Friday, August 5, 2011

Insights into Leviticus

Robert Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary. Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2007. Pp. 372. $29.99, hard.

Reviewed by Ryan McGraw

The world presented in the book of Leviticus is often foreign to modern readers. In the western world, sacrificial animals and a caste of priests are, for most, an unfamiliar, if not unimaginable sight. In the realm of commentaries on Scripture, fewer commentaries have been written on Leviticus than on most other books. It is even more rare to find ministers who feel they have a strong enough grasp of this book in order to preach from it to the profit of their congregations. Robert Vasholz has done the Church a great service in his, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary, by making perspicuous the message of the third book of the Pentateuch. This commentary is well researched, well written, concise in its discussions, and makes Leviticus as a whole easy to read.

The commentary is a verse-by-verse exposition of Leviticus. Vasholz has divided his work into 35 chapters, under two organizational principles that distinguish his work from most other commentaries on this book. Instead of merely explaining each word and verse as they appear in the text, Vasholz wrote:

I weighed carefully the value of adding one more commentary employing this approach to the list. Therefore, what I decided to do was to present Leviticus in a different manner, as the unfolding story of God’s Word to Moses, because, fundamentally, Leviticus is a narrative about God speaking to Moses repeatedly. Over and over and over, the Word of the Lord came to Moses and revealed his will to Moses for his people. While there is little narrative in the book itself, nevertheless it is a kind of history with numerous conversations between God and Moses as its centerpiece (11. Emphasis original).

The other distinctive feature of this work is the forty exegetical essays dispersed throughout the text of the book, expanding upon topics relevant to the exposition at hand. Vasholz’s brief introduction emphasizes the backdrop of God’s covenant relationship to Israel. The Mosaic authorship of Leviticus is clearly affirmed (13-14), but Vasholz sends his reader to other more thorough works on this subject rather than bog down his text with detailed argumentation.
The content of this commentary shall be evaluated by summarizing some of its representative strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of this book consist in its brevity and clarity, the simplicity and readability of its explanations, and the in text essays on various topics. The longest chapter is thirty pages (chapter 1) while the shortest chapter is four pages (chapter six). On average, each chapter is ten pages or less. This means that the text of Leviticus has been broken down into digestible sections. However, Vasholz has not achieved brevity at the expense of thorough exegesis. For instance, his comments on Leviticus nineteen expound all thirty-seven verses of the chapter in ten pages, while simultaneously rooting each of the numerous “miscellaneous” laws presented there in corresponding points of the Decalogue (225-235). In fact, it is rare if Vasholz does not have something to say in anticipation of questions that are likely lying in the minds of his readers. The simplicity of such a comprehensive exposition in such a short space suggests that the author has thoroughly mastered his subject.

Useful as the commentary itself is, the forty essays interspersed in the text are perhaps even more useful. The first five essays are grouped together and examine the significance of each of Israel’s offerings (31-74). The remainder of these essays include topics such as the “Tent-Sanctuary” (92-94), “The Blood” (96-100), “Seven” (158-160), “Lasting Ordinances” (205-208), “Holiness” (278-282), and many more. Of particular interest is the essay on the mysterious “Urim and Thumim” (116-118), in which Vasholz rejects the idea that these articles of priestly clothing were designed (as many assume) for divining the will of Yahweh. Divination was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10) and texts such as Numbers 27:21 should be translated “with” the Urim, instead of “by” the Urim (117). The Urim and Thumim should be regarded as a metonym for the priest himself (1 Sam. 28:6) and are identical with the precious stones that were set over Aaron’s heart bearing the names of the tribes of Israel (Ex. 28:29-30; 35:27). Seeking thus to interpret Scripture by Scripture, Vasholz concluded: “In fine, the priest was a chosen oracle of God and the Urim and Thumim were his credentials to seek counsel on behalf of God’s people (cf. 1 Sam. 14:36)” (118. Emphasis original).

The primary weaknesses of this book are its principles of organization, the prevalence of unsubstantiated or unsound theological conclusions, and the caricaturing and rejection of biblical typology. First, Vasholz’s professedly distinct principle of organizing his commentary around the phrase, “the word of the Lord came to Moses,” hinders the accessibility of the work. Thirty-five chapters bearing roughly the same title does not help readers grasp the overall content of the book of Leviticus. This fact reflects the absence of any outline of the book as well, which hinders the sense of a progressing “narrative,” which Vasholz was so eager to demonstrate (11). Though the repetition is important, the phrase, “the word of the Lord came to Moses,” does not distinguish Leviticus from Exodus or Numbers. If anything, Deuteronomy is distinguished by the relative absence of these words.

