Jesus and Leviticus


This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

Go and show yourself to the priest and bring the offering which Moses commanded (Matthew 8:4, alluding to Leviticus 14:21).

In a previous article, I wrote that Leviticus is the book most Christians see as useless. If any book should have been left out of the Christian Bible, many Christians think, this would be the best candidate. For Jesus did away with Jewish law, didn’t he? And since Jesus knew that his sacrifice on the cross would make all the Leviticus sacrifices unnecessary, he never would have endorsed Moses’ detailed instructions on sacrifices in Leviticus, right?


Jesus and the Sacrifices of Leviticus

Not quite. As we see above, Jesus told the leper to follow Moses’ instruction in Leviticus.

He also assumed that his disciples would bring their gifts for sacrifice to the altar of burnt offering in the inner court of the temple: If you are bringing your gift to the altar and there remember . . . (Matthew 5:23).

Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem every year for Passover, no doubt making their own family sacrifice of the Passover lamb (Luke 2:41-42).

So if Jesus told a man to make a sacrifice commanded by Leviticus, and if he implicitly referred to Leviticus when he told his disciples not to relax one of the least of these commandments (Matthew 5:19), what should we Anglicans make of Jesus’ attitude to Leviticus?

Let’s first look a bit deeper at Leviticus itself.

Holiness at its Heart

Leviticus was often the first book of the Torah taught to children, and called the center of the Old Testament by the rabbis. It is the shortest book of the Pentateuch, but also contains more direct speech by God than any other book of the Bible.

The instructions given in this book precede the long journey of 38 years that still awaited Israel and show us the details of their passage through the wilderness that, we might say, is our world. Leviticus can be seen as comprised of various explanations of the principles of the Ten Commandments.  As one of the rabbis put it, “Generalizations were stated in Sinai, details were stated in the Tent of Meeting.”

The common denominator of the whole book is the theme of holiness, qadosh in Hebrew, which means “set apart.” The source and rationale for this is stated in chapter 19, which could be said to be the secret to the inner mystery of the Bible.

Jesus is the Son set apart, whose life and death set a people apart. The full meaning of his holiness, and thus the inner mystery that is God his Father, is articulated in shadows (the backside of God’s glory, Exodus 33:23). Since the Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, Leviticus may be the key to the meaning of Jesus the Messiah and therefore the entire Bible.

Leviticus and Love

It should be no surprise, then, that we find some of Jesus’ most distinctive teachings in Leviticus 19, such as love for neighbor.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus criticized those who taught Jews to hate your enemy (Matthew 5:43).  How many Christians know that this was similar to what Leviticus 19 teaches about enemies?

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17).

Scripture says the Law is a shadow (Hebrews 10:1) and particular sacrifices are copies of heavenly things (Hebrews 9:23). Jesus said there is not an iota [smallest letter of the Greek alphabet] or horn [smallest stroke of the pen in Hebrew] of the Law or prophets that he would do away with, and thus every part contains a teaching about himself (Matthew 5:18). Hence the real truth to which Leviticus points is Jesus the Messiah (the Christos or Christ in Greek) and his perfect sacrifice.

Leviticus on Atonement

Even Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is strikingly foreshadowed in Leviticus’s instructions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. There we are told that two goats were used on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The first goat was killed and its blood scattered to make atonement for all the inadvertent sins that pollute the sanctuary.  A second goat—the scapegoat—was kept alive and driven into the wilderness to carry away all the other, mostly intentional, sins of the people.

And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. [whereas the ritual above (11-19) removed pollution, this removes the sins themselves.] And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22).

Jesus did the work of both goats. His blood atoned for our unintentional sinfulness, and his being crucified outside the camp, in the wilderness as it were (Hebrews 13:11-13), carries away all of our other sins.  His death not only purified us (by his blood) but also broke its power (by taking the sins away). As John the Baptist put it, Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Just as in the Second Temple period the goat would be pushed off a cliff to ensure it did not return, Jesus died for our sins once for all so they would be remembered no more (Hebrews 10:12-14, 17).

Pascal was fascinated by Leviticus. He asked why it is that in some places (like Leviticus) Scripture says the sacrifices were pleasing to God, and yet in others (the Psalms and prophets) it seems to suggest they were displeasing. The answer he found: they represent both human corruption and redemption. Just as we cannot know God without knowing our own wretchedness, we cannot know the beauty of the sacrifices as representing aspects of the perfect sacrifice without also seeing how they point to the sin of human beings that must be redeemed.

Leviticus as Discipleship

We can look upon Leviticus as a hard and narrow way (Matthew 7:14), a kind of discipleship in which our hearts are exposed to the world’s corruption and also the ways in which Jesus redeemed that corruption.

So back to Jesus and Leviticus. When he told the Pharisees that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, quoting Hosea 6:6, he was not rejecting sacrifices but elevating mercy as more important. This was a common Semitic way of speaking: when saying “A and not B,” it meant A is more important than B. Some of the rabbis agreed: Johanan ben Zakkai quoted the same saying from Hosea after the destruction of the temple in 70, saying that observance of gemilut hassadim—acts of lovingkindness—was more effective than sacrifice (Avot D-Rabbi Natan 4).

Would Jesus reject Leviticus today? Not likely. He would certainly say that the sacrifices there were fulfilled by his one perfect sacrifice, but he would probably also say that we can learn much about him and his sacrifice by studying the sacrifices of Leviticus.

Cover image: William Hunt, The Scapegoat

Published on

March 16, 2023


Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

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