Point Our Souls to Christ:
Lessons from Leviticus
The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob wrote, “We keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to [Christ]” (Jacob 4:5), and Nephi taught that the end for which the law was given was to “look forward . . . unto Christ” (2 Nephi 25:24). Similarly, Abinadi said that the law of Moses was “a shadow of those things which are to come” (Mosiah 16:14), and Amulek preached about the “whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice, . . . the Son of God” (Alma 34:14). Central to the law of Moses were the temple ordinances, purity laws, and the calendar, all of which are explained in detail in Leviticus. It should be possible, then, to read Leviticus in a way that points the reader’s soul toward Christ, yet most readers find Leviticus dry and irrelevant. Is there a way to find Christ in Leviticus?
In recent years, the study of Leviticus has been galvanized by the late Mary Douglas, an anthropologist. Douglas’s central insight was that Leviticus relies on analogical thinking, which means that each part of the law cannot be understood on its own but only by comparing it with other parts of the law of Moses. She notes that in Leviticus, there are usually no explanations given for why something is done; rather, the explanation is to be found in comparing one part of the text with another part of the text. As Douglas explains, “If one asks, Why this rule? the answer is that it conforms to that other rule. If, Why both those rules? the answer is a larger category of rules in which they are embedded. . . . Instead of argument there is analogy.”1 Analogical reading helps us make sense of a document that, relative to the rest of the Old Testament, has very few imperatives or commandments. Herein I will employ an analogical reading of Leviticus to demonstrate what the Book of Mormon prophets already knew: that the law of Moses, even in its details, points our souls to Christ.
While Douglas’s methodology will be used, the bulk of examples in this paper are my own; I take her methodology in an overtly Christian direction, in a way that Douglas did not. This study will analogically analyze several passages in Leviticus to show its focus on Christ.
The first three chapters of Leviticus explain the procedures for making offerings. There are three types described: burnt offerings (Leviticus 1), meat offerings (Leviticus 2; I will refer to these as “cereal offerings” since they are all grain), and peace offerings (Leviticus 3). Each of these has three subcategories (burnt offering: herd animals, flock animals, and fowls; cereal offering: flour, baked grain, and firstfruits; peace offering: herd animals, lambs, and goats). Interestingly, only the central subcategory of the central offering—namely, the baked grain cereal offering—has three subcategories of its own: offerings baked in an oven (Leviticus 2:4), baked in a pan (Leviticus 2:5—6), and cooked in a frying pan (Leviticus 2:7). If we consider this text analogically, we see that this structure of embedded triplets encourages a focus on the center item in each section. But why should our attention be drawn to cereal offerings baked in a pan? Because that offering is made—and only made—when the high priest is anointed to his office (see Leviticus 6:21). So this structure guides the reader to see the anointing of the high priest as, literally, central. A perceptive reader realizes that the role of the high priest—which is, fundamentally, to make atonement—is central to worship in ancient Israel. Hence, atonement made by one having authority is the focal point of the rituals. This reading is one way we can use an analogical approach to find Christ in Leviticus.
Some rituals involved placing the hand of the worshipper upon the animal before it was sacrificed (see, for example, Leviticus 1:4; 3:2; 4:4; 8:14). Leviticus 1:4 explains why: “It shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Because placing a hand was always performed by the person who made the offering (whether priest or laity), it suggests that the person established a connection between himself and the animal. That connection was made clearest in the ritual performed on the Day of Atonement, when “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away” (Leviticus 16:21). This encourages the reader to see the other instances of placing a hand upon an offering as an effort to release one’s sins onto the animal, which is then sacrificed. The participant in the ritual—and the reader of the laws—is then primed for the idea that an innocent party can take on the sins of another and be sacrificed for them, so long as the worshipper initiates the connection. This would, of course, reach its fruition in the atonement of Christ.
All offerings in Leviticus 1 were burnt on the altar; Douglas points out that burnt might be translated as “turns all the offering into smoke.” She notes that “the formula repeated eleven times warns that this is no casual remark. . . . In Hebrew the verb ‘to turn into smoke’ is not the same as the verb ‘to burn’, used for non-sacrificial incineration: it means turning something into something else, smoke.”2 This is important because the most prominent reference to smoke up to this point in Israel’s history is when the Lord met Moses on Mount Sinai. It is described thus: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke [or covered in smoke], because the Lord descended upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:18). Note that Mount Sinai was surrounded by smoke because the Lord was descending; the idea that smoke accompanied the Lord’s presence became a common feature in the biblical canon (see Psalm 144:5; Isaiah 4:5; 6:4; and Revelation 15:8). So for the rituals in Leviticus to be based on the idea of turning sacrificial animals into smoke is to imply that an atoning sacrifice creates the conditions under which the Lord can visit the covenant people. Once again, the importance of atonement is emphasized.
