Leviticus: handle with care

For Lent, my wife and I are reading our way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books.” Today’s installment covers that gem of Bible weirdness known as Leviticus.


Most Christians act as if Leviticus isn’t in their Bibles. To the extent that we read Scripture at all, we tend to avoid this strange little book like the plague.

After reading Leviticus this week, I can understand why.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it very much.

Leviticus is a glaring reminder that the Bible is a foreign book, that it didn’t fall from the sky yesterday.

Some have called the Bible God’s “love letter” to us. Well, try saying that after reading Leviticus cover to cover. (Put it this way: I wouldn’t advise turning here for source material the next time you write a love letter to your sweetheart.)

Animal blood, mildew, bodily fluids… there’s plenty of all to be found in Leviticus.

Most Christians accept that at least some of the Levitical commands no longer apply. But which ones? How do we decide?

For example, most of us have no problem wearing mixed fabrics, despite Leviticus labeling such fashion an affront to God’s holiness. But other commands are assumed to be normative today, like prohibitions against certain sexual behaviors.

So how do we decide which parts to follow and which to ignore?

Since we no longer worship in a temple or sacrifice animals, do we skip over laws pertaining to Israelite worship and stick to the rest? Because if so, where do we draw the line? You could argue the whole book of Leviticus (or the vast majority of it, anyway) is a liturgical playbook. After all, the name Leviticus means “pertaining to the Levites,” a.k.a. the Israelite priestly clan.

Or we do only follow laws which are specifically reaffirmed in the New Testament? If so, then we’re ruling out the rest based on an argument from silence. Is that really the best way to go?

Clearly, the earliest Christians did not feel bound to observe Levitical dietary laws. The book of Acts records a supernatural vision in which God invites the Apostle Peter to feast on all manner of forbidden animals. When Peter objects, God says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

But God’s not really making point about food so much as one about people. God uses the vision in Acts to prepare Peter for a mission which he otherwise might have refused on the grounds of maintaining ritual purity. Peter was to enter a Gentile’s house (the house of a Roman occupier, no less) and extend the hand of fellowship to those he’d been taught to view as “unclean.”

The whole point of Leviticus was to help the Israelites distinguish between clean and unclean, holy and common. They were told to avoid the unclean and the common so they could worship God in purity and holiness. It was a protective measure designed to insulate the Israelites (and their forms of worship) from outside influence. Specifically, from Gentile influence.

So what happens when God declares Gentiles “clean”?

People like Peter, a Torah-observing Israelite, come to realize “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Levitical rules about cleanness and holiness give way to a greater purpose: to make all things clean and holy.

Consider how Jesus responds when his disciples are accused of violating the Sabbath. No only does he not deny the Pharisees’ accusation; he calls into question yet another Levitical command. He reminds the Pharisees how David and his warriors once ate consecrated bread that belonged to the priests. They did so in clear violation of the Levitical law concerning such holy bread.

Jesus sides with David, saying:

I tell you that something greater than the temple [with all its regulations] is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

Elsewhere, Jesus insists that he came to fulfill rather than abolish the law. But here, we see that Jesus fulfills the law by superseding it. He radically reinterprets Leviticus in light of a greater purpose. Mercy is more important than sacrifice. He could just as easily have said love is more important than ritual purity.

During his lifetime, Jesus never stopped going to temple. He never stop keeping kosher. He wore phylacteries. But none of these things were the source of his power. That, he argued, came from someone who was greater than any law.

Leviticus — messy, confusing, and sometimes disturbing as it may be — has to be read through the lens of Jesus. And that changes everything.

Next up, some of the most controversial commands in Leviticus…

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