It’s the new year, and perhaps you’ve already started reading your through-the-Bible-in-a-year program. The number one bane of reading through the Bible comes early: Leviticus. Why is it even in the Bible? Just to make Christians thank God we don’t have those laws?
L. Michael Morales, professor of biblical studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC, has written the latest volume in the NSBT series. The foundation for this volume can be seen here: Ps 15.1 and 24.3 ask the prime question, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?” The psalmists write about dwelling in God’s house forever (23.6), drinking from the river of his pleasures (36.8-9), and longing to see his face (16.9-11; 26.8). Yet only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. How could dwelling with God be a corporate ideal? Morales says that the dominating concern of Leviticus and of the entire Bible is how humanity will dwell in the house of God. For more on this, read here.
There are eight chapter in all, four of which are specifically about Leviticus.
Chapter One sees Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch, and the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), as the center of Leviticus.
Chapters Two and Three give the background narrative to Leviticus by looking at the overall story of the exile from and the entrance to God as seen throughout Genesis and Exodus. Moses was a Levite, and with Leviticus forming the center of the Five Books of Moses, we should expect Levitical language and concepts in the other four books. A crisis ends Exodus: God’s presence fills the tent of meeting, but now Moses cannot enter.
In Chapter Four Morales shows how the sacrificial cultus in Leviticus 1-10 was the divinely revealed way for Israel to meet with God, an ascent into his Presence. A crisis ends chapter 10: God’s glorious Presence fills the tabernacle, but Aaron’s two sons are killed in their disobedience.
Chapter Five brings the next section, Leviticus 11-16. Here Morales draws connections between Nadab and Abihu’s death and the Day of Atonement (e.g., both happen on the same day). The intervening cleansing laws (Lev 11-15) sprout from Lev 10.10 — Aaron is to teach Israel to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean. Cleanliness and holiness pervade not only Leviticus, but both Testaments. The Day of Atonement was when the “new Adam entered Eden,” the place where God was, and made atonement for God’s people. The chapter ends with an interesting excursus on Adam’s fall and how he should have reacted.
Chapter Six covers Israel’s call to holiness (17-22) and the priests’ call (23-25). Israel was to pursue YHWH, their only source of holiness. The goal of holiness was communion and fellowship with God – something those in Genesis and Exodus could not do on a regular basis. Morales makes a good argument that Lev 24.1-9 is a symbolic picture of the Sabbath (cf. Num 6.22-27).
Chapter Seven looks at how Zion is the mountain of God and it is Israel’s inheritance. It is the city of David, it has the purpose of the nations coming to it to meet God, and it will be the “Eden” in Israel’s end days (Isa 2.1-4).
Chapter Eight moves from the earthly to the heavenly Mount Zion. Morales brings out the theology of Leviticus in Hebrews and, primarily, in John’s Gospel. In John, the place to meet God (the Temple) is found in the person of God (Jesus). Jesus is the Temple. In his ascension he went to the Father, and the Spirit descended to make all Christians part of God’s household, that we may be able to ascend the mountain of YHWH.
The Spoiled Milk
My one complaint is when Morales doesn’t give Scriptural references to the connections he makes (though not extremely common). For example, when covering the sacrifices in Leviticus 1-8, Morales changes the names of some of the sacrifices (the burnt offering becomes the ascension offering) to better represent their function. But when he names a few of these newly-named sacrifices together without the references to the Levitical chapter/verse, I don’t know where I’m meant to be looking. However with all that this book does, this is easily overlooked.
Leviticus isn’t a book that Christians should read and say, “Thank God we don’t have to keep those laws anymore.” Leviticus is central to the Pentateuch, and it has atonement at its the center (not to mention at the center of Christian theology too). The theology of Leviticus pervades the OT. The less we understand Leviticus, the less we understand the Bible. Not only does Morales do an incredible job of broadly overviewing Leviticus and connecting the dots between the Testaments, but Morales’ book helps me to want to read the Bible even more. And if a book can help fuel that desire, then it’s worth reading.
This work is in line with both Dempster’s and Beale’s first-rate works in the NSBT series. Both seek to put the entire Scripture together, both shift a few paradigms, and Morales no less accomplishes this feat. I second Carson’s statement that this “will spawn some excellent sermon series on Leviticus!” (8). There are a number of good volumes in the NSBT series, and this is one of the best.
Who should read this? College level and up. Admittedly some parts will be challenging, but the gains are much greater than the losses.
- Series: New Studies in Biblical Theology
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (December 10, 2015)