As the animal and grain offerings are described in Leviticus, a refrain emerges: they must be “without blemish” (see Leviticus 1:3; this phrase might also be translated as “flawless”). This suggests that only the very best should be offered to the Lord and that only something perfect can be sacrificed. Yet at the same time, the option for a poor worshipper to bring a less expensive offering (see, e.g., Leviticus 5:7) means that the Lord’s mercy is accessible to every person. In fact, even those completely impoverished could still offer a sacrifice, since they could glean the fields (see Leviticus 5:11 and 19:9—10). Thus, the Lord requires a standard of perfection and, at the same time, accommodates individual imperfections. Later in Leviticus, the Israelites were commanded that Aaron’s sons must be without blemish in order to serve as priests (see Leviticus 21:17), which implies an association between the priest and the sacrificial animal and suggests that there was a sacrificial nature to the work of the priest and thus prepared the audience for the sacrifice of the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Leviticus 1—3 describes sacrificial rituals that required the participation of the priests, and yet this section begins: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering . . .” (Leviticus 1:2). Note that these chapters are addressed to the laity—not the priests. Only in later chapters (7 and following) will the text address the priests and will the offerings be described from their point of view. While this is perhaps surprising in a text that some readers think of as a priesthood handbook, it is significant that the role of the laity was emphasized; ordinances may be performed by the priests, but they are performed for the laity.
The statement “And the Lord spake unto Moses” (Leviticus 4:1) or a similar variant begins virtually every new section of laws in the book. It is an easy phrase to overlook, but its inclusion and repetition emphasize that these laws originated with the Lord. Leviticus 4 explains the rituals that accompany the sin offering and underscores that sin defiles the tabernacle. The defilement denotes that the Lord cannot—literally or figuratively—dwell in the tabernacle. Hence, sin makes it impossible to enjoy the presence of the Lord. But Levitical ritual also teaches that the blood of a perfect sacrifice can cleanse the tabernacle so that the Lord can once again dwell therein. In addition, the fire used to burn the offerings must not go out (see Leviticus 6:9, 12, 13), which implies that the people always had access to the atoning power. To a Christian, the symbolism here should be apparent.
As mentioned, Leviticus 4 explains the ordinances associated with sin offerings. But the order in which the material is presented is also quite instructive. The ritual was performed on occasions when a sin was committed by a priest (Leviticus 4:3), the whole congregation (Leviticus 4:13), a ruler (Leviticus 4:22), and a common person (Leviticus 4:27). If this order is hierarchical, it implies that the whole congregation was of higher status than the ruler. Additionally, in each ritual, the guilty party placed hands on the animal before it was sacrificed, except in the case of the whole congregation, where the “elders of the congregation” (Leviticus 4:15) did so, implying that, in this case, the elders represent the people.
Leviticus 8 describes rituals that accompany the ordination of priests. Normally when a cereal offering was made, a small portion of it was turned into smoke and the rest was given to the priests as food. But when this ritual was performed as part of the ordination of a priest, the entire portion was burned (see Leviticus 8:26—28). Similarly, the majority of the wave offering was normally given to the priests (see Leviticus 7:34), but when done as part of the consecration of the priest, it was given to Moses (see Leviticus 8:29). These small changes serve to emphasize that the priesthood cannot be (literally) self-serving. It also suggests that there was a chain of priesthood authority stretching from the high priest, through Moses, to the Lord.
After the priest had been clothed in sacred vestments and the sacrifice performed, the text notes that Moses took the blood of the sacrifice “and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot” (Leviticus 8:23). A similar ritual occurred in only one other place in Leviticus: in the ritual to cleanse a leper, the blood from the offering was applied to the leper by the priest, who “put it upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot” (Leviticus 14:14). The blood of the sacrifice was capable of changing the worshipper’s position both from outcast to laity and from laity to priest. Note also that these rituals were the only ones in Leviticus where blood was placed on a person; normally, the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled somewhere in the tabernacle. This suggests that when the leper was cleansed and the priest was consecrated, their bodies were parallel to the altar, which is to say that their bodies symbolically became the location of sacrifice, worship, and transformation.
