Leviticus for Lent

Leviti­cus used to be the first book that Jewish chil­dren stud­ied in the syna­gogue. In the mod­ern Church it tends to be the last part of the Bible any­one looks at seri­ously. … “You shall love your neigh­bor as your­self” (Lev. 19:18) is the only memo­ra­ble maxim in what is to many an other­wise dull book. In prac­tice then, though not of course in the­ory, Leviti­cus is treated as though it does not really belong to the canon of sacred Scrip­ture.
So opens the land­mark com­men­tary by Gordon Wen­ham. My quest is to get books like Leviti­cus back on the agenda. This article is an oppor­tu­nity for me to offer you a quick refresher of its con­tents and rele­vance. And the pend­ing sea­son of Lent is one of many good oppor­tu­ni­ties when you might do the same for believ­ers around you, espe­cially in min­is­try con­texts which seek a formal, dis­tinc­tive series for the sea­son.
What follows is purely to stir up your theo­logi­cal enthu­si­asm and to set your crea­tive juices flowing. The sug­ges­tions will work well as a ser­mon series, but could easily be adapted for per­sonal devo­tions or group Bible studies or youth reflec­tions. (I'm yet to trial it as a chil­dren's pro­gram!)
Apart from being essen­tial back­ground to the culture and teaching of the New Testa­ment, Leviti­cus is fertile soil for nur­tur­ing believ­ers in biblical theol­ogy. Here I've linked each week's study of Leviti­cus with mate­rial from Hebrews. These links suggest some useful appli­ca­tion, mod­el the kinds of bib­li­cal theol­ogy you might develop, and (at the very least) anchor the unfa­mil­iar Old Testa­ment book in the 'safety' of the New Testa­ment. There are other direc­tions which might better suit your par­ticu­lar flock. I've also listed only five weeks, leaving you free to expand or com­bine differ­ent top­ics as best suits your cal­en­dar.
Week 1: sac­ri­fice
Leviti­cus 1-7 opens with the pain­fully detailed list of sac­ri­fices. Indeed, the details are given twice (1:1-6:7; 6:8-7:38). It's pre­cisely the kind of open­ing which imme­di­ately turns read­ers off!
I'd choose to work through one or two of the sac­ri­fices. The sin offer­ings of ch.4 are par­ticu­larly per­ti­nent, because they address (in turn) the sins of congre­ga­tional lead­ers, cor­po­rate groups, 'secu­lar' rulers, and per­sonal trans­gres­sors. I've found it very pow­er­ful to observe that God is alien­ated by-and sac­ri­fice is required for-unin­ten­tional sins (4:27-31).
The New Testa­ment rele­vance of this can be expounded many ways. There's the simple obser­va­tion that every Jew in the NT is caught up with this sac­ri­fi­cial system. Jesus himself, along with many of the NT authors, rec­og­nises that his death is the epit­ome of these sac­ri­fices. Virtu­ally every denomi­na­tion cele­brates that 'with­out the shed­ding of blood there is no for­give­ness of sins.' The line comes from Hebrews 9:22 (a pas­sage used later), which itself is grounded in these Leviti­cal sac­ri­fices (e.g. Lev. 17:11).
If you want to con­sis­tently draw links with Hebrews, then Hebrews 10:1-18 is a great 'desti­na­tion', espe­cially 10:1-4 and/or 10:11-14. You might draaag out the long litany of sac­ri­fices in Leviti­cus…in stark con­trast with the single, once-for-all-time atone­ment achieved by Jesus!
Week 2: priesthood
Leviti­cus 8-10 works through issues of the priest­hood. God cares for elabo­rate, cos­tumed ordi­na­tions! These Old Testa­ment priests are con­se­crated in order to facili­tate the sac­ri­fices, ensur­ing peo­ple's safety in God's pres­ence (9:22-24); and to teach the people what God expec­ts (10:10-11).
The New Testa­ment par­al­lel is not with any human order of priests. (All believ­ers are called to a priest­hood; e.g. 1 Peter 2:4-10; Rev. 1:5-6; 5:9-10. But this draws not on Israel's priests but on her cove­nant role founded in Exo­dus 19:5-6.)
