Morales, L. Michael. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. New Studies in Biblical Theology 37. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 190 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP
In this contribution to the NSBT series, L. Michael Morales examines the theology of the often overlooked book of Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch. Morales begins by describing the placement of the Lampstand and the Table of the Presence in the Tabernacle. The Lampstand appears to have been intentionally placed to shine light on the bread arranged on the table in order to visually portray God’s intention that his people should live continually in his presence. The book of Leviticus is about “dwelling with God in the house of God” (20). In the first chapter of the book Morales argues the Pentateuch is “shaped as a journey led by YHWH to himself at Mount Sinai” (37) where Israel is given the house of the Lord, the Tabernacle. Leviticus stands at the center of the Pentateuch in order to instruct God’s people how they may “ascend the mountain of the Lord” and live in the presence of the glory of their God.
Humans are unable to live in the presence of God because of the rebellion of Eden. In the second chapter of the book Morales describes this “longing for Eden” as the foreground for reading Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch. God created Eden as a mountain temple in which humans were placed to worship God and Genesis itself provides a “cultic cosmology” as humans move away from life within the order of Creation to death and chaos (49). Adam becomes an exile from God’s presence and wanders east, prevent from returning to the presence of God by cherubim. Because of their rebellion, humans are exiled from the presence of God in Eden and cannot return to God’s presence.
Israel has an opportunity to “Return to Eden” in the book of Exodus (Chapter 3). The narrative context of Leviticus stands on the foundation of the redeemed people of God passing through the through the waters of chaos as they are led to the mountain of God. The goal of Israel’s redemption from Egypt was worship at the house of God (82) at another mountain of God, Sinai (86). There is a crisis at this point since no one is able to ascend the Mountain of the Lord. Only Moses is permitted to go up Sinai in his role as mediator. For Morales, the mountain represents approaching God in worship (89).
The Tabernacle is introduced after the covenant in Exodus (Exod 25-40). The Tabernacle is the way back to the living in the presence of God, but the book of Exodus ends with a another crisis: no one is able to enter the Tabernacle because it is filled with the Glory of God (Exod 40:35).
This crisis is answered by the book of Leviticus. In chapters 4-6 Morales demonstrates that the overall structure of Leviticus is a way of dealing with the uncleanliness which separates man from God, with the Day of Atonement at the center of not only Leviticus, but the whole Petnateuch. Leviticus 1-8 describe the sacrificial cult as a journey back to the presence of God, yet there is another crisis in Leviticus 9-10. At the very moment Israel experiences the presence of God and the priest begin their sacrificial ministry, Nadab and Abihu make unauthorized sacrifices and fall under God’s judgment (Lev 10). Morales suggests Nadab and Abihu may have drunkenly attempted to go past the veil which separates the glory of God from the people (149). They were unfit to be in God’s presence, so Leviticus 11-15 represents a “cleansing the house of God.”
For many Bible readers, the laws on clean and unclean in Leviticus 11-15 seem random and focused on matters which are not related to real spirituality. But as Morales points out, these chapters describe what it means to be clean, or “fit for the Presence of God” and what it means to be holy, or “belonging to God.” Things that are profane cause uncleanliness and therefore separate humans from God. They can be made clean, and clean things can be sanctified so they are fit for God’s presence. The Tabernacle is therefore a “sacred bubble . . . set within a sea of uncleanliness” (161). The most important demonstration of this concept is the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. On this day, an Adam-like priest approaches the presence of God with blood of atonement and the way back to the Lord is opened. This is a reversal of Adam’s expulsion to the east as the priest walks past the cherubim guarding the way back to Eden, For Morales, this is a “liturgical drama” (176). But there is also a sacred geography present on the Day of Atonement as well: the scapegoat carries sin into the wilderness, back to the chaos of non-creation (179).
This reentry into the divine presence is the key to understanding Israel’s call to holiness in Leviticus 17-22. Returning to the symbolism of the lampstand and bread of the Presence, Israel is to continually live in the light of God. The purpose of the lengthy “holiness code” is to deal with the crisis of uncleanliness which might prevent Israel from experiencing the presence of God. The goal in this unit is always communion and fellowship with God.
Having described Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch, Morales traces the movement from Sinai and the tabernacle to Zion and Solomon’s Temple (chapter 7). Zion will be the mountain of God when Israel finally enters the land, but Morales sees the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Moriah) as pointing ahead to Zion. Unlike Sinai, Zion will be the permanent place of God’s habitation (227), even though Israel’s unfaithfulness results in another “exile to the east.” After the exile Israel will return to Zion as a new Eden, citing Isaiah 51:3 (237). The prophets also look forward to a future when God’s presence will return to a “new Zion” (255).
This prophetic expectation leads Morales to conclude the book with an intra-canonical reading of his “drama of Leviticus,” from the earthly Zion to the heavenly Mount Zion. For the Gospel of John, the incarnation is the means by which God dwells once again with his people (260) and the sacrifice of Jesus at Passover deals with the ultimate uncleanliness separating humans from the glory of God. This is perhaps the weakest point in Morales’s typology, since in Leviticus it was the Day of Atonement which opened access to God, not the Passover. This is of course a problem for any attempt to create a typology between the Law and Jesus. But Morales is able to make the connection because the original the Passover provided redemption for Israel and brought then to Sinai; the new Passover initiates a new exodus in the Resurrection (277). Ultimately the eschaton will be the decent of the messianic kingdom to earth (299). Revelation 20-21 include a great deal of Eden language, including the Tree of Life.
Conclusion. Morales has contributed a very readable book on the theology of Leviticus. He places Leviticus in its immediately canonical context as the center of the Pentateuch. Although he does not develop his thesis for Numbers and Deuteronomy in as much detail as for Genesis and Exodus, it is clear the book of Leviticus is designed around the Day of Atonement as the means by which access to God is opened for Israel.
Since he attempts to read the theme of “ascending the mountain of God” across the canon, I would have expected Isaiah 2 and 25:6-8 to be more important to the argument of the book. Both texts refer to gathering of all the nations to the mountain of God in the eschatological age to worship in the presence of God. This shortcoming is a result of a limited section on the prophets, so it is understandable that he is unable to cover all of the reference to mountains in the prophets.
I have one minor problem with the book, and that is the overuse of the word “drama” as a metaphor for the book of Leviticus and the plotline of the Pentateuch. I understand this is a popular way to describe the movement of a book in biblical studies, but it has become an overused metaphor.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book not only for those interested in Leviticus, but also for the theology of the Pentateuch.
NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.