Leviticus – An Introduction

Ash Wednesday Joel 2-12
Image from Logos Bible Software and Faithlife

Introducing the Introduction
Welcome to my series on Leviticus.  Today is Ash Wednesday, and the first day of Lent.  I can think of no better date on the liturgical calendar for starting a study of this book. Whether or not your tradition participates in the burning of the palms and the wearing of ashes, Lent is a universal observation of the Christian faith.  In anticipation of Easter, we spend 40 days in contemplation, fasting, and mourning.  It is a time set apart for repentance, renewal, and thanksgiving.

“Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the Lord your God.

For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love,
and he relents from sending disaster.”

–Joel 2:12-13, CSB

Throughout the Lenten season, we immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus. We remember his ministry. We remember his suffering at our hands. We repent of our sins, lament the sins of the world, and rededicate ourselves to living a life more conformed to Christ’s perfect example.  I think it’s a great season for reading Leviticus.

One of my hopes for this little layman’s commentary series is that you might find it useful for a deeper understanding of what Christ has done and a clearer connection with the significance of Lent.  If I manage to time this right, we should finish up on Good Friday.

This introduction post is long, and I feel like I should apologize for that, but it really can’t be helped.  If you’re like I was, then you’ve probably never gotten any substantive help for clarifying what Leviticus is, what it means, and what you should do with it as a Christian.  The reason Christians avoid Leviticus, fear Leviticus, and frankly never even open Leviticus is that, for those Christians, nobody ever took the time to teach it, explain it, or preach from it.

Some things simply cannot be learned without first investing a little time.  Break this up into several days of reading if you must, but I strongly recommend going over at least the major headlines before diving in to Chapter 1.

I’ll see you again on March 1, and we’ll go through the Burnt Offering together.

How This Works
I will be writing and posting a chapter-by-chapter personal commentary to walk you through my understanding of Leviticus.  I will try to address everything I found confusing, interesting, or helpful.

In each post, I’ll ask you to read along with the blog in your own Bible, verse-by-verse, and encourage you to take notes or make highlights of anything that speaks to you as you go.  I’ll ask you to get comfortable with having questions, and I’ll ask you to GIVE ME your questions in the comment section.  If you don’t feel comfortable asking me, then I’ll encourage you to write them down and take them to your pastor or someone you trust who can answer them for you.

The goal here is to demystify the book of Leviticus for you and remove any discomfort or fear you might currently have about approaching it. I want you to get a comfortable relationship with this book of Scripture and some confidence for returning to it on your own in the future.

Remember What I Am Not
I promise that I will do all in my ability to make sure everything I write in this series is correct and theologically sound. Be that as it may, I am a layperson. Like you (unless you’re a cleric or scholar of some kind), I’m just a pew-sitting Christian.  I’m not a pastor. I’m not a bible scholar. I don’t read Ancient Hebrew. I don’t have access to any education or background that you don’t have.  I’ve got belief and I’ve got a Bible.  That’s it.  Well…and a shelf full of commentaries and notes, but you get my point, right?

I’m here because I was given a very special gift in Leviticus.  It is my favorite book of Scripture because God saved me when I first read it.  I am called to share that with other people, and I cannot ignore it.  As long as you remember that the Bible has all of the authority–and that I have none at all–then I think we’ll get through this just fine.  /smile

worms eye view of spiral stained glass decors through the roof
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How Old is Leviticus?

The form of Leviticus that we read in our Bibles today is roughly 2,300-2,500 years old.  At some point during the Persian Empire (550-330 BC), the scroll of Leviticus became the finalized version of Leviticus we’re going to read together in the coming weeks. The third book of the Bible has looked exactly like the third book in our Bibles since about 500 years before Jesus Christ was born.

As a Christian, I find that answer pretty satisfying.  As a history major, I also ask, “When was it originally written?  I want to hear about the first version, not just the final one.  That’s a more complicated question, but isn’t it always?

Remember that the most accurate answer to, “When was the first-ever version of Leviticus written,” is: “Nobody knows with absolute certainty.”  Take heart, however, because like most things historical and archaeological, we can make some really strong educated guesses.

The best that scholars have been able to make out, Leviticus was first written during the 40 years of desert wandering we read about in the book of Exodus, when the Tabernacle was being built and the priesthood was being formed. Nobody has ever been able to agree on which pharaoh of Egypt was the pharaoh of Exodus (my personal vote is Thutmose III, in case you were wondering), and no Egyptian account of the Exodus has ever been found.  Still, many of us labor under the assumption that our dating of Exodus and other events in the Torah depends on knowing who that pharaoh was. Thankfully, this is not so!

Most of the Old Testament’s events, including the Exodus, are dated by looking at the construction of Solomon’s Temple, which Scripture tells us was built 480 years after the Exodus (1Kings 6:1).  Using Egyptian, Assyrian, and biblical records that all agree and line up, the beginning of Solomon’s rule can be dated to 970 BC, and his construction of the Temple began during his fourth year, which would be 966 BC.  Using that date, we arrive at 1446 B.C. as the date of the Exodus.

