Are you still trying to make sense of Leviticus?
If you’re like most people you’re just trying to get through it. This is why I love my “job,” if you will, because I am able to dig into some places most cannot see from the surface and peel back its intent. If you have watched The Bible Project‘s video on Leviticus, you have discovered the brilliant organization of this book by its author.
I want to show you something I discovered in the midst of the ritual purity section.
I know, exciting stuff!
Believe it or not, there is a link to Genesis 1-3. Leviticus 11 makes a shift from the ordination of priests to the purification of God’s people. You hear such words as clean and unclean. You discover animals that are good to eat and those that are detestable. I am sure you found it riveting… not! This is not an easy section to understand, but once you see what I’m about to show you, you won’t be able to unsee it.
Why are some animals clean and others unclean?
We are not told why certain animals were chosen as clean and others unclean. God made all the animals and called them good (Gen. 1:21, 25). Unclean animals were not some mutant creatures that evolved after the Fall. Even so, Leviticus 11 uses the same animal classifications found in Genesis 1:
- Land animals (11:1-8; Gen. 1:24-25)
- Aquatic animals (11:9-12; Gen. 1:20-21)
- Birds/flying creatures (11:13-23; Gen. 1:20-21)
- Small swarming creatures (11:41-44; Gen. 1:20)
So what’s the deal?
First of all, we need to understand becoming unclean was not always a result of sin. Sometimes you have to touch something dead (11:24-25). In the previous chapter, Moses called for two of Aaron’s nephews to carry out the bodies of Nadab and Abihu after they were killed (10:4). Touching dead bodies made them unclean, but this did not mean they sinned.
The same with women who were considered unclean after giving birth (12:1-8). They had not sinned! In fact, God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). You can’t do that without pregnant women!
Let’s go further, Leviticus 11 is the follow up of chapters 9 and 10. The priestly ministry has been inaugurated (Lev. 9). Aaron (the high priest) and his sons have offered the required sacrifices. As a result, the approving presence of Yahweh was manifested.
Leviticus 9:23-24, The glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came from the LORD and consumed (אבל) the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown on the ground. (emphasis mine)
This is when Hebrew gets fun. The word consumed (אבל) means “to eat, consume.” This verb is the most common word for eating a meal in Biblical Hebrew (Lexham Theological Wordbook).
Wait, what!? Through fire, Yahweh ATE the offering.
The next chapter is the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron. They offered an unauthorized, strange, illegitimate or polluted fire (10:1). We are not given any details except it was something God had not commanded.
But watch this:
Leviticus 10:2, Then fire came from the LORD and burned (אבל) them to death before the LORD. (emphasis mine)
The same Hebrew word (אבל), only this time the fire ATE the offerer rather than the offering. Immediately after this incident, Yahweh gives regulations on what the priest could eat or not eat from their sacrifices (10:12-15). The narrative records Moses’ anger toward Aaron’s two remaining sons (10:16-18) for not eating the sin offering in the area of the sanctuary (sacred place).
So chapter 11 continues the this theme of eating, more importantly, what should and should not be eaten. We go back to the Garden of Eden!
Genesis 3:2-3, The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.'” (emphasis mine)
Eve adds to the Creator’s original instruction (2:16-17), which said nothing about touching the forbidden fruit. This goes much deeper than, “Eve must have been thinking about touching it.” At least, that is the way I used to teach it. There are only two other places we find the commands not to eat (אכל) and not to touch (נגע) that are identical in Hebrew grammar – Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 (both refer to clean and unclean foods).
- We may eat (11:2, 9, 21, 22)
- Do not eat (11:4, 8, 11, 13, 41)
- Do not touch (11:24, 26, 27, 29, 31, 36, 39)
And get this, the Garden narrative, the priestly offerings, Nadab and Abihu and the dietary laws are all linked to the presence and holiness of God (Gen. 2:22-24; Lev. 9:4-7, 23-24; 10:3, 10, 12, 17; 11:44-45).
The tempter in Eden is the snake (Gen. 3:1-7). After the Fall, the Creator brings down judgement on those who have harmed His good earth. As for the snake:
Genesis 3:14, Because you have done this,/ you are cursed more than any livestock/ and more than any wild animal./ You will move on your belly/ and eat dust all the days of your life. (emphasis mine)
Not only are snakes my least favorite animal, they are the most repulsive of all the unclean animals, and mentioned last in a long list of unclean animals. Coincidence? I think not.
Leviticus 11:42, Do not eat any of the creatures that… moves on its belly… for they are detestable. (emphasis mine)
Leviticus 11:44, You must not defile yourselves by any swarming creature that crawls on the ground. (emphasis mine)
Now let those passages permeate your mind as you return to the Garden one more time. Eve is getting her information about dietary laws from the last, detestable and unclean of the animal kingdom. Irony? By the way, it was bad advice. Humanity became unclean and were cast from the presence of the Creator. It is death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19), not life (Gen. 2:9; 3:24), that results. This is why Leviticus says death contaminates and keeps one out of the presence of a holy God (11:24-40). They must be made pure because God is life!
Jesus came bringing life and purify to fallen humanity. By His sacrificial death, we are made clean (Jn. 10:14-18). His healing ministry demonstrated His power to purify. While others became unclean by touching a dead body, Jesus turned death into life by raising the dead (Jn. 11:25, 43-44)!
And what about us Gentiles (non-Jews)? What Jesus did was so radical, Peter needed a vision three times and a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit before he could accept those he considered unclean (Acts 10). Even when Peter enters Cornelius’ home he says, “You know it is forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner. But God has shown me that I must not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28-29) Do you remember the visions? Unclean animals, right out of Leviticus 11, brought down on a sheet as he is told to kill and eat. How could that be?
This was the good news of Jesus Messiah – He was killed (death) and raised again (life) so all who believe in Him will receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:39-43). And just as Israel was to go through purification rituals to be allowed back into the presence and holiness of God, through Jesus something greater occurred. We are not only allowed back into God’s presence, but His presence and holiness comes to reside IN us! A new and better covenant has arrived!
One final hyperlink.
I Peter 1:15-16, as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.
Peter quotes from Leviticus 11:44-45. Many, myself included, have looked at this passage as a command to be morally pure. In fact, some have made legalistic lists to try and dictate what holiness is or is not. Moral purity is important in Leviticus (Lev. 18-22), but that is not the link Peter uses, this is from the ritual purity laws. When a Hebrew text is quoted in the New Testament, we must go to the Hebrew to discover its meaning. To be holy (קדוש היה) is a description of things that have been set apart and sacred. We are made holy when we are set apart by God or by our own devotion to God. Both are important part of our relationship (Lexham Theological Wordbook).
What’s the point?
We belong to God (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Biblical holiness is about a unique relationship God has made. He longs to be with us. That is Garden of Eden stuff. It comes before moral purity. Before we are called to be good, we are called to be holy. Holiness not something that is reduced to a system of religious beliefs, but being united with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Creator has come to dwell in us again. It is such a powerful union that God’s holiness is our own.
Take a moment to mediate on that thought. Let it move you to action. It may take you into a deep encounter with the Father as you go to Him in prayer. Maybe it moves you to repentance or praise. But don’t let it remain stale on pages of your Bible. These are words of life!
*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible
*Blog resources: Adam as Israel by Seth D. Postell; The Pentateuch as Narrative by John H. Sailhamer; The Bible Project study on Leviticus at thebibleproject.com; Lexham Theological Wordbook by Douglas Mangum, Derek Brown, Rachel Klippenstein and Rebekah Hurst.