There is one other noteworthy application of sacrificial blood: in Leviticus 14:6 and 51, a living bird was dipped into the blood of a sacrificed bird and then allowed to fly away in a ritual used for the cleansing of both lepers and houses. It is tempting to understand this freed bird as a symbol for the freedom of one covered in atoning blood, but analogical reading of another part of Leviticus suggests otherwise. There is a third ritual in Leviticus with interesting parallels to the two-bird ritual: on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:7), two goats were presented and one was sacrificed for a sin offering. As for the other, “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away . . . into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21—22). This informs our understanding of the two-bird ritual: the freed animal was not so much set at liberty as meant to carry away sins or impurity. Applying this understanding to the two-bird ritual, we see that both birds—both the one killed and the one freed—played an important role in the cleansing of the leper or leprous home. The fleeing bird or goat suggests that sin did not cease to exist through the ritual of atonement but rather that it was carried by someone else. Comparing these three rituals also makes clear that the ritual of the Day of Atonement was primarily concerned with cleansing.
The idea of blood as a cleanser is a counterintuitive notion developed throughout Leviticus. A few examples of this have already been discussed; one other is worth noting. Leviticus 4 describes the procedures to be followed when various groups of people (from the common person to the high priest) sin, and all of them involve sprinkling the blood of the slain animal in the tabernacle, which cleansed it from the sins of those who have polluted it. The paradoxical idea of blood as a ritual cleanser prepared the covenant people to understand the role of Jesus Christ’s blood.
There is one use of blood that does not appear in Leviticus: one of the strongest prohibitions in the entire text is against consuming blood. Why might this be? Since blood assumed the symbolic role of a cleanser (of the altar and of people), to consume blood would be an attempt to cleanse oneself. (This may also explain why emissions of human blood render the person unclean.) In Leviticus, cleansing comes when the priest sacrificed an animal, suggesting that atonement was not something one did for oneself but rather that it required an intermediary with special status (since both the priest and the animal needed to be pure). It may be that the symbolic consumption of Jesus’s blood as part of the last supper and the sacrament is related to this principle. Additionally, blood is never turned into smoke on the altar, which suggests a link between the altar and the body that we will explore more fully below. An analogical reading encourages us to see the strong prohibition against blood consumption as a reminder that atonement is not something that one can do for oneself and that it also prepares the careful reader to understand that Jesus’s blood is unique and therefore can be symbolically consumed to the benefit of the worshipper.
Other dietary laws are found in Leviticus 11 and have long been a puzzle to readers, but an analogical reading suggests reasons behind the restrictions. All “beasts” except for cattle, sheep, and goats were forbidden (see Leviticus 11:1—8); note that these were the only three animals that were used for sacrifices. Inasmuch as the sacrificial animals were considered the “food” of the Lord, the implication is that the covenant people were to eat what the Lord “ate,” or to model themselves on the Lord and to act as the Lord did. This association between how the Lord is and how the people should be is furthered by a clever pun in this chapter; as Douglas explains, the same word is used at the end of the chapter to describe the Lord’s action in bringing the people out of Egypt (see Leviticus 11:45) as is used in the beginning of the chapter to describe the bringing up of cud (what the KJV calls “chewing the cud” in Leviticus 11:3) of those animals that the covenant people were permitted to eat.3 Because these verbal echoes bracket the entire body of dietary laws, they underscore the point that even in something as mundane as their food choices, the people had an opportunity to emulate the Lord. And since the restrictions on what could be placed on the altar paralleled the restrictions on what could be placed in the body, the text suggests that the body and the altar are analogous. The altar was the focal point for worship, but so was the body. The altar was the location of sacrifice and holiness; the body should have been the same. Note also that the animals mentioned in Leviticus 11 are divided according to the pattern of Genesis 1, where animals were created in three groups according to their habitat (water, air, and land). Since the dietary laws mimic the created order, this reinforces the concept that these laws reflected God’s will for creation and that adherence to the dietary laws implied that humans were making the same kinds of distinctions that God made. Also note that just as people were divided into three categories in Leviticus—priests, laity, and unclean—foods were similarly divided into sacrificial, edible, and unclean. The paralleling of people and foods implied gradations of holiness in both groups, suggesting that holiness was not a binary division but rather a way of viewing human progression toward holiness. This theme reached its fruition in Peter’s dream that all foods were clean, which was understood by him to mean that all people were clean (see Acts 10:10—28). This multivalent linkage between food and people primes the careful reader to better understand the role of the sacrament in Jesus’s ministry.
