Introduction—Does Leviticus Have Anything to Tell Us about Our Work?
Leviticus is a great source for people seeking guidance about their work. It is filled with direct, practical instructions, even though the action takes place in a workplace different from what most of us experience today. Moreover, Leviticus is one of the central places where God reveals himself and his aims for our life and work. The book is at the physical center of the Pentateuch, the third of the five books of Moses that form the narrative and theological foundation of the Old Testament. The second book, Exodus, tells what God took his people out of. Leviticus tells what God leads his people into, a life full of God’s own presence. In Leviticus, work is one of the most important arenas where God is present with Israel, and God is still present with his people in our work today.
Leviticus is also central to Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the New Testament. The Great Commandment that Jesus taught (Mark 12:28-31) comes directly from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The “Year of Jubilee” in Leviticus 25 lies at the center of Jesus’ mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to...proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [the Jubilee]” (Luke 4:18–19). When Jesus said that “not one letter, not one stroke” of the law would pass away (Matt. 5:18), many of those letters and strokes are found in Leviticus. Jesus offered a new take on the law—that the way to fulfill the law is not found in complying with regulations, but in cooperating with the purposes for which God created the law. We are to fulfill the law in a “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) that surpasses, not ignores, the letter of the law. If we wish to fulfill the Spirit of the law, as Jesus did, then we must begin by learning what the law actually says. Much of it is found in Leviticus, and much of it applies to work.
Because Leviticus is central to Jesus’ teaching about work, as followers of Jesus, we are right to go to the book for guidance about God’s will for our work. Of course, we must keep in mind that the codes in Leviticus must be understood and applied to the different economic and social situations today. Current society does not stand in a close parallel to ancient Israel, either in terms of our societal structure or our covenant relationship. Most workers today, for example, have little need to know what to do with an ox or sheep that has been torn apart by wild animals (Lev. 7:24). The Levitical priesthood to whom much of the book is addressed—priests performing animal sacrifice to the God of Israel—no longer exists. Moreover, in Christ we understand the law to be an instrument of God’s grace in a way different from how ancient Israel did. So we cannot simply quote Leviticus as if nothing has changed in the world. We cannot read a verse and proclaim “Thus says the Lord” as a judgment against those we disagree with. Instead, we have to understand the meaning, purposes, and mind of God revealed in Leviticus, and then ask God’s wisdom to apply Leviticus today. Only so will our lives reflect his holiness, honor his intentions, and enact the rule of his heavenly kingdom on earth.
Nine times the book of Leviticus refers to the Lord having brought Israel out of Egypt, often as a motive for Israel’s future obedience (11:45; 19:36; 22:33, 23:43; 25:38, 42, 55; 26:13, 45).