ESV - 1 The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying.
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Every Jewish synagogue includes a large cupboard, usually covered with a curtain or a veil. Inside the cupboard are some scrolls wrapped in beautifully embroidered cloth. These scrolls are the law of Moses. They are called the Torah, which means ‘instruction’, and are regarded as foundational to the whole Old Testament. They are read through aloud once a year. When a scroll was removed from the cupboard, the first part would be unrolled to reveal the opening words. The book became known by these words. Genesis is called ‘In the beginning’; Exodus is called ‘These are the names’; Leviticus is ‘And He called’; Numbers is ‘In the wilderness’; and Deuteronomy is ‘The Words’. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, they had to think of a more appropriate name. Many people who resolve to read the Bible all the way through get stuck in Leviticus. It is easy to understand why. It is a very difficult book to read, for three main reasons. The first is that it is quite simply a boring book –it is like trying to read the telephone directory. It is so different in content from other books of the Bible, especially the first two, which are full of stories. Leviticus is difficult to read because there is no storyline and the religious rituals described seem to have no connection with modern life. The second reason is that it is so unfamiliar. It is from a different culture as well as having a different content. In our society we deal with infectious diseases rather differently! It also includes other weird activities –we do not arrive at church today carrying a little lamb or a pigeon to give to the pastor, who then slits its throat in front of the whole congregation. The third reason is that it seems to be so irrelevant. What has Leviticus got to say to me living today? At work on a Monday? Let us therefore consider the book with a view to overturning some of the misgivings we may have. The interesting thing about the five books of Moses is that they have a distinctive and memorable shape. Noting this will help us put Leviticus in context. Leviticus derives its name from the tribe of Levites, one of the tribes of Israel. Genesis is a universal book –it is about everybody, the human race and the whole universe. Exodus is a national book –it zooms down on one people, the nation of Israel. In Leviticus the focus is even more narrow, on only one tribe (and concentrating on just one place: Mount Sinai, where the law and regulations were given) out of the whole nation. Once past Leviticus, the focus opens out again and Numbers is about the whole nation once more. Deuteronomy puts Israel against the backcloth of the entire world and we are back to the universal viewpoint. This shape helps to explain why so many people get stuck in Leviticus. While they are interested in universal things and even national things, they are less concerned when the focus is upon a particular tribe, other than their own. Genesis covers centuries, all the past history of our earth. Exodus covers years, about 300. Leviticus only covers one month, while Numbers covers 40 years and Deuteronomy looks forward through the centuries to the future history of Israel. Leviticus is the hinge of the whole shape of the five books of Moses, focusing down to the most important month at the most important place with the most important tribe. The whole of the law of Moses hangs on this. When the Jews read through the Pentateuch every 12 months, they spend about a fortnight to three weeks reading Leviticus. Having looked at Leviticus in the context of the Pentateuch, we should also relate it back to Exodus. It is very important to recognize how each book grows out of the previous book if we wish to understand it fully. In the second half of Exodus the tabernacle is built, God’s tent in which He lives among His people. If you imagine the camp in Exodus, God’s tent would be in the middle and hundreds of other tents all around it –the divine tent and the human tents together. Leviticus is about everything that goes on in God’s tent and everything that should go on in the people’s tents. So it divides into two halves: God’s tent and the people’s tents, with the rules and regulations for both. Furthermore, when dealing with the tabernacle, Exodus talks about God’s approach to man, but Leviticus talks about man’s approach to God. Exodus is about the deliverance that God brought to His people, but Leviticus is about the dedication of God’s people to Him. Exodus is about God’s grace in setting the people free, but Leviticus begins with thank offerings, explaining how the people can show their gratitude to God for being set free. We need both books and their complementary messages. This book may not be as exciting as Exodus, but it shows that God expects something from us in return for what He has done for us. You see, we are saved in order to serve. Exodus shows how God saved His people, but Leviticus explains how they are to serve Him. When we read the Old Testament, it can be helpful to imagine that we are Jewish. For a Jewish person the reason for reading Leviticus is clear: it is quite literally a matter of life and death. To the Jews there is only one God and that is the God of Israel. All other so-called gods are figments of human imagination. It was the same for the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus. Since there was only one God and they were His only people on earth, there was a special relationship between them. On God’s side He promised to do many things for them: to be their government; to be their minister of defence and protect them; to be their minister of finance, so there would be no poor among them; to be their minister of health, so that none of the diseases of Egypt would touch them. God would be everything they needed, their King. In return He expected them to live right and to do things right, ‘Be holy’. The biblical word is ‘righteous’ –‘righteousness’ means living right. The decisive text in the whole of Leviticus is one that is frequently alluded to in the New Testament: ‘Be holy for I am holy’. God expects the people He liberates to be like Him and not like those around them. Many of the things which seem puzzling in Leviticus are explained by this fact. Remember that there are more words of God in the book of Leviticus than in any other book in the Bible! About 90 per cent of Leviticus is the direct speech of God –‘The LORD said to Moses…’ There is no other book in the Bible that has so much of God’s direct speech, so if you want to read God’s Word this is a good book to start with. You will be reading the actual WORDS of God.
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