I wonder how many people have tried to read through the Bible cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, only to be thwarted by Leviticus. It happened to me. When I was in high school my senior pastor mentioned that he read three chapters of the Bible every day, which meant that he made it chronologically through the Bible every year. It sounded easy enough. So I gave it a try. I remember staring out great, breezing through the creation narratives and Noah. Then I had to slog through a few challenging parts in Genesis and Exodus, but it was not too difficult. However, Leviticus was just completely overwhelming. So I gave up and started poking around the New Testament and the Psalms during my devotion time.
I know I am not the only person to experience this or something similar. Leviticus has a reputation for being a terribly dull and frustrating book of the Bible. In pretty much every version of the Bible, Leviticus is placed right at the center of what is called the Pentateuch, the Torah, or the five books of Moses. Like most of the Pentateuch, the book is about God’s law, the rules God gave to Israel when he made a covenant with them. However, the rules in Leviticus deal mainly with the sacrificial rituals that occurred in the Tabernacle and the Temple. The rules are painfully specific, repetitive, and they make little sense to us today.
On top of that, Leviticus is filled with difficult passages. As a book about priestly and tabernacle procedures for purification, there are a lot of prohibitions. Some of these prohibitions make sense to us, while others do not. Some of the prohibitions seem completely abstract or silly, and some might even be offensive to many of us today. In other words, there are good reasons why Leviticus has a reputation for being an arduous or unpleasant book.
Yet, I did eventually read through Leviticus, and it is has become a book that I enjoy coming back to time and again. The more I read the book, the more I have found it an excellent source of spiritual edification, i.e., something God uses to grow me in my faith. In fact, I can think of four important reasons for why Christians should read and study Leviticus.
The first reason to not be afraid of trying to read through Leviticus is simply because it is the Word of God. This alone makes it valuable and worth reading. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Every part of every book of the Bible is a gift from God and he uses every book of the Bible to transform us and free us from sin and brokenness. From that perspective, we should not avoid any books of the Bible even if we find them boring, daunting, or rub us the wrong way. Whenever we read the Bible, we can expect God to reveal himself, even in the difficult or seemingly tedious parts.
The second reason to take the plunge into Leviticus is because the book teaches us so much about holiness. Leviticus is not about abstract rules and rituals for bygone religious ceremonies. It is about correctly worshipping a holy God. Holiness is a difficult word to define. Most theologians define holiness as some version of “set apart.” But, holiness isn’t just not being different. When we call something holy we are saying that it mysteriously and beautifully contrasts with what we understand as normal. It stands out in a good way, in a way that forces us to recognize that there is more to the universe than we normally think. The Bible tells us that God is so holy that it is actually mortally dangerous for humans to be near him. At one point God tells Moses, that humans cannot see his face lest he die, Then, when Moses encounter’s God’s presence, in a safe manner, it transforms him. Moses is so deeply affected by the encounter, that other people are too afraid to look at him. In other words, Moses’ encounter with God made him holier.
Leviticus not only reveals God’s holiness to us, but it also tells us about our spiritual journey. As Christians, we are always in a process called sanctification. Sanctification is the process of God making us holier. Passages in the New Testament like 1 Corinthians 6:11 tell us that through the death and resurrection of Christ, our sin no longer counts against us in God’s eyes, even though we continue to sin. Yet, through the work of the Holy Spirit, God sanctifies us so that we sin less and glorify him more. The book of Leviticus is a peek behind the curtains of God’s plan for our life. In Leviticus, we find out how God plans to use worship to renew us and make us more like him, more holy.
Thirdly, Leviticus teaches us about sacrifice. Sacrificing was a crucial component to worship in the Old Testament. The sacrifice ritual was the main way the Israelites connected with God. Leviticus uses vivid descriptions to show us what sacrifice looks like and what kinds of sacrifices were necessary to atone, or wash away, sin. In Leviticus, we see that sacrifice is necessary for justification, washing away our sin, and to continue to grow in holiness. The better we understand sacrifice the more deeply we can understand and appreciate Jesus’ death on the cross. It is important to remember that Jesus was a devout Jew who regularly worshipped at the temple, through sacrificial rituals. During his time, and before it, the temple was the only link between God and his people, and the book of Leviticus describes how that link worked according to the covenant God made with Israel. However, Jesus is now our link to God. The Bible refers to his death as our once and for all sacrificial offering. (Hebrews 10:10) Therefore, reading about sacrifices in Leviticus helps us better understand Jesus in that role and how we can best worship him in response.
Lastly, Leviticus is a magnificent work of ancient literature. Too often, when we approach scripture, we only look for practical solutions to immediate problems in our modern lives. While it is true that all of God’s Word is timelessly practical, one of the joys of reading Old Testament books like Leviticus is encountering experiences so different from our own. Reading Leviticus as literature allows us to enter into a time when people lived very different lives. We are separated from the people in Leviticus by thousands of years and we inhabit entirely different customs and cultural norms. And yet, we worship the same God. It is tempting to assume that our problems and the way we think are the standard human way of perceiving or existing in the world. Reading books like Leviticus challenges those assumptions by showing us that our cultural frame, or how our culture helps us understand things, is limited and constantly changing. The disconnect between our culture and the cultures of the Old Testament is partly what makes reading Leviticus so challenging, but it can also be what makes it an equally rewarding read.
If you have been discouraged by Leviticus, I would encourage you to give it another go. Then read it again. (It is also ok to take a break between reads) When I taught ninth-grade remedial reading, most of my students were intimidated by reading anything challenging. They often found reading grade-level books too difficult and the ideas too complex to parse. So they would gravitate to books they knew were easier. We can sometimes do the same thing when we read the Bible. The encouragement I gave to my students was to persist in the struggle, and this advice also applies to reading challenging books and passages of the Bible. It is ok if you find parts to be incredibly boring. It is ok if you feel like you do not understand most of what you are reading. Even Old Testament scholars do not understand much of what is going on in Leviticus. It is also ok if you are just missing things. Because, when you continue to read through the difficult parts, you will surprise yourself with how much you do understand and how much you do take away. God always speaks to us through his Word. When you read in faith you will hear his voice and you notice his sanctifying work in your life as a result.