When one begins a one-year Bible reading plan, it is easy to steam along for the first 5 or 6 weeks. But then the inevitable happens: Leviticus. Screech!!! So many good intentions come to a grinding halt here! In Waiting for the Land: The Story Line of the Pentateuch, Arie Leder acknowledges a temporal slowing that happens in Leviticus. The “narrated time” (the real-event passage of time) and the “narration time” (the time it takes the reader to read through the passages) diverge sharply. (For this distinction, see J.P Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, 40-41). This is what makes Leviticus feel like such a slow read; after all, the action has slowed!
Leder notes, however, that when read against the big-picture themes of the Pentateuch (especially what has preceded in Genesis and Exodus), Leviticus plays an important narrative role. Indeed, Leviticus can be seen as as a very dramatic book in the midst of a slowing of narrated time, precisely because of its literary role in the storyline of God’s presence begun in Genesis 1:
Although we can calculate from Exodus 40:17 (first day of the first month of the second year, Passover [Ex. 12:1]) and Numbers 10:11 (the twentieth day of the second month of the second year) that from the assembly of the tabernacle at Sinai to Israel’s departure is little more than six weeks, Leviticus betrays no chronological interest. Unlike Exodus and Numbers, Leviticus is atemporal. At Sinai Israel finds herself in the presence of the Creator’s earthly throne and therefore at the earthly center of his realm. Furthermore, because at Sinai Israel is as distant from Egypt as she is from Canaan, no culture, ethnicity, or soil defines her. Divine instruction is her culture, her ethnicity, her soil; her past, present, and future (Lev. 18:1-5). In Leviticus Israel finds herself at the dead center of a rite of passage, typically characterized by atemporality and aculturality. This shapes her waiting for the land.
Leviticus represents the climax of the exiles’ journey from outside the garden, through Ur and Egypt, to Sinai. It functions as a “time out” in which God prepares his people to enter the land there to embody divine instruction in a redemptively chosen space like the garden of Even (Gen. 13:10). Without the instructions of Leviticus, Israel’s life before God has no chance of survival, no direction. She has been separated from the nations to receive the special instruction to live among the nations as God’s special people (Lev. 15:31; 20:26, “to separate,” or “to set apart”).
Leviticus not only explains in detail the meaning of Exodus 19:5-6, but also God’s primary instruction and promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3): priestly instruction blesses Israel and shapes her to be a blessing among the nations. Bound to God by covenant in Exodus, she is shaped by him to be his own in Leviticus. Without Leviticus, Israel would be just another among many nations in Canaan; she embodies divine instruction in God’s presence as does no other people. With this in mind we can understand Leviticus’ references to the land. Waiting for the land means acknowledging the need for special instruction to embody God’s will in the land. Thus Leviticus inculcates patience for God’s people on their journey to the land and a new realism about its value.
Pgs. 137-138. (Bold emphasis added)
But Leder also reminds us of something important; the land is ultimately a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The goal is life in God’s presence and the land is the way that will be accomplished.
Neither the desert nor the land itself is the goal of Israel’s aspirations; the separation from Egypt achieved by moving into the desert must continue in Canaan (11:45; 20:26). The goal set before Israel is to “follow (hlk) my decrees and … be careful to obey my commands” (26:3).
Leviticus prohibits the land from shaping Israel in any way because it is not the goal of Israel’s journey with God, even after they receive it as an inheritance. The promise of divine presence is fundamental for Israel, not the land.
Of course, typologically, the land points to a better “living in God’s presence” (i.e., to life in the new creation). A day awaits when our “life in the land” will not be under threat from enemy attack from without, or from sin and apostasy from within. But as we await that glorious day, Leviticus continues to witness to us the great work of God who not only chose a people for himself, but gave them a “script” for how to play the role of his set-apart people.
Thus as you read Leviticus, try to avoid the tendency to miss the forest for the trees. By letting this slowing of narrated time build literary tension to the plot line, the decampment of Numbers 10:11ff. comes with an even more explosive effect. Our perception of this wandering multitude has been changed by these 27 chapters. Seen as a scene in a larger, unfolding storyline, Leviticus can keep us riveted to the text!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)