Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
Discipleship in the Wilderness
Topic: Bible Overview – Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
In this session, we look at the books of Leviticus Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Speaker: Matt Fell
Matt is the director of Relational Mission’s year team programme. In this session he gives an overview of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
Reading the Torah as a Christian
‘You have been saved from the law is a common phrase that one might hear in Grace Centred Churches such as ours.’ The Apostle Paul tells the believers in Rome that they ‘are released from the law. having died to that which held us captive.’ (Romans 7:6) So having been released from the law of the Old Covenant, The Torah, why should we Christians go back and read it devotionally? Understandably, many Christians don’t – and most of us who do tend to see it as a burdensome task to wade through the ages of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteromy.
However, we need to catch the nuances of the New Testament’s apostolic understanding of the Torah:
- Galatians 3:24
- Galatians 3:19
- Romans 7:7
- Romans 2:17-21
The Law was given for three reasons:
- To instruct God’s people to wait for the true offspring of Abraham.
- To teach God’s people that they are sinful.
- To show the nations – through Israel’s culture and religion – that the one true God loves his creation and is working to redeem it.
So the Torah is good and worth reading. Not only because of the important part it played in the past, but also for its ongoing role of teaching Christians and equipping them for service.
- Jesus used the Torah for Spiritual warfare.
- The Apostles explained the meaning of the Gospel by exegeting the Torah.
- Throughout Church history preachers have offered powerful presentations of the Gospel from these books. (see appendix for suggested reading/listening)
Never the less these are difficult books to read.
- They come from a very different cultural epoch to our own.
- They raise challenging ethical questions. (Exclusion of unclean/immoral individuals; the destruction of pagan cities including women and children; laws that are patriarchal etc.)
- The life of faith and worship the describe is not the life we are to live out as Christians. (see book of Hebrews!)
So we all need help to read these texts. We need to be discipled by preachers and teachers who have journeyed for a while with the Israelites in the wilderness and returned with wisdom and revelation.
One tried and tested way of grappling with Old Testament Scripture is the fourfold interpretation method. The four ways of interpreting scripture are traditionally known as the ‘literal/historical’ meaning, the ‘allegorical’ meaning, the ‘tropological’ (ethical) meaning and the ‘anagogical’ (eschatological) meaning. Now, I find that people don’t tend to get excited by those terms so I prefer the following approach.
When we open God’s word we read it according to:-
- The Letter – The plain meaning of the passage.
- Faith – How the passage relates to the Gospel and the full revelation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- Hope – How the passage points us towards the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom on Earth and the resurrection of the dead.
- Love – How the passage teaches us to live by loving God and loving our neighbour.
Leviticus ‘vayikra’ in Hebrew; literally ‘and he called’ in English.
Reading the letter of Leviticus:-
- Context – How does Leviticus fit into the Biblical story so far?
- Form – How does Leviticus present its material to the reader?
Content and structure
- Leviticus 1-7 (Rituals) Describes the sacrificial offerings.
Chapter 1: Burnt Offering (giving all of myself).
Chapter 2: The Grain Offering (giving the best of the earth).
Chapter 3: The Peace Offering (enjoying communion with God).
Chapter 4-5: The Sin Offering (for unintentional sins).
Chapter 5-6: The Guilt Offering.
Chapter 6-7: Offerings for the Priests.
- Leviticus 8-10 (Priesthood) Describes the priesthood.
Chapter 8: The consecration of Aaron and his sons.
Chapter 9: Aaron’s offering accepted.
Chapter 10: The death of Nadab and Abihu for offering inappropriate worship.
- Leviticus 11-15 (Purity Laws) Describes what is clean and unclean.
Chapter 11: Clean and unclean animals.
Chapter 12: Purification after childbirth.
Chapter 13-14: Laws about Leprosy.
Chapter 14:33+: Ritually unclean houses.
Chapter 15: Bodily uncleanliness.
- Leviticus 16-17
Chapter 16: Describes the Day of Atonement. This was the centre piece of the Israelite religion where the whole company of Israel was made ‘at-one’ with God by the death of two goats – the first goat was sacrificed in the tabernacle and it’s blood was poured out onto the Ark of the Covenant. This was for the propitiation of God’s judgement against sin. The second goat was exiled into the wilderness so as to expiate (take away) Israel’s sin.
Chapter 7: Describes the essential instructions regarding sacrifice (where they are to lawfully take place; the significance of blood – the life of an animal is in it’s blood).
- Leviticus 18-20 (Purity Laws) Describes holy ethical living.
Chapter 18: Unlawful sexual relations.
Chapter 19: Commandments for holy community (love your neighbour as yourself).
Chapter 20: Punishments or child sacrifice and sexual immorality.
