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The Mistake of Leviticus

My daily Bible reading plan recently took me to the front door of Leviticus. Oh the venerable wasteland of Leviticus and its neighboring partner in crime Numbers. The battleground where so many great Bible reading intentions met their end. If someone is able to survive Leviticus the chronology of Numbers will surely put them out of their misery.

Now we would never say this out loud (we are all too churchy for that), but the Book of Leviticus seems to be a mistake. The Israelites, they needed Leviticus to help them get everything up-and-running after the Exodus from Egypt, but do we in the 21st century really need this book? Has it been a waste of time, energy, ink and perfectly good sheep skin to preserve this book for over 3,000 years? Is Leviticus a mistake?

As I stood staring once again at the front door of Leviticus I considered three options. Option #1: Skip it. Keep my momentum going and move on over to Deuteronomy. Option #2: Open the door and read it with my nose plugged. I know it’s going to taste bad, I’ve been here before, but I’m going to take it anyway. Option #3: Read it again and hopefully not hate it.

In the last year I’ve taught many times about the Bible. I frequently mention 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Whenever I teach through these two verses I always emphasize a few key points. First, I always lay heavy into the word “All.” I usually say something like, “All does not mean just the New Testament; All does not mean everything except the Minor Prophets; All means All. All, every bit, of Scripture is intentionally breathed out by God.” I then eventually spend time hovering around the words “competent” and “equipped.” I have some faithful jokes I usually insert at this time giving the idea that no person grows up hoping to become incompetent and ill-equipped. We all want to be competent people. In order to all be competent we need all of the Bible.

Which of the three options did I take with Leviticus? Taking a deep I need to practice what I preach sigh I chose Option #3: Read it again and hopefully not hate it.

It doesn’t take too long until I’m at those chapters. If you’ve read through Leviticus you know what I’m talking about. I refer to them as the gross chapters. Here’s a snippet:

“If there is in the skin of one’s body a boil and it heals, and in the place of the boil there comes a white swelling or a reddish-white spot, then it shall be shown to the priest. And the priest shall look, and if it appears deeper than the skin and its hair has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean. It is a case of leprous disease that has broken out in the boil. But if the priest examines it and there is no white hair in it and it is not deeper than the skin, but has faded, then the priest shall shut him up seven days. And if it spreads in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a disease. But if the spot remains in one place and does not spread, it is a scar of the boil, and the priest shall pronounce him clean.” – Leviticus 13:18-23

Can you imagine reading this jewel of Scripture to your little kids before sending them off to bed? Have some sweet dreams kiddos! If this section didn’t give your kids a nightmare you could always slide over to chapter 15. Yes, this is the only chapter in the Bible entirely devoted to bodily discharges.

Something happened, however, in the middle of these “gross chapters.” I decided to turn to a commentary with the hope of a fresh perspective. My Bible study was going no where fast. My Option #3 was quickly turning into Option #2: Read it with my nose plugged. The commentator brought two things to my attention leading me to permanently change my view of Leviticus.

It has now become to me a beloved book. I’m actually looking forward to read it again. The book has become similar to a movie that messes with your mind causing you to continue thinking about long after the moment has passed. I need to spend a little bit of time, however, unpacking this before you think I’m crazy. Here are a couple things I learned from the commentator.

First,the Israelites would have their children memorize Leviticus before any other Old Testament book. What?! You gotta be kidding me. Second, God speaks the most in Leviticus. Nearly the entire book is a direct quotation from God. Frequently a chapter will begin, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” Those gross chapters where boils, discharges, puss and hair are the center of attention, God is the one doing the talking. As I pondered these two realities I remembered a gross moment in my life.

More than 10 years ago I was a single seminary student. I lived in a men’s dorm full of guys in their twenties and thirties. One day a guy named Chris knocked on my door. I won’t mention his last name since he’s at the center of one of the gross moments of my life. (Chris, you owe me one brother). Chris had this pained expression on his face. I could tell something was bothering him. Maybe he saw me as a godly counselor and wanted me to share all my wisdom.

Chris went on to tell me he really needed my help. What was wrong? I want to help. Slowly, he explained this gigantic pimple he had in the dead center of his back. It was really starting to hurt. He had tried to reach it but couldn’t. He asked if I could do him a favor and pop it for him. Before I could respond his shirt was off and this nasty pimple on his hairy back was displayed before me in all its glory. My response, “Chris, that is absolutely nasty. I think I’m going to throw up. There’s no way I’m coming near that cesspool. It’ll go away eventually!” He walked out of the room and I went back to learning about God and preparing myself for ministry.

All of us guys ate breakfast, lunch and supper together. That evening I was digging into my meal when my good friend Michael sat down to eat. “Tim”, he said, “you can’t believe what Chris asked me to do.” Before he explained it I quickly asked him, “You didn’t do it did you???” His response, “Yes, of course I did it, Chris was in agony. Dude, it was so gross.”

