I Am Living in Leviticus—Be Warned

Whenever I preach in a church that I have never preached in before, and I am asked to tell the people a little bit about myself before the actual sermon, I sometimes use this illustration to point out the difference between an Old Testament scholar and a normal person.  I tell the people to imagine what they would do on a cold winter’s night.  Perhaps they would start a fire in the fireplace, pull up their favorite easy chair, sit down in the chair with a nice warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, and start reading a good book, perhaps one of the latest best-selling novels.  An Old Testament scholar, given a cold winter’s night, would do something very similar.  Start a fire in the fireplace, pull up an easy chair, sit down with a nice warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, and start reading . . . Leviticus.  It always gets a laugh.

But now the story has now come to around to haunt me, and the laugh is on me.  Because I am under contract to write on a commentary on the book of Leviticus for Zondervan’s Story of God Bible Commentary series.  I signed the contract to do this a couple of years ago, and I’ve been researching for the writing at moderate pace, given my other responsibilities.  But now that the deadline for the submission of the commentary is only a year away, I am now in double-down mode (thankfully, there’s a sabbatical coming up this year).  For this past summer I have been, and for the next year I will be, breathing, eating, sleeping, indeed, living in the book of Leviticus.

I suppose, even for the vast majority of Old Testament scholars, Leviticus would not be their first choice as favorite book, or the book they would most like to study and write a commentary on.  The nineteenth century Old Testament scholar, Julius Wellhausen (the Wellhausen of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis fame) tells about how he, having spent most of his research and study in the historical, poetic, and prophetic books of the Old Testament, finally decided to turn his attention to Leviticus.  He writes as follows:

In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic and historical books of the Old Testament.  Thanks to such aids as were accessible to me, I even considered that I understood them tolerably, but at the same time was troubled with a bad conscience, as if I were beginning with the roof instead of the foundation; for I had no thorough acquaintance with the Law, of which I was accustomed to be told that it was the basis and postulate of the whole literature.  At last I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and even through Knobel’s Commentary to these books.  But it was in vain that I looked for the light which was to be shed from this source on the historical and prophetical books.  On the contrary, my enjoyment of the latter was marred by the Law; it did not bring them any nearer me, but intruded itself uneasily, like a ghost that makes a noise indeed, but is not visible and really effects nothing.

Did you catch what he said?  He took courage!—and finally read Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And when he read them, not only did they not enhance his reading of the rest of the Old Testament—they actually marred his enjoyment of the rest of the Old Testament.  These books, and I’m sure he meant, in particular, the legal part of them, was nothing more to him than a ghost, and of no real profit, effecting nothing.

Well, I am happy to say that, so far, my experience has been the exact opposite of Wellhausen’s.  I probably had the same apprehension as Wellhausen, but the results have been far different.  Why so?  I think it may be that, when I read Leviticus, I do so not simply as Old Testament scholar, but also as a biblical theologian.  And when I live in the book of Leviticus, that means I am also living in the rest of the Bible.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the book of Psalms.  Scholars have noticed that there is very little in the book of Leviticus that tells us what the people said when they brought their offerings, and what the priests said as they officiated in the Tabernacle.  In fact, some commentators have argued that this means that the people and priests were practically silent as they went through their rituals.  However, more plausibly, a number of commentators have argued that the book of Psalms supplies the words—the songs they would have sung, the confessions they would made, the formulas they would have recited, the praises they would have uttered.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the Prophets.  Several of the prophets were also priests, or came from priestly families.  In fact, the commentary that I originally wanted to write for the series was on the book of Ezekiel.  The editor for the commentary series informed me that Ezekiel was already taken, but asked if I’d like to do Leviticus.  This was indeed a “providential serendipity,” because Ezekiel was either a priest, or perhaps a would-be or wanna-be priest, before he was carried into exile in Babylon; and you really can’t understand Ezekiel’s book if you don’t know Leviticus.  Furthermore, the prophets tell us that the detailed rituals in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are not simply cold, clinical, magical ceremonies which achieve automatic results, but ones which must be done with a heart of devotion and love toward God.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the Gospels.  Jesus himself said that the second greatest commandment was that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself, and that commandment is one that is only found in the book of Leviticus.  Furthermore, when Jesus teaches about not taking revenge, about not bearing grudges, about treating outsiders well, and about making sure that one should take care to repair their human relationships before they bring their gifts to the altar, it all comes straight out of Leviticus.  Leviticus is the world that Jesus lived in.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the world of the early church.  When the early church tackled the problem as to how Jews and Gentiles were going to get along with each other, it’s interesting that the things which the Apostles said that Gentiles had to do in order to maintain good relationships with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters—come right out of Leviticus.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the world of the Apostle Paul, who delighted in the book of Leviticus, and even quoted from the book in order to explain what the Gospel really is.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the book of Hebrews.  By the way, if you ever meet someone who claims to be an Old Testament scholar, ask them what their favorite New Testament book is.  If they don’t answer, “Hebrews,” then tell them that they should surrender their Old Testament Scholar membership card.  Okay, I’m kidding.  Or am I?  In any case, the book of Hebrews is like one concentrated running commentary on the Old Testament, and a good bit of that commentary is on the book of Leviticus.

