5 things I have learnt from the book of Leviticus

As a part of my Bibe reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Leviticus.

The Holiness of God

If there is one topic that the book of Leviticus addresses as much, if not more than, any other, is the topic of the holiness of God. The entire book of Leviticus revolves about reflecting the holiness of God in the holiness of His people. Of course, the holiness of the people of Israel, at best, could only ever be a mere shadow of the infinite depth and perfection of the holiness of God. Nowhere is this made more explicit than in Leviticus 11:44 where God says “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy for I am holy.” The distinctions that Israel were to make in their laws, including the distinction between clean and unclean, was to reflect the greater distinction between the holy and the common (Leviticus 10:10).

Not only is God teaching Israel moral holiness (that is, utter sinlessness) but also holiness in the sense of being ‘set apart’ from that which is common. The people were to know the difference between the ‘holy’ and the ‘common’ and this was to reflect the difference between the Being of God and the being of man. God is both holy in the sense that He is morally perfect, but He is also holy in that He is entirely distinct in His very nature, just as something ‘common’ is categorically distinct from that which is deemed ‘holy’.

The Meaning of Uncleanness

Even through only a quick flick through the book of Leviticus, it is evident that the words ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are important. To really understand quite how important they are, consider what life would be like living in ancient Israel. Under Levitical law, you could become unclean when you touched a carcass of an animal (Leviticus 11:24), contracted a skin disease (Leviticus 13:3), came into contact with house mould (Leviticus 14:36), or experience a number of different types of bodily discharge (Leviticus 15:1 – 33). Under these laws, amongst others, you can imagine the Israelite people living on a heightened awareness of ‘cleanness’. To them, being in a state of ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ was of utmost importance – especially if you were a priest.

However, it is not the case that just because a person was unclean that they had done anything sinful. For example, women after childbirth are cited as being ‘unclean’ (Leviticus 12:1-8) and yet it is abundantly clear that childbirth is no sin. The states of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ were not, primarily, moral distinctions but rather ceremonial distinctions. They were to distinguish between the ‘holy’ and the ‘common’.

Yet, while the distinction of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are not categories of sin, they are meant to reflect the pervasive nature of our sinful condition. Reading Leviticus 11-15 carefully gives a sense of how difficult, on a day – to – day, week – by – week basis, someone could live without becoming ‘unclean’. The majority of the time, this was no real issue – you would wait the appropriate time, purify yourself through washing, sometimes offer a sacrifice, and then you were clean again. The must have been a common occurance for the average Israelite. Nevertheless, this pervasiveness of ‘uncleanness’ was to remind the Israelites of the ubiquity of sin. There was absolutely no escaping it; the only hope was to be delivered from it.

Jesus helps us understand the significance of these laws. In Mark 7:14-32, Jesus teaches that it is not what goes in to a person that defiles them, but what comes out. The Israelites naturally saw defilement producing ‘uncleanness’, but Jesus said that the defilement of our thoughts, words, and of our heart is what truly makes us all ‘unclean’. With this teaching, Jesus showed how the picture of the categories of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ was intended to show the Israelites that the totality of their lives was, by nature, unclean.

With joy do we then read 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 [i.e. cleanness] of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify [i.e. make clean] our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

The Distinction of Levitical Laws

Not every law in Leviticus is equally applicable to the Church today. Whilst this might not be a controversial statement in and of itself, the reasons why certain Levitical laws are not equally applicable today certainly is. Critics of Christianity level the accusation of Christians “cherry – picking” part of the Bible that suits their personal views, and the Levitical laws are a favourite place of theirs to go. “You say that homosexual activity is an wrong [citing Leviticus 18:22] yet you wear clothes of mixed fabric [Leviticus 19:19] and eat shellfish [Leviticus 11:10] which Leviticus also condemns” is a particularly popular and well – recycled line.

This objection should be treated seriously, as there certainly are laws we strive to follow as Christians from Leviticus and others that we don’t. However, the accusation of ‘cherry – picking’ laws cannot seriously be substantiated on a fair reading of Leviticus.

Throughout the book of Leviticus, there are many laws that God gives to His people and reading law after law can often get tedious and simply algamate in our minds to one ‘block’ of laws. Yet, this is not how God intended us to understand His laws. We may skim through them in order to quickly to get to something else, but the ancient Israelite would cry “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” (Psalm 119:97). So, what would happen when we take the time to pick apart God’s law? We would find that there are clearly three separate, distinct types of laws that God has revealed in His word.

