Book Review: Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (NSBT), L. Michael Morales


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.



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Crouching Demon, Hidden Lamb


If you do well will not [your countenance] be lifted? If you do not do well, at the door a sin offering is lying down. Now to you will be his desire but you must rule over him – (Gen 4.7).

In the newest NSBT volume Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (my review here), L. Michael Morales surmises that Leviticus is the center of the Pentateuch. In addition, Moses is a Levite and, as the main author of the Pentateuch, we should expect Levitical language to reverberate throughout the other four book of Torah (and the OT). This language centers around the Levitical cultus and priesthood which has the goal of meeting and fellowshipping with God. 

Genesis 4 has presented many (i.e., me) a mind-teaser. First, why are Cain and Abel bringing sacrifices to God? Second, In 4.6-7 God asks, Cain,

Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.

Morales has written an article about this topic (which this post took its title from), and I’ll try to summarize part of his argument below. Morales notes how Adoniram Judson, Adam Clarke, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, and Young’s Literal Translation all translated “sin” as “sin offering.” Also, Matthew Henry thought both translations were valid.

Having grown up hearing the traditional teaching of this text, I’ve never thought to question the meaning. But Morales brings up a few questions:

  • Why did the above-mentioned men translate “sin” as “sin offering”? 
  • Why is “sin crouching” at “the door”? If sin is supposed to be personified as some kind of “crouching demon,” where did this supposed demon come from? This character hasn’t shown up in the text yet.
  • What is the “door”? “Is it the door of Cain’s tent, or of his heart? [And] … why do no other examples of such an expression occur in the Hebrew Bible?” (186).

Perhaps we should examine the alternate translation given at the top of the post and the context around Genesis 4.7. As Morales says, “All translation is interpretation, and the key to interpretation is context” (186).

Contextual Clues

Though Genesis 1-3 doesn’t state this explicitly, the rest of the Bible seems to say that the garden of Eden was a sanctuary, the temple of God. Derek Rishmawy presents 9 examples, and a few are given below:

  • God walks in Eden (Gen 3.12), the Tabernacle (Lev 26.12) and the Temple (2 Sam 7.6-7).
  • The Garden of Eden faced eastward (Gen 3.24) as did the Tabernacle (Ex 27.13).
  • Cherubim guarded the entrance to Eden (Gen 3.24), crafted and placed on top of the mercy seat (Ex 25.18), and sewn into the veils of the Tabernacle (Ex 26.1).
  • The description of “Adam’s labor uses verbs (abad “work, serve” and shamar ‘keep, watch, guard,’ Gen 2.15) that are used together in describing the work of Levitical priests (Num 3.7, 8; 8.26; 18.6-7)” (186).
  • Finally, God’s presence was in Eden (Gen 3.12), on Mt. Sinai (Ex 24.15-16), on the Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle (Lev 1.1), and in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8.11).

As Morales argues, it is “the expulsion from Eden is the catalyst which sets the biblical drama of redemption in motion. It explains the logic and necessity of the Israelite system of worship and sacrifice” in that God brings Israel to him through atonement (187).

The Result

As the comparison goes, the “door” of Gen 4.7 would be the entrance to the Edenic-Temple, where God’s presence was. The cherubim guarded this “temple gate” (so that Adam, Eve, and anyone else who wanted to enter, could not do so). “In the tabernacle system, the ‘door’ served as the place where Israelites would come to present their offerings” (187). As Exodus 29.42-43 tells us,

It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.

When Cain refuses to obey God’s command, he is driven away east of Eden (Gen 4.14) like Adam and Eve were (Gen 3.24).

Richard M. Davidson gives a picture of Adam and Eve’s cultic (“religious”) life with God,

After Adam and Eve are expelled, in their sinful state they are no longer able to meet with God face to face in the Garden. . . . The Gate of the Garden becomes the Sanctuary where Adam and Eve and their descendants were to meet with God, worship Him, and bring their sacrifices. Here the Shekinah glory was manifested as God came down to hold communion with them (187).


