters 17–26 together because this section “lacks the structural signals that mark off the other divisions” (xxxiv). On the contrary, we shall see that the same kinds of indicators for divisions of sections in chapters 1–16 also serve for divisions of sections in chapters 17–26.

[4] Coherence of subject matter further confirms that chapters 25 and 26 should be grouped together: fellow Israelites were to be released in the year of Jubilee because they were God’s servants whom he brought out from slavery in Egypt (25:42; 26:13), and the curses culminate in them returning to living under foreign rule (26:33); the land, which also belongs to God (25:23), was to rest in the Sabbath and Jubilee years (25:5, 11), and would receive this rest as a consequence of Israel being excised from it by the curses (26:34–35, 43).

[5] It is unclear whether the conclusion in Leviticus 27:34 (“These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai”) is meant to refer to the entire preceding book or to these final regulations; in either case these regulations would be their own section.

[6] Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 139.

[7] Hartley effectively makes this point when he acknowledges that the conclusion belongs primarily to the priestly regulations, but that “in the setting of the book [it] concludes the entire sacrificial corpus” (Leviticus, 95).

[8] As Milgrom notes, “Lev 7:37–38 distinguish between the torah instructions imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai (chaps. 6–7) and the commands given to the Israelites (not the priests, 6:2 [Eng. 9]) concerning their sacrificial duties—an unmistakable reference to chapters 1–5, the sacrificial laws directed to the Israelites (1:2; 4:2).” Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 75, emphasis original.

[9] It should be recognized that 12:1 and 14:1 address Moses only, but (1) are interspersed with addresses to Moses and Aaron together and (2) deal with the common subject of ritual purity laws, suggesting that we should not treat them as separate.

[10] The lack of mention of whom the address is for in 22:26 implies that it is a continuation of the previous address. At first glance, 22:31–33 looks as though it is a concluding statement (like we saw for chs. 16, 23, and 25–26), but it is still part of the divine speech, and acts like more of an exhortation than a summary. Its primary function seems to be to emphasize that the commands in 22:17–30 are given so that the people of Israel would not profane God’s name, a claim that has not yet appeared in this divine speech.

[11] L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 27–30. In addition to giving his own proposal for the structure of Leviticus, Morales discusses various other proposals that also recognize the centrality of the Day of Atonement.

[12] The covenant offerings (24:1–9) and the concern for God’s name (24:10–23) are naturally grouped together, despite this not being as explicit in the text as chapters 25–26. As Morales argues, the covenant offerings celebrate God’s presence among Israel, which is likewise indicated by his giving them his name to bear, as in Exodus 20:7 (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 187–94).

[13] Hartley, Leviticus, xxxv.

[14] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 5.

[15] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 130–31. Hill sees the shift occurring between chapters 10 and 11, but we place it between chapters 16 and 17 because the concern for approaching the tabernacle continues after chapter 11, in the purity laws of chapters 11–15 (12:4, 13:46, 15:31) and the introduction of the Day of Atonement (16:1–3).

[16] Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 27–30.

[17] By “belonging” I mean something or someone over which one has control, such that giving a belonging to God involves forgoing this control for the sake of God. By contrast, giving one’s “being” involves ordering oneself towards God as someone worthy of worship.

[18] We may equally speak of “fulfilling” his holy status. For clarity, however, we use the language of “living out” in order to preserve the biblical theological sense of fulfillment, which we will discuss in the next section.

[19] Nelson D. Kloosterman, “The Old Testament, Ethics, and Preaching: Letting Confessional Light Dispel a Hermeneutical Shadow,” in Living Waters from Ancient Springs: Essays in Honor of Cornelis Van Dam, ed. Jason Van Vliet (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 189–90.

[20] Sklar, Leviticus, 73.

[21] Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 153–54.

[22] What exactly it means to be cut off from the people is unclear, but Exodus 31:14 suggests it involves the death penalty. Wenham proposes that it involves direct divine judgement (The Book of Leviticus, 125), and Milgrom proposes that it might also involve being denied life in the hereafter (Leviticus, 73).

[23] All Scripture citations in this article follow the ESV.

[24] In Exodus, the Sabbath commandment is explained both in terms of God sanctifying Israel (31:12–14) and in terms of them imitating God’s actions in the creation week (31:15–17; cf. 20:8–11). One way to explain how both can be true is that the former provides the purpose for the Sabbath, while the latter explains why the work-then-rest pattern is a fitting way to fulfill this purpose. Since God sanctifies Israel by his presence among them, Deuteronomy 5:15 should be understood as a reiteration of the purpose of the Sabbath.

[25] As Martin notes, “The New Testament presents the land promised to Abraham and his offspring as finally fulfilled in the (physical) new creation, as a result of the person and work of Christ.… In the present, believers live as exiles (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11) between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom and anticipate the final fulfilment and enjoyment of these covenant blessings in his presence in the new heaven and new earth won by the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 21–22).” Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan, NSBT 34 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 119.

[26] As Hartley notes, “This reference to the Exodus also communicates the principle that Yahweh requires and expects expressions of mercy from those to whom he has shown mercy” (Leviticus, 440).

Roland Elliott

Roland Elliott is an independent researcher based in South Africa, with interests in biblical theology and natural theology.

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