Once a year (1 January each year, to be exact), you and I start a Bible reading plan. We download the YouVersion App afresh to get started on the Bible in a Year reading schedule. "New Year, New Plan, New Me," we say. And then March hits. Halfway through Leviticus (if we even make it that far), we tap out. We delete the plan and we start the New Testament in Four Months plan, or the Miracles of Jesus plan, or the Letters of Paul plan. All of these plans are great; there’s nothing wrong at all with them. I guess the problem is just that when we move on to other plans in lieu of Leviticus, we miss all the riches buried in it. Sometimes we forget that the Law is just as inspired as the Prophets, or the Gospels, or the Letters.
Leviticus is a complex book. We have trouble relating to sacrificial laws, for one because post-Resurrction of Christ, we don’t do them anymore, and in addition to that, we can’t for the life of us figure out what to do with all the blood. Especially with the latter in mind, a fair indictment of Big Evangelicalism today is that it hasn’t given us an interpretive key through which to view the book of Leviticus within the context of the biblical storyline from Genesis to Revelation. This post is not here to provide us with such a key, but rather to take some advice from some seasoned guides, and help us think through its overall structure, the bulk of which centers around Leviticus 16.
Leviticus 16, according to L. Michael Morales, is the linchpin not only of Leviticus, but of the Pentateuch as a whole. Conceptually, it finds itself square in the middle of Leviticus, signaling to the reader that something immensely important is happening in the sixteenth chapter of the third book of the Bible. Morales finds 18 divine speeches on either side of Leviticus 16, with chapter 16 itself being the divine speech exactly in the middle of the book.
Now, what does this mean? Are there important concepts on either side of Leviticus 16 which help us to piece together a coherent theology of Leviticus? I’m so glad you asked! Indeed, there are. The first half of Leviticus deals primarily with the rituals we have such a hard time relating to, finding their capstone in the Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16. The second half of the book, then, is concerned with union with God, life in the presence of God through increasingly holy living for the people of Israel. Morales notes that, “the aim of the laws is fellowship and union with the living God.”
What’s particularly intriguing is that both blood and holiness in the Old Testament pertain to life. Blood, for obvious reasons, denotes the life of a creature. Holiness also denotes life for the people of Israel: “Turn to me, and be saved” (Is. 45:22). The sacrifices of the first half of Leviticus are what allow the people of God to approach the presence of God. God’s people who have been cleansed by these ritual sacrifices, culminating in the Day of Atonement in which the Tabernacle, the high priest, and all the Israelites, have been purged of their sins, are brought into Sabbath assembly with God in God’s own house (Lev. 23-25). Morales notes that this is what makes the people of Israel holy, for “the source of Israel’s holiness is—and could only ever be—God himself. While Israel is called to keep laws, therefore, yet doing so did not make the people holy but rather prepared them to be made holy by YHWH’s Presence.”
YHWH’s Presence exists in Israel in the Tabernacle, and it is not accessible to everyone. However, this will not always be the case, for Leviticus points us to a future reality. Isaiah prophesies of one who will be called “Immanuel, or God with us” (Is. 7:14). There is coming a time, for Isaiah and for all of God’s people, when God will indeed dwell with His people in the flesh, both in the form of Jesus and in the Holy Spirit post-Pentecost. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies believers, God’s own Presence is still what makes His people holy. Indeed, God’s work on the true Day of Atonement has brought God’s people into His own Presence.