Abide: Exodus 35-40; Leviticus 1; 16; 19
When someone brings up Leviticus, my mind turns almost automatically to the Law of Moses. Which, I admit, doesn’t always seem like the most applicable thing to my life. However, when reframing it to think about the Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ, I can’t think of anything more important for Latter-day Saints to know about. We’ll discuss the end of Exodus and parts of Leviticus in this episode of “Abide” A Maxwell Institute Podcast
When someone brings up Leviticus, I admit my mind turns almost automatically to the Law of Moses which doesn’t always seem like the most applicable thing to my life. However, reframing Leviticus to be thinking about the Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ I can’t think of anything more important to me or to Latter-day Saints. We’ll discuss the end of the Book of Exodus and parts of Leviticus in this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we discuss the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are joined by our colleague Dr. Jennifer Lane, a Neal A. Maxwell research associate at the Institute. Jennifer is professor emerita of religious education at Brigham Young University-Hawaii where she also served as Dean of Religious Education and Associate Academic Vice President for Curriculum. She has published extensively on Latter-day Saint scriptures and is the author of the recent book, Finding Christ in the Covenant Path: Ancient Insights for the Modern World published in 2020 by BYU’s Religious Studies Center.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome Jennifer to the podcast!
Jennifer Lane: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
Joseph Stuart: And we are thrilled to have you. Now Kristian, what’s going on in this block of scripture?
Kristian Heal: So, John Goldingay usefully outlines Leviticus in terms of the kinds of things that a priestly theologian might want to stress. These are, he says, “…how to offer sacrifices, Leviticus 1-7, how to stay pure, how to avoid taboo and deal with taboo, Leviticus 11-16. Those chapters interestingly include a narrative section, Leviticus 8-10 that describes how the first priests were ordained, how things went wrong and how God put them right. Finally, the last portion of the book stresses how to be holy, chapters 11-27. This latter section is often referred to as the “Holiness Code.” We haven’t spoken much about the various sources that are thought by scholars to make up the pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. These sources are known as the J-source, for its preference for using Yaweh as the name of God in narration, the E-source because of its preference for using Elohim up through the middle of the Book of Exodus, the P-source which has a distinctive priestly language style and theological outlook and includes the whole of Leviticus, and the D-source, comprising most of the Book of Deuteronomy and which again displays distinctive language and style that can be seen elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Finally recognizing these sources for me is not so that I can somehow tease the Pentateuch apart, but more so that I can recognize the rich orchestration of these books and see that this effect can only be achieved over a long period of time by combining the deep devotion of a diverse group of faithful prophets and scribes. The interests of the priestly source, John Goldingay’s priestly theologian especially is found in Leviticus perhaps seems strange to modern Chrisitan readers. This is not a book that we rush to, however its theology is fascinating and important. As Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt note, “The religious vision of Leviticus is based on the recognition that human beings live in a physical world of bodies and the consequent claim that religion has to do with that physical world and not just with what one believes. Thus, the attention to dietary laws, skin diseases, and bodily fluids, which can seem off putting to many readers, may be seen as a systematic attempt to bring the materiality of our existence into the realm of religion.” That’s a really interesting observation. “Most importantly,” they note, “…that the notion of the shedding of blood for Atonement which permeates Christian theological thinking on the death of Jesus cannot be understood without reference to Leviticus.” There are a couple of ways we can make Leviticus a more significant read. Firstly, it might change our experience of reading this book if whenever we read about blood we think of pogation. Whenever we read of oil, we think of consecration and whenever we read of fire we think of God at work and whenever we read about water, we think of cleansing. These are some ideas that come from Walter’s introduction to his book in his wonderful translation. It’s also worth considering the matter of factness of the rituals not so much as the routine slaughter of animals or burning of offerings, but the ordered administration of a sacred economy. Anyone who has worked in the temple or counted tithes and offerings or worked in the church’s meat packing plant or church farms understand how routine, physical actions can be sacred work.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that, Kristian. Jennifer, we enter into this block of reading at the tail end of the Book of Exodus. What do you see is the overarching trajectory of the Book of Exodus? What is God trying to do with the people of Israel in this book?
