I have a friend from seminary who once tried to write a paper for a class that explored how Leviticus 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.”
My friend is not the only one. Many of us struggle to understand these kinds of strange passages from the Church’s sacred texts.
- 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 of the priesthood?
I believe 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.
And that’s exactly what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did two millennia ago: he re-read and re-interpreted Leviticus through his understanding of the Christ Event.
This is why Living in The Story juxtaposes the book of Leviticus and the Letter to the Hebrews as we read during weeks 14 and 15.
Let us allow this Hebrew Christian theologian to help us with our interpretive approach to the Old Testament. Let him help us re-read our Scriptures.
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 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.
I believe 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 could be – and should be -appropriated by the Christian community.
They were – because these early Christian thinkers understood themselves to be part of the same story; the ancient, ongoing and overarching story of God in relationship to 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 current experience with God within the context of the experiences and witness of God’s people throughout the ages – hereby reframing their faith.
As these faithful theologians 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 Christ Movement of The Story.
Their interpretation of their Bible was grounded in a confidence of the inherent unity of Scripture.
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 all reality by this central Christ truth.
The book of Leviticus stands at the center of the Five Books of Torah.
The Pentateuch contains the story of The Law that we so often talk about: the Ten Commandments given from the mouth of Yahweh and written into stone by the finger of God; other laws/rules/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” (i.e. Otherness, Set-Apartness) is a key theme in this book.
You will see this word repeated over and over and we can understand its importance to Israel in this summary statement:
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.Leviticus 19:2
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 that is grounded in the ancient faith of our ancestors.