Meet Leviticus and Numbers, infamous killers of countless New Year’s resolutions to read the Bible through in a year. These two books, the third and fourth portions of the Torah, are sections of the Bible that most people, if they were honest, could do without.
Oh sure, there are parts of them that we all appreciate: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for example, comes from Leviticus (19:18). We think the year of Jubilee is pretty cool (Lev. 25), and we know that all those sacrifices have something to do with Jesus, though it’s hard to figure it out just reading the various rules and regulations for performing them.
Numbers has some good stories, but getting through all the census lists and laws and offerings is mind-numbing. It is also notoriously difficult to detect the structure of the book of Numbers — and so the book about wandering in the wilderness is an easy one in which to get lost!
At least the structure of Leviticus is clear: sections of laws and regulations are followed by narratives or regulations that relate to the previous section of statutes.
|Statutes: The Land
|Ritual: Day of Atonement
|Story: Eye for an eye
That, of course, doesn’t make it any easier to read this material, to understand why all the detail has been preserved, and to assess its relevance to today’s readers. As Christians, especially with the assistance of the book of Hebrews, we accept that the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system foreshadows Christ. We can also pick out certain ethical principles — especially in such chapters as Lev. 19 — but that still doesn’t help us understand what we should think about or why we should care about becoming unclean from bodily discharges, not having sex during our wife’s menstrual period, wearing garments made of two different materials, enacting the death penalty for certain kinds of sexual sins, or being able to calculate the various valuations of different kinds of offerings, vows, and tithes. Nor is it exactly clear why all of these details would have been preserved in the final form of the Torah for the post-exilic community.
Walter Brueggemann suggests the following:
The book of Leviticus articulates an old and perennial agenda in Israel in which there is an awareness of the radical “otherness” of YHWH who cannot be approached casually, but who can be hosted only with rigorous, disciplined intentionality. This agenda is rooted in Israel’s profound sense of the character of this God who is, at the same time, faithful and ominous. That sense of God is perhaps intensified in a season of cultural danger. This reality may provide a clue for our appreciation of the codification of older materials in exile or son thereafter. It is curious of course that by the time of the exile, perhaps by the time of the final form of this text, there was no longer a temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices could be offered and cultic holiness could be practiced. This may suggest that the extended inventory of sacrifices and related materials in the book of Leviticus is to be understood not as a manual for practice, but as a liturgical, aesthetic act of imagination of what the world of Israel is like when it is known to be focused upon glad responses in obedience and sacrifice to YHWH. In this horizon there is no other chance for entry into the presence except through disciplines of holiness. While the book of Leviticus is remote from our contemporary world, its issues inescapably persist because the otherness of God persists in the world of faithful interpretation.