We’ve just started reading Leviticus in our 3 year journey through the Bible. That’s about a chapter a day if you’re thinking you want to jump in. OR - just join us for Leviticus. We’ve got a month and it’ll be fun!!
Here’s 5 quickish tips to help get us started and spark the imagination for reading Leviticus well. here we go!
#1: Assume their Beliefs and Practices Made a ton of Sense
This is a BIG one. If you read the post, Does the Exodus Reveal a Just God, you’ll already know about the importance of a “charitable reading” when it comes to understanding difficult literature. If the world of Leviticus doesn’t make sense to you, consider how much more unlikely it would be for the practices of Leviticus to not have made any sense to ancient Israel. So much so that they decided to write it down carefully to preserve for millennia, painstakingly copying word for word the ancient text for future generations.
For those who happen to be Christians, you also need to consider why God saw fit to make this lovely little gem of a book a part of Scripture. The reality is that Leviticus and the practices it points to made a TON of sense to ancient Israel and must be deeply formative for Christians as well. My hope is that the following Tips will shed some light on and inspire some “aha” moments in your reading of Leviticus.
#2: Read it in Light of the Surrounding Religions of Israel’s Day
Like everything else in the Bible we can’t read Leviticus in a vacuum. If we do we’ll get confused, discouraged and probably give up. The Israelites were coming out of Egypt and heading into the land of the Canaanites. These were places that practiced temple prostitution, child sacrifice, and divination (determining the will of the gods by reading the shape of animal organs) among other things. So when Leviticus gets into the nitty gritty on sexual practice, what you are allowed to sacrifice and why certain parts of the animal are to be thrown out or burned, it can often have a distinguishing purpose. God is telling Israel, “you are not to be like the Egyptians or the Canaanites or like any of the the other nations. You are to be different.”
Yahweh (the personal name of Israel’s God) does not want Israel to ever be tempted to sacrifice their children in an attempt to appease God or to think they can conjure up God by using the lobe of a goat liver (Lev. 7:4). If it seems like these things SHOULD be obvious, just remember that Israel doesn’t know God. All they know is the practices they’ve seen in Egypt and are about to see in Canaan. God is wanting to have Israel make a clean break from all the practices they’ve known. He wants this because He wants them to reflect who He is to the surrounding nations.
Finding this type of useful information about the surrounding cultures can be tricky. It turns out Leviticus is also hard for scholars to figure out (more on this below). But there are some helpful resources. I list a couple places to start at the end of this post.
#3: Read it Keeping the Rest of the Bible in Mind
We can be challenged in trying to understand ritual purity, something Leviticus seems obsessed with. But if we understand ritual purity to be pointing to something much larger we can see that it has to do with what the whole Bible is concerned with. Much like our worship practices today, Leviticus points out a practice that was meant to remind Israel of who they belonged to and how they were to live in that relationship. Purity and purification ultimately have to do with unmixed inner determination. When we get married or when we dedicate our lives to a cause, we measure ourselves by our devotion to that covenant or that cause. If it’s important there are no excuses.
The Bible resounds with our need to be completely reoriented to God and His Mission in the world. Leviticus feels so different not because it abandons this goal, but because it encapsulates this goal in concrete everyday symbolic action that made sense to an ancient culture in an ancient setting. And that setting was the promises of Genesis and the Rescuing of Exodus.
The practices of Leviticus make real and concrete the true cost and reshaping of life that’s required for being in relationship with this particular God who promises make Israel a people who reveal God to the nations. So it may be helpful to use your imagination as you read the book. What would it have been like to bring your sacrifice to the temple? What does this or that part of Leviticus remind you of from other parts of the Bible? What might the connection be? And how might it point us to Jesus who knew his Bible so well and revealed himself to somehow be the culmination of it all (Luke 24:27)?
#4: Read it like a Work of Art
According to Mary Douglas, Leviticus can’t be read like Genesis or Deuteronomy (or like a lot of any other type of literature we might read) because its composed with a different sort of logic. Its more like understanding a painting than reading a book. On a canvas, Douglas explains, a stroke of the brush takes on meaning and significance only in relation to other strokes. Leviticus works in much the same way. Meanings are determined in relationship.
We learn the significance of the consecration of the priests by comparing it to the consecration of the altar. Reading about both consecrations also reveals some significant things about the meaning and purpose of consecration itself. Douglas argues that Leviticus is designed to convey meaning this way, not through the use of explicit explanation that we are used to and find inconveniently absent in Leviticus.
In Leviticus, the structure and content is meant to teach us something about the Temple itself. It’s almost like a diorama of the Temple. Each topic Leviticus covers fills out the meaning and significance of the temple itself. Which brings us to…
#5: Read it like a map for Touring the Temple
This is another of Douglas’ insights. She argues in her book, Leviticus as Literature, that the book itself is modelled on the architecture of the temple (tabernacle). The first 17 chapters deal with matters pertaining to all of Israel. This is the largest area of the temple known as the outer court. Its where the everyday Israelite participated in worship. They could initiate a sacrifice (1-7) and they would know what might exclude them from participation (11-17).
The sanctuary is the middle part. Only priests could enter here. This part of Leviticus is shorter, corresponding to the smaller area of the sanctuary. Here we get the rules for the priesthood (21-22). We also get the calendar for worship and festivals (23), something the priests would oversee and also give context and significance for all the sacrifices listed in chapters 1-7.
Here is where we also get to the high point of Leviticus. Chapter 19. Here we are reminded of God’s high view of all life (human and animal) through reading about the prohibition against eating blood or devaluing the life of your neighbour (19:16,26). But there’s also the law of generosity bound up in chapter 19. It’s where we get the 2nd greatest commandment in all the Bible according to Jesus (19:18). It feels sort of out of place in Leviticus with all its focus on sacrifice and ritual but in reality it is the centrepiece and what all the practice points to.
And, just like traveling through the temple from the courtyard, through the sanctuary and into the Most Holy place, we come closer and closer to God’s divine presence. Chapter 26 marks the high point of this section where God’s covenant with Israel is mentioned 8 times! This is appropriate for we are now on our Temple tour standing before the Ark of the Covenant! Douglas sums up this chapter as a summary of the covenant: “strict reciprocity, honourable dealings, and simple fairness.” And it ends in grace, with God promising in verses 40-45 that he will never forget the promises He made to Israel’s forefathers.
Bonus Tip: Come Back!
Check back next week for more ideas on how to read Leviticus well!
How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, by Douglas Stuart & Gordon Fee
Leviticus. A commentary by R.K. Harrison. It’s from the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series. Comes highly recommended and isn’t too technical.
Douglas, Mary. Leviticus as Literature. Oxford University Press, 2000.