With those dates, we can safely guess that the events of Leviticus occur in 1445 BC. If we further assume that Leviticus was written during or shortly after the events it describes, we can state with reasonable confidence that Leviticus was first put to tablet between c.1445-1440 BC (3,460-3,465 years ago).

Okay…so that’s the “when.” Let’s look at the “who.”

Scribes Bristol Cathedral
Photo from Wikimedia Commons – Stained Glass Depicting famous scribes/authors (King Alfred the Great, Richard Hakluyt, Richard Hooker, & Willian Shakespeare) by Charles Eamer Kempe, c. 1905, Bristol Cathedral, UK

Who Wrote Leviticus?

The Short Answer
The short answer is: Moses.  That is a good enough answer for most people, and it’s an accurate answer.  It’s just not the whole answer.  The short answer feels too short for me because when we simply say, “Moses wrote Leviticus,” it implies certainty.

To faithfully study the Bible, we must remember how big God is and how small we are.  We must keep in mind how old and enduring the Bible is…and how limited and fleeting we are.  Certainty is a kind of pride.  It kills curiosity and it closes the mind.

Humility is not a cute little coffee mug suggestion for productive Bible study.  It is a requirement.

There is more to Leviticus than one man.  Moses was undoubtedly the original source for Leviticus, but there’s a lot more to it.

The Long Answer
Leviticus has been through several iterations of editing and updating and reorganization. We can be all but certain of this.  What the scribes finally produced has been meticulously preserved by man and Providence for well over 2,000 years.  Here’s how I believe that happened:

Most scholars and commentators say that oral tradition carried the stories of Genesis from the beginning through the Mosaic generations (time of Moses).  They also say that, at some point during the time of Exodus, Moses began to write things down.

The Mosaic generations were fresh out of four centuries of enslavement, and they were thoroughly ingrained with Egyptian culture and religion.  In Exodus, you can feel Moses’ frustration as he attempts to righteously judge this nation. They have been rescued, yes, but they do not yet know their God.  They do not understand what it means to no longer be slaves.  They had to be taught, so the history, the culture, and the Law had to be written down and preached over and over again.

No matter what you believe about the authorship of the first five books in our Bible, almost everyone agrees–and even Jesus alluded–that The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) began with Moses.  Maybe Moses wrote it himself.  Maybe he wrote it alongside Aaron and the earliest priests.  Maybe he declared God’s Word to the early priests and they carried it through oral tradition down the generations. However it happened, Moses was the first human author and origin point of Leviticus.

For many reasons, I believe that in the generations after the Judges (Kings & Chronicles) and then again after the Babylonian Exile (Ezra-Nehemiah), Israel’s prophets and priests–like Moses before them–felt the pressing need to unify the nation under God.  They gathered, ordered, and updated the histories, the genealogies, and the Law.  This includes Leviticus.

The Bible talks about a time of scribal gathering and ordering of Scripture in the time of the Kings.  We can also be reasonably confident that Israelite scribes erupted in an inspired frenzy of gathering and ordering and updating during the post-Exile generation (Ezra-Nehemiah) under Persian rule.

We see evidence of this renewal throughout the Old Testament. Ancient place names are given not as the original names, but the names which were current in the era of Persian rule. Sometimes we see a contemporary name followed by, “formerly called ___,” or, “known as ____ in former days.”  This is a beautiful and clear sign that God’s inspiration was still active for his people after the Exile.  In addition to the contemporary names, we see phrases like, “Can be seen even to this day…” added to many of the stories to indicate that something God’s people built in the generations of the Patriarchs (a well, a stone marker, an altar, etc.) were still preserved for the post-Exile generation to remember and cling to.

God’s people repented after the Exile.  They regrouped, rebuilt, and reestablished order in the Temple, in records of history, and in Scripture.  Psalms and prophetic writings were gathered and placed together in meaningful order. Oral accounts were written down with great care taken to include every word.  The scribal tradition was elevated to a position of tremendous honor, responsibility, and accountability to God, and this continued throughout the Second Temple (Intertestamental) Period.  It is during this four-century span of time that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament reached its final and still-current form.

The Old Testament we read today is the same Hebrew Bible that Jesus and his Apostles read in the first century.  The Leviticus that Jesus discussed with elders in the Temple and explained to the men walking to Emmaus is the same Leviticus that we are discussing, right now, in 2020.

Many inspired hands over 3,500 years have been a part of that miracle, and it all started with Moses.  The Bible…is most seriously cool.

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This is the title page for Leviticus from my JPS Tanakh.  You can see both the Jewish and Gentile names for the book, here, and I wanted you to see the Hebrew characters for its original name. Image taken from The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition, Jewish Publication Society, page 193.

Why Do We Call It “Leviticus?”

