Getting back into the Old Testament today as we go through the whole Bible, we are looking at Leviticus 1 (link). Leviticus is one of those books in the Bible that many of us know is there, but we only go to it at great need. Then, our great need is usually to find a single verse to quote to support our view on a moral issue. While the bulk of Leviticus does relate to the moral and spiritual laws given to Israel and so contains those instructions, it is still necessary to grasp the fullness of the context of the book.
Leviticus begins, then, with the most important phrase for understanding the text. Then the Lord (Yahweh) called to Moses and spoke to him. (Leviticus 1:1) That’s it.
The entire understanding of the book of Leviticus hinges on that phrase. Why?
Well, let’s look at the rest of the chapter. As we go through the remains of the chapter, we see the instructions given on how to offer burnt offerings. There are specific details about how to arrange the animal on the fire, how to kill it, and what type of animal it is to be. Even present is the small detail that the entrails are to be washed first, then burnt—which seems to me a waste of time, but those are the instructions.
We can take these instructions and the rest of Leviticus one of two ways. The first way we can take it is as is that this is the religious instruction manual for early Judaism. We could view it as constructed by the priests to explain what they do and to teach further generations of priests in what their responsibilities are. It would have been written, then, in the style similar to other religious groups of its time.
If this is the case, then there is no real authority in the work. After all, it was only the laws and customs of an archaic religion whose own modern adherents do not practice these customs. We can discard them in our modern times, because we are immeasurably smarter and better-looking than those folks were.
On the other side, though, if the words of Leviticus are not merely the construction of man but are instead the words of a transcendent God, then we have a problem. Why? Because these words are less negotiable in that case. If God gave these commands, then we have to start working through them and trying to understand them.
We will have to study and determine if they are still binding not based on what we feel about them but on how God has revealed Himself and these words. This will come from studying the fullness of the context of Leviticus: what it meant when it was written, where it fits in the whole Bible, and how to see it in light of the Cross.
That may mean we cannot simply cherry-pick quotes from it but must use Leviticus as part of our teaching of the fullness of the riches of Christ. It may mean that we have to re-evaluate how we address certain issues of morality and worship. Those two things cannot really be separated, by the way---spiritually speaking, trying to worship in designated time slots without living a God-centered morality would analogous to physically working out like crazy in certain times and eating nothing but bacon and doughnuts. It just would not work.
We need to understand whether or not our worship of God should start with lighting up a fire to roast an ox or two…or if that practice was meant to foreshadow Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, and so we do not light literal fires but instead kindle our hearts to burn with passion for Him.
All of this follows if we understand the first verse of Leviticus: these are not the mere words of man, but the words of the Covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. So, will we do with them what we should?
Today’s Nerd Note: Authorship of the Pentateuch is a good nerdy subject, but one I am not quite equipped to handle in 249 words or less. Here’s the deal: it seems from a practical level that Moses could not have written all of these books. However, that is the traditional understanding of authorship: God spoke to Moses, then Moses wrote.
Many academic efforts have tried to find a different idea. Too many of these, I think, are based in an urge to force authorship into a chronology that does not work. The goal has been to explain who wrote these books because the assumption is that the events recorded are not true but are the legends of early Israel. So, Leviticus and others are written to justify Second Temple Judaism rather than being the true record of early Israel.
I think that’s a questionable assumption. I do not have a problem with an authorship theory that puts the majority of writing in the time of Moses with some later editing and possibly a later addition. However, I start with the assumption that the texts bear an accurate record of what happened.
In Biblical Studies, that is often what you get: what you are looking for. If you want evidence of Mosaic authorship, there are many who easily find it. If you want evidence of later authorship, there are many who find it. Look at what they come in with and see how it turns out.
That is our goal, though, as students of the Word: let what is there dictate what we actually think.