Reviewed by Jeff Spanogle
Leviticus: this book is often considered one of the most difficult books of the Bible for several reasons. It is often a graveyard for through-the-Bible reading plans and misunderstood for its theological relevance or significance for today. The book also introduces controversial ideas within today’s marriage and gender debates. Yet, the church needs this book as a foundation for properly understanding the work of Christ.
Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? by L. Michael Morales aspires “to provide the church with a theological entry into Leviticus in the context of both the Pentateuch and the New Testament” (9). The book title comes from Psalm 24:3 and summarizes Morales’ thesis that Leviticus provides a way to approach God once again. Morales is a Professor of Biblical Studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His previous works include The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus, and Cult and Cosmos: Tilting Toward a Temple-Centered Theology. His perspective is conservative and Reformed while interacting with the broader scholarly community. The book is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) series edited by D.A. Carson. The series is, “written within the framework of confessional Evangelicalism” (7), with aims to engage the broader literature. The primary purpose of the series is, “to help thinking Christians understand their Bibles better” (7). To this end, Morales effectively provides an overview and framework to read Leviticus within the larger Biblical narrative.
There are 8 chapters with a short prologue to introduce the book. The larger organization of the book is threefold: chapters 1–3 deal with context, chapters 4–6 cover the main ‘movements’ in Leviticus, and chapters 7–8 trace themes in Leviticus through the OT and NT. There are 24 pages of bibliography, as well as an index of authors and an index of scriptural references.
Prologue: The glory of God’s house
1. Leviticus within the Pentateuch
2. Longing for Eden: Genesis
3. Returning to Eden: Exodus
4. Approaching the house of God: Lev 1-10
5. Cleansing the house of God: Lev 11-16
6. Meeting with God at the house of God: Lev 17–27
7. Establishing the earthly house of God: from Sinai’s tabernacle to Zion’s temple
8. Entering the heavenly house of God: from the earthly to the heavenly Mount Zion.
Morales opens the first chapter with the primary thesis for the book: “YHWH’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine Presence” (23). He argues this is the primary drama of scripture that unfolds before Leviticus and continues throughout the rest of the Bible. Leviticus begins the restoration of humanity living in God’s presence but only finds completion in Christ and the consummation in the final Jerusalem.
The first three chapters help establish the narrative trajectory beginning with the structure of the Pentateuch and working through the context in Genesis and Exodus. In chapter 1, Morales argues that Leviticus is the center of the Pentateuch and Lev 16, the Day of Atonement, is the center of Leviticus wherein humanity once again enters God’s presence similar to a place like Eden. In chapter 2, Morales recounts the major themes of creation, fall, and alienation of humanity from God’s presence. The creation was God’s temple where he would dwell with humanity, and the Sabbath was a day for humanity to engage with God. In chapter 3, Morales traces the reversal of alienation through God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt, the movement toward Sinai, and the building of the tabernacle. The tabernacle represents not only the Sinai presence of God but a recreation of the cosmos and Eden and the reversal of the alienation begun in Genesis.
In chapters 4–6, Morales traces three movements in Leviticus: approaching God in Lev 1–10, cleansing the house of God in Lev 11–16, and life with God in Lev 17–27. In the first movement (chapter 4), Morales focuses on a theological understanding of the sacrificial actions necessary to approach God for the purpose of fellowship. The narrative moves from building the tabernacle in Exodus to allowing humanity to enter it in Lev 1–10. In the second movement (chapter 5), Morales notes how the failures of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1) create two tensions—cleansing the tabernacle and properly approaching it—that require resolution in the purity laws and the Day of Atonement. The purity laws allow Israel to approach the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement purifies and maintains the tabernacle in order to facilitate communion with God. In the third movement (chapter 6), Morales focuses on Lev 24 as the key to understanding Israel dwelling in the blessed presence of God through the weekly Sabbath. Through the tabernacle as cosmos and Sabbath as time, Israel as a community is beginning to fulfill their creation purpose in meeting with God. An Edenic life is made possible through the cultic system as Israel met with God and became sanctified through his presence.
The final two chapters trace the theology of Leviticus through the rest of the OT and how Christ fulfills it in the NT. In chapter 7, Morales traces the movement from Sinai to Zion as the holy mountain of God’s presence with Israel through the building of the temple, exile, and return. Lastly in chapter 8, the fulfillment of the heavenly Zion through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension along with the outpouring of the Spirit parallels the exodus redemption for a new Israel who become the new house of God. This is consummated in the New Jerusalem where God dwells with his people in fellowship and union.
This book will be invaluable for anyone who wants to begin studying Leviticus. Pastors crafting sermons for texts in Leviticus or the Pentateuch will gain valuable insights. The book will be especially helpful to anyone studying the OT cultic and ritual system, whether through Bible studies on Leviticus or Jesus’ work of atonement. The book is helpful in showing the development of biblical themes from Genesis and how Leviticus has a redemptive center through God’s restoration of humanity. There are several pictures and charts that summarize concepts or give helpful illustrations to his points. The book strives to carefully weave between academic research and implications for the church and does an admirable job in this navigation. The footnotes allow further research through references, and, academic debates or technical viewpoints are kept to a minimum or left to the footnotes. Hence, the book is more accessible to the larger church, albeit requiring thoughtful and persistent engagement with a theologically dense book like Leviticus.
The strength of the book is on the broad connections and themes that give Leviticus greater depth and context in redemptive history. For a complex and layered book like Leviticus, this framework is necessary before engaging at the textual level because of the mental and cultural shift required to read its rituals and laws. Once the broad context is established, other commentaries will be useful for engaging the details and questions while reading the text. The book does a great job of accomplishing its goal as a Theological entry point, but other resources might be required to answer particular questions on the text or exegetical issues.
I highly recommend this book as an entry into Leviticus and its significance for the gospel in the life of the church today. I am excited to see books that assist the church in engaging with the theological richness of Leviticus. This book would be my first recommendation for those desiring to approach Leviticus and begin to understand its depth.
Jeff Spanogle is a Lecturer at the International Teachers College within Universitas Pelita Harapan in Jakarta, Indonesia.
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Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?