Leviticus for Today

LeviticusThis past weekend at Eastbrook, my message was essentially a theological interpretation of the book of Leviticus for Christians today. I found a number of resources helpful in this, but particularly enjoyed the insights of Gordon Wenham in his masterful commentary on Leviticus. In a section of his introduction to the book entitled “Leviticus and the Christian” he writes this helpful interpretive understanding for our reading of Leviticus:

It seems fair to say that the NT not only accepts the moral law of the OT, but reiterates the basic theology of the covenant of which the law forms a part. If the NT stresses much more strongly the grace of God, this is because Christ’s incarnation and death displayed God’s mercy more strikingly than even the exodus in Egypt.

Besides moral laws such as ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18) Leviticus contains a number of laws that are sometimes described as civil legislation, e.g., laws about farming (e.g., 19:9-10, 19, 23-25) and rules fixing the death penalty for certain offenses (e.g., 20:9-16). This type of law is quoted less frequently in the NT than the simple moral imperatives, but when quoted it is treated as equally authoritative (e.g., 1 Cor 9:9 quoting Deut. 25:4 and Mark 7:10 citing Lev. 20:9).  The arbitrariness of the distinction between moral and civil law is reinforced by the arrangement of material in Leviticus. Love of neighbor immediately precedes a prohibition on mixed breeding; the holiness motto comes just before the law on executing unruly children (19:18-19; 20:7-9). Instead of distinguishing between moral and civil laws, it would be better to say that some injunctions are broad and generally applicable to most societies, while others are more specific and directed at the particular social problems of ancient Israel. In this commentary the following position is assumed: the principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different, too (34-35).

In relation to our topic of these past weekends about “God in Blank Spaces” or “God of the Displaced Ones,” Wenham writes this:

Though this law is inapplicable literally in modern societies, the principles underlying it should still challenge Christian men [sic] to devise the most effective means that can help the poor of our age. It is not the task of the commentator to say which means should be adopted, e.g., food subsidies or welfare benefits, but simply to emphasize that Christian politicians and voters have a duty to support good schemes to help the needy.

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