A Crash Course on Leviticus
A few weeks ago, my oldest son got a 3D Wooden Puzzle called the "Prisoner's Ball" - check out the pictures at the top of this post to see what it looks like. The goal is to disassemble the interlocking wooden pieces in such a way that the ball in the center can be freed.
My oldest son worked diligently on it for quite a while (he's usually pretty good at these sorts of things), but with no luck. Then I tried my hand at it for longer than I'd care to admit - also with no luck. Even with devoted attention and lots of effort, we didn't unlock the puzzle. It was kinda confusing, discouraging, and frustrating. A couple of weeks later, I ended up "cheating" and searching for clues on YouTube (insert simultaneous smile and *head of shame* here - ha!). (Spoiler alert: Here's the video.) In about 5 minutes, the guy on the video explained how to work through the puzzle in such a way that the ball could be released. The puzzle that was initially disorienting and discouraging became doable.
In my experience reading through Leviticus and talking with many others reading through it as well, I wonder if our reading of Leviticus can often feel like my attempts at figuring out the Prisoner's Ball Puzzle. We apply attention and spend our effort, but we end up confused, frustrated, and discouraged.
But let's not resign ourselves to feelings of defeat, or feel like we need to forecast "trigger warnings" every time we talk about Leviticus or begin reading it ourselves! While there is much in this book that can be disorienting to 21st century American readers, that's doesn't mean we should avoid the book. After all, this book is part of God's inspired Word, the Bible! The message of Leviticus would have been something Jesus meditated upon as an observant Jew. And Leviticus is certainly included in the "all Scripture" that is inspired by God that Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 - "all Scripture" (including Leviticus!) that is useful for "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Just like a few tips helped me figure out the Prisoner's Ball Puzzle, so too a few tips can helps us move into and through Leviticus in such a way that we understand and appreciate its message (and live accordingly) - even if parts of it still sound foreign and stretch our understanding.
With all that said, then, let's briefly introduce ourselves to a few important tips that can help you move into and through Leviticus in a right way:
Tips for Understanding Leviticus
1. Adjust how you read.
The big idea here is that Leviticus is going to read a lot differently than Genesis and Exodus. Genesis and Exodus have lots of stories. We meet lots of people. There’s action and plot. Leviticus is a different sort of book than that. If Genesis and Exodus are more like a novel, Leviticus is more like a “how to” manual you pick up at the hardware store. It's moving from the "action" category of Netflix to the "documentary" section. I find that just knowing that I should change gears in how I read Leviticus helps me think about how I should understand it ins some right ways.
2. Keep the big picture in mind.
To start with, this means we need to keep the big picture of the Bible in mind as we read through Leviticus. God is working to redeem a sinful people for Himself. God created humanity good, we sinned (and blew it), and God begins working through the family of Abraham, the nation of Israel, by initiating a promise-filled relationship with them that offers hope to the whole world. By the time we get to Leviticus, God has initiated this relationship and done a LOT to stay faithful to His promises and keep them viable. Leviticus presses “pause” on the advance of this storyline so God can show His people how they can live in right relationship with Him.
We also need to keep the main message of Leviticus in mind. The word to think of here is "holiness." God is holy and we are sinful. (We know that from Genesis and Exodus.) Leviticus, then, shows us how sinful humanity can live in covenant relationship with a holy God. That’s the bottom line we’ve got to keep in mind.
3. Process all the laws in a responsible way.
If you’ve read through Leviticus before, you know there are LOTS of laws. And some of them seem really weird. I don’t think this means we ignore all of them; instead, I think we need to think about how we read them and understand them.
As a starting point, I’ve found it helpful to approach OT laws by way of three categories - if nothing else, this at least introduces us to the idea of thinking about the laws in a discerning way and considering how each should be understood...rather than bumping into one "weird" law and throwing all of them out.
So here are the three categories I begin with, when orienting people to Old Testament laws (and we get a lot of 'em in Leviticus):
One category of law is the ceremonial laws - these are laws that govern Israelite worship. Another category of law is civil laws, laws that apply God’s moral standards to the larger Israelite society as governed by an Israelite king (who himself acknowledges and submits to the authority of Yahweh). A third category of Old Testament law is the moral laws - these are laws that reflect God’s own moral character and are closely connected to the 10 Commandments (personal character, relationships, sexual ethics, etc.)
Having these categories in place is valuable, because it helps us process the laws and how we should think about them today. Let's look at each category in turn:
While this won't answer EVERY question you'll ever have about Leviticus, these tips will point you in the right direction and can help your wheels get some traction for forward momentum. Let's turn now to think about some practical ideas for actually working through Leviticus - either individually or with a group of others.
Tips for Working through Leviticus (Getting Practical)
(Listed in no particular order.)
1. Check out this short video
In less than 7 minutes, the guys at the Bible Project have faithfully and creatively summarized the message of Leviticus.
2. Maintain perspective on all the laws with other Scripture passages.
A few to check out and keep in mind are Psalm 51:16-17; Matthew 22:34-40; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Hebrews 10:11-14
3. Keep going back to Jesus.
Specifically, make a list of specific ways that reading Leviticus helps you appreciate the meaning and magnitude of Jesus and what He’s done for us. (And refer back to Hebrews 9:24-28.)
4. Stay focused on big picture take-aways.
Remember, Leviticus is about how sinful people can live in relationship with a holy God. Since God can't ignore and doesn't wink at sin, something must be done! Here's where words like "sacrifice" and "atonement" come in. Don't lose these big pictures themes (the forest) amidst all the individual laws (the trees) within Leviticus.
5. Celebrate progress.
Finally, be sure and check out this print resource we made available with much of this same content (in a slightly modified form):
Are there other helpful tips you've discovered - maybe tips that can (1) facilitate understanding the book of Leviticus or (2) practically help you work through the book of Scripture? Pass 'em along here!
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