Christians don’t quite know what to do with Leviticus. Some parts, especially in the latter half of the book, are straightforward. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the most obvious, but there are others. “You shall not gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.” “You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him.” “The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female.”
The first sixteen chapters, though, are a book of strange old things. “Whoever eats the fat of an animal from which an offering by fire has been offered to Yahweh, even that person shall be cut off from his people.” If a boil “appears to be lower than the skin, and the hair on it has turned white, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean.” He shall “send the scapegoat to the wilderness to Azazel.”
It may be tempting to zoom in on the few easy sections and ignore the rest. Alternatively, we might be so intrigued by the obscurities of the Levitical system that we miss the book’s moral import.
We’re not permitted to do either. We live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Leviticus itself doesn’t permit any separation. The ceremonies symbolize the book’s moral teaching, and the book’s morality grows out of the liturgical habits it instills.
In the first part, “holy” describes the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the implements of tabernacle service (exception, Lev. 11:44–45); in the latter part, “Be holy, for I Yahweh am holy” becomes a refrain, addressed to Israel. “Be holy” means: God owns you, so devote yourself to his service. Be an altar burning with the fire of God’s presence, a lampstand giving light to the world, a table of bread. Become as single-minded in your devotion to God, as willing a vessel, as a sacred snuffer, spoon, or silver bowl.
Concern for pollution also runs through the entire book. The first half describes bodily processes that defile the sanctuary, and the latter half lists sins that defile the land. Anyone afflicted with a form of sanctuary impurity is excluded from Yahweh’s presence until he washes or sacrifices. But Leviticus is equally concerned for what Israel does when she leaves the holy place. Some sins—idolatry, sexual perversions, shedding innocent blood—make the land so sick that it vomits Israel into exile, and she can return only if God redeems her.
The anthropologist-turned-Bible-scholar Mary Douglas may be right that animal blemishes symbolize an injustice that is unacceptable to God. Leviticus anticipates Psalm 15’s answer to the question, “Who can dwell in your holy hill?” The man without defect, who walks, works, and speaks righteousness, whose heart, tongue, and eyes are true, whose giving and taking is just.
The Garden of Eden looms over Leviticus. Adam’s sin disrupted the rhythm of life and liturgy that was supposed to mark human existence. The Levitical system restores that primal harmony. The tabernacle is a restored garden, Aaron a new Adam, Israel an Adamic nation. Following Yahweh’s instructions, Israel approaches “Eden” to be transformed, deified, so she can manifest the holiness of the Holy One. Leviticus teaches the integral relationship between worship and culture.
Leviticus is a resource for ecumenical dialogue, since it intersects with many of the concerns that have divided Christians for centuries. Christians differ on the nature of worship, and Leviticus is the biblical book about worship. Protestants and Catholics debate the effects of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and Leviticus is the book about atonement. From the rituals in Leviticus, we learn that every sacrifice involves both sin-bearing and glorification, both substitutionary death and transfiguration. Levitical rituals could throw fresh light on the debates about the relation of faith and works.
Jesus taught his disciples everything concerning himself in all the Scriptures, and the greatest value of Leviticus is its unveiling of Christ. Jesus is the son of the herd who ascends to be the Father’s bread and a soothing aroma. Jesus is the eternal priest of the order of Melchizedek, superior to Aaron and his sons, who opens a way into the Father’s presence. As scapegoat, Jesus bears our sins and uncleannesses out of the camp in a final Yom Kippur. As incarnate Love, he embodies the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”; as incarnate Holy One, he is holy as his Father is holy. Jesus is our inheritance and victory, who announces Jubilee and keeps covenant so that we can enjoy the Father’s blessing. He is the Word revealed in both the easy and obscure words of Leviticus.