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…

Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.