I’m doing a yearly Bible reading plan, and I just got done with the book of Leviticus, arguably the most onerous part of Scripture there is. It’s packed start to finish with laws of all kinds, most notably the numerous laws of sacrifices for all sorts of transgressions. I’ve read it all the way through a number of times in the past as part of the yearly Torah cycle, but this is the first time I read it with Christian eyes.
As a practicing Jew, Leviticus is burdensome to read but it makes sense: these are the laws that God handed down to Moses and the Israelites, and for the most part, they remain the foundation of the mitzvot, commandments, carried on by Jews to this day to do something which God requested, therefore connecting with Him through these physical acts. And that’s indeed how I viewed the whole thing back when I practiced Judaism. But what to make of Leviticus now that I’m a Christian? What do all these laws mean when I now live in grace?
The most important thing to remember is that having accepted Jesus as Lord and received the Holy Spirit does not mean that the books of the Old Testament are invalidated. Receiving God’s grace may mean we are not under obligation to keep all these mitzvot anymore, but they are still the word of God and have valuable lessons to teach us. It’s just I’m struggling to figure out what those lessons are now.
I can think of three lessons I can take from reading Leviticus as a Christian;
- The laws reveal the extent of God’s love for His children. As a father to a two-year-old daughter, I’m constantly teaching her the rules of the world, whether it’s what and what not to eat, how to treat other people, picking up after herself, watching out for cars, etc. It’s part of how I show my love, by instructing and giving her a structure that prepares her for life. Likewise, God showed His love for His nascent nation by teaching them His rules, rules that will give His people structure for centuries to come, rules that will allow them to prosper in life.
- Learn the context of the fulfillment of the Law. My writing teachers always said you had to know the rules before you could break them. This is the difference between a writer like e e cummings, who deliberately played with the rules of linguistics, syntax, and orthography in his poetry, and a teen sending poorly spelled text messages on his phone. Through Leviticus, we can learn what were the rules that Jesus fulfilled and abrogated, not just from the words of the Pharisees condemning him, but directly from God as given to Israel at Mount Sinai.
- The necessity of the cross. This is probably the biggest eureka moment I’ve had since becoming a Christian coming from Judaism: Leviticus shows why the cross had to happen. Death as a consequence of disobedience of God’s rules goes all the way back to Eden, but at Sinai God in His love granted His children a way to divert that consequence through the sacrifices. Without these sacrifices, people would’ve died from their transgressions; it’s cause and effect, period. The reason a person had to lay hands on an animal being offered was an acknowledgment that the offering was taking the person’s place. Jesus’s crucifixion wasn’t optional because the sacrifices weren’t optional: that’s how God set up the rules of His world, and either all of humanity died, or we offered a sacrifice to take our place. Jesus understood this because he knew the Law inherently, and knew the rules of the world. And so he went to the cross willingly, a sin offering for all humanity for all eternity.
Being able to see these connections between what I learned in Judaism and what I’m learning in Christianity reinforces the fact that the Bible is all one story, that of God’s love for His children, and that each book plays an important part in telling that story, even those that are hard to read through.
Photo: The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 520. The tabernacle. Leviticus cap 8 vv 1-13. Philip De Vere, Owner & Curator. CC BY-SA 3.0.