Re-Understanding the Leviticus Sacrificial System

Popular Christian tradition often defines and interprets ancient Israel’s cultic rituals and offerings in Leviticus through the narrow lens with which the New Testament discusses the issue of the sacrificial system. Passages like Matt 5:17-19, Rom 7:6, and Heb 10:1 leave an impression that the Levitical offering system was solely intended to prepare for Jesus and him alone. While this is undeniable in a sense, it is important to note the theological thrusts of these texts. Matthew, Romans, and Hebrews each work to demonstrate how Jesus fits into the grand scope of the Torah, not to provide a comprehensive discussion about the sacrificial system of Leviticus. Thus, in order to properly understand a book such as Leviticus, especially for a Christian, people must begin by recognizing that the New Testament is not definitive for Leviticus. If anything, Leviticus defines the New Testament and the New Testament operates within those parameters. Although it adjusts various understandings and interpretations (cf. Thomas Kazen 2002), it does not ever comprehensively discuss how the entirety of the system was abolished by Jesus.

In light of this brief discussion, what is required of biblical readers? Two basic ideas sum up how readers should approach Leviticus:

1) Recognize the layers of tradition within the offering system. Leviticus was not written over one year and left as the original copy 3,000 years later. Rather, it has been redacted through various editors who lived in their own time with distinct influences than others may not have had (cf. Yitzhaq Feder 2011). What readers read now is the results of centuries of redaction. As a final comment, that is not to imply that Leviticus in unreliable. On the contrary, it is reliable, except one must recognize the variation within it.

2) Leviticus should be read with recognition that the cultic ritual was central to lives in the ancient world. To ignore or place a glaze over Leviticus is to ignore the centrality of ancient Israel’s culture and life.

Although these are only two of many essential hermeneutic approaches to Leviticus, they are a good starting place. By observing these two ideas, it may actually be possible to read Leviticus. This begins with expanding beyond the narrow view of the New Testament’s understandings of sacrifice and atonement and moving towards a more comprehensive understanding of Leviticus that takes into account the textual redaction and centrality of sacrifice to the ancient world.

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