How is the sin offering “lying down”? In Psalm 23, the psalmist reflects upon YHWH as a shepherd, and “the same root as the participle in Gen 4.7 is used in v. 2: ‘he makes me lie down (rbts) in green pastures.’ Precisely this picture of a lamb or goat (or any animal) lying down tranquilly is the most common image in places where this verb is used throughout the Old Testament” (187).

So at the “door,” or the “entrance” to the garden of Eden where God would meet with the Adam Family, Cain could offer a sin offering. He could lay it down on the altar. “It could be, then, that YHWH had revealed to Cain the means by which he might be restored to divine fellowship, precisely the same means he would later reveal to Israel through Moses in the book of Leviticus: a sin offering at the sanctuary doorway” (57). Although that would mean Cain would have to take a sheep from his brother Abel, the one who’s offering was accepted by God. And that’s a problem for Cain.


But as for the rest, you’ll have to read the article (or read Morales’ book!).


There’s more to this argument, but to keep this from getting longer I’ll stop now. I find Morales’ discussion pretty convincing. Although I don’t know Hebrew, and I’m no scholar, the contextual cues that bring Genesis and Leviticus together are plausible. Both the traditional and Morales’ understanding say that Cain could repent, but Morales’ proposal has more meat. Know we know how and where the Adam Family gave sacrifices, and thus how Cain could have repented. However, since Cain refused to obey God’s command, but instead killed Abel, he is driven away east of Eden (Gen 4.14), just like his parents were (Gen 3.24).

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear them!


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Why is the Ascension Important?

Ascension Ethiopia

One of the main tenets of Jesus’ life is that after his death and resurrection, he left the disciples and went ascended to heaven where God the Father was. The ascension is amazing considering nobody else did it (though Elijah did go up in a whirlwind to heaven [2Kings 2.11]). 

But why did Jesus go up in a cloud? Was it just so he could return in the same way (Acts 1.11)? Did it prove his divinity in any sort of way? Was it a neat trick, or did it actually do something for believers? (For a connection with YHWH’s divinity, read here). 

L. Michael Morales has an answer. In newest volume of the NSBT series, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (my review here),  Morales presents a biblical theology of… Leviticus, a word that strikes fear into the heart just as a drill brings pain to a tooth. Yet this book is far from boring (really!).

Israel’s Hope

Israel had a deep hope and pleasure to “dwell in the house of YHWH forever” (Ps 23.6) because it is in God’s house where he gives them “drink from the river of [his] pleasures” (Ps 36.8-9). Morales understands the “rivers of pleasure” to be an allusion to Eden’s river of life (Gen 2.10; Rev 22.1-2).

Israel longs to dwell in the house of God and, ultimately, to behold YHWH himself (Ps 16.9-11; 26.8; cf. 2 Cor 3.18). Dwelling with YHWH is the one thing the psalmist asks for in Ps 27.4:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.

The Crisis

But how is this possible? How can Israel wish to ascend the mountain of God when only Israel’s High Priest could enter into God’s Presence in the Holy of Holies? 

Considering that only the high priest had been allowed entrance in to the holy of holies within the tabernacle and later temple, how is it songs could be sung [by all of Israel] about dwelling in YHWH’s house ‘for ever’ and ‘all the days of my life’? (19).

Psalm 24.3 asks, Who shall ascend the hill of YHWH? And who shall stand in his holy place?

And similarly, Psalm 15.1O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

Morales says that the dominating concern of Leviticus and of the entire Bible is how humanity will dwell in the house of God. In Gen 28.12, Jacob sees a vision of the “angels of God” who “were ascending and descending” on a ladder that stretched from earth to heaven. It represented “earthly access to God’s heavenly abode,” the place the builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to reach. Now God is reaching down to Jacob and promising him offspring, land, and that he, YHWH, would be with him (Lev 26.12; 2 Cor 6.16b; Rev 21.3). 

