Help, it’s Leviticus!

Q&A with Paula Gooder

In a recent survey, Leviticus was voted least favourite book of the Bible. We caught up with theologian in residence Paula Gooder to find out how to get more out of this unpopular book.

Where can we start with a book like Leviticus, whose customs seem so alien to our way of life?

We tend to assume that once a book has been put into English the task of translation is done. The book of Leviticus reminds us it is not. Leviticus was written for people who worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem through sacrifice. The act of translation for us today is to understand the underlying message of Leviticus and then to translate it from their world to ours. It isn’t an easy task but once you get the hang of it can deepen and enrich even your reading of this most disliked book!

But really, all the details?!

Leviticus is a very practical book. Think of it as an instruction manual. Imagine someone has said to you ‘you need to work hard to be as holy as you can’ and you say to them ‘but what does that mean in practice?’ This conversation, when it happened in Ancient Israel, produced the book of Leviticus. We need to understand that the practical details may have changed for us but the need to be holy has not. Leviticus can help us to reflect deeply on what we think holiness is but we need then to ask our question again ‘what does it mean in practice to be holy today?’

So how can we start to answer that question? What ‘translation’ work do we need to do?

As I said, one of the key themes of Leviticus 17-26 is holiness and what an ordinary Israelite needed to do to be holy. In short the answer involved public worship at the temple but also private devotions that affected what they did with their bodies, what they ate and how they related to other people (the iconic verse, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ comes from Leviticus 19.18).

Christians should be as passionate today as the Israelites were about holiness

As we read Leviticus it is very clear that the world has changed; our worship has changed and our private devotions have changed, but Christians should be as passionate today as the Israelites were about holiness.

So as you read Leviticus 17-26 ask yourself why they thought the laws laid out in Leviticus were connected to holiness and if we were to translate their thinking about holiness into our modern world and into Christianity, what might we bring with us? How might it affect our worship? How might it affect the everyday decisions we make? How might it affect how we relate to other people?

Leviticus is in the Old Testament, the bit of Bible concerned with life before Jesus was on earth. How do we read it in light of the New Testament?

Christians talk a lot about Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. This comes from the New Testament, particularly from the writings of Paul and from Hebrews, which refers to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. Unless you know otherwise, you might assume that there was only one kind of sacrifice and therefore miss the nuance of what is being said by the New Testament writers who knew a lot about how sacrifice worked in the temple.

Leviticus 1.2-7.38 lays out in detail the regulations for all kinds of sacrifice and 16.1-24 talks about what they did on the Day of Atonement. It is well worth reading these passages in light of Romans 3.23-25; Romans 12.1; Ephesians 5.2; Philippians 4.18; Hebrews 2.17; 5.3; 10.12; 13.11 and 15 and noticing how much richer they sound when you know more about sacrifice.

So are you saying we should all read Leviticus?

Leviticus is not a book for people who are starting out in their reading of the Bible.  Leviticus is definitely advanced level Bible. It is complex and requires a lot of thought as you try and apply it today.  But if you are interested in holiness, in worship or in what Christians believe about Jesus’ sacrifice and if you are prepared to do some hard thinking about how it applies in our modern context, then Leviticus will provide you with a wealth of material to reflect deeply on!

Why not check out our Leviticus reading guide?

Already a fan of Leviticus? Let us know in the comments section below.

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