Rather, the position of Jesus as the great­est of all priests is the central mes­sage of Hebrews. Nearly every chap­ter of that book has rele­vance, but we might single out a few. Hebrews 7 offers the argu­ment from biblical theol­ogy that Jesus' priest­hood sur­passes that of all others. A more pas­toral mile­age can be made from pas­sages like 2:10-18 and 4:14-5:10. Each of these calls con­tem­po­rary Chris­tian believ­ers to endure in their faith and to persist through times of dry­ness and per­se­cu­tion. This is pre­cisely because Jesus was not only the perfect sac­ri­fice, but is the ideal priest who fully iden­ti­fies with human frailty.
Week 3: clean and unclean
People may have met Leviti­cus 11-15 in pass­ing. They may well have found them con­fus­ing. Why are some foods in and others out? Why do baby girls make a mother unclean for twice as long as their broth­ers do? What must we do today-if any­thing-about pim­ples, mildew at home, and vari­ous bodily dis­charges?!
Many answers have tra­di­tion­ally been offered. Indeed, it's pas­sages like these which lead many Chris­tians to dis­re­gard Leviti­cus alto­gether. But, since Wen­ham's com­men­tary, there has been a rec­og­ni­tion that the same con­cerns of the whole book per­vade these chap­ters: what is it that per­mits or pre­vents a mem­ber of the people of God to stand safely in the pres­ence of this holy deity? (Wen­ham's ideas are neatly sum­ma­rised and easily acces­si­ble in his article on 'Clean and Unclean' in the New Bible Dic­tion­ary, or Chris Wright's on 'Leviti­cus' in the New Bible Com­men­tary.)
We need to draw atten­tion to the fact that a num­ber of these laws have been explic­itly abro­gated in the New Testa­ment. Jesus explained that the Old Testa­ment system was a set of train­ing wheels, by which God's people might come to real­ise that un/clean­ness is an inter­nal not exter­nal matter (Mark 7:1-23, esp. 7:19). Simi­larly, much of Paul's min­is­try in Acts and his letters is con­cerned to show that believ­ers are clean inde­pend­ent of such exter­nal rules (e.g. Romans 14).
The issue of clean­ness is raised at vari­ous points in Hebrews, per­haps no more clearly than in the famous 10:19-25. The supe­rior sac­ri­fice by the ulti­mate priest ensures per­fect, safe access for believ­ers into the very pres­ence of our sinless God!
(And isn't God kind?! Those few texts from Hebrews which are most famil­iar and acces­si­ble to mod­ern believ­ers are those which [1] stand as key the­matic or appli­ca­tion pas­sages in that book, and which [2] con­nect most help­fully in show­ing the mes­sage of God's prior reve­la­tion in Leviti­cus and other parts of the Old Testa­ment.)
Week 4: the Day of Atonement
People may have heard of Jewish Yom Kippur, and the detailed mes­sage of Leviti­cus 16 shows just how per­ti­nent the cele­bra­tion is for Chris­tians. The mes­sage is so central and sig­nifi­cant that it war­rants a week to itself. You may even ensure Leviti­cus 16 coin­cides with your key Easter teaching (see below).
Despite the exhaust­ing speci­fic­ity of the pre­ced­ing fifteen chap­ters, the whole God-given system of puri­fi­ca­tion remains imper­fect. It needs to be puri­fied and 'reset' every year.
One teach­er uses the helpful illus­tra­tion of medi­cal sur­gery. The sur­geon endures any num­ber of wash­ings and layers of pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, to avoid the slight­est chance of infec­tion. Despite the care taken to pre­pare the sur­geon and the patient, the whole 'thea­tre' of activity also needs to be regu­larly ster­il­ised: the room and its uten­sils have to be puri­fied and reset on a regular basis.
This is pre­cisely what the rigor­ous Day of Atonement rituals achieved. The chief 'sur­geon' (priest) and vari­ous assis­tants worked hard to ensure that the year's accu­mu­lated 'infec­tions' were removed and that the theatre of activ­ity was ready, safe for the opera­tions of another year. The rigour also allowed the chief priest-through extremely careful puri­fication, and only once each year-to enter into the very pres­ence of God (esp. 16:1-3, 15-19).
