Many people who resolve to read the Bible all the way through get stuck in Leviticus. It is easy to understand why. It is a very difficult book to read, for three main reasons.
The first is that it is quite simply a boring book – it is like trying to read the telephone directory. It is so different in content from other books of the Bible, especially the first two, which are full of stories. In these books there is a plot, there is drama, things are moving. When you get into Leviticus there is hardly any narrative at all and, since many regard the Bible as a collection of stories, it is a great disappointment to arrive at a book which has no stories of any kind.
The second reason is that it is so unfamiliar. It is from a different culture as well as having a different content. We are moving away from our present situation by 3,000 years and 2,000 miles. It is a totally different world and we read about things that we find very strange. For example, consider the way they deal with infectious disease in Leviticus. The poor person has to tear their clothes, let their hair grow long and unbrushed, cover the lower part of their face and go around shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” In our society we deal with infectious diseases rather differently! It also includes other weird activities – we do not arrive at church today carrying a little lamb or a pigeon to give to the pastor, who then slits its throat in front of the whole congregation.
The third reason is that it seems to be so irrelevant. What has Leviticus got to say to me living today? At work on a Monday? Deep down we know instinctively that we are not under the law of Moses and, since this book is part of his law, we are not sure what – if anything – it has to do with us.
Let us therefore consider the book with a view to overturning some of the misgivings we may have. Leviticus is one of five books that together make up what is called the Pentateuch (penta meaning “five”). These comprise the law of Moses. The Jews call it the Torah, the “Books of Instruction”, and they read it through once a year. They start on the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles, sometime in September/October, and beginning with Genesis 1, they read it through the year to finish at the next Feast of Tabernacles the following autumn.
ITS PLACE IN THE PENTATEUCH
Genesis is the book of beginnings: it is what the word “genesis” means and it tells you how everything began, from the creation of our universe to Israel becoming the people of God. Exodus focuses on the Israelites going out from Egypt. Leviticus derives its name from the tribe of Levites, one of the tribes of Israel. The book of Numbers is precisely what it says: a book of statistics (600,000 men came out of Egypt, plus women and children, probably 2.5 million in all). Finally, Deuteronomy (deutero means “second” and nomus means “law”) focuses on the second giving of the law (God gave his law twice, once at Sinai and once just before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, so the Ten Commandments come twice – once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy as a kind of reminder of the law just before they entered the Promised Land).
When we ask who these books are about, we begin to see the shape emerging. Genesis is a universal book – it is about everybody, the human race and the whole universe. Exodus is a national book – it zooms down on one people, the nation of Israel. In Leviticus the focus is even more narrow, on only one tribe out of the whole nation. Once past Leviticus, the focus opens out again and Numbers is about the whole nation once more. Deuteronomy puts Israel against the backcloth of the entire world and we are back to the universal viewpoint.
This shape helps to explain why so many people get stuck in Leviticus. While they are interested in universal things and even national things, they are less concerned when the focus is upon a particular tribe, other than their own.
ITS PLACE IN GEOGRAPHY
Genesis begins with the whole earth, then starts to focus in on the area of the Chaldees where Abraham lived, then on the land of Canaan to which he travelled, and then on Egypt where his descendants ended up. In the land of Egypt they became slaves for 400 years. In Leviticus the focus is once again very narrow, concentrating on just one place: Mount Sinai, where the law and regulations were given. The focus then expands with the journeys through the Negev, Edom and Moab, back into Canaan.
ITS PLACE IN TIME
Genesis covers centuries, all the past history of our earth. Exodus covers years, about 300. Leviticus only covers one month, while Numbers covers 40 years and Deuteronomy looks forward through the centuries to the future history of Israel. Once again we can see the shape of the five books of Moses. Leviticus is the hinge of the whole thing, focusing down to the most important month at the most important place with the most important tribe. The whole of the law of Moses hangs on this.
When the Jews read through the Pentateuch every 12 months, they spend about a fortnight to three weeks reading Leviticus.