What’s in a name?  A lot, y’all.  Christians call this third book of the Old Testament, “Leviticus,” which is a Latin word meaning, “belonging to the Levites.”  The Levites were the tribe of Israel descended from Levi, son of Jacob (Israel).  In Exodus, the Levites are set apart for priesthood after they obey Moses’ terrifying command to slay 3,000 Israelites who participated in the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:25-29). Moses and his siblings (Aaron and Miriam) were Levites, and it was members of their own tribe who “ordained themselves” that day.  Levites demonstrated that they were fiercely loyal to God above man in this act, so they were designated for holy priesthood.  “Belonging to the Levites,” therefore, basically means, “for the priests.”

Leviticus is the name that Gentiles gave this book of Scripture.  Jews call it by its original name, which is, “vayikra” or “wayikkra,” depending on which transliteration of the Hebrew gets used.  The Hebrew name means, “And He Called.”

In the Torah, the books were named by the first three words on the scroll.  The book Gentiles named Genesis is called In The Beginning by Jews.  The book Gentiles named Deuteronomy is called These Are the Words by Jews.  Leviticus is the same way.  It was called Leviticus by Gentiles, and it is called And He Called by the Jews.

Both the Gentile and Jewish names for Leviticus are practical titles.  One uses the subject matter and the other uses the opening line. It’s a book concerned with priestly things, and it begins by saying, “And The Lord called out to Moses from the Tent of Meeting.”

Why All the Dead Animals?

If you’ve been in church for any length of time at all, you’ll have heard someone say, “God meets us where we are.” That’s true.  He does. When God wanted to meet with the Israelites, he met them where they were, too.  Where the Israelites were in 1445 BC is the Ancient Near East, and God taught them how to approach him through the practices and religious rituals they already understood. God demonstrated his holiness while accommodating the Israelites’ existing cultural understanding of “how to interact with a divine being.”

Our understanding of how humans interact with divine beings is quite different to the Ancient Near East’s, but just like the Ancient Israelites, our understanding is defined by cultural norms and a worldview.  We know worship when we see it because we recognize what is happening when humans try to interact with the divine.  We know what that looks like in the 21st century.  In the 15th century BC, it looked very different, but people living during that time knew what they were seeing when they saw it, just like we do.

The collage of images above all represent forms of human interaction with the divine that we see on our planet today.  Even if we don’t participate in worship or prayer that looks like this, we know what we’re seeing when we see it.  Our approach to the divine is about physical posture, the spaces people take those postures in, and a set of rituals or devotional practices that are recognizable to every human being on earth as “religious.”

In the time of the Ancient Israelites, approaching the divine looked, first and foremost, like burning animal sacrifices on an altar.  It also looked like graven images (idol statues), temple offerings, child sacrifice, and ritualistic sex.

Yep.  These things were all ubiquitous and globally, universally recognized as “religious.”  In 1445 BC, these are the ways that humans interacted with the divine.  Pretty much all of them.

God looked down on his people and chose the pieces of religiosity that he could use to show Israel who he is.  He eliminated the rest.  This is a huge part of Leviticus.  God is using what the Israelites are already familiar with to help them enter relationship with him, and he is setting Israel apart from the other nations by making their forms of worship distinct from everyone else’s.  In the book of Leviticus, God is revolutionizing “the way humans interact with a divine being,” and he starts that revolution by using practices that his people already recognize as “religious.”

Animal sacrifice and temple rituals got plucked from the list as a framework God would teach with, and then he forbade everything else.  God met Israel where they were, and he used what they already knew to show them holy images and a deeper understanding of himself.  God never wanted the sacrifice of animals*, but the people did.  Animal sacrifice is what they understood, so God used it to demonstrate something higher and holier.  That’s why all the dead animals.

God met weak and limited humanity where it was in 1445 BC, and he’s still doing it for us in 2020 AD.

*Bible Verses that tell us God isn’t interested in animal sacrifice:  1Samuel 15:22, Psalm 40:7-8, 51:16-17, Jeremiah 7:22, Hosea 6:6, Hebrews 10:18 

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Another partially-finished title page for Leviticus.  I never seem to finish coloring these.  Ha ha.  Maybe I’ll finish this one while we go through Leviticus in March.

I have never been more excited or more afraid to write about the Bible than I am for this series on Leviticus.  I don’t want to get it wrong, and I fear getting it wrong in a way that misinforms people, but at the same time, I cannot let another year pass without sharing my enthusiasm and gratitude for Leviticus.  I am trusting–and I hope you will trust with me–that God can use a space like this for something good.

I hope this introduction was helpful, and I encourage you to look over the other preparatory articles in the Leviticus section of this blog as a reference and starting place for the larger study.  I love Leviticus and my goal is to help you love it, too.

At some point either this week or next, I’ll post a list of recommended resources so that you can get access to other voices about Leviticus instead of leaning solely on mine.  There are some really good books and podcasts out there for students of Leviticus to use, and I’ll try to share all of the ones I know about.  For now, I pray you enjoy a wonderful Ash Wednesday full of prayer, contemplation, and renewal.

Come back on March 1, and we’ll go through Chapter 1: The Burnt Offering together.  See you then.

 

 

 

 


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