Leviticus 12—15 concerns impurity. In chapter 12, we find the procedures for restoring to purity women who have given birth. Interestingly, the birth of a girl resulted in an unclean time of two weeks, while for a boy the time was one week. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised. This suggests that ordinances such as circumcision have the power to abrogate impurity. One might speculate that other reasons account for the differences in time before purity is restored, but an analogical reading encourages us to look at differences between similar texts in order to explain them. When we do that here, we find that the only difference mentioned in the text is the practice of circumcision and therefore conclude that it is circumcision that leads to purity.
Leviticus 14 contains procedures for restoring purity to leprous people, clothing, and houses. Note that the procedure for cleansing a leprous house is very similar to that for a leprous person, implying a parallel between human bodies and houses. That, in turn, suggests that the household—with all of its inhabitants—is a discrete entity in the same way that one person is: the house is like a skin for the family. This hints at a theology of families that stresses their interdependence but also their susceptibility to impurity. Note that if the person’s skin is entirely leprous, they were considered clean (Leviticus 13:13). This implies that the issue of cleanness is not one of conforming to modern medical notions but rather deals with wholeness. People entirely covered with leprosy were clean because their skin was consistent, but partial leprosy was unclean because it was mixed (compare the regulations on mixing wool and linen in Leviticus 19:19). It suggests a rubric through which we might understand virtually all the regulations in Leviticus—the law prohibited mixing items that should be distinct: clean and unclean people, animals, skin, textiles, seeds in a field, and so on. It points to a larger moral lesson regarding the separation between the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the wicked, and prepares the careful reader for Jesus’s teachings about the end times (see, e.g., Mark 13).
Douglas’s reading of Leviticus 12—15 notes that atonement was necessary when a “covering” was breached;4 those coverings included the house covering the clothing, the clothing covering the skin, and the skin covering the body. In each case, if the covering was spoiled, sacrifice was necessary. Douglas links this theme to the story of the fall, at which time Adam and Eve realized the necessity for a covering after they had transgressed. They attempted to cover themselves, but that was inadequate: the covering must come from the Lord, and when it did, it was—as Leviticus encourages us to see it—a symbol for atonement. The importance attached to “coverings” may extend to the sacrificial offerings, where one of the parts of the animal to be burnt was described as the fat “that covereth the inwards” (Leviticus 4:8). This covering, which was ritually pure (since the animal must be unblemished), was sacrificed in order to restore ritual purity to the offerer, whose own “covering” had in some way become blemished. This concept ties in nicely to the idea of an atonement; in fact, in Hebrew the words for “covering” and “atonement” are very similar.5 Thus the idea of substitutionary sacrifice was taught.
Analogical reading finds significance even in the arrangement of the material; note that chapter 11 (the dietary laws) and chapters 12—15 (concerning impurity) literally led up to the Day of Atonement (chapter 16). This most sacred of days required that the worshippers be pure from the inside out; hence they had to be in obedience to both dietary laws and impurity laws. In this case, the very structure of the text leads us to center our attention on the Day of Atonement and the need for atonement; it implies that the worshipper must have been personally prepared to worthily participate in that day’s events. The fact that a human, like the tabernacle, could be unclean implies that, like the tabernacle, a human could also enjoy the presence of the Lord, but only when certain criteria were met. While modern readers commonly see the purity regulations as part of a law understood in opposition to the Spirit, the presence of these regulations taught the ancient Israelites that their own bodies could be the dwelling place of the Spirit of the Lord just as the tabernacle could be, if only they chose to become clean and pure.
Chapter 18 consists of prohibitions against a variety of sexual relationships. In the middle of that list, however, is this statement: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech” (Leviticus 18:21). Why would a prohibition against sacrificing a child to a false god show up in the middle of a list consisting of condemnations of sexual relationships? Analogical thinking provides an answer, especially when we note that the child was called “thy seed” in the prohibition. This implies that, for all of the prohibitions in this chapter, there is an emphasis on the effect that the forbidden sexual relationship would have on the next generation: just as one’s seed should not be given to Molech, it cannot be given to a forbidden relationship. The implication is that a prime reason for sexual morality was the effect that illicit relationships would have on future generations and the self-centeredness of sexual immorality. Further, just as giving one’s seed to Molech implied a spiritual relationship with Molech, participating in any of the forbidden sexual relationships would do the same. Note that, unlike most of the regulations in Leviticus, reasons for the prohibitions were given for most of the relationships in this chapter; the relationship was prohibited because the person involved was a close relative (see, e.g., Leviticus 18:8) or because the act itself was an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). Interestingly, the explanatory clause for a child sacrificed to Molech reads “neither shalt thou [or so that thou shalt not] profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21), implying that just as a man could not marry his father’s sister because “she is thy father’s near kinswoman” (Leviticus 18:12), a child could not be sacrificed because she or he was the “near kin” of the Lord. The relationship between the child and the Lord was emphasized through its comparison with a relationship that is too close to permit marriage.
