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Leviticus is named for its focus on the activities of the priestly tribe of Levi, though it’s only mentioned by name in two verses. As the third book of the Pentateuch or Torah, it continues from Exodus with detailed instructions from God to Moses, not just for the priesthood but also for the people.

The book of Leviticus needs a lot of context. Constable’s introductory notes include a very good quote: Leviticus has been called the Bermuda Triangle of the Bible, because many Christians get lost in here. Yet the New Testament book of Hebrews draws heavily from it, so there is something to gain from basic familiarity with it.

If Exodus was the preamble of the law, Leviticus is the formal legislation, and nobody likes to trudge through a long legal document. Every detail of worship is spelled out in fine detail, so there could be no need to guess how or whether anyone was pleasing this holy God who keeps them alive in spite of themselves. Unlike other religions, where the adepts and priests hold secret knowledge the unwashed masses are deemed unworthy to receive, the Levitical system is written out for all the people to see.

But keep in mind that what we as Christians can take from this study is the emphasis on holiness and respect for God, not that we must know and practice this law for ourselves. Hebrews 7 explains that with a change of priesthood comes a change of law, and as Jesus taught in parables, you can’t mix the old and the new. Above all, the sheer volume of details makes Jesus’ fulfillment of it that much more impressive.

Constable also points out that to us today, Leviticus reads in a haphazard and repetitive way, but in fact the various chapters and sections each have their own literary structure, just as any legal document would have different styles of presentation for different aspects of the contract. Constable’s notes include a handy outline of the entire book, but we won’t be going verse-by-verse through this one; we will only pick out particular areas of controversy or difficulty.

The Big Picture

Probably the most important point to grasp is that these rituals and requirements only cover sin rather than cure it, or they wouldn’t need to be repeated as the book of Hebrews points out. We could think of this as renting or leasing legal pardon until actual payment in full could be made at the right time through Jesus, who shouted that legal term on the cross at the very moment it was being shouted by the priests sacrificing the Passover lambs.

The sacrifice of animals, which actually began when God covered Adam and Eve with animal skins, illustrates the substitutionary atonement of the innocent for the guilty. Our society bristles at such an idea on the surface, yet we practice it on some level ourselves. For example, if a child breaks a neighbor’s window, it is the parents who make restitution, since the child is not a responsible party under the law.

This is a matter of inability to pay, not a method of teaching children to be reckless and irresponsible, provided of course that the parents make sure the children learn to be more careful. It is an act of mercy, both to the child and to the neighbor as the injured party. In the same way, God provided a way for Israel to compensate him for their offenses on credit so to speak, rather than striking them dead at the first offense. And as with the child needing to see how much it cost the parents to replace the window, so also the Israelites needed to see the terrible price of rebelling against their Creator.

But like anything else put on credit, payment eventually comes due, and the Israelites would be forever unable to make it, so they would need to be redeemed. And of course it isn’t just Israel who would need help, so God also would pay the ransom for the whole world held under the power of the evil one, leading to reconciliation between God and all mankind. These three Rs sum up not only the laws of Moses but also the reasons Jesus had to sacrifice himself.

This may be a good point at which to define some terms. Pardon or forgiveness takes away the penalty of a crime but not the guilt, whereas justification takes away the guilt as well, so justification means dropping the charges. But to drop charges when there is still an injured party to compensate would be unjust, unless the injured party accepts the pardon out of mercy. What this means spiritually is that the laws of Moses could bring pardon or forgiveness, but God as the injured party is still owed something— something only the perfect, sinless God-Man could provide. And that is reconciliation with the souls he created.

But what does it mean to be sanctified? Its literal meaning is to be set apart or aside, and it includes the idea of being separated or distinguished for a spiritual purpose, good or bad. But it can also be applied to objects and animals and days, so it isn’t necessarily a term of morality or restraint from sin, but more of an identification. At the very least, it signifies the intent or beginning of a spiritual task or state. Ideally, it also includes the completion of that task, or maturity in that state.

1 Cor. 6:11 puts it all together: You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. This accomplishment of Jesus is the final goal that the laws of Moses could never reach but only rent. So the laws of Moses served to sanctify and at least temporarily pardon the people of Israel, but they couldn’t justify them so they could live forever in God’s direct presence.

Now we need to address the current resurgence of the so-called Hebrew Roots movement, which teaches that Christians must obey at least some of the laws of Moses in order to please God. Yet passages such as Rom. 7:1 and Gal. 2:11-21 make it very clear that such a teaching belittles Jesus’ sacrifice, since in Christ we died to the law. How can we please God by taking to ourselves a law that was not only specified for the nation of Israel alone, but was superceded by Jesus’ sacrifice? When Paul confronted Peter, it wasn’t because Peter was trying to save or justify himself, but because he had lapsed back to practicing the laws of Moses. We cannot please God by doing something that got Peter a rebuke.

