New Book: Leviticus

by Mark Bonnington

Leviticus is a tough book because it has none of the thrills and spills of the narratives of Genesis or Exodus and because we know instinctively as Christians that most of its laws are not for us. It consists mainly of God speaking to his people Israel through Moses, setting out what holy living looks like for His holy people.

Despite later distinctions between ceremonial law (which Christians don’t keep) and moral law (which they do), Leviticus simply doesn’t divide things up like this. We dive straight in with a description of the sacrifices and of the regulations for the especially holy living of the priests offering them. The various holy offerings for worship are set out – worship that was more like a visit to an abattoir crossed with choral evensong than any church service you have ever been to.

Certain foods are forbidden and certain rituals prescribed after bodily discharges. Incest, sex during a woman’s period, homosexuality and bestiality are forbidden as is wearing clothes made of mixed cloth. Treatment of disease is regulated and you are to love your neighbour by destroying a house with dry rot and setting a guard rail around your flat roof. Holiness is lived out in the weekly, monthly and seasonal rhythms of calendar and festivals. The land is to have its own rest every seven years.  The principle of lease holding of all land is enshrined in the biblical law of Jubilee and echoes in Jesus’ gospel of restoration for the poor (Lk 4.18ff). The book ends with the promise of blessing for obedience and warnings against disobedience.

The central ceremony of the whole book is the sacrifice of Day of Atonement (Ch 16). This is the most holy day in the Jewish calendar and the only fast day required by biblical law. On this day the High Priest makes atonement on the mercy seat which covers the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies using the blood the blood of one goat and places his hands on the head of another – ‘the scapegoat’ – which is chased into the wilderness carrying the people’s sins. This is a perfect picture of what Jesus does for us on the cross – making atonement before God for our sins and carrying them far away. This what Paul refers to in Romans 3.25 when he calls Jesus the ‘mercy seat, by his blood’. The word ‘blood’ often refers to Jesus’ death understood as a sacrifice.

The motivation for most of the laws are not explained (in common with many legal codes). Some make obvious good sense, at least in Bronze Age culture, others seem very odd to us. The central thrust is a deep respect for the holiness of God and the orientation of the whole of life around this central reality.