Chapters 23—25 of Leviticus contain the laws concerning special times and holy days. A prominent feature of these holy days was the prohibition of work, which is mentioned for the Sabbath, Passover, Festival of Weeks, the Day of Horn Blasts, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths. The prohibition against work given for the Day of Atonement is notable for its severity (see Leviticus 23:28—29); it served to underscore the importance of this day, even relative to other holy days. It also shifts the focus to the kind of work that was done: the sacrifices that focused on atonement and redemption. For the Christian, it points to the singularity of Christ’s atoning work and its complete separation from human work. The only annual holiday that did not prohibit work is Firstfruits, a day also unique in that it is the only one not tied to a specific day on the calendar but rather to the day when the Israelites “reap the harvest” (Leviticus 23:10). It makes sense that a day commemorating the harvest would not prohibit work; this in turn serves to emphasize the holiness of honest labor. It is thus an important counterpoint to the holidays that prohibit work since it makes clear that there was nothing inherently unclean or impure about work.
A second prominent feature of the holy days is that all of those tied to the calendar involved the number seven in some way (i.e., the Sabbath was the seventh day, Passover was at the end of two seven-day cycles, the Day of Atonement was in the seventh month). While number symbolism is foreign to modern Western cultures, it was common in the Bible, where the number seven was a symbol for completeness or perfection. All holy days share this characteristic in some way. In other words, they all belong to the Lord, the source of perfection.
One oddity in this section is that, in the midst of chapters concerning events that occurred at a specific and for a limited period, we find requirements for the continual fire in the tabernacle (see Leviticus 24:1—9). This placement serves to underscore the perpetual nature of the fire and the idea that being in the tabernacle (or, later, in the temple) is always a special time. The clever placement of these regulations served to emphasize to Israel the importance of the tabernacle/temple—it was a special place in the same way in which holy days were special times. It also serves as a commentary on the discussion of work (and its prohibition) above: “Every sabbath [Aaron] shall set [the loaves] in order before the Lord continually” (Leviticus 24:8). We find clear approval for Aaron’s Sabbath work and the suggestion that work that was sacrificial or worshipful was, in fact, most appropriate for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath was not about refraining from work per se but about refraining from what we might call non-worshipful work. The perpetual fire implied that certain work is acceptable—even necessary—on the Sabbath.
The section on perpetual fire is located between regulations concerning holy days that occur once every calendar year and those that only happened in certain years. The two events that are not annual—the Sabbath year (which was every seventh year; see Leviticus 25:1—7) and the Jubilee Year (which was every fiftieth year; see Leviticus 25:8—55)—are described as holy times for the land, not for the people (see Leviticus 25:2). The Sabbath year was, obviously, analogous to the Sabbath day, since both occur during every seventh time period, but it is also analogous by placement in the text. Perhaps less obvious is that the Jubilee Year was analogous to the Festival of Weeks (see Leviticus 23:15—22), a parallel suggested by their placement in the text as the second event mentioned in their respective sections but also by the fact that they occur after the forty-ninth day/year has elapsed. Thinking analogically encourages us to compare the Jubilee Year and the Festival of Weeks. The Jubilee Year involved returning land and people to their original ownership and the Festival of Weeks involved making sacrificial offerings, so paralleling these two suggests that one aspect of the sacrificial offering system was to return animals and grains to their original owner, the Lord. Similarly, the release of land and people in the Year of Jubilee implies that the sacrificial acts of worship symbolically represented liberty and freedom. Both holy periods also involved concern for the poor: the Festival of Weeks included a prohibition against harvesting the corners of the fields and gathering the gleanings (Leviticus 23:22), while the Jubilee Year involved ending all contracts of debt and servitude. Thus they emphasized the Lord’s care for the impoverished. The parallel also suggests that the land operated on a longer time scale than humans since its holy time was measured in years instead of weeks. Given the number of promises made to ancient Israel that involved the land, this would have been an important lesson for them to internalize.
