On Reading the Unreadable Book: Leviticus

Bible, Latin; Leviticus 27:25–Numbers 1:40. En...
Bible, Latin; Leviticus 27:25–Numbers 1:40. England, late thirteenth century, .f19r (Photo credit: Dunedin Public Libraries Medieval Manuscripts)

What should we “do” with Leviticus? That is the book in the Old Testament with all the instructions about sacrifice and the rules about eating and clothing and, of course, sex.

One option is to ignore it. We can do that, in one of two ways.

We can reason that since there is no Temple, no one can actually practice much of what Leviticus is concerned with and so we can ignore it.  Christians claim that we are not required to be Torah observant and so the Law simply doesn’t apply to us. Therefore, we can ignore Leviticus with a clear conscious.

Others, wanting to hold firmly  to the idea that all scripture is equally valuable- being God breathed- will say that Leviticus has its place in the canon and affirm its importance but practically speaking will still ignore it. We don’t read it, we don’t study it, we don’t wrestle with it. We all pick and choose which parts of the Bible we spend the most time with and this is, I would guess, what many of us do- intentionally or not.

But what if we don’t want to ignore Leviticus? How do we make sense of it?

We could spend time looking for underlying rules and principles. We would claim that while the specific practices may not be relevant but the basic intentions and goals still have value.Or we could “spiritualize” the text and talk about spiritual sacrifices, or we could allegorize it and try to find the modern counterparts.

And there is some value in all of these approaches. Paul talks about spiritual sacrifices. Biblical scholars talk about Jesus taking on the functions of the Temple and Torah in his life and ministry.  And we can claim that since there is no Temple, no one can sacrifice. And the Jerusalem Council did set Torah observance aside for gentile followers of Jesus. Each of these approaches to Leviticus has some value. We ought to be intentional and thoughtful about when and how we use them. There is more than one way to faithfully approach this book.

My concern about all these methods of “dealing” with Leviticus is that they tend to make ourselves the center of the discussion. What does Leviticus have to do with me? How does this apply to my life? How is Leviticus relevant to my life? Good questions, but not perhaps the first questions we should be asking. If we ask these questions first, we can justify ignoring the text and I think we run the risk of misreading the text.

There is another reading method I’d like to add to this list. If the Bible is God’s story, God revealing God’s self to us, then perhaps the question is not what does Leviticus have to do with me but rather what does Leviticus have to do with God and how do I fit myself into God’s story? Our tendency is to make ourselves the focus and then “fit” God in too. But really the story isn’t about us- it is about God. We’re part of the story but we are not the entire story or even most of the story.

I find it helpful to recall Dick Murray’s questions to ask the Biblical text:*

What does this passage  tell us about God?

What does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and human beings?

What does this tell us about men and women?

Those three questions help me keep the focus off of me (for at least a little while) and to focus on God. At some point, I should put myself back into the reading and ask what this text means for me. But what the text means for me is the last step.

While Leviticus still is not my favorite book of the Bible, asking those three questions helps refocus me and does give me a way to approach Leviticus that does justice to Leviticus and more importantly to God.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


Dick Murray, Teaching the Bible to Adults and Youth(Abingdon Press:Nashville) 1987. Page 41

4 thoughts on “On Reading the Unreadable Book: Leviticus

  1. I spent about four months teaching a young adult Sunday school class through Leviticus. Finding Christ throughout the book was amazing!

    I like you observation asking why it has to be about us…We kind of forget it’s about Him..

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