Jennifer Lane: Thank you for that question. I think that we’re all very comfortable with the beginning of the Book of Exodus. The story begins with the story of redemption, a story of moving out of bondage in Egypt and moving towards becoming something new, a covenant people. But sometimes we get to the Ten Commandments and think, okay that’s the end of the story. But where we are picking up today is after that and I think that see where are we going once the covenant is made really is helpful for us because as Latter-day Saints we are all sort of at that point. We’ve made covenants, now what do we do? And I was reading, I love to keep reading and learning more things, just recently a volume by Nathan Bills Theology of Justice in Exodus. His insights helped make more clear for me why so much time and energy is spent in the second half of the Book of Exodus in the story of the building of the tabernacle. So, what he observes is that the first part of Exodus we see the children of Israel building and worshiping for an imposter king but that by the end, we see them being recreated as God’s people, making a covenant and learning to worship and serve Jehovah in that covenant and I’ll quote here, “By first building God’s space among themselves.” So what they’re building and the very process of building can be seen as an apprenticeship that people are choosing to participate in. There’s a beautiful phrase in Exodus 35:21 where the people bring their offerings willingly as their hearts were stirred up. No one, unlike under Pharoah, were coerced to be builders. Now, even the covenant people are being invited and they are choosing of their own free will to participate. It also tells us a lot about worship. They are choosing to participate and as they do so, that building becomes a chance to grow and to change and so this offering willing obedience, learning to build in wisdom, and of course building according to the Lord’s pattern where there’s this Sabbath rest which of course, they didn’t have anything like that back in Egypt that allows them to learn how to become the Lord’s people, his covenant people. Again here another quote from Bills, “Israel builds to Yaweh’s glory and in so doing, the people manifest God’s presence and order with gratitude, obedience, wisdom, and rest just as the finished functioning shrine will do. The tabernacle building crystallizes Israel’s identity as priestly royalty who build justly towards a common sacred ground.” So there’s this amazing contrast from the injustice and the way they were being coerced to build at the beginning of Exodus and now we see this transformation as Israel is becoming the covenant people by choosing to work together to build the tabernacle. So that is part of why we have chapter after chapter, so much detail that the building is part of a recreation of the people. I think that’s a beautiful insight to help make sense of how this book ends and why so many chapters are spent on the particulars of the tabernacle.
Kristian Heal: This is a really lovely insight, Jennifer. I’ve often read the tabernacle story as one in which the tabernacle itself is a new creation and this is reinforcing the notion that God is a creator and God laying out creation. But what a wonderful insight to actually see this as a recreation of a people and their becoming something entirely new of being involved in this sacred work. It’s really lovely.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah. This is something that African Americans, especially as they are being released from bondage under slavery identify with the Exodus narrative of God calling them out of bondage and making them a great people. I’m also thinking of something closer to our day, the tabernacle. The Latter-day Saints of course know the tabernacle at temple square and may have attended it. I’ve always been fascinated that modern Latter-day Saints looked back to the Old Testament and borrowed the sorts of things that they were doing. What’s the significance of the tabernacle?
Jennifer Lane: So I think there’s two parts. So the first part as we’ve been talking about is the very process of building the tabernacle which is essentially a portable temple, a temple that could be taken down and put back together again because it was a tent and the formative effect that the building process had on the covenant people. But the second part, and this is where the book ends in chapter 40, is the presence of the Lord coming to dwell in the tabernacle after it was completed and was the end of the story. Now we know it’s not the end of the story of the people and that’s part of where Leviticus picks up, but that’s where everything is leading to so that the presence of the Lord rather then him being in a cloud it is the presence and the glory of the Lord come and fill the tabernacle.
Joseph Stuart: Something that sticks out to me is that we often have to think about these books as telling an overarching story and this is the pinnacle, this is the climax of Exodus. Where the Lord comes and that’s where it’s fulfilled. We’re leaving on a high point as we are going into Leviticus.