You see, in Genesis and Exodus we predominately encounter a transcendent God. This all-powerful majestic God who is able to create, judge, destroy, redeem and save at a macro level. As I chewed on the book of Leviticus tears flooded my eyes. I felt sorrow for thinking, never saying it, but thinking Leviticus is a mistake.

Yes, our God is transcendent. He exists and operates outside of our little world. Our God, fortunately, is also immanent. He is near. How near? When guys like me think it’s too gross to pop the zit in the middle of a hairy man’s back, God walks into the room while I’m walking out. He has no issues helping the grossness of humanity. This is God, let that reality move into your neighborhood.

The mistake of Leviticus is ever thinking it to be a mistake. God could have easily prevented His people from having boils, infected hairs and gross bodily discharges. In Deuteronomy 29:5 we are told, “During the forty years I led you through the desert, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.

For 40 years God supernaturally kept the clothes and shoes of the Israelites from wearing out. He easily could have kept their bodies from wearing out as well. Save the ink used to write Leviticus. Save the tedious and expensive process of preserving this book for 3,000 years and counting. Supernaturally keep the people from getting puss-filled wounds and Christians for centuries will rise up and thank you for saving us all the gross details.

God, instead, decided to speak most through this book. In Leviticus we first see an immanent God who is very comfortable discussing and helping the grossest moments of humanity. In Leviticus we start to see early ripples of the Gospel. When I look intently at the mirror I realize I am just as gross as my friend Chris. I am just as gross as an Israelite with a boil that has led to a reddish-white spot with white infected hairs inside. When everyone is disgusted and walking out of the room of my life, my God is walking in. He is ready to do business. For 3,000 years He’s had no problem taking care of nasty gross stuff. The Israelites didn’t hide their grossness from the priests. They are repeatedly instructed in Leviticus to show it to the priest. Uncover it, bring it to the light. Why would we want to hide anything from our High Priest?

The second person of the Holy Trinity did the most gross thing in history; He became a man. As the only God-man He took on and paid for the sins of humanity. The Son of God became the Son of Man so the sons of man can become sons of God.

Let’s stop skipping over Leviticus. Let’s stop ridiculing the book. It gives us incredible insight into our God who is near and saves. Through it we should tear down the white washed fences of our life and worship our God through every gross verse because without this immanent God we have no hope.

32 Responses to “The Mistake of Leviticus”

  1. I think God blessed me with a unique introduction to Leviticus. When I was a young Christian, I resolved to read through the Bible. When I got to Leviticus, I’d not had my impressions tainted by past readings or others’ bad impressions. I read it through the eyes of a 13 year old boy. Somehow, I think that makes more sense. Boys find fire, boils, and gangrenous what-nots fascinating. As a result, I actually found the book fascinating. It helped me understand Matthew better, and several years later it made my understanding of Hebrews come alive (without Leviticus, Hebrews is meaningless).

    In seminary, one of the most popular classes was “The Sacrificial System” by Gerald Paden. He brought it to life, and the spiritual realities fulfilled in Christ were brought to our doorstep. Now I urge people to give it another chance. Without understanding the depth of the debt we owe, so vibrantly seen in Leviticus, the depth of grace in Christ is a bit harder to grasp.

  2. david carlson July 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    You can’t understand the New Testament if you haven’t read Leviticus. It is a great book.

  3. Robert Eaglestone July 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Option #4. As #3, but with the additional sanity-preserving use of an occasional “Skip a bit, brother”.

  4. Depends on how you read it.
    Best Bible barbecue recipes? Leviticus has it.
    Medical advice when you have no one else to ask? Leviticus has it.

    I was raised to “spiritualize” a lot of what was in the book and missed out on how insatiably practical the book is. It wasn’t until I was in Bible college that I learned from some medical students how important the book was to a pre-germ theory society. The diagnostic information still remains valid.

  5. First, I always lay heavy into the word “All.” All means All. All, every bit…”

    Does this reasoning hold true for 1 Timothy 2:4 as well, or only for 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ?

  6. Beth Johnston July 25, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    I’m in Leviticus right now too and agree it’s a struggle. Your comments are helpful – but they don’t help me understand 21: 16-23. Would love some insight or resources to understand this better. Anyone?