Context is everything, and the context of the laws of Moses and the whole Levitical system is the nation and people of Israel. They had physical rites for a physical temple in a physical place on earth, the practice of which would bring physical blessings to the people and land, and the neglect of which would bring physical curses. Some quote Habakkuk 2:4 to claim that salvation was by faith even before Christ, but it doesn’t say that; it says that righteous people live by faith, not go to heaven by faith.

In hindsight we can all agree that spending eternity in God’s presence is granted to saints in any era, but they were designated such on account of their good deeds if done in faith. Even so, their souls could not enter heaven until Jesus made his sacrifice and took captivity captive per Eph. 4:8. But you will find nothing about eternal salvation of the spirit in this law. You will only find the detailed laws of an earthly theocracy.

Yet again, such a system was designed to keep the relationship between God and Israel as close as possible in this life, so that when people died they could rest in peace knowing God would judge them by how they lived and why. For Israel it meant living according to the whole law; for everyone else, it meant living with a clean conscience, per Rom. 2:14. But for us in the age of grace, it means resting in the finished work of Christ, a gift to be received with gratitude, rather than a wage to be earned by performing good deeds. And the way we please God is not with rituals or by pretending to be Jews, but by being God’s hands in this world.

As pointed out in earlier lessons, the purpose of some of these laws is to regulate rather than establish socio-economic norms such as slavery and the status of women as property. Jesus himself said in Mat. 19:8 that Moses allowed divorce only due to men’s hard hearts (ref. Deut. 24), and God’s habit is to always choose the lowly and despised to humble the proud and esteemed, per 1 Cor. 1:27-29. 1 Peter 5:5 states that God opposes the proud but defends the humble. If anyone thinks they’re granted entitlement because of their flesh, they’ve missed the point of not only these laws, but ultimately also the Gospel of Grace. We need to keep all this in mind as we study Leviticus, which at least will turn out to be the settled practice of Jewish life for many generations to come.

Now we’ll cover three topics: defilement laws, sabbatical and jubilee years, and tithes.

Defilement laws

Generally speaking, any body secretion that could be considered life liquid caused defilement. On the positive side, such laws gave people time to rest and heal since they couldn’t do their normal religious and civic duties. So we shouldn’t think of this as shaming people; instead, it not only gives them rest but also honors God as absolutely holy and perfect.

Regarding uncleanness after childbirth, there is no dancing around the fact that the time of being unclean was twice as long for giving birth to a girl as it was for a boy. Not surprisingly, many take this as a statement of inferiority of being or essence on the part of females, because another lowest-of-sinners has been brought into the world. But our study of Genesis 3 put any such notion to rest; besides, the baby itself is not called unclean.

A less misogynistic view holds that the mother would want more bonding time with a baby girl, yet this makes little sense unless she expects the baby to be quickly sold as a slave, since women were segregated in society and spent their lives mainly with other women. Any mother can tell you that bonding time doesn’t care whether the baby wears pink or blue.

Can we really think that the God who promised Eve that her seed would defeat the serpent’s seed would turn around and demean all her seed forever? And did women in ancient near east culture even need God to make sure they knew their place? The simple fact is that God hasn’t told us why he’s done a lot of the things he’s done, and we have to trust him to have valid reasons— not to make up our own, or to use his silence to excuse putting one half the human race over the other.

But what about the vow price of a female being significantly less than that for a male? This was essentially putting a value on a person’s life, so is God saying that men outvalue women? Not at all; God is saying that society valued men’s lives more because of their earning potential and the monetary value lost if the person died.

1 Tim. 1:9 states that the law is not for the righteous but for the sinful. So in these laws of Moses, the purpose is to deal with sinners, to keep them from going too far astray. What we should conclude from this is not that God made women as inferiors to men, but that sin needs to be kept on a leash. As has been said before, it’s a step, not the whole staircase.

Now by this time, those who are convinced that God is indeed a respecter of persons will have concluded that anyone who argues for equality of the sexes is something we might call the Christian F-word: a feminist. They seem to fear that equality of being is a slippery slope to all kinds of heathen beliefs and practices. But the fact is that this is a study of the Bible, not of people, and it isn’t God who ever intended to put one person over another.

