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Leviticus: Literal and Typological

How Leviticus posed challenges to first century Jews and Christians.

Though central to the law,[1] Leviticus posed a number of challenges for first century Jews and Christians alike. For one thing, after the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple in AD 70 by the Romans, how on earth were Jews possibly supposed to carry on with the ritualistic temple sacrifices commanded by God in Leviticus? Further, with no sacrifices there was also no need for priests as officials at those sacrifices. So how were priestly families to obey the regulations set out in Leviticus for them? Without a temple Jews were suddenly faced with these issues and more including the purity of priests, the Jewish family, and dietary regulations.

In response to these challenges, post-temple rabbis emphasized prayer and substituted the performing of the sacrificial laws with the study of them. In fact, “the medieval scholar Maimonides argued that sacrifice was a concession to human frailty (to give Jews a rite similar to rites practiced by the worshippers of other deities) and never really God’s intention.” [2] But what did this mean for priests? Even though they were now out of a job, priestly families did continue to hold to Levitical laws of purity, especially in regard to marriage and contact with the dead. Remember that priests were not permitted to marry divorcees, harlots, or daughters born to forbidden unions. And the only grounds for divorce was adultery by the wife. “In addition, priests were still to avoid contact with the dead, though members of the immediate family were exempted from this restriction”[3] (See Leviticus 21). Observant Jews also preserved the purity of the Jewish family life by observing the ban on a woman’s having intercourse for seven days (for her monthly period) and circumcising male babies. And the dietary laws in Lev. 11 were not only retained but also carried out strictly in traditional families.[4]

“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

Romans 7:6

Still, it’s easy to see how Jews who lived after the temple was destroyed struggled with following the laws in Leviticus. But it wasn’t just post-temple Jews who had issues with it. First century Christians also faced certain challenges related to Leviticus such as sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7), circumcision (Leviticus 12:3), and dietary regulations (Leviticus 11). Ultimately, under the leadership of Paul the Apostle, the New Testament church concluded that such works were unnecessary for salvation. And the later Christian scholar Origen “articulated a theory of Scripture interpretation that distinguished the literal from the more important spiritual meaning discerned by typology. Hence, the sacrifices described in Lev. 1-7 constituted a typology and prediction of Christ, whose sacrifice was superior to and fulfilled the system outlined in Leviticus.”[5] In other words, Jesus Christ is the solution to the Leviticus problem.

But even before Origen, the Holy Spirit inspired author of Hebrews had drawn the exact same conclusion. Thus, when Christ came as the ultimate sacrifice once and for all, the sacrificial system was no longer necessary. In fact, it was never meant to be permanent nor was it meant to provide righteousness and salvation nor to take away sins.  Rather, its role was to point us to the only One who can—Christ Jesus. Unfortunately, Jews who reject Him are forced to remain locked up under the law (which doesn’t save) rather than receiving freedom in Christ (who does save).

As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 7:6: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

Ryan Hembree is a daily co-host, speaker, and writer of Bible Discovery. He also hosts a YouTube channel that shows the unity of the Bible and how science and Scripture fit together. Ryan also has an honorary Masters of Ministry in Creation Science from Phoenix University of Theology.

[1] Not only figuratively but also literally since it is the middle book of the Pentateuch.
[2] Paul L. Redditt, Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament, Leviticus, 53, Kevin J. Vanhoozer general editor.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

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