Second, many of the theological inferences drawn from or imposed upon the text of Leviticus are, at times, surprisingly weak. Two examples illustrate this well. In his explanation of the difficult passage in Leviticus 12, in which a woman’s time of ceremonial uncleanness was doubled after the birth of a female child, Vasholz asserted: “Israel is here affected by the surrounding culture” (145) and, as with slavery and polygamy, “Moses modifies attitudes and curbs abuses” (146). These analogies are improper, however, due to the fact that in the case of slavery and polygamy, the Lord did not prescribe these practices, but he regulated and tempered practices that were already in place. Whatever the true explanation of Leviticus 12 is, the fact that God positively prescribed the period of uncleanness must be taken into account. In other words, the Law of God required a double period of uncleanness for female children, whereas it would not have required polygamy. This is not to say that God did not give some laws to distinguish the practices of Israel from those of the surrounding nations, or that God did not appropriate some of the common customs of the nations (such as circumcision) and import a new significance into them. Vasholz, however, gives the impression that God’s law here required a capitulation to the customs of the day. Vasholz’s exposition of this passage appears to be clouded by the assumption of “a democratic spirit” (146) he believes is present in the Pentateuch regarding the role of women in society.

Similarly, in his essay on “The Alien” (235-240), Vasholz argued, “[T]here were no laws that mandated that an alien had to join in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel” (234). However, this appears to contradict the unique theocratic nature of Old Testament Israel, in which every resident of the nation must be in a covenant relationship with Yahweh, including those of foreign origin (Gen. 17:12). The “one law” for the native-born and the “stranger” in Israel’s midst included regulating sacrifices (Num. 15:16), “unintentional sins” (v. 29), and “presumptuous sins” (v. 30). With regard to the last, the “stranger” was threatened with being “cut off” from among the covenant people, “because he has despised the word of the Lord, and broken his commandments” (v. 31).

Third, Vasholz rejects what he refers to as, “an allegorical approach [that] assumes that these laws were basically to teach spiritual lessons” (143), citing John Bunyan and the Shepherd of Hermas as examples (144). While it is commendable to avoid an “allegorical approach” to interpreting Leviticus, denying that the Levitical laws were designed to teach spiritual lessons proves too much. It is one thing to torture a text of Scripture by turning every detail into allegorical lessons. It is another thing to import a spiritual significance upon Old Testament laws and ceremonies with careful sobriety in light of the realities of Christ and the gospel. It is not as though Vasholz does not connect the ceremonies in Leviticus to the Person and work of Christ, but he has rejected the bulk of a typological approach by citing two of its most extreme proponents. The result is minimal references to Christ and to the gospel. The reader gets the impression that Vasholz has sought to cure an allegorical headache by exegetical decapitation.

In summary, Robert Vasholz’s, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary, is strong exegetically, yet sometimes weak theologically. That being said, three features place this volume above most commentaries on Leviticus. First, this commentary is not bogged down with technical discussions of recent scholarly trends. The value of this approach is that it gives the commentary a timeless quality that is less likely to be outdated quickly as scholarly debates shift. The commentary is a careful exposition of the text built upon conservative biblical presuppositions, rather than a polemic against ever-shifting theological fads. Second, Vasholz has mixed responsible scholarship with simplicity and clarity. His work achieves the rare combination of satisfying scholars, as well as pastors and lay readers. Third, this book may serve to encourage ministers to preach from the book of Leviticus. Vasholz does not provide materials sufficient for applicatory preaching per se, but by making a difficult book of Scripture perspicuous, he has provided ministers a necessary platform upon which to build their pulpit discourses. All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), but more labor and prayer is required to profit from some books than from others. Vasholz is like a builder who has graded the land in order to lay a solid foundation. May this volume be used of the Lord of Hosts help his people grow in their knowledge of, and love for one of more difficult books in his holy Word.


Reprinted from Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 71, no. 2, Fall 2009, 495-498