Leviticus Prohibitions in the Light of the New Covenant

The Book of Leviticus contains numerous laws and prohibitions focusing on various aspects of daily and religious life. The major focuses of what one shouldn’t do, and as per traditional interpretations, include:

  1. Dietary Restrictions: Leviticus lays out specific foods that are forbidden to eat, most notably pork and shellfish, as well as guidelines for how food should be prepared and consumed (Leviticus 11).
  2. Moral and Ethical Behavior: There are prohibitions against a range of moral and ethical misdeeds, including lying, stealing, and various forms of deceit. It also includes the famous injunction, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
  3. Sexual Relations: Leviticus contains explicit prohibitions against incest, adultery, homosexuality, and other sexual behaviors considered taboo (Leviticus 18 and 20).
  4. Religious Purity: There are numerous rules about maintaining ritual purity, including prohibitions against approaching the sanctuary in an impure state and instructions for ceremonial cleanliness (Leviticus 15).
  5. Sacrificial Regulations: Leviticus provides detailed instructions on the proper methods for offering sacrifices, including what animals are acceptable, how they should be slaughtered, and how various types of offerings should be handled (Leviticus 1-7).

Modern Relevance of the Leviticus Prohibitions

The Book of Leviticus, with its myriad of regulations, serves as a historical and theological recording that provides insight into the ancient Israelite society. However, its application to the modern Christian is a topic that requires a nuanced understanding and the nature of the Christian covenant.

For starters, Christians are predominantly guided by the New Testament, which chronicles the life, teachings, and covenant of Jesus Christ. This new covenant is significant because it represents a theological shift from the old covenant, which is detailed in the Old Testament, including Leviticus.

Jesus, whom Christians acknowledge as the Messiah, introduces a new paradigm of grace and forgiveness that supersedes the old system of laws and animal sacrifices.

One pivotal moment in the New Testament is when Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17):

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Matthew 5:17, ESV

This statement has been interpreted to mean that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection complete the complex sacrificial system and legal requirements set out in Leviticus. Essentially, the moral and ethical essence of the law is upheld, but the ceremonial and judicial specifics, tied to the ancient Israelite context, are seen as fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry.

The apostle Paul discusses how Christ’s sacrifice creates a new form of righteousness apart from the law (Romans 3:21-22):

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Romans 3:21-22, ESV

Paul argues that faith in Jesus, rather than adherence to the Levitical code, is now the basis for a righteous standing before God. This theological stance redefines the relationship between the believer and the laws of Leviticus.

However, some denominations and individuals might incorporate certain Levitical laws into their practice, viewing them as eternally relevant moral principles. Yet, the predominant Christian perspective sees the Leviticus prohibitions as part of an old covenant that has been transformed by the life and teachings of Jesus.

Notable Prohibitions from Leviticus and the Old Testament

As we see in Leviticus, a plethora of laws ranging from moral and ethical edicts to strictures on sexual relations and religious purity are laid out to guide the Israelites.

Today, while some of these prohibitions retain a timeless relevance, like those against theft and adultery, underscoring universal ethical principles, others seem far removed from the realities of modern Christian life. Laws such as not holding back an employee’s wages overnight, once crucial for ensuring immediate justice in a different economic system, now appear less applicable in today’s complex financial world.

As such, while some Levitical laws continue to resonate with contemporary moral and ethical standards, others, rooted deeply in the cultural and historical context of their time, are viewed as untenable or unreasonable for the modern Christian.

Moral and Ethical Behavior

  • Theft (19:11)
  • Lying (19:11)
  • Swearing falsely (19:12)
  • Defrauding your neighbor (19:13)
  • Holding back the wages of an employee overnight (19:13)
  • Cursing the deaf or placing a stumbling block before the blind (19:14)
  • Injustice in court (19:15)
  • Slander (19:16)
  • Hatred (19:17)
  • Taking revenge or bearing a grudge (19:18)

Sexual Relations

  • Adultery (18:20)
  • Incest (18:6-18)
  • Homosexuality (18:22)
  • Bestiality (18:23)
  • Sexual relations during a woman’s menstrual period (18:19)
  • Not taking a woman as a rival wife to her sister (18:18)
  • Offering children to Molech (20:2-5)
  • Sex with a neighbor’s wife (20:10)
  • Sex with an aunt or uncle (20:12-14)
  • Sex with a daughter-in-law or mother-in-law (20:12)

Religious Purity

  • Touching the carcass of an unclean animal (11:24-28)
  • Eating or touching forbidden foods (11:4-8)
  • Leprosy and skin diseases (13:1-46)
  • Bodily discharges causing impurity (15:1-33)
  • Entering the sanctuary in an unclean state (15:31)

The New Covenant

It’s pivotal to recognize that Jesus is heralded as the bearer of a new era, transcending the old laws and rituals with a message of grace, love, and spiritual rebirth. This transformative shift is encapsulated in Hebrews 8:13:

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 8:13, ESV

This verse succinctly captures the essence of this new dawn, where the old is fulfilled and renewed in the teachings and sacrifice of Christ.