September 21, 2020

Two Books of the Bible Nobody (really) Likes to Read (Part 1)


Moses (detail), Chagall

Meet Leviticus and Numbers, infamous killers of countless New Year’s resolutions to read the Bible through in a year. These two books, the third and fourth portions of the Torah, are sections of the Bible that most people, if they were honest, could do without.

Oh sure, there are parts of them that we all appreciate: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for example, comes from Leviticus (19:18). We think the year of Jubilee is pretty cool (Lev. 25), and we know that all those sacrifices have something to do with Jesus, though it’s hard to figure it out just reading the various rules and regulations for performing them.

Numbers has some good stories, but getting through all the census lists and laws and offerings is mind-numbing. It is also notoriously difficult to detect the structure of the book of Numbers — and so the book about wandering in the wilderness is an easy one in which to get lost!

At least the structure of Leviticus is clear: sections of laws and regulations are followed by narratives or regulations that relate to the previous section of statutes.

Statutes: Offerings

Lev. 1-7

Statues: Clean/Unclean

Lev. 11-15

Statutes: Holiness

Lev. 17-24

Statutes: The Land

Lev. 25-26

Stories: Priests

Lev. 8-10

Ritual: Day of Atonement

Lev. 16

Story: Eye for an eye

Lev. 24:10-23

Conclusion: Vows

Lev. 27

That, of course, doesn’t make it any easier to read this material, to understand why all the detail has been preserved, and to assess its relevance to today’s readers. As Christians, especially with the assistance of the book of Hebrews, we accept that the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system foreshadows Christ. We can also pick out certain ethical principles — especially in such chapters as Lev. 19 — but that still doesn’t help us understand what we should think about or why we should care about becoming unclean from bodily discharges, not having sex during our wife’s menstrual period, wearing garments made of two different materials, enacting the death penalty for certain kinds of sexual sins, or being able to calculate the various valuations of different kinds of offerings, vows, and tithes. Nor is it exactly clear why all of these details would have been preserved in the final form of the Torah for the post-exilic community.

Walter Brueggemann suggests the following:

intro to OTThe book of Leviticus articulates an old and perennial agenda in Israel in which there is an awareness of the radical “otherness” of YHWH who cannot be approached casually, but who can be hosted only with rigorous, disciplined intentionality. This agenda is rooted in Israel’s profound sense of the character of this God who is, at the same time, faithful and ominous. That sense of God is perhaps intensified in a season of cultural danger. This reality may provide a clue for our appreciation of the codification of older materials in exile or son thereafter. It is curious of course that by the time of the exile, perhaps by the time of the final form of this text, there was no longer a temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices could be offered and cultic holiness could be practiced. This may suggest that the extended inventory of sacrifices and related materials in the book of Leviticus is to be understood not as a manual for practice, but as a liturgical, aesthetic act of imagination of what the world of Israel is like when it is known to be focused upon glad responses in obedience and sacrifice to YHWH. In this horizon there is no other chance for entry into the presence except through disciplines of holiness. While the book of Leviticus is remote from our contemporary world, its issues inescapably persist because the otherness of God persists in the world of faithful interpretation.

An Introduction to the Old Testament


  1. I laughed at your first sentence. Spot on.

    However, Brueggemann’s quaint attempt to label these books as not real instruction, but a “liturgical, aesthetic act of imagination” seems strained beyond belief. I have been re-reading the Pentateuch, and it seems to only make sense if it was written to people who were about to enter the land and establish the tabernacle, not to those whose temple had been destroyed.

    • I only quoted his conclusion. One thing that leads him to that is the fact that many of these regulations indicate a highly developed system of practice that more likely reflects the settled situation of the temple that the exiles would have known about rather than the first steps of setting up the practices of a portable sanctuary.

      I don’t think he would reject the idea that these were real instructions, just that they represent a development of practice over many years. For example, one thing many of the regulations assume is a central sanctuary where “all Israel” would come. That didn’t happen until David, which is why many OT scholars believe that one of the first periods of intense composition and editing of the Torah came during the Kingdom, perhaps under Solomon.

  2. I for one always very much appreciated Leviticus. I found the obscure details stunning and consistently merciful: yes, levite midgets can be priests, just not the high priest. If a woman marries someone from a different tribe, then is widowed with no children, she is allowed back into the levite welfare system. This is how you go about proving you are not contagious and can rejoin your community.

    Those things spoke to me of a God who remembered the widow, the dwarf, and the sick. They helped me as a teenager to move away from the “angry old testament god” vs “nice new testament god” perspective.

    • evite midgets can be priests, just not the high priest

      If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were making a pun! 😛

      But I think your conclusion is one of the best takeaway from the book. There is much severity by modern standards, but careful attention to the details reveal a heart of mercy.

  3. I feel like I sort of get Leviticus (at least parts of it), but Numbers is just a total puzzle to me. Probably my least favorite book. Its structure seems haphazard, it’s mind-numbingly boring at times, and it contains some of the most disturbing and troubling passages in the Bible.

  4. I like Bruggemann, but somehow I doubt even he could make Leviticus interesting…

  5. I wonder if Chaplain Mike, when discussing Numbers, will raise the theory suggested by Mary Douglas in her book “Thinking in Circles,” which is that Numbers is not a disorderly hodgepodge of information, but is an example of a highly structured “ring composition,” as described in her book. Don’t ask me to explain this. I kind of get it, but have not been ambitious enough to apply my mind to a thorough understanding. Douglas’s ideas on finding patterns in a number of otherwise repetitive or boring texts are very interesting, however.

    • I had heard of chiasm in previous bible studies and now something new Ring Composition. The Bible as literature never ceases to amaze me. Just when I get prideful of my knowledge, I realize how much more I can learn.

  6. More in keeping with the earlier posts re: the composition of the Torah, but this monograph is now available as an individual volume in Logos:

    The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible

    Author: Jan-Wim Wesselius
    Series: Study of the Old Testament Supplement (JSOTSupp)
    Series Volume: 345
    Publication Date: 2002
    Pages: 224

    This book demonstrates that Primary History, the historical work contained in the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis-2 Kings), was written as one unitary work, in deliberate emulation of the Greek-language Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (completed c. 440 BCE). The diversity of its books and sections is largely a literary device. The work was most likely written in the period 440-420 BCE, in the period of reform usually associated with the name of Nehemiah.

    Though this thesis does not directly affect questions of historicity, understanding the literary nature of primary history promises to open new vistas for research into the history of Israel, the Hebrew Bible in general and the history of the Hebrew language.