Context is Everything.
Welcome back to my blog-series on Leviticus. In the first post (which you can find here), I made the case for why we should read it at all. In this second post I want to lay some of the groundwork for reading it in context. For those who know me, context is one of my constant watchwords. If you’ve read much of this blog, you’re sure to have heard me banging on about it. Context is everything. It’s not an optional extra or the preserve of experts. It’s essential for understanding the text. Take the text out of context and all you have left is a con. If you ignore the context of Leviticus you’ll get about four verses in before thinking, ‘what the heck is this?’
So let’s think about that context, to avoid coming unstuck. Let’s think about the what, where, when, why questions. Let’s also think about the chronological, geographical and cultural context. All these factors are important.
What is Leviticus?
Firstly, what is Leviticus? It’s a manual for priests. It takes its modern name from the tribe of Levi, who in the book of Exodus were set apart from the rest of the nation of Israel to serve as priests. Leviticus was originally, directly and primarily for Levites. It told them what sacrifices to offer, when and how to offer them and why they were necessary. It instructed them in matters of ritual cleanliness and how to intercede for people with God. It detailed how and when to run the major religious festivals that God was instituting and how to run a just, fair society. The fact that it was originally for Levites doesn’t mean you can’t get anything from it if you’re not a Levite (which I presume you’re not), it means that before you start reading you should know why it was written, for whom, and for what purpose. It’s not a novel to entertain, a letter to inform, a history to record or poetry or prophecy that we might need to interpret figuratively. No, it’s a manual of how to live out the Old Covenant. God was establishing a brand new religion and way of life here, all underpinning His new relationship with His people. And Leviticus records how things were to be done.
When was Leviticus written?
What about when and where? Neither of these are known with exact certainty, and neither are without scholarly disagreement, but from what I’ve read the consensus seems to be that it originally dates from the late fifteenth-century BC, just after the Exodus from Egypt. That’s about 500 years after Abraham and about 400 years before King David. Consider how much has changed between present day and 400 years ago (when King James I was on the throne of England), and you start to get an idea of how much has happened and changed since this was written. We’re talking a long time ago – possibly a thousand years before our earliest surviving manuscripts and the more familiar ages of ancient history. The past is a foreign country – no wonder it’s weird.
Where was Leviticus set?
Leviticus was first conceived when the Israelites were encamped around Mt. Sinai. Most people refer to the traditional site near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, about half-way between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some people place it actually in Arabia itself, though I’m not convinced. Either way, it was in a particularly rugged part of the Middle East, far from civilisation. It was a mountainous desert country, a far cry from both the lush Nile delta and the land of Canaan flowing with milk and honey.
The Before and After
Leviticus wasn’t written or applied in a vacuum. It’s important to think about what came before and what comes after. The Israelites came out of Egypt in the Exodus immediately beforehand, possessing nothing but the clothes on their backs and some livestock and plundered wealth. God rescued them in accordance with what he promised Abraham, their forefather, which roots Leviticus firmly in the stories and promises of Genesis too. Afterwards the Israelites resume their journey, and in a very long-winded and circuitous way they reach the Promised Land. It takes the whole of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy to cover that short distance, before the book of Joshua records how the nation of Israel became a settled geographical state, more or less in the same place as modern Israel. And so the story of the Bible goes on.
Leviticus, is, in a sense, a big pause in the grand story, a taking stock, a chance to get things properly established before they go any further. This is also true for the second half of Exodus, and parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy too. Israel needed to be prepared before they entered the Promised Land. Just like for us, very often between the promise and the promised land is a time of preparation.
So we’re talking about a pastoral people who own no land and who possess no institutions of their own. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves, who only very recently were forced labourers working for the Egyptians. They had no laws, customs or experience of self-government. All that tied them to stories of Genesis were just that – stories – oral traditions about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob passed down by word of mouth. When it came to organising life and society, God was starting from scratch with them. They had to be taught how to live with each other and how to govern themselves and settle disputes. That’s hard to imagine in 21st-century Britain, where our entire society is the product of hundreds of years of experience and independent government. Why does Leviticus record so many mundane details and at such great length? Because these things had not been stated before, everything was new.
As well as learning how to live with each other, the Israelites had to learn to live with God. Their divine neighbour lived in a royal tent at the centre of their camp, and that was both a privilege and a responsibility. They couldn’t just live as they pleased, they had to please Him. The whole issue of ritual cleanliness in Leviticus – which seems so bizarre to us – was only necessary because the holy living God was dwelling in their midst. Had He not been there, it wouldn’t have mattered what was clean or unclean (beyond certain basic, physical sanitation). To balance out the enormous blessings of God’s presence, with all the provision and protection that entailed, there were the duties of staying right with Him. That meant offerings, washing, strict rules about who could go where and what to do when things didn’t go right.
Revolutionary, not Rustic
The more you study ancient history and religion, the more you realise that Leviticus was quite counter-cultural and quite progressive compared with other societies at the time. Foreigners and vulnerable persons were treated much better than in Egypt where they’d just come from, and the seemingly onerous demands of all the sacrifices and cleansing routines were as nothing compared to the barbaric and all-consuming practices of Canaanite religion where things were taken to excess and children ritually murdered. Leviticus might seem quite rustic seen from a 21st-century European vantage, but it was revolutionary at the time. It was designed to make God’s people distinct from the nations around them, a beacon of light and hope, an example of how to do things right, and a means for them to become the blessing that God had always intended Israel to be (Genesis 12:3).
There are lots of misunderstandings about Leviticus, more than I can possibly clear up here, even if I knew how. It’s not one long exercise in legalism. A lot of what they did was thankfulness to God, not a means of earning favour from Him. After all, these laws were given after they were redeemed from slavery, not before – a crucial point. It’s not as primitive or sexist as people think, nor is God so angry and remote as is often supposed.
But my point is this, a lot of the misunderstandings melt away under the lamp of careful reading. Read in context, a lot of things make more sense than when taken at face value in isolation. To gain the full meaning and significance, you have to read the before and the after, and have some awareness of what life was like elsewhere at the time. You have to step out of your modern comforts and try to set aside your post-modern mindset. Worry less about judging the culture of the time, and more about what it has to say to you now. Take the time to get the most out of this book – there’s a lot in there of great worth for personal, corporate and social application. But context is everything.