Why read Leviticus?

Some parts of the Bible make great reading, they have action, drama and engaging characters.  Other parts might seem dull as dishwater or just plain weird – like Leviticus!

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, coming after Genesis and Exodus.  It’s all about how to perform sacrifices, what food is clean and unclean, how Israel’s priests should remain holy and Israel’s annual cycle of feasts.  Irrelevant to a 21st century Christian right?  Well, maybe not entirely…

Firstly, the book is positioned immediately after the end of Exodus where the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, is completed and the record says; “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle”.  So the question that Leviticus addresses is ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’  Secondly, Leviticus is very carefully structured in a symmetrical form with the focal mid-point being chapter 16, the arrangements for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  This single day in the religious calendar of the ancient Israelites is about removing the uncleanness of sin from the people and the sanctuary so that God may continue to dwell among the people.  If the book of Leviticus is providing an ancient perspective on the question ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’ then it may well have something to say to Christian communities wondering about how God might be with them.

Positioned on either side of the chapters about the Day of Atonement are chapters which describe two different kinds of impurity or uncleanness. 

11-15Ritual impurity
Associated with: contact with the dead,
unclean meat, corrupting skin diseases,
procreation and birth.
Unavoidable parts of daily life
Impurity is not permanent
The uncleanness is contagious
There are procedures to be made clean
There is no personal guilt attached to it.
18-20Moral impurity
Associated with: idolatry,
sexual immorality,
bloodshed and murder
They are actions of personal choice
They bring personal guilt
They leave a stain on the individual, the land
and the sanctuary
There is no procedure to remedy it
If practiced would lead to exile from the land
and God’s departure from his people
Source: Klawans, J., 2004. Concepts of Purity in the Bible. In A. Berlin & M. Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 2041.

This seems to highlight two perspectives.  Firstly, the ritual impurities recognise the weakness inherent in being a human being and the cycle of death and birth associated with mortality.  While it is important to recognise this inherent weakness, it does not prevent God from working with and dwelling amongst people. In fact, large parts of the Biblical narrative are about God continuing to work with flawed people!  This is just as relevant to Christian communities today – yes, we must be humble in the face of our inherent weakness but be comforted that God does not hold us guilty for being human, on the contrary, he wants to work with us.

Secondly, the moral failures described in Leviticus show that when people commit to those personal choices they alienate themselves from God and this has an affect on their community.  Leviticus shows that the Law had no remedy for these acts and this sets up a contrast between Law and Faith which is drawn out in the New Testament particularly in the book of Hebrews.  No legal procedure could deal with these moral impurities but the impact that the sacrifice of Jesus can have on a person’s conscience is able to produce the faith and change of heart that leads to full forgiveness.  This is summarised in Hebrews 9:13-14.

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

So maybe Levitius does have something to say to Christians after all!