How and Why to Read Leviticus in 2022
Are Christians hateful? Bigoted? Ignorant? Do they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them”? Do they stubbornly retain discredited beliefs, while the world has passed them by, entering into a more enlightened age? You may have heard these criticisms of Christianity, or others like them. You may have heard them go unanswered, or even applauded. You may have heard Christianity mocked until your face stung with shame.
We live in a world where those who reject God, his Word, and his law have convinced themselves they have the moral high ground. “Love is love,” they intone tautologically, and they insist that the argument ends there. Any attempt to distinguish love for what is good from love for what is bad is met with instant, often violent scorn. When Christians won’t get on board with the world’s vision of love, the world feels justified in viewing them with intolerant hatred.
This is especially true in politics. When Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) quoted Deuteronomy 22:4 on the House floor last year, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) responded with what he evidently thought was an epic takedown, “what any religious tradition describes as God’s will is no concern of this Congress.” In other countries, the stakes are even higher. Finnish Member of Parliament Paivi Rasanen faced criminal hate crime charges this spring for authoring a pamphlet that quoted Leviticus 18:22, “Do not lie with a man as with a woman; for it is an abomination.”
Lest we overstate the argument, some self-described Christians are not derided by the world. Just this week, The Washington Post ran a lengthy story promoting the podcast of a “former Christian parenting blogger” who left her husband to “marry” a U.S. women’s soccer star. Some politicians, religious leaders, and even some churches have managed to find favor in the eyes of the world. But what is the difference? Is there a common distinction between the Christians the world hates, and the Christians the world loves? There is, and a good place to see that distinction is in the book of Leviticus.
Introduction to Leviticus
Leviticus is structured in a chiasm (KAI-asm), with the second half of the book mirroring the first half, in reverse order (imagine the reflection of a stick if you held it at an angle into the lake). The climax of the book comes in the middle, with the laws concerning the Day of Atonement in chapter 16. Before and after this centerpiece are laws concerning ceremonial purity (chapters 11-15) and moral purity (chapters 17-20). Then come regulations about how the people can come near to God, including instructions about priests and offerings (chapters 1-10) and about various reminders to keep the people from turning away from God (chapters 21-25). Throughout the book are promises of blessing for obedience and warnings against disobedience, which the concluding chapters of the book (chapters 26-27) punctuate with an exclamation point.
Narrative is sparse in Leviticus, with only brief sections in chapters 8-10 and 24 (the children of Israel remain encamped at Mount Sinai for the entire book). This, combined with seeming repetitiveness and dullness of many long passages, cause many Christians to treat Leviticus as the dreaded doldrums of their yearly Bible reading plan. I am not immune from this flaw. (I have found that it helps to intersperse the more difficult books with New Testament readings, such as reading Leviticus and then reading Luke.) But if we wish to say, “Oh how I love your law!” (Psalms 119:97), then we must learn to love God’s law.
The point of Leviticus is holiness — God’s holiness, and the holiness of his people. If you ever find yourself at a loss to understand the relevance of something in Leviticus, consider how it relates to holiness, and the pieces will likely fall into place.
Drama of Leviticus
Despite the lack of narrative, Leviticus has its dramatic moments. When Aaron is consecrated as high priest and makes his first offerings, “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:24). The priests offered the sacrifices God prescribed, and God responded by confirming them by this sign from heaven. Furthermore, the Lord had commanded, “fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out” (Leviticus 6:13). Then the Lord himself lit the fire; this divine fire continued burning on the tabernacle’s altar as long as it was in use.
Immediately after the Lord’s stunning approval of Aaron’s offerings is a record of his stunning disapproval. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2). We don’t know anything more about this incident except that the fire was “unauthorized” — that is, an offering that the Lord had not prescribed. This incident, repeated wherever the genealogy of the priests is mentioned (Numbers 3:4, 26:61, 1 Chronicles 24:2), serves as a warning that worshipping God is serious business, and not to be done in ways the Lord has not commanded.
