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How and Why Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus Shaped My Theology (Briefly!)

In a comment, Steve Kindle asks:

… in regards to your formative books, Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus, is it because you see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement that springs from Leviticus? And Ezekiel foresees a renewed covenant that Hebrews embellishes? Just wondering.

The briefest answer would be “no.” But leaving it at that would be rude, or at least would appear rude to me.

My view of the atonement does not center on the substitutionary view, nor on the even more specific penal substitutionary view. This annoys one set of my friends, and perhaps an enemy or two. To annoy the rest, I must emphasize that I do not deny substitutionary atonement. I believe it is one way in which Scripture talks about atonement, though I don’t see the strong courtroom sense of the modern PSA in Scripture. What I actually believe is that there are many metaphors in in Scripture for God saving us from sin and death, and that each of these enlightens us in some way. Each of them, however, if made the sole metaphor, will also tend to lead us into various forms of imbalance.

While the substitutionary view of atonement does occur in Hebrews, substitution itself is not in focus. Similarly, I do not get such views of substitution as I do have from Leviticus. The most famous quote on this is Leviticus 17:11, quoted at Hebrews 9:22, but if this is made to carry the weight Christians often make it carry, it will actually produce a contradiction in Leviticus, and the ransom theory/metaphor, one which fits the text of Leviticus more closely, works quite well in Hebrews.

So having eliminated substitution as the formative view, what exactly did lead me to take these three books so seriously. I must admit that the key reason is simply that I chose to study them. I had no idea what I was getting into, but elements of the books fascinated me. But in fact some common themes became very much formative for me.

Once I got started on Ezekiel, however, the key issue because the presence of the glory of God. There are interesting movements of God’s glory throughout the book, and they produce some quite interesting ideas. My first question was why we have a vision of God’s glory in Babylon in the first chapter, then we see the glory leaving the temple in Jerusalem in the 8th and 9th chapters, and finally it returns to Jerusalem in the 43rd chapter. The illogic on the surface of the first chapter led one commentator, whose name I forget though Eichrodt comes to mind, to suggest that the first chapter was moved by a later editor. Obviously God’s glory couldn’t appear in Babylon before it left Jerusalem.

But on thinking a bit further I came to believe that was precisely the point. God’s glory was not restricted to the land of Israel. God was able to act anywhere. At the same time as God was able to act anywhere God has not rejected Israel either, so we see the glory return to the temple and life flow from the temple later in the book. In its very structure, Ezekiel looks forward to the blessing of the entire world in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. Chapters 8 & 9 also make clear, however, that one cannot behave however one wishes and still expect God’s glory to remain and bless. So we see the withdrawal of God’s glory in those chapters along with the condemnation of all who do not sigh and cry for the abominations in the land (9:4).

External to the three books I would point out that this “presence/absence of God” idea stuck with me. You’ll see it in Torah in wilderness, and you see that the presence of God is not necessarily safe, but is much to be desired. But the whole ceremonial system, as I was taught to call it, didn’t seem to make sense. In fact, the problem was that I heard about it almost exclusively as substitutionary sacrifice for sin. What I, as a Christian, was supposed to know was that lambs (little, cute, wooly lambs in Sunday School terms) were killed because of how awful people’s sins were, and this had pointed to Jesus dying as the lamb of God. Now I in no way want to diminish the view of Jesus as the lamb of God, and especially the application of that we see with the lion/lamb metaphor in Revelation 4-5. But why is there this huge body of literature starting in the latter portion of Exodus and going through numbers, with a few points in Deuteronomy? So from there I started my study of Leviticus.

I began to see a much broader sense of the ceremonial law, how many of the things taught by the prophets were foreshadowed in liturgical form. These include a priestly teaching of the doctrine of repentance, a repeated turn away from ritual as powerful in itself, and a drive to learn to distinguish holy and unholy, not to simply avoid the unholy, but to become holy, to increase the bounds of the holy. God told the Israelites to be holy because he is holy. A simple yet extremely daunting command.

My wife said that during this study I would come away from my personal devotion time detached, as though I had been in an extraordinary time of spiritual experience. All I can say is that I would love to write a study guide for Leviticus with the intention of drawing more Christians into that story, but that I feel utterly inadequate to the task. In my study I would read the text in Hebrew, then in the LXX, and finally in an English translation before going to Milgrom’s commentary. It takes hard work to get even a good start on this material, but I consider it well worthwhile, in fact, the most worthwhile year of personal devotions I have engaged in.

And that turns me back to Hebrews, where I see Hebrews 6 as the center of the book’s message, but if you step back right before, one of the characteristics of mature Christianity is having one’s faculties trained by practice to discern good from evil, a close parallel to Leviticus. I think it is also closely aligned in goal, i.e., this training of the faculties is part of the endurance, staying on the track. And note that I don’t think this contradicts it being a gift from God. The Torah is also a gift from God, and it was instruction. It’s purpose was to train.

If I could summarize, I get from this that my faith is to be an active faith, an active seeking of the presence of God, a life of practice. We are changed and transformed by looking, by finding, by discerning (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is the key element of theology that I get from Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, and I think it shapes all else.


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One Comment

  1. As one has come to expect, your views are nuanced and penetrating. Thanks for elaborating. Nothing in the Bible is quite as simple as might be taken at first blush. It’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.

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