Jennifer Lane: And I think it helps us understand and make sense of Leviticus. Now just to step back, I know the reading for this week starts on Exodus 35, but it’s helpful to know that in Exodus 32 through 34 we have the covenant people slipping back and that’s where you have things going wrong, the golden calf and again Bills had a marvelous insight that goes back to Krisitan’s point that we have the story of the creation, a new creation and one way to think about the building of the tabernacle is almost is like the new creation came with a covenant but then you have to start all over again just like with Noah, because there’s been this fall, this slipping and really emphasizing the importance of having a divine presence in order for people to be their best selves and to have a just society. That’s not something we can accomplish by ourselves and so giving the tabernacle as a way of being with the people and allowing them to be and become who they need to be. I’ll share one more quote here from Bills, again just so helpful. Where he talks about humans in general and Israel in particular, “…need Yaweh’s commanding kingship and the space it creates to help elevate their liturgical imaginations in order to fund an alternative existence.” So the temple points to, and I think this is something we can appreciate, a way that we can be with God, so not just a place to be with God but a way to be with God. And so, Bills makes this wonderful analogy he talks about, “For Israel the portable dwelling of Yaweh remaps the world’s moral topography according to Yaweh’s good creational justice.” So that there is a recreation of the world that is possible as the people of God then participate in this world that he has created so that the temple represents a world. They come into that world and are changed by that experience by choosing to be a part of that presence. So it is always voluntary. People choose to come, and that’s a theme that’s very powerful as well. But this becoming and worshiping is just an extraordinary process and I think looking at what’s happening here, building the tabernacle goes on for chapter after chapter and we finally get to Exodus 40 and here we see this language where the garments of the priests are made. We see this striking breastplate for the high priest, this skirt of the robe and you have these pomegranates and little bells so that when he goes into the holy of holies you can make sure he’s still alive. A phrase that we are familiar with because we see it in all of our temples is that there’s this plate of gold on the forehead of the high priest that says, “Holiness to the Lord” and so the high priest here is both representing the people to the Lord, but also representing the Lord to the people. And so there’s a place of this coming together once all this is created and then the priests receive this clothing. They’re washed, they’re clothed, they’re anointed and then finally the walls of the courtyard are set up. At that point it can be said, it’s done. In Exodus 40:33 Moses sets up the walls of the court round about the tabernacle, hangs the court gate so there’s a way to get in, but it’s this liminal space where you have to move from one to the other, the profane to the sacred and at that point can say, so Moses finished the work. At that point, the cloud covers the tent of the congregation or the tent of meeting, the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle. It now becomes and this is the end of Exodus, this place where Israel can have the Lord Jehovah with them. They’ve become different and now because they are different, they can have this more permanent, even though it’s a tent and it’s going to move, but a more permanent relationship that hopefully will help them become even more what they need to become.
Kristian Heal: Jennifer, that’s such a wonderful presentation, evocation of what is happening there at the end of Exodus. I particularly love this line from Bills that you gave us, this notion of elevating this liturgical imagination in order to fund an alternative existence. What I think that you’re right, this is such a rich idea that seems to have direct applicability to our own relationship to sacred space. That we would have spoken a lot in this series about scriptural imagination, our ability to live into scriptural accounts. But the liturgical imagination is I suppose, it would be interesting if you reflect on that a bit. It seems to have something to do with our ability to invest spaces with sacredness.
Jennifer Lane: This is something I’ve been thinking more and more about in these last months, the role of temple worship and temple liturgy as not just a place to meet God and to be with God but the formative dimension of that. That it is helping to create us, so that we can go out and create the world that God wants. My thinking on this has been helped and influenced by Jamie Smith, his Desiring the Kingdom and another work written for a more general audience, You Are What You Love where he talks about the role of liturgy and worship as a turning of the heart, a changing of the heart because we love what we worship and in the world, just like the children of Israel they’re slipping back to things that are familiar and comfortable. An argument that Jamie Smith makes is very persuasive is that the world around us, everything we participate in has liturgical function in that it is shaping us to love something other than God. Whether it’s a mall, or a movie theater, or a football stadium, that whatever we are participating in, we are being shaped by our participation. We are changing. There’s a liturgical quality and that the very process of worshiping the Lord in ritual, in liturgy, we don’t use that word a lot as Latter-day Saints, but what we have in the temple and temple liturgy is extraordinary and the sense of practice, Bills uses that language as well again about apprenticeship that we’re learning to be and take on a new way of being and we have to practice that and that we get to practice that every time we worship in the temple and that it changes us so that we live differently outside. The same thing was happening for the Israelites as well, that learning to worship is also learning to set one’s heart to be oriented to God rather than setting one’s heart on anything else would ultimately be distracting and distorting us from taking on the true image and nature of God which is what true worship can allow us to experience.