The Lord explained to Aaron through Moses, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). God is holy, and we cannot approach him without acknowledging his holiness.
In fact, man’s inability to approach God is an unresolved tension from Exodus that Leviticus works to resolve. The people of Israel had begged Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die,” (Exodus 20:19). But when they had erected the tabernacle, even Moses himself “was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). God’s presence is so overpowering that sinful man cannot approach him.
Leviticus in the New Testament
Twenty-first century Christians may know Leviticus poorly, but that clearly wasn’t the case in the 1st century. Leviticus is quoted left, right, and center in the New Testament. The most quoted verse is Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus calls the second greatest commandment on which “depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40). Paul and James learned from Jesus that this command sums up the whole law (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). John explicitly connects it to the greatest commandment, to love God with all your heart, “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21).
Of course, we know from experience that loving our neighbor as ourself — like loving God with all our heart — is easier said than done. At least in our hearts, we know that we are all guilty of sin against God. So, in Leviticus, God graciously provides a method or restoration. “If anyone sins unintentionally” (Leviticus 4:2), he can offer a sin offering — slaying an animal to make atonement. God explains, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” From this, the author of Hebrews concludes, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
But God knew there would be more sins committed than offerings that could be made. So, he ordained the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), a highlight of the Hebrew calendar, where the high priest would atone for the sins of all the people. This was the only day when anyone entered the most holy place — and then only the high priest. He would offer a bull as a sin offering for himself. He would then take two goats; one would be offered as a sin offering, and the other goat would carry the sins of the people away into the wilderness, where it would surely perish. In one way, this “scapegoat” points forward to Jesus, who would also bear the sins of others and die on their behalf.
In another sense, the high priest’s mediating role points to Jesus, which the author of Hebrews argues at length (throughout the whole book, but particularly chapters 8-10). However, Jesus’ offering is superior in important ways, such as offering his own blood (Hebrews 9:12) in the heavenly tabernacle (Hebrews. 9:11) as mediator of a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6). The annual repetition only serves as “a reminder of sins every year,” says Hebrews, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:3-4). But Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12).
These signs and pictures point forward to Jesus, but God also took pains to apply these signs to his people’s lives. “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26), the Lord said. Six times he says something to that effect throughout the Leviticus; the repetition indicates the importance. Peter quotes one of the occurrences in calling Christians to leave their sin, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
This raises a perplexing question: If man is so sinful that they must constantly seek forgiveness, how could they ever be holy enough to measure up to God’s standard? God’s solution cuts the Gordian knot in a way man’s pride would never allow him to invent: God makes his people holy. The Lord says, “Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 20:8) and repeats that six times too.
The subtle message of Leviticus, underneath all the laws and ceremonies, is that pleasing God isn’t about following all the rules. The rest of the Bible provides interpretation to help us. Hebrews 10 also quotes from Psalm 40:6, “In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.” In contrast to the dietary restrictions, Jesus “declared all foods clean” in Mark 7:19. Pleasing God is about a heart of love and a life of holiness. By definition, a life of holiness will be distinct from the world.
This distinction will inevitably infuriate outsiders. “They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you,” Peter explains (1 Peter 4:4). They will call Christians rigid, judgmental, or even hateful — perhaps all three. To the extent that Christians are behaving or thinking judgmentally, they should repent. But the more basic reason why God’s people act differently is because God has changed their hearts. We love and fear God more than we love and fear men, so we care more about what he says is right and wrong than what they do. We are serious about holiness because God is serious about holiness.
But holy living will not infuriate every outsider. Forsaking idolatry, fleeing sexual immorality, pursuing love and peace — holy living is inherently attractive. It provokes those who see to praise the Lord, who made such loving righteousness possible. It provokes some to repent of their sins and believe. Fundamentally, holy living glorifies God. And glorifying God is the motive of all true Christians, whatever the world may say about them.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.