4 (MORE!) Tips for Reading Leviticus so that it Makes Sense

#6: Read it as a Microcosm for All of Life

This one picks up where Tip #5 from last week left off - ReRead it Here!

If Leviticus is a Microcosm (miniature model) of the Temple than it is a microcosm for all of life, because that’s what the temple was! It was meant to symbolize or point to the whole cosmos AND our life, work, play, and all our relationships within that cosmos. If we try and read it in a straightforward Western way we will be frustrated and confused. 

For example, Leviticus uses the idea of “covering” to build up a series of analogies for what is called “atonement”. Atonement is the idea of being made right in relationship with another. Because, in the biblical story, humanity is way out of right relationship with God this presents a problem for God being present and relating to Israel. Israel needs a “covering” to prevent the terrifyingly good justice of God from consuming them. We see this in chapters 12-16 where things that “cover” take on importance. This is worked out in the skin on the body, the garment over the skin, the house over a family and even the tabernacle over the whole people. The things that “cover” need to be taken care of as a symbol for the importance of being “covered” in the Israelites relationship with God. We can begin to see that making this into a whole way of life would leave an imprint in our understanding of God’s terrifying goodness and our need for “covering”.

So, yeah, very different than how we’re used to thinking!

#7: Remember that it is about the Right Ordering of Everyday Life

Because Leviticus is written as a microcosm of all of life and ultimate things, we can read it as a philosophy of life. Think about it. What is described in Leviticus covers the whole way of being for an ancient Israelite. All their Holidays, what they celebrated and why, their national and individual identity, how all their relationships needed to be mediated by sacrifice, how to approach God and one another - it’s all in there. 

Everything they were to do in the temple and in their own lives was meant to remind them of who God was and who they were to be. God orders and fills creation. He also rescues and redeems his people out of the slavery and bondage in Egypt. He is the one who allowed for a substitute sacrifice when His judgment passed over. 

He also is making Israel to be different from the other nations. He wants them to be different not just for difference’s sake but so that they might reveal who God is and just how different He is from the gods of the other nations. So when God sets apart animals with a “divided” hoof as “clean” and able to be used for sacrifice, it may not be arbitrary. It may be a reminder that that God of Israel is one of order, who “divides” between good/evil, right/wrong or even between chaos/order. Unlike the chaotic pantheon of the other gods of the nations. Or, when the cattle that “Bring up the cud” are singled out as acceptable, it may be a reminder of how God “brought up” the Israelites out of Egypt - a consistent word for word refrain in Exodus through Deuteronomy. If this seems like a stretch just remember how images were forbidden in Israel and how important object lessons are for Israel to remember who their God is and what He has done. In a society where images are forbidden, the visual symbols of everyday practice takes on a greater meaning. 

It can be tempting to see some of the prohibitions in Leviticus as shameful but this is nowhere explicitly stated and it is outright rejected by anthropologist Mary Douglas. She points out the example of women after childbirth being kept away from the Temple. Far from shaming the women it served a very practical function. Women needed time away, a seclusion from the normal everyday workings and expectations of normal life (we still do this). Douglas warns that we need to be careful not to project our own assumptions onto the text in this way but to give it the benefit of the doubt in understanding how it helped the Israelite society function.

#8: Read it as an Affirmation of Animal and Human Dignity

This may be a counterintuitive one for most of us. Leviticus seems very bloody. If anything isn’t it anti-animal? Why not simply admit killing is for food instead of dressing it up in religion? Well, it’s not really an either/or. Leviticus isn’t hiding the reality that animal slaughter is also for food. But it is saying it is a sacred thing. And when you really think about it, if you are going to eat meat, isn’t that better? Leviticus holds the animal in high regard. There is no room for profane slaughter in it. All animal life is sacred before Yahweh and it is a costly thing to bring it to sacrifice. Compare this thoughtful, high cost approach to today’s North American approach to animal slaughter in supplying animal meat. Most of us are blissfully unaware of the inhumane approach to animal life and death that seeks to profit in a bloodthirsty market. Mary Douglas writes, “we are indicted for practices which betray our contempt of animals: we have disqualified ourselves from moralizing on ancient animal sacrifice, and even from interpreting it.”

Leviticus has a high view of animal and human life. That human life is set above animal life is seen in the sad and tragic necessity of sacrifice but this is part of the point of Leviticus. Our relational state with God, one another and the creation is in disrepair and to get it back to where it needs to be is more costly than we know. And this is in line with the story of Genesis. God made all of life and all of life belongs to Him. God’s laws protect the blood of humans and animals alike. In this case the “unclean” animals are protected by Yahweh from slaughter. Though our temptation, again, is to see the “unclean” label in the negative.

#9: Read it as a Guide to Relationship with God, One Another and the Rest of the Nations

Leviticus has taken sacrifice and has made it a framework for a philosophy of life. This framework will guide the rest of the reading of the Bible and it will culminate in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus is described by John the Baptist as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” What animal sacrifice could not perfectly do but to which it could only point, Jesus does on the cross. This is why Leviticus is still important for us, it presents a way of understanding life and the true cost of God sticking with humanity in the midst of our rebellion and brokenness. 

This is the cost of restored relationship and according to the Gospels the cost has been paid in full. This is the main reason Leviticus is not still binding on Christians in its Temple practices. Jesus has paid the total price of all the sacrifices once and for all. Leviticus reminds us of the cost of restoring what was broken. 


RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

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.

SOURCES CITED:

Douglas, Mary. Leviticus as Literature. Oxford University Press, 2000.