Relation to Exodus

Having looked at Leviticus in the context of the Pentateuch, we should also relate it back to Exodus. It is very important to recognize how each book grows out of the previous book if we wish to understand it fully. In the second half of Exodus the tabernacle is built, God’s tent in which he lives among his people. If you imagine the camp in Exodus, God’s tent would be in the middle and hundreds of other tents all around it – the divine tent and the human tents together. Leviticus is about everything that goes on in God’s tent and everything that should go on in the people’s tents. So it divides into two halves: God’s tent and the people’s tents, with the rules and regulations for both.

Furthermore, when dealing with the tabernacle, Exodus talks about God’s approach to man, but Leviticus talks about man’s approach to God. Exodus is about the deliverance that God brought to his people, but Leviticus is about the dedication of God’s people to him. Exodus is about God’s grace in setting the people free, but Leviticus begins with thank offerings, explaining how the people can show their gratitude to God for being set free.

We need both books and their complementary messages. This book may not be as exciting as Exodus, but it shows that God expects something from us in return for what he has done for us. Once again we are reminded that we are saved in order to serve. Exodus shows how God saved his people, but Leviticus explains how they are to serve him.

‘Be holy’

When we read the Old Testament it can be helpful to imagine that we are Jewish. For a Jewish person the reason for reading Leviticus is clear: it is quite literally a matter of life and death. To the Jews there is only one God and that is the God of Israel. All other so-called gods are figments of human imagination. It was the same for the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus. Since there was only one God and they were his only people on earth, there was a special relationship between them. On God’s side he promised to do many things for them: to be their government; to be their minister of defense and protect them; to be their minister of finance, so there would be no poor among them; to be their minister of health, so that none of the diseases of Egypt would touch them. God would be everything they needed, their King. In return he expected them to live right and to do things right. The biblical word is ‘righteous’ – ‘righteousness’ means living right. The key text in the whole of Leviticus is one that is frequently alluded to in the New Testament: ‘Be holy for I am holy’.

God expects the people he liberates to be like him and not like those around them. Many of the things which seem puzzling in Leviticus are explained by this fact. It is the key that unlocks the whole book. When God tells them that they must not do something, it is because the people around them are doing it but they are to be different, to be holy because he is holy. If God saves you he expects you to be like him; he expects you to live his way and to be holy as he is holy.

The shape of the book

We have noted already that the book is in two halves. It builds up to a climax and then flows out from the climax. It is also like a multi-layered sandwich. The chart shows that the first section corresponds to the sixth, the second to the fifth, and the third to the fourth, leaving one right in the middle. There are clear correspondences between these sections, beautifully put together and worked out.

Remember that God is responsible for this pattern, not Moses. In fact, there are more words of God in the book of Leviticus than in any other book in the Bible! About 90 per cent of Leviticus is the direct speech of God – ‘The LORD said to Moses…’ There is no other book in the Bible that has so much of God’s direct speech, so if you want to read God’s Word this is a good book to start with. You will be reading the actual words of God.

The offerings and sacrifices of the first seven chapters are backed up by the sanctions and vows of the people in the last section. The details about the priesthood correspond to the details about the worship that they are to lead.

The climax of the book is the Day of Atonement, the day on which two animals were used to symbolize the sins of the people. They sacrificed one animal, a sheep, inside the camp. One after another they then laid their hands on the other animal, a goat, and confessed their sins. They pushed the goat out of the camp into the wilderness, where it would die with all their sins loaded on it. It was called the ‘scapegoat’, a word we still have in common use today.

The two sections of the book pivot around the Day of Atonement. The first half describes our way to God – what we call justification – and the second half describes our walk with God – what is known as sanctification.