We can arrange the holy days in the following chiastic structure:
A Sabbath Day (23:3)
B Passover (23:5—8)
C Firstfruits (23:10—14)
D Festival of Weeks (23:15—22)
E Horn Blasts (23:24—25)
E’ Day of Atonement (23:27—32)
D’ Festival of Tabernacles (23:34—43)
C’ Perpetual Fire/Bread (24:2—9)
B’ Sabbath Year (25:2—7)
A’ Jubilee Year (25:8—55)
We have already considered some of the similarities between Firstfruits and the perpetual fire, as these are the only times in the calendar that permit work. These two events are also the only ones not tied to the calendar, since the perpetual fire is continual and Firstfruits was based on the harvest.
In this structure we find the Sabbath day paralleled to the Jubilee Year, with the Sabbath day’s general prohibition on work mirrored in the Jubilee Year: “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. . . . Ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed” (Leviticus 25:10—11). This suggests that the Sabbath day should have been a time of liberty, a time when all people “returned” to their place of origin and abandoned other pursuits, and also that a proper observance of the Sabbath required preparation (since sowing and reaping—even of after growth—are not permitted in the Jubilee Year).
The chiasmus encourages us to parallel the Passover with the Sabbath year. Part of the Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the next day: “seven days ye must eat unleavened bread” (Leviticus 23:6), implying a relationship between the Sabbath year and consuming only unleavened bread. Because unleavened bread was required for the offerings, a time when the Israelites consumed only unleavened bread suggests a time when they were more closely conforming their behavior to the Lord’s behavior (inasmuch as the sacrifices were his “food”) and more closely paralleling their bodies to the altar (which also cannot “consume” leavened bread). So the implication is that the Sabbath year was a time when their behavior and bodies more closely comport with the Lord and the altar. And what about the Sabbath year suggests that that was in fact happening? Most likely it is this admonition to observe the Sabbath year: “the land [shall] keep a sabbath unto the Lord” (Leviticus 25:2). In other words, allowing the land to rest was to act as the Lord does, which draws attention to the fact that the prohibition on Sabbath work has its root in the Lord’s actions.
The chiasmus pairs the Festival of Weeks with the Festival of Tabernacles. Both were tied to the harvest (Weeks: “when ye reap the harvest of your land” [Leviticus 23:22]; Tabernacles: “when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land” [Leviticus 23:39]). And while the Festival of Weeks, with its prohibition on gleaning (Leviticus 23:22), suggested a concern for the poor, the purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles was so that all generations “may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). The juxtaposition of concern for the poor with remembering Israel’s history implies a link between the two, and this link calls attention to the poverty of Israel’s past and the fact that those who are currently poor should be considered no less worthy than Israel’s ancestors. As much as living in booths (or temporary shelters) encouraged the Israelites to see themselves in the place of their ancestors who were liberated from Egypt, not gleaning the fields encouraged the covenant people to see themselves in the place of the poor. This association is furthered by the fact that the same word used for the “corners” of the field that were not to be gleaned in Leviticus 23:22 (פאת) is used in Leviticus 19:27 and 21:5 in the prohibition on cutting the “corners” of their beards. In their very bodies, they were to be as the land.
The central material of the chiasmus is the blowing of trumpets and the Day of Atonement. The link between the two might not be obvious, given that the trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles all occurred during the seventh month of the year. The horn blasts—which occurred nine days before the Day of Atonement—suggest a time of preparation before the Day of Atonement and thus emphasized the importance of the latter and the concept of atonement in general.
Amid this material is a brief law code from which we get the familiar “eye for [an] eye” (Leviticus 24:20) concept and other laws that speak of a one-to-one correspondence between an action and its consequence, such as “he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). In this section is also this law: “he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). This placement suggests that parity existed between blasphemy and loss of life. It implies that reverencing the name of deity was somehow on par with the preservation of human life and therefore points to the role of God as creator.
We have seen several examples in which the law of Moses, as taught in Leviticus, has the capacity to point souls to Christ by analogically teaching doctrines that underpin notions of atonement theology. Key ideas such as substitutionary sacrifice, the central role of the high priest, and the role of sacred time and space are elucidated. When Jesus visited the Nephites in the New World, he taught them that the law of Moses “truly testified of [him]” (3 Nephi 15:10). The book of Leviticus is an important part of that testimony.
Julie Smith earned a graduate degree in Biblical Studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She teaches institute classes and homeschools her children.
1. Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 18.
2. Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 68—69.
3. Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 49.
4. Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, 244—45.
5. Credit for this observation belongs to Kevin Barney.