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I was in my Institute office when a call was forwarded to me. The secretary in the main office connected me with a woman who wanted to speak to an Institute teacher.
She responded to my greeting by saying, “Why do I have to read Leviticus?” I suppose, since we were studying the Old Testament in Sunday school, she had been challenged by a teacher to read the entire Old Testament that year, and she was dying by degrees as she labored through the third book of Moses.
I am certain she is not unique. Leviticus is sometimes like jogging in knee-deep mud.
I assured my frustrated friend that even Leviticus abounds in treasure, and while it might not yield as much treasure as First Nephi, or might not yield that treasure as readily, it nevertheless deserved some attention in her life. I reminded her that when Lehi obtained the Brass Plates from Laban, “he did search them from the beginning” (1 Nephi 5:10). That searching included Leviticus (1 Nephi 5:11). Lehi probably had a better understanding of Leviticus than we do because he was a participant in the Law of Moses, but his searching must have had a higher purpose than learning the law.
I also reminded her that Nephi read “many things that were written in the books of Moses” to his rebellious brothers. He reported that he “did read many things to them, which were engraven upon the plates of brass, that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old” (1 Nephi 19:22). One of the greatest blessings of all scripture is that enables us to learn how the Lord works.
After a few more generalities, she said good-bye and returned to her reading. I hope I helped.
Just a few days later I began teaching Leviticus in my Old Testament classes, and told my students of my caller and of her exasperation.
I told them that Leviticus is a primer for the Law of Moses—a bicycle with training wheels, a stepping stool to lift Israel to new heights, a drivers’ education teacher prepared to keep Israel on the right road until she earned her own driver’s license.
“But more than anything else,” I said, “Leviticus is a lesson in holiness, and an invitation to become more like Jehovah”
For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy . . . For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:44 – 45).
The word holy appears eighty-three times in the book of Leviticus, more times than in any other book of scripture. The word unclean appears eighty-four times, also the most of any scriptural text. I testified of my belief that the book is God’s invitation to the blessings of holiness, and instruction for the Children of Israel about how they could become holy. Many of the requirements made in Leviticus no longer apply to us, but the principles reverberate through its pages with a prophetic invitation to be clean and to embrace the meaning of the atonement.
The method of instruction (Leviticus is about doing, not just about reading) is to challenge Israel to do things that will teach them and lift them and bless them. The Lord never tells Moses and Aaron what these Israelites ought to know. He tells them what they ought to do. Here is one example:
And the priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot . . . (Leviticus 14:14).
This is the kind of language that causes readers to jump from Exodus to Numbers. But the message is powerful. When someone gives a lamb as an offering for their trespasses, the priest who officiates is to apply a trace of the lamb’s blood to the ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the great toe of the right foot.
The blood of the lamb is a stirring reminder of the atoning blood of Christ.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11).
What then does it mean to apply this atoning blood to our ear and our hand and our foot? The words hear, do, and go come to mind. The Lord is charging Israel to let the atonement dictate the things they listen to, and the things they touch or do, and the places they go. If we make ourselves more holy by following this council, we can expect great blessings in our lives.
Heeding this counsel would have saved Samson from a lot of difficulty. The blood on his toe should have reminded him not to go “down to Timnath” (Judges 14:1) to spend time with the Philistines. He would have followed the Spirit as it led him in the higher hills of Canaan. With the blood on his thumb he might not have taken his hands into the city of Gath to visit a harlot (Judges 16:1). If he had applied the atoning blood to his ear, he might not have listened to the lies and deceit of Delilah in the valley of Sorek (Judges 16:5-14).
Of course, this essay is not about Leviticus alone, but about all scriptural texts, with an emphasis on those that seem most difficult to understand.
All of us have stumbled over the imagery of difficult passages in the scriptures. Nephi, speaking of the writings of Isaiah in language that has universal application, promised that even though “the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4). He also promised that the messages of Isaiah “are of worth unto the children of men.” (2 Nephi 25:8).
All scriptural text is “of worth unto the children of men,” but sometimes that worth is obscured by strange imagery and unfamiliar examples. Nephi wrote that when the Bible “proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men” (1 Nephi 14:23)
Whatever the book was like when it first appeared, it does not always seem to be plain and easy to understand now. Here is one example.