As further evidence of this, take note of the fact that Biblical equality does not advocate the murder of babies (abortion), nor the practice of sexual deviancy in any way. In these passages we clearly see what God thinks of homosexuality and beastiality; they are detestable, perverted, and disgusting, so the penalty under the laws of Moses was death. Unlike the blending of fabrics or eating certain animals, this type of sin, like murder or theft, is clearly a line that not even Gentiles are to cross.

Before we move on to the next topic, we might be wondering why secreted blood is unclean, but sacrificed blood is cleansing. As Constable’s notes point out, the difference is that the sacrificed blood represents the giving of one healthy life for another, instead of being due to some disease or temporary physical condition.

Sabbatical and jubilee years

There were two kinds of sabbath rest years for the land itself: one every seventh year, and a special one every 7x7 or 49th year, also called the Jubilee year. In both cases they could harvest whatever grew, but they could not plow or prune. For the Jubilee, there were to be trumpet blasts on the tenth day of the seventh month (roughly our October).

Now on the Jubilee year all land reverted to its original tribe. Because of that, the sale price of any land between Jubilees was to be pro-rated to the number of years remaining— which, again, shows that land was leased rather than truly bought and sold, on the basis of how many harvests a person would get.

Land could also be sold to what is called a kinsman-redeemer if a poor person really needed the cash, so the land would stay in the family. That is, a clan must not turn a blind eye to the poor among their own, but were obligated to help them as much as they could.

The same principle applied to Hebrews, who were sold as slaves because of poverty, and these were to be released on the Jubilee just as the land was. Neither was interest to be charged to fellow Hebrews; no profit was to be made on the backs of any of them who were in poverty.

At this point I can hear the critics muttering about Jews and money, but do we not give things to our relatives that we would otherwise sell to outsiders? Do we give the same rights and privileges to foreigners that we give to citizens? And to be fair, per this source about Jews and money, it was the early state-church that pushed the Jews into banking and finance. Since the state-church took such a strong stance against charging interest but needed it to finance their business, they thought God wouldn’t mind if they used the Jews to do their banking for them— the same mentality that justified their use of state military power to enforce religious compliance. In both cases, they thought they’d be off the hook because they delegated their dirty work.

This is not unlike the Pharisees who legalistically wouldn’t take back Judas’ betrayal fee because it was blood money; it was all about legal loopholes rather than principles of ethics or morality. This solution of the state-church led eventually to the invention of international banking, first with the Medici family. They predated the Rothschilds by a couple hundred years, but likely served as a prototype for what has become a monstrous oppressing entity over the whole world. So before we break out the pitchforks and torches, we should ask who really created this monster.


Finally, let’s look at the issue of tithing. We can see that an annual harvest tithe was done on increase or profit from crops and herds— not any and all income or wages, and not from anyone who wasn’t a land owner gaining the profit. And it was paid to the temple so the landless Levites would have food, per Num. 18 and Chron. 31.

There was also an annual tithe for all of the people, who would give a tenth of that tithe to the Levites and poor, then take the rest and consume it themselves at the Temple. From the description in Deut. 12:4-19, 14:22-27, and 26:10-11, it was essentially a huge national holiday. Notice especially in Deut. 14:25-26 that the celebration included alcoholic beverages.

On top of that, there was a tithe every third year especially for the poor, which was collected in local towns to keep food banks stocked. This too is not described here but in Deut. 14 and 26. There are some nice infographics about all this here.

You will never hear a church sermon on tithing from the New Testament, because it simply isn’t there and cannot be there. Nothing ever connects a local church to the Temple of Israel, or pastors to the priesthood, or the wholesale replacement of food with money, much less putting a guilt trip on all working-class people to tithe their paychecks. Tithing as we know it wasn’t officially demanded until about the mid-500s a.d., and it flies in the face of the explicit teaching for Christians in 2 Cor. 8:8-15 and 9:6-7. It is impossible to give (not tithe) without compulsion when it’s demanded as a requirement to support an organization’s staff and property, or when people are threatened with God’s curses. Christians are to be generous, and this cannot and must not be enforced by others.

So Leviticus is not a bucket of proof-texts for control freaks to use against Christians, nor is it a weapon of oppression and cold-bloodedness as the critics allege. It simply governed the civic and religious life of the agrarian nation of Israel, so they could enjoy God’s blessings in the land and be reminded of the hard lessons of the past.

Above all, the laws reminded Israel of what it takes to be in good standing with a holy God, to be considerate of others including animals and property, and even to be considerate of the land itself. All of it, even their own lives, were the property of God, who was graciously allowing them to lease it. This was the relationship, the proper connection between God and people, which underlaid every aspect of Hebrew life. If they understood and accepted this relationship, they would behave accordingly, which would serve as a shadow of the coming age of grace.

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