Bible Readings for April 8th
Up to now, Leviticus has dealt largely with issues concerning the work and ministry of the Levites themselves—that is, the proper sacrifices to offer, the proper way to offer them, and the ordination of Aaron and his sons for priestly ministry. Beginning in Leviticus 11, the focus of our readings shifts toward the issues of holiness and cleanness in the camp where Yahweh made his dwelling place.
Allen Ross gives this helpful explanation of these fundamental concepts of holiness and cleanness in his commentary on Leviticus, Holiness to the LORD:
Under the law everything was classified according to the categories of holy or unholy, with only the holy being permitted in the presence of God. What was not holy (i.e., what was common) included two subcategories: clean and unclean. The normal state or condition of most people and things was clean; what was clean could be elevated to holy through sacrificial ritual, but it could also be degraded to unclean by pollution or sinfulness. Accordingly, the Levitical ritual was designed to cleanse and sanctify: something that was unclean could be made clean by purification, and then what was clean needed the blood ritual to make it holy.1
Only the priests, then, worked at all in the realm of the holy. Their garments were holy; the sacrifices and the altar on which they offered those sacrifices were holy; the tabernacle and all its furniture was holy; and the priests themselves had to be sanctified (i.e., made holy) to serve in their priestly duties.
For the most part common Israelites did not have access to the realm of the holy. So, the concern of most Israelites was not with maintaining holiness as much as it was with maintaining cleanness. In Leviticus 11, then, we read about the foods that were clean for Israel to eat as well as those that were unclean for Israel’s consumption. In Leviticus 12, we read about the rituals required for women who have given birth to be made clean again.
To our ears, this can all seem bizarre, restrictive, or even oppressive, but we shouldn’t miss the overarching theological point from these stories: because Yahweh himself was living in the midst of his people, Israel had to maintain a certain minimum threshold of cleanness to avoid defiling his holiness.
But ultimately, even this arrangement will prove to be unsatisfactory. Israel will eventually fail to keep themselves clean in the presence of Yahweh, and Yahweh, who cannot dwell long-term in anything less than absolute holiness, will eventually abandon his people to judgment.
This arrangement, then, is a step toward something greater—the day when Yahweh will dwell with his people in not merely a clean city but a holy city. On that day, Yahweh will dwell with his people in the New Jerusalem, where “nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27).
1 Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 243–44.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.