“What Jacob saw was the spiritual archetype of the temple [in Leviticus] — its inner reality and function as the connection between heaven and earth” (162). John 1.14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us.” In John 2.21, Jesus was “speaking about the temple of his body” when he spoke of his resurrection.

The Tie-In

We can see both of these themes in John 1.49-51,

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

It is through Jesus that the Levitical tabernacle, the place where God’s people met God, would transfigured into a person (Jn 4.20-24).

And the Ascension?

After showing the broad themes and structure of Leviticus, Morales shows how its theology of meeting God points to Christ.

“The advent of Christ would open a new and living way into the house of God; indeed, that was the goal of his taking our humanity upon himself, of his suffering, of his resurrection and ascension” (20).

And wouldn’t you know it, but Jesus’ ascension brought him up to God. For Morales, the theology of Leviticus is about “dwelling with God in the house of God, and how that reality is finally made possible” (20). The reality of the Levitical cultus, the tabernacle (and later Temple), the sacrifices, the rituals, etc, were all divinely given so that Israel could meet God, become holy, and be a light to the nations. We now have this in Christ. We are holy. We have God’s Holy Spirit in us, and we belong to God. 

So who can ascend the mountain of the Lord?

By the loving-kindness of the Father, the redemption of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a sure answer has been found: even the church of Jesus Christ (306).


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Book Review: Leviticus 17-22 (AYB), Jacob Milgrom


Jacob Milgrom taught at the University of California, Berkeley and headed the Department of Near Eastern Studies. He was most known for his research on Biblical purity laws and was a (or ‘the’) leading expert on Leviticus (according to Longman). Milgrom died in June 2010. He was an American Jewish Bible scholar and a Conservative rabbi. He wrote the Leviticus volume for the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series, which turned into three volumes:

  • Leviticus 1-16 (1184 pages, Vol 3)
  • Leviticus 17-22 (656 pages, Vol 3A)
  • Leviticus 23-27 (848 pages, Vol 3B).

This volume picks up right where Vol 3 left off, so there is no page 1.


Milligram provides a brief Outline and Translation of the whole book of Exodus. He then covers the Structure, Vocabulary, Extent, and Date of Leviticus 17-22. He believes that these chapters are part of Holiness (H) Source. They are distinguished from the first 16 chapters which are part of the Priestly (P) Source. Though I don’t agree with his source-critical views (which are found all throughout the commentary), Milgrom is quite conservative in his stance on Scripture. He insists that (P) was written much earlier than its usual date (ca. 500 BC). Milligram argues that both (H) and (P) are pre-exilic sources (1362). He gives a list of Chiasms, Inclusions, and uses of the Number Seven found in six Levitical chapters.

Next up is the Theology section. This portion covers topics like the Sinaitic and Patriarchal Covenants, Holiness, Ethics, Land, Sabbath, Jubilee and Redemption, Israelites, The Missing King, Crime and Punishment, and more. Despite the fact that Milgrom takes a source-critical reading of Leviticus, his comments on theology are incredible. Under B. Rationales Are Theology, Milgrom, in explaining separation and holiness, states,

“Thus adherence to the dietary laws, namely, eschewing contact with the world of… ‘impure’, forms an indispensable step in Israel’s ascent on the ladder of holiness…. Israel’s separation from the nations is the continuation (and climax) of the cosmic creation process. Just as YHWH has separated the mineral, vegetable, and animal species to create order in the natural world, so Israel must separate from the nations to create order in the human world. Israel is this charged with a universal goal” (1371, emphasis original).

After this we come to the exegesis of Leviticus 17-22, The Slaughter and Consumption of Meat (Lev 17), Illicit Sexual Practices (Lev 18), Ritual and Moral Holiness (Lev 19), Penalties for Molek Worship, Necromancy, and Sexual Offenses (Lev 20), Instruction for Priests (Lev 21), and Instructions for the Priests and for Lay Persons (Lev 22). In each of the exegetical chapters there is a repeated Translation of the text, the Composition of the chapter (only with Lev 17), Notes (covering the terms and phrases of the text), and Comments (covering broader issues within the chapter [like ‘Holiness’ in Leviticus 19]). The Bibliography and Index are not included here in 3A, but are found in 3B.


