If you have taken the challenge to read through the Bible in a year, and started on 1st January, it is possible that you have just finished reading Leviticus. Did you manage to read through all the rules and regulations? What about rules regarding skin diseases or what to do if a mouse falls in a water jug? With that sort of detail it may seem surprising that a Jewish website should say, “Though sometimes viewed as a collection of arcane laws of animal sacrifices and ritual purity, Leviticus is very much valued in Judaism. In fact, traditionally, the first Torah verses that children learn are from Leviticus. We read in the Midrash1, “[When] we start the children with the book of Vayikra2, G d says, ‘Let the pure ones come and involve themselves in the pure [laws], and I will consider it as if they brought a sacrifice before me.’”” 3
Why was Leviticus seen as so important and what can we learn from it? I want to offer just a few thoughts that I hope will
help and provoke further study and reflection. It is a book that, while struggling with parts, I have come to love, value and even look forward to reading.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 4 So maybe, if we come with a child like attitude, we can see some principles for life that will help us. Jewish parents, it seems, expected their children to be able to grasp some principles from this book, so we might be able to do the same. as we “become like little children and enter the Kingdom of heaven”
Having found the reference to Jewish teaching of children, and the importance of Leviticus, I started to see whether or not I could find the verses that they would have started to learn. Frankly, I did not do very well, but I did find a reference to a Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson5 who had selected 12 passages from Jewish literature and suggested that every Jewish child should learn them by heart. However only one of his recommendations was from “He Called”, it says “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord. Lev 19:18; that seems a good starting point, but what else can give us some signposts as to what we might learn from this book?
The Hebrew names for the first five books of the bible are taken from the opening words of each book6. In the name of Leviticus is “He called” because it starts with God calling to Moses from the tent of meeting.
Moses was God’s friend, Exodus 33 7-11 says “Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.”Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 8 And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. 9 As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent.11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.”
The people knew that when Moses went to the tent of meeting, God met him. It was something worth watching, here was a man with a different sort of relationship with God, it was real, there was a difference that could be seen. So when God calls to Moses and Moses speaks to the people it’s worth listening.
Leviticus starts with “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. He said, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them… This would seem to indicate that there is something worth taking notice of!
Looked at in one way Leviticus is helping people understand how to belong to God’s community. It outlines a way of doing things that confirms values and emotions shared by members of the nation and reinforces a sense of security and belonging; but I believe it goes much deeper than that.
At its heart, Leviticus is more about God belonging to his people and being able to live with them. In the summary, almost at the end of the book, God makes this clear, he says “11 I will put my dwelling place[a] among you, and I will not abhor you. 12 I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. 13 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”7
God says, he has worked on their behalf, brought them out of slavery, will live with them and that they can be confident. Now that is an exciting prospect. If you and I can learn from Leviticus, and grasp hold of the message of the Bible, the same things apply – God will live with us. The scriptures picture us, as believers, being set free from bad habits, the power of the world around us and having freedom from slavery.8 They give us the confidence that, if God be for us then who can be against us? That is God’s promise.
The concept of covenant (promise) occurs early in Leviticus but it is easy to ‘read over’ and miss what is said in chap 2:13 “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.”
Covenant lies at the heart of the biblical understanding of God’s relationship to the world. Simply put, a covenant stands in contrast to a contract where parties enter into a quid pro quo arrangement. With a contract an agreement is made to protect oneself. With a covenant, one commits oneself with promises to another for the sake of the other.9 God’s promises are all for our benefit. He is not protecting himself from us, he does not need to. He wants to be with the people he has chosen and wants to help them demonstrate who he is, so that the nations around can see and respond. This, after all, was why Abraham was called, he was to be a blessing to all nations.10
Leviticus was to help the Israelites live in a way that enabled God to live in their midst without being destroyed by the presence of God. They needed to be ‘clean’ and not defile the camp where God was dwelling. It presents a system of sacrifices and way of living that helps them understand:
- What is holy and what is not
- How to live in right relationship with God and the people around them
- How to demonstrate what it means to live in harmony with the environment and enjoy the benefits of that synergy.
1 An ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text. The earliest Midrashim come from the 2nd century AD, although much of their content is older.
2Vayikra is a Hebrew word, which is the first word of the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah (the first five books of the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible). It means “And He [God] called” and gives the book its Hebrew name – He Called
4Matthew 19:14New International Version (NIV)
8Romans chap 8, Galatians chap 5