I have a friend in seminary who once tried to write a paper on Leviticus for a class that explored how the Bible is the Word of God. He couldn’t write it. He worked on it for weeks and weeks and he never could figure out how to understand this odd, ancient book as “the word of the Lord.”
Many of us struggle to understand these kinds of strange passages from the Church’s Sacred Text. Just how could it be “the word of the Lord” that people with various disabilities should be excluded from worship? How could it be that people who are born a certain way should be excluded from the ministry? If we are going to say this is “the word of the Lord,” then we need to think about what kind of Lord this is who would demand such a thing.
But then again, some Christians don’t seem to grapple with these kinds of dilemmas much at all. It’s like some Christians’ theology could fit on a bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” It’s like questions are unfaithful, unworthy and unwelcome.
It is not possible for Christian readers of the Old Testament to make sense of Leviticus without reading it through the lens of Jesus Christ. That’s exactly what the writer of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews did two millennia ago, so we can let this Hebrew Christian theologian help us with our interpretive approach, help us re-read our Scriptures.
For me, trying to make sense out of a text like Leviticus is no small effort. Two things help me as I do any work of biblical interpretation, trying to stay faithful to the tradition and open to the Spirit while I’m doing it.
One principle that’s really important is to value the unity of Scripture.
There are lots of ways parts of the Bible don’t make much sense at all if they are taken piecemeal. It is Scripture as a whole, as one overarching story, that gives appropriate witness to the mighty acts of God throughout history. We can’t separate Leviticus from the Psalms or the Prophets or the Wisdom literature. We need all of it together in order for our faith to have any real understanding.
It’s like a symphony: a variety of melodies, some very different from the other, played in movements within the complex score of Scripture. Our awareness and comprehension and appreciation emerges only as the various strains and themes and rhythms of this fascinating masterpiece are brought together into a polyphonic unity.
For me as a Christian, the Old Testament and the New Testament need each other. I think it was brilliant for the earliest Christians to insist on incorporating the Jewish Scriptures into the Christian Bible. It was not a given that our Christian Bible would contain both a New Testament and an Old Testament. The early church needed to come to consensus on whether the Jewish Scriptures should be appropriated by the Christian community.
But they did – because these early Christian thinkers understood themselves to be part of the ancient and ongoing story of God’s people. They saw the importance and the wisdom of interpreting their own newfound faith in light of the traditional faith of their ancestors. They sought to frame their own experience with God within the context of the experiences and witness of God’s people throughout the ages.
And in so doing, as they read and re-read their own Scriptures, they found there strains and themes and melodies and rhythms that came together for them into a stunning new movement of The Story.
The other principle that is crucial for the process of Christian biblical interpretation is to believe the unity of Scripture is centered in Jesus Christ. Everything coheres around the Christ.
I can’t read the Old Testament except as a Christian because I am a Christian. I see the world through this Christ prism; I make sense of reality by this Christ truth.
The book of Leviticus stands at the center of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Torah. Here is The Law we so often talk about. In Exodus, the Ten Commandments given from the mouth of Yahweh and written into stone by the finger of God. The other laws/rule/ordinances given to Moses for the people. These five books are crucial to the self understanding of Israel.
And Leviticus in particular defines and describes what it means to be the holy people of a Holy Lord. “Holiness” Otherness Set-Apartness is a key theme in this book. You will see this word repeated over and over again and we can understand its importance to Israel in this summary statement Leviticus 19:2:
“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Hang in there with the readings in the next few weeks. The Torah may be a strange world for us but it is crucial reading as we seek to understand our own faith grounded in these ancient understandings.