The toughest part of the Torah is the book of Leviticus. The reason that we struggle with this book is that we do not understand its purpose. This article explains the purpose of this obscure book.
Directed to Israel
The book of Leviticus was specifically directed to the nation of Israel. The book begins with God directing Moses to speak to the Israelites.
The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, "Speak to the Israelites... " (Lev 1:1-2).
The phrase "Speak to the children of Israel" is used in over half of the chapters of the book (1:2, 4:1, 7:28, 11:1, 12:1, 15:2, 18:1, 20:1, 23:2, 25:1, 27:1). In several other chapters, Moses was told to "Speak to the children of Aaron" (a reference to the priests). This indicates that the book of Leviticus was specifically for the people of Israel
The book focuses on the tabernacle, sacrifices, diseases, food, sabbaths, priests and feasts that were for Israel only. These things all contributed the uniqueness of Israel, but they have been fulfilled by Jesus, so they are not mandatory in the modern world.
The purpose of Leviticus is confirmed in the final chapters.
These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the LORD established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses (Lev 26:46).
The instructions and requirements outlined in the book govern the relationship between God and Israel. They are not universal. This message is confirmed in the final verse of the book.
These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites (Lev 27:34).
How To Manuals
A common Hebrew phrase in the book of Leviticus is "Zoth Torah". It is usually translated as "This is the law of" or "This is the regulations for". An example is Leviticus 7:1.
These are the regulations for the guilt offering, which is most holy.
A better translation would be "How To". Leviticus 7:1-10 is the "How To" for the guilt offering. The book of Leviticus includes a whole lot of How To's. There is a How To for each of the offerings. There is also a How To for the consecration of priests, a How To for holy food, a How To for child birth, a How To for skin diseases and a How To for religious feasts.
The phrase Zoth Torah is also used in the book of Numbers. There is a How To for jealousies, a How To for Nazarites, a How To for water of cleaning, and a How To for dead bodies.
Rather than describing these as laws, it is more correct to see them as How To's or Instruction Manuals for the Israelites. They applied to the lives of the Israelites. They are not universal commands for everyone everywhere.
The rules given in Leviticus were designed to keep Israel separate from the rest of the world. While they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were forced to live together in one place. They were shut out of life in Egypt, but this protected them from the influence of Egyptian culture. Once they moved into the Promised Land, this protection was gone. The risk of losing their identity was enormous. They needed a way to protect themselves from the influence of the surrounding nations.
The book of Leviticus contained a set of rules and regulations that would give Israel a unique identity. This would keep them distinct from the nations round them. Leviticus is all about separation and holiness.
Being holy is about being different. The children of Israel would dress differently and eat differently. Their society would be organised differently. These distinct cultural patterns would keep them separated from other cultures that might influence them.
This is why many of the rules in Leviticus are about external behaviour. The best way to establish a distinct cultural identity is to live and behave differently from those around you. This is stated throughout the book.
You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own (Lev 20:26).
You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them (Lev 15:31).
By dressing differently and eating different food, they were able to remain distinct.
Holiness through culture separation no longer applies. Christians have been born again and given a new heart by the Holy Spirit. This makes it possible for us to actually be different. The thing that marks Christians off from other people is their love for one another
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).
Love is a much better distinctive, but it was not possible before the coming of Jesus. The Holy Spirit had not been poured on all people, so Israel had to rely on external differences to mark themselves off from other nations.
Protection from Evil Spirits
The provisions of Leviticus seem quite harsh. The reason is that Israel need protection from the hostile environment in which they were living. Jesus had not yet died for their sins, so they had no spiritual protection from demonic attacks. The Holy Spirit had not transformed their lives, so they had no ability to cast our evil spirits. When King Saul was attacked by a spirit there was no cure. He was calmed by David's singing, but he could never escape the torment (1 Sam 16:14-23).
Entering the Promised Land was very risky for people without spiritual protection, because the wickedness of the Canaanites has increased enormously, filling the land with evil spirits. The only protection from evil spirits was to keep separate from people who carried them. Driving out all evil people from the land was the safest way to get rid of the demonic powers they had brought in.
God required Israel to drive out all the inhabitants of the land they were entering, because allowing the Canaanites to live among them would mean allowing these evil spirits to continue their activity. By purging the inhabitants of Canaan, they could get rid of most the demonic activity that dominated the region.
Leviticus 18-20 deals with sexual activity. Canaan had become a stronghold for the demonic powers linked with sexual immorality. The penalties for sexual immorality are harsh, but they were designed to prevent the Israelites from being polluted and defiled. Chalal, the Hebrew word for pollute, is used five times in these chapters. The following verses expand this theme.
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants (Lev 18:24-25).
You must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).
Everyone who does any of these detestable things-such persons must be cut off from their people (Lev 18:29).
Do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them (Lev 18:30).
The Israelites and their families were very vulnerable to the spirit of lust that had been rampant in the land. Their only protection for their family life was to stamp out all sexual immorality.
The situation is totally different now that Christ has come. People can now delivered from sexual evil the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We no longer need to stamp out all sexual immorality, because we have much better protection through the cross of Jesus. He was able to eat and drink with prostitutes and sinners without fear. We can do the same because we have the protection of the blood of Jesus. We no longer need to separate ourselves physically in like the Israelites.
The power of the cross did not exist in Old Testament times, so separation and destruction of evil was their only protection. Rather than condemning Israel for being harsh, we should be grateful that we have better protection.
This approach to Leviticus creates one interesting problem for some Christians. The only Old Testament laws against homosexuality are contained in the book of Leviticus. A man who has sexual relations with another man was to be put to death. This requirement was designed to protect Israel against the spirit of lust. Their only weapon against this spirit was to drive all sexual immorality underground or eliminate it from the nation.
This homosexuality law is not required now, as the cross of Jesus has dealt with all sexual sin and defeated the demonic powers behind it. Christians are fully protected from all, provided they abide in Christ. It also means that they have to go to the New Testament for scriptures opposing homosexuality. We cannot use the reference in Leviticus, because it is no longer relevant.
I find it ironic that Christians reject many of the requirements, because they are harsh, yet they want to retain the harsh treatment of homosexuals. A more consistent approach is to accept that all of the laws in Leviticus have been made redundant by the cross.
Redundant but Useful
The book of Leviticus was given to the people of Israel to shape their lives in the time before Jesus came to earth and changed things forever. The instructions of Leviticus are not mandatory for Christians, as they are not relevant in the modern world.
Despite this change, Leviticus can still be useful for Christians. Many of the passages in the book point us towards Jesus. We can only understand the full meaning of his death, by understanding the sacrifices that he fulfilled. We might also gain insights about applying the other passages of the Torah. However, the laws of Leviticus are not to be applied in modern society.
Love in Leviticus
Another irony is that one of the most important themes in the New Testament comes from Leviticus.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (Lev 19:18).
We can continue to use this verse, because it was claimed and repeated by Jesus.
Jesus replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt 22:37-40).
This command is quoted seven times in the New Testament, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul and James (Matt 19:19; Matt 22:39; Mar 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; Jam 2:8). John never quoted this command, but he certainly imbibed it, because both his gospel and his letters focus on the theme of love.
The second greatest commandment comes from Leviticus. This shows the graciousness of God. Even while giving laws to protect the children of Israel from evil, he pointed forward to the time when these laws would be made redundant by the death of his Son.
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