Kristian Heal: Thanks, that is so beautiful.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it calls to mind the temple being a separate place for us to go into. And walking up the steps to ascend to a new place whereas our church buildings serve a lot of purposes. For instance, one of the most powerful experiences I have had at church came in a stake conference where I attended stake dances and played basketball every Saturday and the experience that I had there was special to me because it was encased in the familiar, but I’ve also had experiences where in the temple because it’s set apart it prepared me to be in a space to have the experience that I had. I think that it’s also important to recognize that the Law of Moses or most anything in the Book of Leviticus may seem a little foreign or strange to modern readers, especially modern Latter-day Saints who don’t have as many high church elements, meaning that we don’t have as many formal rituals in our Sunday worship as other religions do. So how can we make Leviticus more familiar to ourselves and for our students Jennifer?
Jennifer Lane: Thank you. I think that going from Exodus 40 in this sense of the Lord coming to dwell in the tabernacle and never leaving that completely makes Leviticus make more sense. So we have to stay with the context of the temple being the place that God is coming to dwell with his people and so everything is in terms of that. Another great article I recently read, Alfred Marks The Theology of Sacrifice according to Leviticus 1-7. He makes this lovely statement. “Each Israelite is called to draw near to Yaweh with his offerings and to enjoy Yaweh’s presence.” I’ll just stop there. There’s more but the idea of enjoying Yaweh’s presence, why would you go, just to be there. There is joy in the presence of the Lord. President Nelson talked about that. He said if you don’t enjoy going to the temple, go more often, not less. That coming to enjoy being in the presence of the Lord changes us and it also changes us because what we want to do outside is different because we enjoy having the presence of the Spirit.
Joseph Stuart: It reminds me also of something that was taught in a family history course at BYU. That in order to get quality time, you have to spend quantity time. It’s not just something that magically appears. In fact, thinking of it as a part of ritual that it’s part of the repetitiveness that when we have those moments that break through what might be seen as monotonous, those are the experiences that infuse meaning into the thing that we are doing all the time.
Jennifer Lane: That’s a fabulous insight and I think that helps us understand the role. Now “each Israelite that’s called to draw near to the Lord” isn’t necessarily each individual isn’t going to be coming every day. The priests and the Levites are there every day and they are doing this over and over and over and over and over again. I was a temple worker for ten years and there are things that you do over and over and over again but sometimes in the very process that it opens up a space for understanding and for experiencing it, but there is a dimension of this is as Krisitian mentioned, this is done with bodies, this is done in a very real human context and being with the Lord isn’t something in our heads, it’s something that we do with our bodies, it’s something we do with our lives. So what we have with Leviticus is coming to the Lord with something that is done that people come, they literally approach and that the fact that it’s willing, that they want to come is important. The sort of drawing near is an important verb. It gets translated to bring an offering but it really is sort of coming or approaching. Another way to read it is that the offering itself is made to draw near. Because there is a limit to how far an individual could go into the presence of the Lord. There are these degrees of holiness. They could come perhaps within the courtyard, but they themselves were not putting the sacrifice, even though they might kill the sacrifice, they were not finishing the preparations of the sacrifice, they were not putting it on the altar to be burnt, which is basically like a barbecue. They weren’t going into the tent of meeting or the tabernacle itself and certainly not into the holy of holies so even though there were limits to how far they could go, they still came. There was still this sense to be as close as they could be was something that’s valuable. But we also know that there were dimensions because of the holiness of the Lord, that maybe they would feel like they can’t come because I’ve done something I shouldn’t do and there is— what’s beautiful for me, is you have this dimension of human agency, choosing to seek for God, coming to God, but that God is also providing means of reconciliation. The offers and sacrifices are a way of being with God, but these offerings and sacrifices in certain cases we see in chapter 4 and chapter 5 can serve when needed as means that God provides to bring people who had been separated back into presence to be able to be with him again. Many of the offerings are simply to be with God, but the offerings and sacrifices also provide ways for course correction and for this Atonement as being made through sacrifice to restore relationship as well as just to bring the oneness and the togetherness.