As thick as Milgrom’s commentary is, there isn’t always the theological explanations I wish there were. When discussing ‘Horticultural Holiness’ in 19.23-25 (1677-1684), Milgrom reviews ANE literature, interpretations of the Jewish rabbis, Qumran literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and contemporary commentators and discusses the various interpretations of the text here (and throughout the rest of the commentary too, a big plus!). Though stating that waiting a few years to eat the fruit of the land had practical implications (the roots sink deep into the soil, giving the trunk the strength it needs to bear up the amount of fruit [1684]), there’s no discussion on why Israel would be commanded to do this. This would be an important aspect to shed light on given the emphasis on holiness in Leviticus 19, “[T]his chapter is of such extreme importance that Moses was commanded to recite it ’to the entire Israelite community’… The rabbis also stress this fact: ‘Holiness… was not only given to priests but to priests, Levites and Israelites’….” (1602).

In Leviticus 19 we see “the importance of the prescriptions that follow: the are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation” (1603). What is so ‘holy’ about waiting five years to eat of the fruit of one’s tree? It will increase it’s yield for them, but how does this separate Israel from the rest of the nations?

However, be sure to read Milgrom on Leviticus 19.19, “You are to keep my statutes. Do not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material.” Mixture is kept to the divine realm (e.g., the cherubim were mixed creatures). Rather than trying to enter the divine realm, to be holy (19.2) Israel was to obey God’s commandments and practice the prescribed ritual and ethical behaviors. Part of that was leaving to the divine realm what belonged to the divine, such as mixtures of cloth.

Yet I understand that Milgrom can’t cover everything. Perhaps he does give an explanation somewhere within his commentary, but with no index until Vol. 3B, I can’t lookup other discussions of Leviticus 19.23-25. Yet even still, one should not think that Milgrom doesn’t care about the text in the daily life of the ancient Israelite. He goes to great lengths through out the commentary to show the why’s and the how’s of a law or command. To quote Milgrom again, after talking about the four possible states of being (holy, common, pure, impure), he says,

“Thus… biblical impurity and holiness, are semantic opposites. And as the quintessence and source of [holiness] resides with God, it is imperative for Israel to control the occurrence of impurity lest it impinge on the realm of the holy God. The forces pitted against each other in the cosmic struggle are no longer the benevolent and demonic deities who populate the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, but the forces of life and death set loose by man himself through his obedience to or defiance of God’s commandments” (1721-22). Israel is “to cleave to life and reject death” (1722).


To the serious student and pastor who know a good deal of Hebrew and to the OT scholar who will certainly have knowledge on Hebrew, ANE studies, and the methodology of source criticism, these three volumes (though I’ve only reviewed the second, 3A) would be important to own since, as Longman has expressed, Milgrom was “clearly the world’s leading expert on Leviticus” (OT Commentary Survey, 33). However, as previously stated, the source criticism (regardless of how conservative Milgrom was) won’t be favored by many. While Milgrom treats both the different Sources of Leviticus and its final form, wading through seemingly endless notes about ’J’, ‘E’, ’D’, ‘P’, (and ‘H’ too) may wear on you, especially if you think these are foreign (or illegitimate) conceptions of treating Leviticus. Pastors may not have the time to get into the deep details of this book, especially since their congregations probably won’t be interested in the same ‘deep details’. But for those who have the want and the time to go into Leviticus (like PhD studies or seminary teaching), then Milgrom’s volumes are a must-have, as he is a brilliant scholar when it comes to the strange, often-disregarded, yet incredible book of Leviticus. As Mulberry Sellers said, “There’s gold in them thar hills” and “there’s millions in it.” One simply needs to start mining.


  • Series: The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (December 5, 2000)

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[Special thanks to Yale University Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book].