  7. Hello, and greetings in the name of YAHVAH. Well, you should just read it with the understanding that It was placed as the 3rd book of the bible to show you something important. Go and ask a Jewish man why it is the third book. Anyway, the book of Leviticus is about the priests, and all should remember the feasts are placed in it as well to show cycles and pattern. Just look at how the are mentioned and you will see their order. One thing millions of people do not see is the last feast. The feast of lights were set before our eyes LONG before the revolt of the Jews in the book of Maccabees. In chapter 23 the feasts are mentioned. They are in order according to the calender year. Then you go to the 24th chapter and you see that the priests are caring for the lamps. This is directly after the other feasts and in the correct order. I failed to see that myself because I was just a “regular”Christian, much like yourself. Now I see things in our scriptures that Have been hid from me in the past. I studied under a Messianic Jew for 5 years. Thank you for letting me post this and I hope YAHVAH blesses you and your ministry with much love and understanding…take care, and NEVER skip anything in the Bible again. It was placed there for a reason, find out that reason. :)

  8. I’ve followed and enjoyed Credo’s stuff for awhile, but this is the first time I’m commenting. Your no-doubt intentional double-entendre in the title worked — Kudos. The title of this post made me nervous because I’ve discovered for myself just how much the character of God is revealed in books like Leviticus – purity, holiness, justice, and like you said – immanence. So much so, that I cringe a little every time someone uses it as joke, as if it’s somehow less inspired. I’m thankful that you didn’t do that — that you were honest about your negative expectations (that so many of us have) but concluded that the whole word of God is in fact profitable. Leviticus 19 alone would be a masterpiece. Great post.

  9. I only comment, because I accidently “liked” the last comment. When I was trying to “dislike” it. Of course this means 1 Tim 2:4 also. But I know you, Lucian, were trying to stir up an argument when there is none to stir up. “All” is always defined in context. The quicker we all learn this principle the better off we will be. But for now let’s stick to the discussion on Leviticus.

    I love the book. First half deals with sacrifice to remove sin. Second half about growing holy and becoming sanctified. Separated by a chapter dealing with the necessity of a blood sacrifice. What a picture of the salvation experience — The removal of sin and the sanctification of the believer both hinging upon “the blood.” Good stuff!

  10. Great article – I heard someone say that when God delivers us out of our pit, he gets in the pit and pushes us out on his shoulders…

  11. I love the book of Leviticus. It is there that we learn of a lamb without blemish and without spot that stands in place of us sinners as our sinless, pure, and holy substitute.

  12. Beth, more than a few lines would surely help more, but I think Isa 56:1-8 may be helpful. I think the passage in Leviticus is expression of God’s inapproachable perfection, into which nothing imperfect physically or spiritually may enter. In turn, Isaiah 56 is an expression of God’s unimaginable mercy (later revealed in Christ) that promises an ultimate restoration of all that is broken.

  13. :) Daniel, that was to be my answer for Beth.
    The contrast being God’s exclusion of foreigners from the temple (descendants of Moabites, to the 10th generation); v.s. Ruth’s and David’s inclusion in God’s people. Or as the law excludes eunuchs but in Isaiah, he specifically invites them as well as outcasts.
    The exclusion of foreigners for purity and the inclusion of foreigners for mercy.
    The exclusion of the imperfect for purity and the inclusion of the imperfect for mercy.

  14. The shape of Leviticus is the shape of the Tabernacle. Enter the Outer Court at ch 1, move counterclockwise up the north side (chs 1-7), pass before the first screen (chs 8-10; as in any triptych, the focus is on the middle ‘wing’); go down the south side (11-17) to finish the Outer Court, then through the screeen (the triptych of 18-20 on its inner side) into the Holy Place. (Douglas has very interesting observations on the verses re: homosexual behavior in context.) Chs 21-24.9 cover the furniture of the Holy Place. Lv 24.10-22 (blasphemy against the Name) screens the Holy of Holies. Inside, where the Ark is, ch 26 is central, flanked by chs 25 and 27 (the Jubilee). The position of ch 26 (idols, true worship) makes it the focus of the entire book.

    There’s a 1000 word limit here, so i’ll stop. But we don’t even brush the surface with sentiments like ‘how God is comfortable with the grossest moments of humanity’. Some parts of the Bible are best read with a map and a guide.

  15. GoldCityDance July 25, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Is it any wonder Christians have a difficult time witnessing to Jews? Especially the really devout Orthodox or Hasidic Jews?

  16. When we consider that Paul considered the OT the Scriptures and not his own when he said that….

    But he also said that if we read / come under the law of moses we come under the curse of the law. So, we need to discover a framework for reading Leviticus within the context of the Gospel freedom.

  17. Sorry, I should have included some bibliography in that earlier post.

    If you want a good handle on Leviticus, the best place to start is maybe anthropologist Mary E. Douglas’s immortal *Leviticus as Literature*. (Her other books, *In the Wilderness*, on Numbers, *The Tears of Jacob: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation*, and of course her anthropological classics, *Purity and Danger* and *Natural Symbols* are equally good.)