The fifth chapter of Zechariah has always made me feel like Charles Anthon: “I cannot read a sealed book” (see JS-H 1:65).
I thought this might as well have been written in Sanskrit as spoken in Bangaluru, India. Of course there are a great many things in the scriptures that induce head-scratching and a sharp pain behind our left eye. But in an entire chapter I can usually find something worthwhile. Not Zechariah 5. Even Elder McConkie, who wrote the chapter heads for the 1978 edition of the LDS Bible, did not give me any assistance in understanding this chapter: “An angel reveals truths to Zechariah by the use of symbolical representations.” Nor were the footnotes helpful; the whole chapter has only two.
Of course there are plenty of great principles in Zechariah without chapter 5, but as I struggled with this chapter, I thought about the experience of Joseph and Oliver in JS-H 1:74.
Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of.
Reflecting on that declaration, I thought I ought to dig a little deeper and try to understand the chapter.
I asked the Lord to help me with this mysterious passage. Then I checked another translation (the NIV) and some commentaries, and read the chapter some more. Now, in retrospect, the message seems clear. These verses are a warning to sinners and a description of the atonement.
1 Then I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a flying roll. [a book, a scroll, unrolled or unrolling in the sky]
2 And he said unto me, What seest thou? And I answered, I see a flying roll; the length thereof is twenty cubits, and the breadth thereof ten cubits. [this equals nine hundred square feet of scroll space for writing if both sides are used, and they are. There is room enough here to write a lot.
3 Then said he unto me, This is the curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole earth: for every one that stealeth shall be cut off as on this side [of the scroll] according to it; and every one that sweareth shall be cut off as on that side according to it [thieves are named on one side of the roll; liars on the other, all of them to be cut off]. This image reminded me of a talk given by Vaughn J. Featherstone.
“I am going to use a visual aid tonight. But we don’t have one, so, in your mind’s eye, wherever you are across the far corners of the earth, would you picture a huge scroll sliding down from the ceiling? On it are listed the names of those who purchased pornographic literature. The list is large enough so that all may see. Is your name on the list?” ( “A Self‑Inflicted Purging,” Ensign, May 1975, 66).
Elder Featherstone also mentioned lists of names of those guilty of other transgressions.
4 I will bring it forth, saith the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter into the house of the thief, and into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name: and it shall remain in the midst of his house, and shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof. [if your name is on the roll, your household will be destroyed because of the record made of these transgressions]
5 Then the angel that talked with me went forth, and said unto me, Lift up now thine eyes, and see what is this that goeth forth.
6 And I said, What is it? And he said, This is an ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their resemblance through all the earth. [now Zechariah sees a large pot, a flying ephah. An ephah is 8-9 gallons. This pot is a container for the wickedness described in this chapter]
7 And, behold, there was lifted up a talent of lead: and this is a woman that sitteth in the midst of the ephah. [the lid, made of lead and weighing a talent (about 75 pounds) is lifted up, and inside is placed a woman . . .]
8 And he said, This is wickedness. And he cast it into the midst of the ephah; and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof. [the woman is ‘wickedness’. The wickedness is cast into the pot and the lid is replaced. I imagine a lid too heavy to move. Thus wickedness is confined much as Satan will one day be bound]
9 Then lifted I up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came out two women, and the wind was in their wings; for they had wings like the wings of a stork: and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heaven. [two angels with wings pick up the ephah and carry it into the sky]
10 Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah?
11 And he said unto me, To build it an house in the land of Shinar [the Bible Dictionary, p. 774, tells us that Shinar “is sometimes used as the equivalent for Babylonia”]: and it shall be established, and set there upon her own base. [Babylon is where wickedness belongs—“her own base”]
We are told in this chapter that God makes a record of sinners and warns that their sins will destroy them. But he also shows us that wickedness will be subdued and taken away to the place where it belongs, to Babylon, a place that will one day be destroyed (see Revelation 18). Perhaps this is also an allusion to the atonement, because for those who repent, sins will be taken away and put out of reach. In another Old Testament verse we are told that the Lord “will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and . . . wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
So why read Leviticus? It is not as valuable as 2nd Nephi or the book of Isaiah. But we must acknowledge that all scripture is precious. An angel told Nephi something about the Bible. “The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:23).
They are of great worth, Even Leviticus.