Friday, January 8, 2016

Reading Leviticus

Leviticus is a book in the Old Testament that most Christians have not read, will not read, and wonder why it is even in the Bible or has remained in the Bible. This might seem like a severe judgment but it is born out of years of experience in churches. Origen, who has been called the earliest and greatest commentators on Leviticus, had already noted in the third century that "if you provide a person a reading from Leviticus at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it was a bizarre food."

Leviticus has never been an easy read and today it might as well not even be in the Bible for all the attention it gets. Except, it has a verse in it that is much used and discussed in the Church's ongoing attempt to sort out what the Bible means on an issue of human sexuality, and one of Jesus' favorite verses is found in it and the book as a whole is foundational for an understanding of the book of Hebrews. Not to mention it has a great chapter on the the atonement and another one on the year of Jubilee.

So why is it that Leviticus has gotten the reputation of just being a book about laws, obscure laws that are not in force today? Well, probably because it is a book about laws, all sorts of laws about sacrifices and offerings and rules for priests, and hygiene and food. Laws Christians find irrelevant for their lives today.

How many sermons have you ever heard from Leviticus? A recent commentary by Ephraim Radner (2008) in the Brazos series takes issue with the way Levitcus is ignored by the Church.

Before the Reformation the main reason for Christians to read Leviticus was to find Christ in its pages. After the Reformation this "figural" way of reading Leviticus was greatly questioned and finally set aside for a more doctrinal - historical reading of the book in which it's lessons became "time worn and limited" (Radner). By the end of the nineteenth century, Radner observes, Leviticus was consigned to the dustbin of Judaic superstition by deist and rationalistic polemicists.

Radner's thesis is that Leviticus is not part of Scripture because of divine senselessness. It is more than an arcane piece of historical religion; it is the Word of God through which a figural reading opens us to the grace of God in Christ. A figural reading assumes that Leviticus depicts the work of God in Christ on a cosmic scale comprehensive enough to demand the wealth of detail figured in the book's verses.

Radner's commentary follows the previous works of several Rabbi's as well as Origen, Calvin, and Hirsch. He engages other modern Bible scholars. Mostly his work comes from his passion to open the book up to modern readers who otherwise may be closed to reading it due to historic hermeneutic prejudices and presuppositions. In other words, so people will actually read it and discover the meaning that is there for them.

Admittedly, Radner's approach is an imaginative and creative method of interpretation. How do we know that what we find in the text was really meant to be there? What happened to the hermeneutic principle that what the text means now must have made sense to the first readers? We are not free to just make up what we want the text to mean, are we?

The interpretation of the Bible is a challenging task and obviously, since we are speaking of the Word of God to us, a very significant one. It is best done by the Christian community. Pre-Reformation interpreters of Jewish and Christian faith are mostly unknown to us today. We are the poorer for that. Are there riches in Scripture to be mined by reading the earliest interpreters of Leviticus? I think so. If God has not spoken to you from Leviticus in a long time, it might be time to ponder the Word of God in Leviticus with Radner and his colleagues as guides.

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