Levitical Theology and New Paradigms

I have been reading the notes in Study Bibles lately. I am preparing for a project that I will make known sometime in the near future. As part of my preparation, I am reading and comparing various Study Bibles.

Although my views fit more in a conservative paradigm than a skeptical/critical one, I find that so far my favorite is the New Oxford Annotated Bible (but I couldn’t recommend it to people who are not informed students of the Bible). My favorite of the more conservative Study Bibles is the NASB Study Bible (it has the same notes as the NIV Study Bible but without the NIV translation which is not my favorite). I do not yet have the ESV Study Bible (would anyone like to send me one as a gift :-) ).

Anyway, no Study Bible is going to get more than about 50% of the Bible right. I know that going in.

My inspiration for this blog, in fact, was simply noticing how the NASB Study Bible missed understanding some of the fine points of Levitical theology (the great priestly theology of Leviticus). I don’t completely blame the NASB Study Bible. The Christian environment is a difficult place in which to understand Leviticus. In fact, I would venture to say that Christians are handicapped when it comes to Leviticus due to centuries of trying to read too much New Testament back into this wonderful book of the Torah.

That said, let me share some points from the NASB Study Bible from two of the most important verses in Leviticus. Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell you what the two most important verses in Leviticus are. But here goes . . . 15:31 and 16:16 (for reasons that I hope will soon be apparent).

Leviticus 15:31:

Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling my taberncale that is among them –NASB.

NASB Study Bible on Leviticus 15:31:

Addressed to the priests, thus emphasizing the importance of the regulations. Since God dwelt in the tabernacle, any unholiness, symbolized by the discharges of ch. 15, could result in death if the people came into his presence. Sin separates all people from a holy God and results in their death, unless atonement is made (see next chapter) –NASB Study Bible Note.

Now what am I saying is wrong with this comment? Well, it is not completely off. The editors did not miss the point entirely. But they made a few telltale errors:

1. “unholiness, symbolized by the discharges” — No, the discharges of Leviticus 15 do not symbolize unholiness. Rather, the causes of uncleanness from Leviticus 11 through 15 and also Numbers 19 symbolize something completely different: death or loss of life. Christians should realize that not everything is about sin. Causes of impurity include such onerous things as . . . giving birth to a child (my wife experienced that this week). Is this a symbol of unholiness? No, but rather losing life (blood/life comes out, an actual life comes out, and a mortal bears another mortal — more death).

2. “any unholiness . . . could result in death if the people came into his presence” — No, a person did not have to bring uncleanness into the temple to bring down death upon the land of Israel. In fact, Leviticus 15:31 is radical in saying far more than that (check the magisterial commentary of Jacob Milgrom in the Anchor series to truly understand this point). The Israelites will die if they fail to observe the purity regulations wherever they live, not just if they bring impurity into the temple. This is radical, but I don’t want to take up space here with the implications.

3. The NASB note omits one of the most important points, a key piece of theology from this verse: the impurities of Israelites, wherever they dwell, can defile or pollute God’s temple. A mother in far northern Dan who does not purify herself as prescribed in Leviticus 12 brings pollution all the way down in Jerusalem at the temple. And that mother threatens the life of Israel by not purifying herself.

A similar kind of oversight occurs in the NASB Study Bible note on Leviticus 16:16:

He shall make atonement for the holy place . . . –NASB.

The NASB Study Bible note on 16:16 says nothing about this first clause of the sentence.

They missed something pretty important here.

Yom Kippur was not about making atonement for the people. It was about making atonement for the temple.

Did the temple sin?

No, maybe the common understanding of the word atonement is faulty. Maybe it does not mean “cleansing that brings forgiveness for sin.” Maybe it simply means “cleansing.”

To fully explain Levitical theology from this point, I would have to write a longer article than you would want to read. But let me just briefly say that the Levitical sacrifices were not junior or temporary versions of the Sacrifice of Messiah (the Cross). Messiah’s sacrifice had a different purpose. Sacrifices in Leviticus kept the temple clean so God’s holy presence could remain amidst Israel’s sin and death. The Sacrifice of Messiah cleansed sinners to fit them to come into God’s presence directly.

Why did I write all this? What is the takeaway point?

Don’t assume that your reading of the Bible is accurate. Question. Consider. Gather other opinions. There may be wonderful truth waiting if you can leave your paradigm and see things differently. Levitical theology is just one of many examples.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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