Kristian Heal: Wonderful insights, Jennifer in kind of thinking about our own relationship to our temple. I often have thought of the temple, as it’s articulated in Restoration scripture, as a house of learning, as a place of instruction and people have gone so far to say that you should always be thinking of something new that you’re learning there. But it’s really valuable this perspective that you’re giving as of using leviticus as a lens to which to view our temple worship as a place of presence, as a place of our transformation of the kind of our soul and not just as a house of learning which of course it is, that we are learning things in the temple but we are also experiencing something, an encountering something and being transformed through our encounter with holiness. It’s almost impossible to articulate what scholars would call the newmanness, that when we encounter the newmanness, this holiness that we find here that sometimes terrifying for ancient Israel, but now they’re kind of learning to engage with it. It has this effect which we can recognize it after the fact, but we can’t actually see what’s happening in the same way then when we learn a new fact. It’s really a wonderful notion.
Jennifer Lane: I think you really touched on something that’s incredibly important in thinking about knowledge and learning because we are so, in modernity in the sense of knowledge as information that to know in the sense that is so often used in scriptures is more of this being in a covenant relationship. They are and we are learning of the Lord as we are in relationship to him, as we are acting out our relationship and coming to him that we are transformed by that. And the very process of being transformed is a kind of knowing. It’s a way of understanding knowledge that’s experiential rather than simply fact based. I think that the temple has that ancient sense of knowing as becoming that is just extraordinarily important. Where Christ says in John 17 that, “This is life eternal: to know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,” he’s not talking about having a database of information. That kind of knowing is taking on a godly nature, a divine nature and that it is with worship that the potential for that kind of knowing, that house of learning is heightened and we act it out and we continue to live it out as we go out and live our lives but that it truly is a school when we can understand that dimension. We bring that dimension to that.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you for that, Jennifer. I think it’s important, as you’ve been discussing the individual coming to know to become it’s important to remember too that as a community, ancient Israel is coming together and through building the tabernacle they are of course working together, but they also learn together what it means to maintain the Lord’s presence among them. What does Leviticus tell us about how we must live together?
Jennifer Lane: That’s fabulous. I think what you see in Leviticus is both individual and corporate so that there are times where people will come individually for individual reasons, but there are times where also collectively that there are sacrifices and offerings that were done on behalf of the people as a whole and that both of those dimensions are real and important. That process of collectively worshiping allows for the Lord to collectively be with them. They have to individually come, but that collective sense of the Lord being with them as a people is so important and so we do see with the sacrifices that are particularly made for different transgressions or becoming, sometimes it’s ritually impure and maybe even inadvertently, in fact often inadvertently we talk more about that but the process is a way for individuals to be that repairing of the breach or distance that’s caused from the presence of God, but there’s also when we can talk more about the day of Atonement where it is not just an individual dealing with individuals’s condition but the collective. So how people treat each other in fact is often what they need to repent of, but also this collective sense, as a people we haven’t been everything we should be and the hope that we can be made right again and start again because otherwise we get lost and trapped and spiral down and come into a hopeless feeling.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, this is another situation where I wish that 4th Nephi was as long as 3rd Nephi so that we could learn what it takes to be a Zion people, to come collectively to a point where the Lord can be well pleased with us, not only as a group as a church, but as individuals comprising it. I think too of how important for teams to come together or for any organization when people trust each other, when people like each other, you can tell. It makes an enormous difference in what you’re able to accomplish based on your willingness to row in the same direction.
Jennifer Lane: That is something where we can take it for granted that the kind of collaborative effort that it takes for the tabernacle to continue just day in and day out to function, kind of thinking back to having been serving as an ordinance worker an then working as a group and then preparing to have people come that it’s you have one shift then you have another shift then you have another shift and that there’s a collaboration and a teamwork to facilitate other people worshiping, to facilitate other people being able to experience the presence of the Lord that takes regular consistent coordination, cooperation, team work and I think we don’t necessarily hear their stories, but the priest and the Levites were probably doing that kind of collective cooperative effort to make sure that they were creating an environment where people who came felt and experienced the presence of the Lord and that they could then build collectively as a people of Israel this sense of we are God’s people, he is in our midst, as they chose to come and experience that for themselves.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)