When I live in the book of Leviticus, I am also living in the book of Revelation.  Trumpets, lampstands, priestly clothing, temple, tabernacle, a slain Lamb, incense, smoke, altars, ark of the covenant, fire, blood, commandments, testimony, God himself dwelling in the midst of his people, no more curse, no more darkness, no more defilement, no more impurity, a people holy like God is holy.

In addition to all this, and perhaps paradoxically, when you approach Leviticus from a biblical-theological perspective, it actually begins to take on an attraction all its own.  Roy Gane, who authored the Leviticus commentary for  the New International Version Application Commentary, in another one of his volumes, Cult and Character, relates this anecdote about his doctoral dissertation advisor and renowned Leviticus scholar, Jacob Milgrom:

To explain his preoccupation with the book of Leviticus, he [Milgrom] told us a story about a yeshiva student who noticed that his teacher was studying a certain page of the Talmud.  On a subsequent day, the student was surprised to find the rabbi perusing the same page.  When he inquired why, the teacher simply responded: “I like it here.”

Indeed, isn’t this the way it ought to be?  The book of Psalms declares to be blessed the “one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” (Ps 1:2).

Well, the purpose of this post is just to give you fair warning that, on account of the world in which I am living, a disproportionate amount of my posts for the next year or so are probably going to deal with the book of Leviticus.  So, be warned.   But don’t back off too far.  The posts will still have a biblical-theological orientation to them.  It’ll be Leviticus and Psalms, and the prophets, and Ezekiel, and the Gospels, and Acts, and Paul, and Hebrews, and Revelation.  But, hopefully, you’ll also gain an appreciation for Leviticus itself.

Who knows?  Several months from now, you might be reading your Bible, in particular, the book of Leviticus.  And someone will come up alongside you, see what you’re reading, and inquire, “What on earth are you reading that for?”  And perhaps you’ll reply, “I like it here.”

Jerry Shepherd
August 2, 2014

6 thoughts on “I Am Living in Leviticus—Be Warned

  1. Thanks for the insight, Jerry. If Levites represent priesthood among the ISRAELITES, and ISRAELITES represent priesthood among all nations, and we as the church represent priesthood among the world we live in, how can we not be acquainted with Leviticus, there’s got to be “treasures hidden in the straw”‘ and thanks for digging it out for us.

  2. I look forward to the completion of this commentary! I am especially excited about the “canonical” approach to Leviticus that you outlined.

  3. Just listened to a lecture by Tim Keller in which he said, “There is no book of Leviticus in the New Testament.” Of course he was taking a swipe at legalism, not at what Jesus said in Luke 24:25-44. I’m looking forward to you sharing more of what you will present in your commentary – and seeing Christ, who is in the law and the prophets, including Leviticus!

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