LEVITICUS by Jay Sklar (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)

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Leviticus by Jay Sklar in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series (IVP Academic, 2014, 336 pages)

It is common to hear jokes about how boring and unreadable the Bible is, especially of books like Leviticus. I’m sure Jay Sklar knows this better than anyone. In the preface to his recent commentary Leviticus in the Tyndale series, he writes:

When I tell people that I’ve spent years studying Leviticus, many respond with the type of smile that says, ‘Oh well, at least he’s not hurting anyone. (Sklar, Leviticus, 9)

That’s funny, at least it is to me. But I’m sure there were moments during, say, fifteen years of in-depth study of the book, when the jokes got old. However, rightly understood, Leviticus is a cave full of treasure for God’s people. And I’m thankful for this commentary because it helped me find the gold.

Also in the preface, Sklar stated his goal for the commentary:

To make clear what is it that the Lord said to the ancient Israelites and, in doing so, to make clear what the Lord is saying to us today. (9-10)

How did Sklar accomplished this mission? Below are five of the ways.

1. Helpful Flow

The commentary opens with an extended summary of Leviticus and issues related to its study. After the introductory material, Sklar proceeds in a helpful pattern of commentary: First, “Context,” then “Comment,” and then “Meaning” for each section passage.

2. The Forest AND the Trees

The strength of all good commentaries is that they provide “hi-res” pictures of the text. But this can also be a weakness, that is, if the commentary never zooms out from the specifics to see the larger principles at work and what aspects of God’s character are on display. Sklar, however, at key junctures, was able to zoom out remarkably well. And in those moments, I think many will be surprised – although this isn’t the best way to say this – at how “New Testament” Leviticus sounds (especially with respect to God’s character and his gracious dealings with his people).

3. Not Overreaching

Another reason that I appreciated the commentary, is that it was consistently responsible and not overreaching in its conclusions. Let me illustrate this point by starting with a little Leviticus trivia.

Imagine that you are an Israelite woman in the ancient Near East that has recently given birth to a male child. Do you know how many days that you are ceremonially “unclean” after giving birth to a male? The answer is 40 days. You can find it in Leviticus 12. But what if, instead, you had a female child. Then how many days are you unclean? The answer is 80, not 40 (also in Lev. 12). But why?

Sklar, after exploring several possible reasons, writes this:

We simply do not know why the length of impurity differs between boys and girls. (179)

See what I mean by “responsible and not overreaching.” He explains only as far as the text and responsible scholarship allows. That sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not. The gravitational pull towards speculation is strong.

4. Asks and Answers the Hard Questions

But the whole commentary is certainly not 336 pages of agnosticism (“Well, we really can’t know…” or “It’s not fully clear…” or “Scholars disagree…”). Rather, the hard questions are asked and answers are given.

For example, which laws in Leviticus apply today? See page 57. And did the sacrifices “really atone for sin” when the New Testament states that this was “impossible”? See page 72.

5. A View Towards Accessibility

As is consistent with Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (TOTC), Leviticus is user-friendly, even to those without formal theological education. The TOTC series often has – and I would say Leviticus is a particularly good example of this – explanations of key terms, many analogies to the modern world, and helpful charts. A personal favorite chart in Leviticus was the decision tree for priests in the evaluation of skin diseases based on Leviticus 13-14. I smiled at the thought of an ancient priest making a ‘cheat sheet’ with a similar diagram.

In summary, if you are looking to engage with God and his Word on a deeper level, and you are up for doing this in a book often neglected, then Leviticus (with Sklar as your tour guide), is a great place to start.

A Favorite Quote

“When the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s covenant commands, they would experience the covenant blessings that humanity was created to enjoy: walking in rich fellowship with their divine King who cared for them and provide for all their needs. This was like a return to the garden of Eden in Genesis 2, where God’s people lived securely in a fruitful land, with all of their needs met, walking in obedient fellowship with their gracious Lord. Israel was privileged with showing the nations this vision of Eden and inviting them to experience it.” (Sklar, Leviticus, 324)