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Leviticus and the Incarnation

In recent years, I have reached the conclusion that nobody can study Leviticus without being utterly blown away by the incarnation.

Leviticus 19:2 provides the foundational reason behind all the laws given in the Old Testament: “For you shall be holy as I am holy.”

Holiness means separation, being set apart. The ordering of Israelite society, the necessity of all the (fairly monotonous) purification laws, the laws about who may or may not enter which space, the ordering of time, and the laws about sacrifice all equate to creating an understanding for Israel of the holiness of God. It creates an entire lifestyle focused on the idea of God being set apart, only approachable by the most pure and whole of those who have been set apart for his service from a people who have been set apart from all the other peoples of the earth. God is special and Israel is special because God graciously gave that one people a way to come close to him. That is the foundational identity of Israel, established in the laws of the Old Testament.

In his massive two-volume study of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom suggests that the logic of the law and its configuration of Israel may be summarized in the idea of concentric circles — like a target. At the center is God, and each circle further out from God is less holy. This idea applies to people, space, diet, and time.

In Exodus, the Israelite camp centers on the tabernacle. God is at the center, with his seat in the holy of holies. The only person who may enter is the high priest, after purification. The circle outside of the center is the holy place, accessible to all unblemished priests. Beyond that, the temple. Then the outer courts, the Levites’ encampment, the people of Israel, the outer camp for the unclean, and then the wilderness. Israel is spatially set up in rings of decreasing holiness around the presence of God in their midst.

The whole of Israelite life is arranged in levels, or concentric circles, of holiness and defilement. Time is divided this way, with the sabbath at the center as the most holy time. Animals are arranged this way: unblemished ruminants with cloven hooves are acceptable for sacrifice to God, blemished ruminants are not, but are permissible for the clean Israelite to eat. Then follow animals that do not meet these qualifications (most notably pigs), with carrion-eaters and creatures that swarm on the ground at the bottom of the list.

Likewise, people are arranged in levels of holiness. The high priest, followed by unblemished priests, all clean Israelite men, clean women, and then there is a great divide. The unclean Israelite comes next (with various degrees of defilement in that category), followed by the Gentile (the least of the Gentiles being Ammonites and Moabites because of that whole Balaam and the talking donkey problem). Last in the hierarchy are the dead.

Those who are clean may approach God; those who are unclean may not bring that uncleanness into the presence of a holy God without fearful repercussions. Defilement is contagious; if you have been in the presence of a corpse, you are unclean. Even holy and consecrated priests bringing unconsecrated fire and censers into God’s presence had dire consequences (Lev. 10), much less bringing the contamination of disease or death into the holy places.

What does this have to do with the incarnation? Fast forward to the Gospel of Mark. God is made human. The full holiness of God walks among the uncleanness of humanity without any buffer zone between defilement and holiness. But Mark takes the understanding of the contagious nature of defilement and turns it on its head.

From the moment of Jesus’ declaration of his ministry, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), he demonstrates what the kingdom of God means for the world. His first act is to cast out an unclean spirit from a man. He then heals the sick and cleanses the leper. From there, he declares all-out war on the uncleanness that separates humanity from God. Instead of uncleanness being contagious, wholeness and cleanness are contagious, emanating from the person of Jesus.

In Mark 5, Jesus, the living temple of God, the walking holy of holies, goes out to find a Gentile man living in the tombs of the dead, possessed by an unclean spirit, cleanses him, and sends the unclean spirits into the equally unclean pigs as a nice dramatic touch. Immediately after this, his holiness flows out of him to heal an unclean woman of bleeding, and then the incarnate God touches a dead person, reversing even the most final and defiling uncleanness.

He then cleanses a woman who had experienced 12 years of bleeding, making her unclean and unfit to be in the presence of any observant Jew, as contact with her would make him unclean. She touches merely the hem of his robe; instead of making him unclean, he makes her clean. He does this while on the way to the bedside of a dead girl. Death, as the ultimate uncleanness, defiles those in its presence for a week. Jesus not only is untouched by the defilement of death, but his touch reverses death itself. Finally, Jesus himself is untouched by death — God did not allow his holy one to see corruption, but rather raised him from the dead.

Christ’s incarnation changes the way the world works — the kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand and God dwells among us, rendering the uncleanness and defilement of this fallen world impotent, and ushering in a new era. It is an era of contagious holiness, a ministry of the advancement of the kingdom of God. We, as the temples of the Holy Spirit, are mini-Christs, bringing the holiness of God to bear on all the fallenness of this world. The coming of the holiness of God into contact with humanity was reality-shattering. We have the privilege of carrying out that work of advancing the kingdom of heaven until all things are made new and holy and the dwelling of God is with us forever.


  1. Many, many thanks for this, Hannah. The notion of Jesus reversing the vector of cleanness/uncleanness … that will preach! This old homiletical dog has learned a new trick.


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