On Reading Leviticus: Four Reading Strategies for This Glorious Book

Jesus washing the feet of Saint Peter on Maundy Thursday

With a new month (March) comes a new book in the Via Emmaus Reading Plan. This year I am reading Track 1 and listening to Track 3. And for those who are reading along this plan, or for those who are interested in reading Leviticus—“The Most Exciting Book You’ve (N)Ever Read”—I offer this reading strategy with resources.

This year, we have read Genesis and Exodus, and now we come to Leviticus, which is arguably the centerpiece of the whole Pentateuch. As I have taught in this Bible Study, borrowing from the work of Michael Morales (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?) who cites many others, the book of Leviticus is the literary center and high point of the Pentateuch. Thematically, we might capture it this way:

Genesis begins in Eden, the Garden of God and ends in Egypt, a place of exile and death;

Exodus moves from Egypt through the wilderness to Sinai;

Leviticus is entirely written at Sinai;

Numbers moves from Sinai through the wilderness to the Promised Land (i.e., Israel sits poised to enter the land at the end of the book);

Deuteronomy prepares the people to move from exile in the wilderness into the Garden of God, the land of Canaan.

From this locational/thematic chiasm (and there are other literary clues that indicate an intentional shaping of the Pentateuch), we see that Leviticus is not a book we must “get through.” In the Pentateuch, it is the book we must “get to.”

We need Leviticus, so that we might learn what it takes to dwell near to God. This month, as we read Leviticus, we need to consider how this book gives us more than a detailed list of instructions for the priests of Israel. It invites us to approach a holy God and to do so through the finished work of Christ—the One who fulfills all the requirements of the Levitical system of sacrifice. In what follows I will offer a handful of resources to help you read this book, starting with four reading strategies for Leviticus.

Reading Leviticus

1. Read Leviticus in chunks, not chapters. 

Instead of providing a daily or weekly guide to this book, let me encourage you to read Leviticus in chunks—however you do it. Or at least, as you read, keep in mind that the way this book works (today) is not to stress about all the details, so much as to see how all the parts paint a full picture. This means, we should read Leviticus 1–7 together as seven chapters that describe the five basic sacrifices. For application today, we don’t need to know what animal we would offer or when, so much as we need to understand what each sacrifice meant, how each contributed to the whole complex, how Jesus fulfilled them all, and how we are to offer our lives as living sacrifices.

Indeed, because Jesus is the telos of Leviticus and the one who has fulfilled all the Law, we should consider closely how he is the burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin offering, and guilt offering. We should also learn the meanings of these sacrifices, as they inform our faith and worship.

Learning these things will require work, as we become familiar with the details of the sacrifices, but we do so for reasons that are different than the original audience. And for this reason, I recommend reading the book in chunks. To help see the meaning of these chunks, we should learn the literary structure of Leviticus, which the second reading strategy for this book.

2. Read Leviticus with the literary structure in view.

Just as the Pentateuch carries a chiastic structure, so does its centerpiece. In Leviticus, we discover that the whole book is centered around the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), which means that the Law of Moses is centered on the climactic cleansing of God’s House, not the righteousness that is achieved by keeping all the law. As Paul will say, to read the Law lawfully leads us to the gospel (1 Tim. 1:8–11). And that is true, not only because the Law proved our guilt, but also because the Law itself is organized around the provision of atonement (i.e., Leviticus 16). So learning the literary structure not only organizes our thoughts in this detail-heavy book. It also helps us see the good news of Leviticus.

So here is that literary structure, or at least, one approximation of the way this book fits together.

Atoning Sacrifices (1–7)

Instructions for Priests (8–10)

Laws for Ritual Purity (11–15)

The Day of Atonement (16)

Laws of Moral Holiness (17–20)

Instructions for Priests (21–22)

Festival Sacrifices, Sabbath Laws, and Covenantal Stipulation (23–27)

Notice again the chiastic structure of Leviticus, as well as the two sections of the book. The beginning of the book focuses on sacrifice, blood, and atonement. The latter portion of the book (after the Day of Atonement) shifts to explain how a redeemed Israelite/priest can live a holy life before a holy God. All in all, keeping this literary structure in view helps you discern where you are in the book and it gives you help in following its message too.

3. Read Leviticus with the New Testament close by.

As with all Old Testament books, we should read Leviticus with the New Testament. Especially when we look at the sacrifices, we need to see how the Old Testament provisions find their fulfillment in Christ, our true propitiation and high priest. Indeed, when we read Leviticus, we are studying the shadow, not the substance of God’s grace. Thus, we need to read Leviticus with our eyes fixed on Christ, as explained in the New Testament.

Most practically, this means reading Leviticus with Hebrews. Hebrews is the book which best explains how the old covenant came to an end in Christ’s death and resurrection. And it explains what it means for Christ to be our great high priest. Thus, we are given in Hebrews the answer key. Yet, Leviticus is the book that gives us the exam questions. Thus, we cannot fully appreciate the glories of Hebrews without Leviticus. And we cannot rightly read Leviticus without Hebrews. So, as you read Leviticus this month, take time to read Hebrews too.

4. Read Leviticus with the help of others.

One more help for reading Leviticus is found in the simple admonition to not read this book on your own. None of us who fit the description WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) or WEIRDER are equipped to understand Leviticus. We are, in fact, peculiarly hindered to understand this book by everything that makes up the modern world. For that reason, we need the help of others to know what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to figure out what is going on. In the resources that follow, I will provide some of things I’ve found helpful. If you know of more, please share in the comments.

All in all, keep reading Leviticus. Ask God to bless your reading. Keep your eyes looking for Christ. And be amazed at what you will see. For instance, just today, I read Leviticus 9, which may serve as basis for the way the Luke ends his Gospel and begins Acts. Consider:  Luke 24 ends with Jesus raising his hands and blessing his people and Acts 1–2 begins with fire coming down from heaven. These two events (hand raising and fire falling) look remarkably similar to Leviticus 9:22–24. Could it be? Go read the passages and see for yourself. Then keep reading Leviticus and see what else is there.

Resources on Leviticus

As you read Leviticus this month, you can find help in our Leviticus Bible Study on the subject. So far we have looked at the book as a whole, as well as the first five offerings.

You can also find help in these Via Emmaus articles.

And you can also find help in these other resources.

Finally, here are four recommended commentaries on Leviticus.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

2 thoughts on “On Reading Leviticus: Four Reading Strategies for This Glorious Book

  1. You are reading track one and listening to track three; in March, it lists Leviticus and Luke but also has Psalms in italics, what does that mean?

    • Hey Veronika, good question.

      In Track 1 and 3, there’s not a Psalm reading for a whole month, and because reading Psalms is something (I think) we should do at least yearly, this makes a way to do that. It was coupled with Leviticus because sometimes Leviticus feels a little dry :-) And that’s not the case with Psalms. That’s the thinking.

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