How stun­ning that Jesus' sac­ri­fice has ren­dered such Days of Atonement redun­dant-and indeed the whole OT sys­tem of sac­ri­fice, temple and priest­hood! Hebrews 9 (esp. 9:6-14) draws the paral­lels overtly for us. Chris­tian believ­ers are no longer depend­ent on imper­fect, tem­po­rary sac­ri­fices (9:8-10). We have wit­nessed the Day of Atonement. Jesus has puri­fied not the earthly tent/tab­er­na­cle, where one priest could shield his eyes as he approached God once each year, but the heav­enly reality where all believ­ers can dare march boldly and regu­larly into God's pres­ence (9:11-14)! What a stun­ning claim, which adds so much colour to the central com­mands in Hebrews that believ­ers should maxi­mise their free and fear­less access to the majes­tic ruler of heaven and earth (4:14-16; 10:19-25)!!
How great is our God, sing with me…
Week 5: holy living
Time would fail me to tell of the ways we might approach Leviti­cus 17-27. This sec­tion is known as the 'holi­ness code', and out­lines some of the rules of con­duct we expect to find in Old Testa­ment books. Whether you choose to dis­pense with this mate­rial in a sin­gle week, or explore it over two or three, there are vari­ous mat­ters you could high­light:
This is, at the very least, an oppor­tu­nity to dem­on­strate how to engage with OT laws. Are con­tem­po­rary Chris­tians obliged to obey these? Only some? Why or why not?
It's amazing how perti­nent some of this holi­ness code remains today. Whether or not we agree, these chap­ters are some­times used to favour kosher/halal meat or to avoid meat alto­gether (ch.17); they ground our cul­tural boundaries about incestu­ous rela­tion­ships (ch.18); they offer guid­ance (and law?) about good gov­ern­ance and tithes (chs.19-22, 27). There is infor­ma­tive teaching about litur­gi­cal cal­en­dars (chs.23-24); foun­da­tional in­struc­tions con­cern­ing (eco­nomic?) Jubi­lee (ch.25); and a threat­en­ing chap­ter about how behav­iour brings reward or pun­ish­ment from God (ch.26). Each of these OT topics-and its con­tinua­tion or trans­for­ma­tion or abro­ga­tion in the NT-will not only offer rich dis­cus­sion of Chris­tian living, but also great oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­cuss and display biblical theol­ogy in opera­tion.
The big­gest topic, of course, is how sal­va­tion and holi­ness are linked. There is a sense in which every Chris­tian is addressed in the NT as one of 'the saints', one of 'the holy ones'. And yet the NT also reit­er­ates the call for ongo­ing sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion (being made holy) for com­men­su­rate holy living. The cry of Leviti­cus is par­ticu­larly promi­nent in pas­sages like 1 Peter 1:13-21. Instruc­tions for right behav­iour con­clude most of the epis­tles, includ­ing Hebrews 13. And the final goal of a spot­less, holy bride for Christ is an excel­lent vision state­ment to set before his church (e.g. Eph. 5:25-33; Rev. 21:1-8).
Mix and Match
The ideas I've given here can readily be adapted to make the best impact in your con­text. Some might delay the study of Leviti­cus 16 so that it falls near/at Easter; it neatly sum­ma­rises the whole book. Others might delay the series or expand the open­ing weeks so that Leviti­cus 16 stays in canoni­cal order yet still falls at Easter-leaving one or two studies to fol­low, explor­ing what kind of holi­ness God expects in light of the Easter sacrifice.
These ideas might prompt you to preach or study Leviti­cus in more depth, or might facili­tate a more detailed series on Hebrews. Good biblical theol­ogy pro­vides a smooth entrée into both Old and New Testa­ments.
So pray. Be crea­tive. Per­haps even share your results so that others might dis­cover fresh ways to reveal such fabu­lous parts of Chris­tian Scrip­ture.
Further Reading
One small group has adapted this approach: <pocketmojo.net/index.php/godstuff/2009/06/18/studying_leviticus>
Good com­men­tar­ies exist. Those which par­ticu­larly sup­ple­ment exe­gesis with thought­ful appli­ca­tion include, in increas­ing weighti­ness: Chris Wright (New Bible Com­men­tary, 1994); Gordon Wen­ham (NICOT, 1979); Roy Gane (NIVAC, 2004); John Hart­ley (WBC, 1992). Even more overtly theo­logi­cal, sup­ple­mented with some exe­gesis, are Derek Tid­ball (BST, 2005); Allen Ross (Holi­ness to the Lord, 2002).

Andrew Malone teaches bib­li­cal stud­ies at Ridley Mel­bourne, with a par­ticu­lar inter­est in reha­bili­tat­ing neglected parts of Scrip­ture. Stand by for 'Chroni­cles for Christ­mas'!