lessons from leviticus

My commentary on Leviticus by G. J. Wenham has this interesting quote at the beginning of chapter 8:

It comes as a surprise to find the laws in Leviticus suddenly interrupted by a long narrative describing the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. We tend to think of Leviticus as a law book, not as a history book. But the reverse is really the truth. Leviticus and the other books of the Pentateuch are basically concerned with the history of God’s people. They deal with the way God brought them out of Egypt, what happened in the wilderness, how God made a covenant with them, how divine worship was established, and the like. The history provides a setting for the laws, not vice versa.

It is not just that the narrative explains when and why certain laws were given. It does that. But the events are often as important as the laws. God’s saving action is just as significant as his word. Biblical revelation is more than the bare communication of truths about God and his will. The Bible affirms that God directed the course of history in order to create a holy people who knew and did his will. [Wenham, Leviticus, p. 129, underlining mine.]

I am currently preaching in chapter 8 for our communion services (first Sunday of the month). It is rather striking to look at Leviticus from this perspective.

The single striking historical event that seems to occupy a good deal of Leviticus is the ‘strange fire’ of Nadab and Abihu – the sin that cost them their lives. If we think of the first ten chapters organized around this event (plus the ordination of the priesthood), the precise details of the sacrificial system (Lev 1-7) take on added importance.

The next section of the book (Lev 11-16) concludes with the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). The Day of Atonement in particular is the day each year when the nation is cleansed of its pollution by sin … and follows the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (Lev 11-15). Of course, Lev 16 is a law chapter also, not a historical record… except note this in Lev 16.1:

NAU Leviticus 16:1 ¶ Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died.

You see, these laws, too, are rooted in the event of Lev 9. The Lord’s revelations, then, concerning cleanness and uncleanness take on much more relevance if we consider them from the perspective of the people who are living them.

The laws from Lev 17-27 are less unified, more of a miscellany with wide ranging topics and applications. Might that be rooted in ‘what comes next’, the numbering of the people at the outset of the wilderness wanderings? We find a multitude of people about to set out on the march … many loose ends need to be addressed to manage so great a host. [There are also a few brief historical connections interspersed through these chapters.]

In any case, it is important for us as New Testament believers to be aware that the laws of Leviticus are not tedious detail concerning a long ago religious system. They are formative for the spiritual lives of God’s people, both in the 1500 years of the Law’s rule and even now formative and informative concerning the 2000 [and counting] years of the age of the Cross.

Another feature of Leviticus that I am noticing is this:

NAU Leviticus 4:1 ¶ Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

The phrase, ‘the Lord spoke to Moses,’ is repeated 33 times in Leviticus. (In addition Lev 1.1 says ‘the Lord called to Moses’.) In Lev 10.3, Moses reports to Aaron that it is what the Lord spoke’ concerning the rigorous requirements on the priesthood and in Lev 10.8, the Lord speaks directly to Aaron, instructing him and his sons never to drink wine or strong drink while they are serving in the tabernacle.

In response to the Lord’s direct instruction, we have ten times where it is said that Moses did something ‘as the Lord commanded Moses’. Six of these instances occur in Lev 8 and two more in Lev 9, the ordination of the priests. One occurs at the end of Lev 16, the Day of Atonement chapter [where it may be that Aaron is the one doing as the Lord commanded Moses], and one occurs in Lev 24.23, where the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses, in exercising capital punishment against one who had cursed.

So we have a lot of the Lord speaking and Moses doing. In keeping with Moses’ example, Aaron and the people do.

This is how we relate to God.

  1. God speaks. We do.
  2. If I am a man of God, and hear what God speaks, and do what God says, others will follow my example, and ‘do’ as I have done.

The doing is not that which gains me standing with God, it is the consequence of my standing with God. I believe God, therefore I do what he says [ideally]. The more I believe, the more I do.

No wonder the Lord was always saying to his disciples, ‘Oh, you of little faith.’ I imagine he says it a good deal of us also.


A few thoughts on a living book, Leviticus.