How many people have started a read-through-the-Bible in a year program, only to give up part way through Leviticus? It’s easy to read through Genesis, a book full of stories. The first twenty chapters of Exodus are very exciting, and you “persevere” through the last twenty chapters as the tabernacle is built, hoping things will pick up again in Leviticus. Perhaps after one-too-many times reading the phrase “long lobe of the liver,” or reading about leprosy, you abandoned Leviticus and the rest of the Old Testament, wondering why, as Christians, we even read the books of the Law. If you’re in this place, I strongly suspect you’re not alone. Before SBS, I (Helen) read through Leviticus with little understanding, and certainly very little joy. It can be difficult to understand Leviticus when we don’t understand the context of the book, but when we latch on to who this book was written for, and what they were about to face as they entered the Promised Land, this book comes alive with the beauty of God’s character, and His heart for His people. My great hope in teaching Leviticus was to communicate this to my audience.
To understand the laws of Leviticus, we need to understand the situation of the original readers. Because Leviticus was most likely written by Moses at the end of his life, as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, we can ascertain several things about the original readers. Firstly, they had either been born in the wilderness, or they had been children/teenagers when they left Egypt. Numbers 14 tells us the Israelites twenty years old and upward would die wandering in the wilderness because of their rebellion when brought to the cusp of the Promised Land the first time. Those under twenty at the time of the rebellion survived forty years of wandering, but watched their parents and much of their families die. Most would remember leaving Egypt: the experience of the first Passover, the crossing the Red Sea, the rebellion of their parents’ generation as they refused to enter the Promised Land. This group grew up in the wilderness, had children in the wilderness, children who, like them, were ready to enter into the land God had promised Abraham centuries prior. This means the original reader of Leviticus remembered Egypt and everything about it – the slavery, the pantheon of Egyptian gods, the works of God to rescue them from that land – or was raised by someone who remembered.
Further, the original readers, whether born in the wilderness or aged after years of wandering, were entering the Promised Land: Canaan. A land with multiple people groups with their own pantheons of gods and religious rituals. Many of these rituals included “sympathetic magic,” a sexual union of worshipers in hopes that the gods would imitate their union and provide fertility for the land. Other rituals included the spilling of blood, child sacrifices, and a myriad of practices we shudder to think about. God’s people were headed into this as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. While they didn’t know what awaited them, God knew every detail. He knew what would tempt His people into worship of other gods. He knew where they had come from (Egypt) and where they were going (Canaan), and He knew He had to equip His people so they could remain faithful to Him.
As we read the Law today, it can be easy to miss the heart behind what we think of as archaic stipulations. Why did God prohibit His people from eating pork (Leviticus 11:7)? Why was He so serious about leprosy (Leviticus 13)? Why did God consider a menstruating woman “unclean” (Leviticus 15:19)? What was God’s problem with tattoos? (Leviticus 19:28)? What’s up with not being allowed to plant your fields in the seventh year (Leviticus 25)? As we read these specific commands to the ancient Israelites, it’s important to remember who they were, where they came from, and where they were going. God did not give His people the laws arbitrarily, or to be a downer. There is a heart and a reason behind each one.
When we read the list of food laws (Leviticus 11), it’s interesting to note that most of the foods prohibited were a) likely to carry disease in the climate of the wilderness and/or Canaan, b) were uneconomical to raise as a food source in the wilderness/Canaan, or c) were foods used in religious rituals of other gods, rituals not to be imitated. I find it fascinating that modern allergy research shows us God’s food laws kept His people away from certain food allergies, as different people groups are susceptible to different allergens. Lamb is considered the least allergenic of all meats, and this meat was included in many of the Israelites’ worship practices (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 177-178). Through the food laws, God kept His people away from idolatry, and was merciful to their digestive systems.
Of course in 1446 BC (the time of the exodus), little medical research was available. You certainly couldn’t google image “leprosy” to see if your spot meant you were unclean! But God was serious about keeping His people healthy. By instructing His people to separate themselves from the rest of the population when ill with a skin disease, He was instilling quarantine in their culture, in a time when such medical knowledge wouldn’t necessarily be available. By giving His people leprosy laws (Leviticus 13), God was ensuring an epidemic didn’t circulate through His people.
When we read laws concerning blood (such as in the case of the unclean menstruating woman in Leviticus 15:19), and we understand the way the Canaanites used blood in their religious rituals, it becomes easy to understand why God would want to keep His people miles away from anyone who was bleeding, and why He would emphasize that being unclean meant going no where near the tabernacle. As God forbade tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), He was also forbidding cult activity that was part of Canaanite culture.
God wanted His people to be successful in the Promised Land, so at a time when agricultural wisdom was not as developed as it is now, He includes the Sabbath Year in the Law (Leviticus 25), commanding His people to allow the land to have a rest every seventh year. Today any gardener or farmer will tell you it is important to allow land to rest between crops, especially after an especially nutrient-demanding crop has been grown. Did the Israelites know this, a people enslaved in Egypt for four centuries, involved in building projects for Pharaoh? Likely not. But God did. The Sabbath Year also gave His people the opportunity to trust the Lord for provision, just as they had relied on Him for provision in the wilderness.
Almost every law we read in Leviticus was for a) keeping God’s people from idolatry, or b) the benefit of the Israelites, whether it was their health or their success in the Promised Land. Had they followed the Law, they would have been a culture more developed than any around them, a people of extraordinary health and success; the poor and sojourner would be provided for (see Leviticus 19:9-10), and God would bless His people with security, bounty, and peace (Leviticus 16). The Law was good for God’s people, and as they obeyed it, God’s character would shine through them to the nations around them, meaning that the law was also for c) evangelism. Through His people, God desired to bless all peoples, through drawing them to Him.
As we read the Law as Christians, we can read it knowing Christ has fulfilled every stipulation and command. Only the laws renewed in the New Testament must be obeyed today, with God’s grace for the sin of those who believe in Him, through the blood of the final sacrifice, Jesus. While the Law isn’t specifically for us, it reveals God’s unchanging character and His goodness, and it reminds us we are to live differently in the world, obeying the Lord, and shining His light to those who live around us.
How is God calling you to live differently in this world? How is God calling you to shine His light to the nations, your neighbors, your family? How is He calling you to change your habits, your lifestyle, your interactions with others? He wants to draw others to Him through you. What a privilege.