Reviewed by Ryan J. Cheung
Reading a book on the third book of the Bible – Leviticus – seems like a daunting task. Already, participants of yearlong Bible reading plans get stuck on the middle book of the Pentateuch after finishing Exodus. Mired in peculiar sacrifices, obscure laws, and cultic language, Leviticus trips up twenty-first century readers of the Bible. The same would go for a work on the book of Leviticus, right? Then enters in Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (henceforth Who Shall Ascend) by L. Michael Morales in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. In his refreshing treatment of Leviticus Morales outlines the importance and indispensable nature of Leviticus in the both the Pentateuch and the entire Bible. Building a case that Leviticus stands as the climactic point of the Pentateuch he argues his thesis, “the primary theme and theology of Leviticus is YHWH’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine Presence” (23). Leviticus stands as God’s instructions on how humanity, Israel specifically, might again enter his presence after having lost that privilege.
If the reader seeks an in-depth analysis of cultic theology through verse-by-verse commentary this is not it. Instead Who Shall Ascend observes how the third book of the Bible fits into the wider context of its surrounding books. Morales has the bigger picture in mind. This is where the strength of his work rests. The purpose of the work is not to wade through the detail and intricacies of each sacrifice, law, and ceremonial prescriptions – although he doesn’t neglect discussion of them. He expands broadly on how the cultic prescriptions enable the people of God to find Sabbath rest in his holy presence. By unpacking the narrative drama of the Pentateuch Morales shows the reader the beauty and intrigue of Leviticus.
Who Shall Ascend breaks down into eight chapters. The first three chapters unpack how Leviticus fits into the narrative drama of the Pentateuch. Chapter 1 presents Leviticus in relation to the other four books; Morales argues that it stands as the chiastic center of the five-book corpus. Within Leviticus itself, Leviticus 16 stands as the hinge between the first and second half of the book. Leviticus 1-15 deals with approaching God and Leviticus 17-27 what it looks like to commune with God. While the primary theme of Leviticus is often identified as holiness, Who Shall Ascend asserts “it is preferable to discern holiness not as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end, which is the real theme, the abundant life of joy with God in the house of God” (30). Chapter 2 details the significance of God’s dwelling with man in the temple garden of Eden and how the Fall sets man on a trajectory of living further and further away from God’s presence. Chapter 3 shows how Exodus describes God reversing the away-from-God movement found in Genesis. God’s image-bearers, specifically Israel, begin to regain and move towards God’s presence. The redemption of Israel through a Passover lamb and deliverance through the judgment waters leads them to the mountain of God, Mount Sinai. It is at Sinai that the creation of God can again begin to abide in God’s presence. Yet, it is in the tabernacle – a moveable mountain of God – where Israel can experience what God had intended in Eden, namely divine fellowship (102).
Chapter 4, 5, and 6 address three separate sections of Leviticus – chapters 1-10, 11-16, and 17-27, respectively. All these chapters build off of the storyline of the Pentateuch elucidated in chapters 1-3. Chapter 4 traces how the sacrificial system functions as the “dramatic resolution” left by Exodus 40:34-35 where it describes the glory and presence of God filling the tabernacle. Yet no person, including Moses, is able to enter it. The sacrifices and rites of Leviticus 1-10 show Israel how one can enter into communion with God. Chapter 6 addresses the two-fold issue of “how near one may approach God in his house” and “how God’s house may be cleansed regularly from inevitable defilement” (152). According to Morales, the Day of Atonement is the act that enables a re-entry to Eden – a “reversal of Eden’s expulsion” (177).
The last two chapters – 7 and 8 – show how the message of Leviticus echoes through the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament, respectively. Chapter 7 captures Israel’s longing for a hope to return to Mount Zion. The return to Mount Zion is compared to a longing for a return to Eden. Chapter 8 parallels Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as the ultimate ascension offering by which one actually rises to the Father’s heavenly abode (270).
The ability to lay Leviticus within the framework of the Pentateuch and entire Bible is what makes Morales study so refreshing and fascinating. In line with the aim of the NSBT Series, Who Shall Ascend opens up a new perspective for many readers who have never seen how the cultic book can fit into the storyline of the Bible. Prior to reading the book, pastors and students alike are unlikely to have encountered Leviticus in the framework of narrative development. Leviticus no longer needs to be a confusing book with perplexing laws and mystifying rituals. Morales serves the modern reader in helping them to see that the biblical authors write in the context of a story to weave together the message of the Bible. Also, the book is filled with helpful exegetical insights that play a role in Morales’ unfolding of the narrative. For example, his discussion of the terminology used – tabernacle vs. tent of meeting – helps the reader understand the purpose of Leviticus is to enable God’s people to dwell with him. The goal of Leviticus is to show the people how the tabernacle might transform from strictly being God’s dwelling place to a place where both God and his people can meet together (114).
Not every reader will agree with his conclusions. For example, some might argue that Morales takes a step further than warranted in his discussion of sacrificial rites. He sees the burning rite of an animal as transferring the animal and sacrifice vicariously to the heavenly abode (136). Nevertheless, readers will be forced to think through how Leviticus fits into the grand narrative of the Pentateuch and the Bible. After reading Who Shall Ascend students of the Bible will find themselves thumbing towards the third book of the Bible with excitement instead of drudgery. Pastors will open to the idea of a preaching series through the oft-neglected book. And the church will be better for it.
Ryan J. Cheung
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus