They say that the state of Pennsylvania is the portion of the Appalachian Trail where boots go to die. Its particularly rocky terrain and diverse geography are torture on bodies and footwear alike. Similarly, it could be said that the book of Leviticus is the portion of Scripture where Bible reading plans go to die. Its particularly foreign terrain (all those laws!) and obscure context present a real challenge to the reader’s sense of momentum coming out of the book of Exodus. Having stated this, please… stick with it. The going won’t be easy. But hopefully, if we can gauge our expectations appropriately, we’ll be able to traverse these strange Levitical lands successfully.
Let’s establish at the outset that the cultural context of Leviticus is radically different than our own. There is little in this book to which we in twenty-first century America will connect or relate. As a result, we can expect to encounter laws and rituals in this book that are just plain weird. But the point of these oddities was to rightly orient the life and worship of Israel in order to set them apart from the surrounding nations.
A former professor of mine (who happens to be a Leviticus scholar) used to regularly proclaim while teaching, “Context is king!” This is especially true when reading Leviticus. We must remember that what we encounter in this book is part of a much larger story, one rooted in the Exodus. Author Collin Hansen summarized the backdrop of Exodus this way:
In Exodus the Lord delivers his people from slavery with mighty signs and wonders (1-15) and brings them to Sinai (16-19), telling them there that they are to be His “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” He confirms their kingdom status by entering into a covenant with them as their king and giving them kingdom laws to follow (20-24). But that is not all! He is going to be a king who is near to them, dwelling in their very midst, and this is why He proceeds to give them directions for His tabernacle, His earthly palace (25-31, 35-40). And all of this leads to a very burning question if you’re an Israelite: How in the world can the holy and pure King of the universe dwell among His sinful and impure people?
The answer to that question is found in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus taught the Israelites how to live in relationship with God and how to function within the covenant boundaries He established through Moses. The book unveiled the intricate sacrificial system that ordered their worship. It outlined the order of priests who interceded for them. It taught them how to deal with impurity, what ceremonies and rituals were necessary in their annual worship cycle. In short, Leviticus taught Israel how to live like a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with us? Well, put simply, only when we begin to wrap our minds around the sacrificial system found in Leviticus will we be able to comprehend and appreciate the death of Christ which made purification for sins (Hebrews 1:3). Leviticus helps us to understand fundamental concepts like atonement, sin, impurity, sacrifice, and priesthood – all of which are essential to our understanding of the Gospel which comes to fruition in Jesus, our great High Priest.
So, as you continue with the chronological Bible reading plan through Leviticus, keep your eye on the prize – and I don’t mean simply finishing the book. I mean Jesus. Look to Him – “the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” As always, please feel free to ask questions. You can either email me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog. Thanks for reading.