Teaching Leviticus: From Text to Message

Written by G. Geoffrey Harper Reviewed By Jerry Shepherd

As with other volumes in this series, the book is aimed at helping preachers and teachers “understand the central aim of the book, in order to teach or preach it to others” (p. 9). Though not to be considered a detailed exegetical commentary, the volume admirably accomplishes its goal, and the academic proficiency that has gone into its writing is very much in view. The author, G. Geoffrey Harper, Director of Research and Lecturer in Old Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, is eminently qualified for the work, having already written several academic articles on Leviticus, as well as a major scholarly monograph on the book: I Will Walk among You: The Rhetorical Function of Allusion to Genesis 1–3 in the Book of Leviticus, BBRSup 21 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018).

While the introduction covers the same material as most commentaries would, three extended sections depart from the standard and set the stage for what will be covered in the following chapters: “Why Should We Preach and Teach and Leviticus?,” “Ideas for a Preaching or Teaching Series in Leviticus,” and “Preaching and Teaching Old Testament Law.” The “cockles” of this Old Testament heart were “strangely warmed,” as I read these sections, which affirmed that the Torah is a word from God in which we are to take delight, an “expression of grace,” and that “it is here, perhaps, that we need to let the testimony of Scripture speak on its own terms and let it challenge our (Western, Protestant) disinclination toward Old Testament law” (p. 47).

As the author makes his way through the text of Leviticus, he follows in each chapter the series’ rubrics for covering the material in five sections: (1) Introduction; (2) Listening to the text, which deals with context, structure, and exegesis; (3) From text to message, which deals with the theme and aim of the passage as well as ideas for approaching the text and drawing applications; (4) Suggestions for preaching, which usually presents one or two possible sermon outlines; and (5) Suggestions for teaching, which provides questions for understanding and applying the passage. In all this material the author demonstrates both his academic prowess and teaching ability, as well as his pastoral heart.

What can the reader expect to find when they open this volume? Here are a few of the more important items.

(1) A concern for the church. In the author’s second sentence in the book, he states, “In writing, I have been reminded of how essential Leviticus is for the church” (p. 7). This seems to go quite against the grain of much modern Christianity, which, in place of the word, “essential,” might substitute the word, “peripheral,” or “disposable,” perhaps even “repugnant.” But Harper is convinced that Leviticus, rightly understood and rightly appropriated, will be transformative for both “individuals and community in conformity with the likeness of Yahweh” (p. 26). To read and study Leviticus is an exercise in becoming holy, even as God is holy.

(2) An emphasis on God’s glory. As opposed to the romanticization of the exodus narrative in Exodus-Deuteronomy, which focuses on rescue from slavery in Egypt and settlement in the promised land, the author notes that the “highpoint” in the exodus is actually the construction of a tabernacle to house God’s glory” (p. 16), with God himself setting up his tent “right at the heart of the Israelite camp” (p, 17). Leviticus then provides the Israelites with instruction as to how to make sure that God continues to be pleased to dwell among his people, and the church can benefit from a study of these instructions as well.

(3) An appreciation for literary artistry. Perhaps one would not normally think of Leviticus as an “artful” book. But, throughout the commentary, Harper calls attention to various literary devices that are utilized by the author/editors of Leviticus: wordplays, chiasms, allusions, balancing structures, which occur often on a micro-scale, but also on a larger macro-scale. These devices are not there solely for purposes of adornment, but can also be seen as having semantic value, helping the reader better understand the actual meaning of the text.

(4) A rich biblical theology. Harper serves as a masterful guide in pointing out the biblical-theological connections between Leviticus and other portions of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. Occasionally, the author draws from other articles he has written, as well as his aforementioned monograph, to highlight the allusions Leviticus makes to other OT books, and to demonstrate how Leviticus anticipates revelation yet to come in both the Old and New Testaments.

(5) A better understanding of who Jesus is. In a day in which Jesus is increasingly misunderstood as being opposed to Old Testament institutions, the author reminds his readers that, without Leviticus and the concepts found there regarding purity, sacrifice, atonement, and the role of the priesthood, we end up with an “anemic” portrait of Christ (p. 31). We need Leviticus to understand Jesus, and we must recognize that Leviticus is, indeed, “Christian Scripture.”

There are places in the commentary where I might have a quibble or two with the author’s interpretation of particular passages, but they are indeed quibbles, and good cases have been, and can be, made by responsible exegetes for different interpretation, so I will not mention them here in this short review. This is an outstanding contribution to the understanding of Leviticus, and to the homiletical and didactic use of Leviticus in the Christian church today. I wish I could have had access to this rich material when I was writing my own commentary just a few short years ago. In my estimation, Harper’s commentary is a must-have for anyone who is going to preach or teach from the book of Leviticus.

Jerry Shepherd

Jerry Shepherd
Taylor Seminary
Edmonton, Alberta, Canad

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