First, there are ceremonial laws. These are the laws by which God has provided a way, in the Old Testament, for Israel to deal with their moral sinfulness and ritual uncleanness by way, primarily, of sacrifices. The first 17 chapters of Leviticus instruct the Israelites on the different types of sacrifices they should offer to God and under what conditions they should offer them. There are burnt offererings (Leviticus 1), grain offerings (Leviticus 2), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:1-5), to name a few. Israelites were to be familiar with how to offer each sacrifice and when to do so. However, whilst these are clear commandments in the Scripture, these are not commands that Christians need to follow. The reason is clearly found in Hebrews 10:1 – 14:

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body have you prepared for me;

in burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
    as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’’

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

Secondly, there are the civil laws. These were laws that God gave specifically to Israel, for Israel. Often, though not always, these laws are easy to identify as they are accompanied by the phrase “speak to the people of Israel”. Examples include, but are not limited to:

Refraining from eating the fat of oxen, sheep, and goats (Leviticus 7:23)
A list of animals Israel may eat (Leviticus 11:2)
Uncleanness after giving birth (Leviticus 12:2)
Obsevering the ‘Feast of Booths’ on the 15th day of the 7th month (Leviticus 23:34)
Economical laws of Sabbath Year, Jubilee Year, propertry redemption, and welfare for the poor (Leviticus 25:1 – 55)

Such laws as these are intended to be observed by the state of Israel and enforced by its leaders. However, it is again clear in the New Testament that the Church is not a nation (Romans 9:6) as God has grafted in believers from the Gentiles to the root of the nation of true, believing Israel (Romans 11) so that Christianity is not bound by the laws or the geographical and political boundaries of any one nation.

Finally, however, there are moral laws. These are laws that God gave to Israel, but are not expired because they are based, not on Israelite ceremonial ritual or the civil state of Israel, but on God’s character: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Such laws include, but are not limited to:

Theft and deception (Leviticus 19:11)
Oppressing neighbours (Leviticus 19:13)
Idolatry (Leviticus 26:1 – 13)
Killing children – specifically as a sacrifice to Molech (Leviticus 20:1 – 5)
Committing adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexual activity (Leviticus 20:9 – 21)

Moreover, such moral laws are often repeated in the New Testament – for example Leviticus 19:2 is repeated in 1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 19:18 is repeated in Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18 is repeated in Matthew 5:43; Leviticus 20:9 – 21 is repeated in 1 Timothy 1:9 – 10. Therefore, when reading and interpreting Leviticus, the question “what type of law is this?” is vital to a correct understanding of the passage.

The civil and ceremonial laws point us to the person and work of Christ, in whom and whose work they are fulfilled, whilst the moral laws continue to reflect God’s character and are laws we should keep if we are to honour Him.

The Regulation of Worship

Leviticus contains one of the most chilling, and one of the most instructive passages in whole Bible – the historical account of the actions and demise of Nadab and Abihu. An episode so short it is easily missed, but no horrifying it cannot be ignored.

Nadab and Abihu were sons of Aaron and therefore consecrated priests in the line of Levi. Their solemn duty was to facilitate the worship of God amongst His people. However, what we see in the narrative of these two priests was an innovative approach to the worship of God. They “offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Perhaps they thought “it’s alright, nowhere has God forbidden this!” But their problem wasn’t that they offered up forbidden fire, they simply offered up fire that had not been commanded of them.

The story of Nadab and Abihu is so instructive because it shows us that we ought not worship God in a way that He has not commanded us. Their tragic tale has taught me to ask of myself: “Am I taking the worship of God for granted, and doing and offering things that He has not commanded for me?” If God has not commanded us to do something in worship for Him, perhaps it is not best to think “God hasn’t forbidden it, I can’t imagine He’d have a problem with it.”

A Sacrifice Requires Sacrifice

Levitical laws, as mentioned above, detail a number of different types of sacrifices that the Israelites were give at the tabernacle (and, later, the temple) for a number of different reasons. The main thing that these sacrificial offerings have in common is that they were provided by the one offering the sacrifice.

Of course, later in the life in the nations of Israel and Judah, a trade would develop where you could buy your animal for the sacrifice with money. Almost certainly, this is the practice that is occurring when Jesus condemns the traders for making His Father’s house into a house of trade (John 2:14 – 16), selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons – all animals used for Levitical sacrifices (c.f. Leviticus 9:4, Leviticus 1:10, Leviticus 14:30).

However, the book of Leviticus is clear that the intention of the sacrificial laws was not to ‘outsource’ your sacrifice, but to give up something you would have otherwise kept for yourself. Often, the sacrifice (be it, goat, sheep, or bull) would be ‘flawless’ or ‘unblemished’ or ‘spotless’ – a prized animal. It is clear that the sacrificial act was to be an act of not merely sacrificing materially but also sentimentally. It was supposed to make the offerer of the sacrifice feel like there are giving up something that they don’t want to part with; it was supposed to require a sacrifice in order to perform. The rest of the Old (and New) Testament bear this out: God’s purpose was to find His people sacrificing not, first and foremost, a long line of animals, but their very hearts in contrition.

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
(Psalm 51:16 – 17)

Of course, there is much more to the book of Leviticus than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Leviticus in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!