Reading Leviticus Wisely: Moving from Israel’s Sacrifices to Christ without Allegory or Pure Historicism

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“All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable . . .”
2 Timothy 3:16

This is what Paul says when speaking to Timothy about the origin of his faith, and this profitability is true for all parts of Scripture, including Leviticus. Yet, for Leviticus to be profitable, one must avoid pure historical interpretation, an approach to Leviticus that only discerns what priests did back then and what they should do today if the tabernacle was reconstructed and the old covenant were re-enacted. Similarly, for Leviticus to be profitable, one must avoid wild allegory, where every facet of the sacrifice becomes a token of some gospel truth.

Between these two poles, one must deal with the historical context of the book and yet see how the book draws us into a sacrificial system that leads us to Christ. Indeed, because Leviticus reveals to the “pattern” (typos) of worship that God commanded at Sinai (see Exodus 25:40), it is appropriate and necessary to see how Leviticus outlines a series of shadows (types) that find their substance in Christ (cf. Heb. 10:1).

To that end, I am teaching a Bible study on this glorious book. And I am drawing help from one particular commentator, Samuel Kellogg (1839–99). Trained at Old Princeton, Kellogg combines exegetical rigor and Christological focus. And his book is Studies in Leviticus: Tabernacle Worship and the Daily Lives of God’s People is well-worth the investment. As Cyril Barber says in the books introduction, this commentary is his crowning legacy. Describing Kellogg’s approach to Leviticus, Barber states,

In his treatment of the “law of the priests,’ Samuel Kellogg deals with the origin and growth of divine revelation, and interprets what Moses penned in the light of the circumstances in which the sons of Israel found themselves while in the desert. He is aware of the typology of the Tabernacle and its services, but wisely waits until he has treated the need for holiness and the place of sacrifice before showing how the ritual and service of the sanctuary prefigured the character and death of Christ. (9)

Indeed, this patient approach to typology is a must. As I have written elsewhere, we must let Scripture develop over time. We cannot rush to Christ, but we must let the living water of the Word age, so that in time Christ will emerge in the Scriptures like well-aged wine. In other words, we must deal with the text as it is before advancing to the glories of the gospel.

That said, we must move to Christ from all parts of the Old Testament, especially a book like Leviticus, which was written for the instruction of priests and the kingdom of priests. With that in mind, Kellogg is a sure guide. And his guidance is not just happenstance. Rather, he is aware of both the prize and the peril of biblical typology. And in the extended quotation that follows here helps us to see that.

In this clear light of the New Testament [which speaks repeatedly of Christ as a sacrifice], one can see how meagre is the view of some who would see in these Levitical sacrifices nothing more than fines assessed upon the guilty, as theocratic penalties. Leviticus itself should have taught such better than that. For, as we have seen, the virtue of the bloody offerings is made to consist in this, that ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood;” and we are told that “the blood makes atonement for the soul,” not in virtue of the monetary value of the victim, in a commercial way, but “by reason of the life” that is in the blood, and is therewith poured out before Jehovah on the altar,— the life of an innocent victim in the stead of the life of the sinful man.

No less inadequate, if we are to let ourselves be guided either by the Levitical or the New Testament teaching, is the view that the offerings only symbolised the self-offering of the worshipper. We do not deny, — indeed, that the sacrifice— of the burnt-offering, for example —may have fitly represented, and often really expressed, the self-consecration of the offerer. But, in the light of the New Testament, this can never be held to have been the sole, or even the chief, reason in the mind of God for directing these outpourings of sacrificial blood upon the altar.

We must insist, then, on this, as essential to the right interpretation of this law of the offerings, that every one of these bloody offerings of Leviticus typified, and was intended to typify, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. [Amen!!] The burnt-offering represented Christ; the peace-offering, Christ; the sin-offering, Christ; the guilt-, or trespass-offering, Christ. Moreover, since each of these, as intended especially to shadow forth some particular, aspect of Christ’s work, differed in some respects from all the others, while yet in all alike a victim’s blood was shed upon the altar, we are by this reminded that in our Lord’s redemptive work the most central and essential thing is this, that, as He Himself said (Matt. xx. 28), He “came to give His life a ransom for many.” [Double amen!!]

Keeping this guiding thought steadily before us, it is now our work to discover, if we may, what special aspect of the one great sacrifice of Christ each of these offerings was intended especially to represent.

Only, by way of caution, it needs to be added that we are not to imagine that every minute circumstance pertaining to each sacrifice, in all its varieties, must have been intended to point to some correspondent feature of Christ’s person or work. On the contrary, we shall frequently see reason to believe that the whole purpose of one or another direction of the ritual is to be found in the conditions, circumstances, or immediate intention of the offering. Thus, to illustrate, when a profound interpreter suggests that the reason for the command that the victim should be slain on the north side of the altar, is to be found in the fact that the north, as the side of shadow, signifies the gloom and joylessness of the sacrificial act, we are inclined rather to see sufficient reason for the prescription in we south, as fronting the entrance; and the west, as facing the tent of meeting and the brazen laver. the fact that the other three sides were already in a manner occupied: the east, as the place of ashes; the south,  as fronting the entrance; and the west, as facing the tent of meeting and the brazen laver.” (pp. 45–46, emphasis mine)

Kellogg, in these reflections, warns against typological minimalism and typological maximalism. (For those who want to consider typological minimalism and maximalism further, you can read the first chapter of my dissertation ;-) Those who deny the connection between the sacrifices and Christ miss a key point of Leviticus. And those who make fanciful connections from trivial points in the text also obscure the main point of this book. Because of Kellogg’s judicious approach to Leviticus, I will be returning to his work often. And if you are reading Leviticus, or seek to read it with new eyes, I encourage you to pick up his book.

Until then, you can listen to my Bible studies on Leviticus. Here are the first three.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

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