    While I’m at it, DN Freedman has also noted an important feature running through the Torah and Former Prophets (Gn-Kgs) in his book, *The Nine Commandments* (previously published as an article under the same name; find it on my website at http://jbburnett.com/theology/theol-bib-can-comp.html.) The Ten Commandments are broken— in order, one per book— until at last the covenant sanctions must go into effect, meaning: Exile.

    (Freedman speaks of ‘nine commandments’ because the tenth, against ‘coveting’, is not concerned with a physical action but a mental attitude which as such underlies the other violations.)

    Interestingly, the third of the violations in Freedman’s scheme figures in Douglas’s as the screen to the Holy of Holies. There’s a lot to be said about this, but the owners of this site are probably wise to impose a character limit.

    Anyway, “God’s compassion and justice would be revealed to anyone allowed to pass through the screens and able to read the Testament of the Covenant hidden in the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest can do that, but anyone can know what is there from reading [Leviticus].” (Douglas, 217). But of course, disrespect for the Name would exclude from the Sanctuary…

    The details of how to arrange sacrifices, to cite another example, are not arbitrary or random, but reproduce, in each sacrifice, the experience of Sinai, where the sacrifices were enjoined in the first place.

    Again, look beyond sentimentality for serious meaning! The theology of Leviticus emerges from the study of its…

  18. Question I have is from Leviticus 18: 18 what is a rival wife?

  19. Yes, it’s in there. But that doesn’t mean that I have to spend as much time in it as say, Romans.

    Luther had a canon within the canon, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

  20. I have come to appreciate Leviticus and Numbers because of their practicality, and realism. God literally birthed a new nation that had little to no positive structure to it.

    He gave them those laws in order to separate them from the Canaanites, and also so they would be sanitary and healthy, and so disease wouldn’t spread.

    To me, it demonstrates, yet again, the truth and realness of God’s Word. It’s not pie in the sky, or “your best life now”.

  21. Actually Leviticus 10: 1-3 is one of the most important sections of the Bible regarding a key Reformational teaching – the regulative principle of worship:

    “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized[a] fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.”

    Calvin in his book “On the necessity of reforming the Church” basically stated that unless we get how we are to worship God right, we cannot safely assume our salvation. He viewed proper worship of God as that important.

    The New Testament, especially in Hebrews and John 4:24, teaches this same principle of worship. We neglect the regulative principle to our own potential peril.

  22. Randy,
    I would like to encourage you to study why others don’t follow the regulative principle. Through my own studies, I have not been convinced that the Bible teaches it… I say these things having had held to the regulative principle before, but studied it and became unsatisfied..
    For example, with the Leviticus 10 passage Moses says they laid unauthorized fire, but the Lord himself tells Aaron directly “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die” (v9). So it seems there may have been some drinking involved. I point this out because this is the issue the Lord brings up with Aaron, more so than the issue of the offering.

    As I mentioned, I share so that you might understand there are positions that don’t just “neglect it” but there are some that do not think it is legitimate, and it may be helpful to you to look and consider this other position.
    Sincerely,

  23. Leviticus made me so grateful (as if I needed any more reasons) for the Grace Covenant! Imagine having to sacrifice all those animals?

  24. Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen! Awesome article!! With some believers calling for a new interpretation of certain passages in Leviticus – specifically on homosexuality – you really got the Spirit of the Law Tim and bring the truth forward here. I love it!! It is to God’s glory that we bring our spiritual failings and physical ailments that are gross and discusting and sinful before Him and seek His help and forgiveness. Bring it ALL to the Light of Christ! When I think about Leviticus, I also think about John chapter 3, which isn’t just about believing in Christ Jesus our Lord, but it’s also about bringing our shortcomings before God and saying, “I cannot do this on my own. Please heal me! Please save me!!” Behold, We really need Him!! Praise the Lord!!

  25. Phil McCheddar July 26, 2012 at 4:07 am

    Tim wrote: “If someone is able to survive Leviticus, the chronology of Numbers will surely put them out of their misery.”

    So why do you think God included many long passages of genealogies in the OT? How do you read them profitably so as to equip yourself spiritually today? Thanks.

  26. I have to admit that Leviticus was the most difficult book in the Bible to enjoy. I struggled with even completing it until I finally understood, as you said, that it is there for a reason and it is part of the “all scripture” advisory. As it turned out, this book became almost invaluable as i continued my studies into the history of our faith.

  27. Heard a professor once say that when reading Leviticus, have the book of Hebrews open next to it. The Leviticus passages open up in the Christological reading.

  28. Aaron,

    I have heard your objection many times before. The text clearly says that they offered unauthorized fire. Whether they were in an inebriated state or not has nothing to do with the fact that they presented unauthorized fire.

    Have you considered the fact that God was moving on to a new teaching in the passage that was completely unrelated to verses 1-3 when presenting the “strong drink” prohibition? Certainly this is the more probable contextual intent.

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