- Leviticus 21-22 (Priesthood) Describes the higher standards the priests are to live by.
Chapter 21-22: Holiness standards for the Priests and details of acceptable/unacceptable offerings.
- Leviticus 23-27 (Rituals) Describes the sacrificial offerings.
Chapter 23: The Sabbath and major festivals (the Passover, feast of first-fruits, feast of weeks/Pentecost, feast of trumpets, day of atonement, feast of booths).
Chapter 24: The tabernacle furnishing.
Chapter 25: The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee.
Chapter 25:23+: Social welfare.
Chapter 26: Promise of blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience.
Chapter 27: Laws about vows.
Numbers ‘Bamidbar’ in Hebrew; literally ‘in the wilderness’ in English.
Reading the letter of Numbers:-
- Context – How does Numbers fit into the Biblical story so far?
- Form – How does Numbers present its material to the reader?
Content and structure
The book of Numbers can be structured around three geographical regions and the travel between them.
Chapter 1-10: The wilderness of Sinai.
Chapter 10-12: Israel sets off from Sinai.
Chapter 13-19: Israel travels through the wilderness of Paran.
Chapter 20-21: Israel moves between Edom, Negeb and Bashan.
Chapter 22-36: Take place in the wilderness of Moab.
Deuteronomy Literally ‘Second Law’ in English.
Reading the letter of Deuteronomy:-
- Context – How does Deuteronomy fit into the Biblical story so far?
- Form – How does Deuteronomy present its material to the reader?
Violence in Deuteronomy and the Torah
‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…….’ – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
Throughout Deuteronomy – and the Torah generally – there is strong emphasis on how Israel are to particularly look after the widow, the orphan and the sojourner (the foreigner amongst their ranks). Deuteronomy 10:18 says this of the Lord ‘He executes justice for the powerless and the widow, and loves the sojourner giving him food and clothing’.
At the same time, there is also a strong insistence that Israel are not to associate with the neighbouring pagan nations and Moses also gives instructions for when Israel go to war. Deuteronomy 7:2 says ‘when the Lord your God gives the over to you, and you defeat them then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.’ These often startle Christian readers as extremely violent – no survivors, not even women and children. Secular critiques of the Bible often point to these passages as indicative of the evil of religion. This is a big question that we have very little time to address today. However, the following truths help us to understand these troubling texts;
- These passages are primarily about Israel keeping themselves separate from idolatry.
- These nations are wicked.
- The big story of the Old Testament helpfully frames these passages.
- According to scripture, violence is a consequence of the fall, however, not all use of violence is evil.
- In Christ, God takes violence onto himself and suffers the execution of the Godless rebel, therefore we can trust that even in these scenarios of God-foresakenness and violence, God can and might be working his mercies.
Gordon Wenham’s The Book of Leviticus (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament) is a solid modern commentary. The focus is on reading by the letter and the commentary does a solid job of showing how Leviticus provides the background for much of the Old and New Testment.
A Commentary on the Book of Leviticus by Andrew Bonar, a 19th century Scottish preacher, is an excellent example of a modern evangelical commentary that reads the book of Leviticus according to the Letter, Faith, Hope and Love. Charles Spurgeon was reportedly a big fan of it! You can find a free PDF copy at https://www.theologynetwork.org/Media/PDF/Andrew_Bonar-Leviticus_Commentary.pdf
Two excellent short videos by the Bible Project: https://thebibleproject.com/explore/leviticus/
Four superb sermons by Mike Reeves: https://www.uccf.org.uk/student/leviticus.htm
Gordon Wenham – Numbers (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). As with Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus, this does a great job of opening up the letter of the text and placing Numbers within the context of the Jewish scriptures. Not as comprehensive as the Leviticus commentary but much more affordable!
David L Stubbs’ Numbers (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible series) is a very reliable approach to Numbers that reads it according to the four fold method. Stubbs reads with an eye both on the historical context and meaning of Numbers as well as to its theological meaning for Christians.
Two excellent short videos by the Bible Project: https://thebibleproject.com/explore/numbers/
J A Thompson – Deuteronomy (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). This is a good introductory commentary on the book of Deuteronomy. The focus is upon the letter but there are some really excellent insights into the meaning of Deuteronomy, its realationship to the rest of the Bible and its relevance for Christians.
Telford Work’s Deuteronomy (SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible series) is to my mind hit and miss. The hits make this commentary well worth reading, whilst the misses are never heretical or problematic – it’s just that sometimes his reading does seem a little untenable. Work is the author who summarises the four fold method of reading scripture as ‘according to the letter, faith, hope and love’ and I think his commentary is worth buying jut to watch how he reads the text.
Two excellent short videos by the Bible Project: https://thebibleproject.com/explore/deuteronomy/