How a Church Can (and Should) Come to Love Leviticus
The great early church theologian Origen speaks for most of us today when he says:
“If you read people passages from the divine books that are good and clear, they will hear them with great joy . . . But provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices!”
Love Leviticus? Perish the thought! It’s in the Bible but most of us offer it only scorn or more or less benign neglect. Love it? We don’t even like it. All that holiness and purity stuff. Clean and unclean – who can make sense of all that? Who wants to? What difference does it make?
No, we don’t love Leviticus. And we really don’t want to.
It’s about a nation we don’t understand (biblically and theologically),
in a time and place foreign and distant to us,
full of ideas and image that mystify and sometimes appall us,
that make it the strangest book in the Bible (save Revelation) to us.
And there’s the stuff about homosexuality.
Oh, there’s the Day of Atonement stuff that we can connect a little bit to the work of Christ. And the Year of Jubilee laws are, well, somewhat inspiring but mostly daunting and unbelievable.
There’s just precious little relevance we can find in it for our Christian lives today.
And that’s the main reason we don’t (or can’t) love Leviticus: it’s not about us! Leviticus is about something else altogether. It doesn’t fit into the frame of understanding most of us bring to the Bible. Our inability or failure to grasp the importance of Leviticus and embrace is a measure of how little we really “get” what this being God’s people is all about!
That’s because we believe (in practice if not in theology) that God is distant from us (in heaven) and our gospel too small (about the salvation of my soul and assurance of life with God in heaven after death). David Wells summarizes this “too small” gospel”
“The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one's self. The world shrinks to the range of personal circumstances; the community of faith shrinks to a circle of personal friends. The past recedes. The Church recedes. The world recedes. All that remains is the self.”
To be sure, Leviticus is far distant in culture and thought from us. Hard work I still required to get into its world enough to grasp what’s going on in it. But even with that, we’ll never get it coming at it with the above-summarized “too small” gospel.
For, in a word, Leviticus is about God’s presence in our world. The Temple. And how that presence in the temple shapes the whole of our lives. Indeed, my title for Leviticus is “How a Holy God makes an Unholy People Wholly His.” When God comes to “rest” in his creation (Gen.2:1-3) his presence created the equilibrium that keeps order in the cosmos. God at rest (which means not relaxing and taking it easy but seeing that the creation operates as he designed it without opposition or malfunction). God creates “sacred space” in the world for him to reside. And maintaining the equilibrium his presence bestows is what Leviticus is all about. John Walton summarizes the early parts of the biblical story:
“God has brought order and equilibrium to the cosmos and maintains them in the world he has created. Further distinctions in sacred space are made as Eden is identified as the place of God's presence with the garden planted adjoining it. Temples or palaces with adjoining garden/parks are well-known in the ancient Near East. Gen 2:10 details how the rivers flowed from Eden (the equivalent to the Holy of Holies) to water the garden (adjoining it, equivalent to the antechamber). When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the garden, lost their access to sacred space, and upset the equilibrium that God had established. The plan of the tabernacle (and later, the temple) was designed to reestablish equilibrium in a sacred space—God's presence on earth—while retaining restricted access.
“The design was reminiscent of Eden with the cherub decor, the Table of the presence (provision of food as in Eden), and the menorah, which most agree represents the tree of life. As Exodus 40 describes the glory of the Lord filling the temple, the Israelites experience what is, in effect, a return to Eden—not in the sense of full restoration, but in the sense that God's presence again takes up its residence among people, and access to God's presence, however limited, is restored.”
The ritual, priests, the sacrifices, the celebrations, all recorded in such seemingly tedious detail in Leviticus, are all about maintaining the equilibrium of God’s presence, the source and goal of the world.
Major foci emerging from these practices of maintaining equilibrium of the divine presence revolve around space, status, and time. The Day of Atonement was the annual “recalibration” of the equilibrium of God’s presence in the midst of his people.
Both practices to reset the equilibrium of the divine presence in the tabernacle/temple (Chs.1-23) and in the larger camp (chs.24-27) are present and embrace the whole of Israel’s life. Everything in Leviticus is finally about God’s presence with his people. Space, status, and time form the matrix within which Israel is to maintain the equilibrium. These three matters point us to what for ancient Israel and for us are of urgent and perennial importance.
Though the details and rituals of the tabernacle/temple are not applicable to the church today because Christ is now the temple of God (Jn.2:22), the site of God’s presence now and forever. In him we are part of that temple as well. And the same dynamics for maintaining that equilibrium are relevant for it is still God’s presence we are dealing with! And the world is his as well, so these dynamics apply there too.
The matrix of space, status, and time is an important, perhaps essential, way of conceptualizing the church’s ministry in our world. It would be useful to flesh all that out but this is not the place for that. Perhaps your next small group Bible study could take a shot at it?
Space, status, and time – a fulsome, no-reductive way to describe the church’s life in the world. A “too-small” gospel directs our attention only to the status aspect. A “Levitical” gospel directs us to the full expanse of what God is up to in the world. Such a gospel of course only achieves this fulness in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is its temple, the world is its camp, and we “redeem the time” (Eph.5:16) by living by the rhythms of the liturgical year. Our focus is on maintaining a lively and living sense of the presence of God. And the deeper and more intentionally we live our way into this matrix of space, status, and time, the more we might come to love Leviticus. Or at least have our gag reflex tamped down a bit.
 Origen, Homily 27: Numbers 33:1–49, quoted in Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 17.
 David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993) 183.
 John H. Walton, “Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001), 295-296.