The title of this chapter—“In the wilderness”—is also the title of this fourth book of the Bible in the Hebrew editions of the Old Testament. That title comes from the first verse of Numbers, which begins this way: “Yahweh spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” Nonetheless, this is not the name of the fourth Bible book in our English translations. Our English title comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. That version replaced the Hebrew title (bamidbar) with arithmoi (numbers). Later the Vulgate translated this as “Numbers.” Both the Greek and the Latin titles mean: Numbers, or Censuses. It is true, of course, that in Numbers we are going to hear a lot about numbers and counting. But we will hear about something more than that.
Leviticus 16 is an unfamiliar chapter about a familiar subject: the great Day of Atonement. You can hear that phrase used in popular lingo. For example, whenever people talk about someone who gets the blame for everything, they call him the “scapegoat.” And when someone is fired from his job or excluded as a member of some group, people will be heard saying something along the lines of: “They sent him away to the wilderness.” Familiar expressions. But not used entirely correctly, as we will see in a moment.
If the Pentateuch is a necklace with five sparkling jewels, then Leviticus is the carnelian. It is as red as a carnelian because of so much blood, so much that the book overflows with blood. For in this book we hear more about that foundation of the (Israelite) world that we discussed in the closing pages of our commentary on Exodus. Here we will learn more about the basis upon which Israelite society was established by God. The first stone of that foundation was laid with the announcement of the Ten Words of the Covenant from mount Sinai. The next action was the erection of the tabernacle as the palace of Israel’s King among his people at Horeb. That was what Exodus was about. Leviticus talks about the ministry with which this people were to please their God with and around that palace, that sanctuary. A ministry of blood. Daily, weekly, annually.
We begin our discussion of the New Testament with the Gospels, four books that differ remarkably from the other books of the New Testament. For example, the term epistle would not apply to any of the four Gospels. But still, every page of these four books shows the same watermark as all the pages of all the rest of the New Testament. This is the watermark: “Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah.” According to the four Gospels, that truth is unshakably firm. They tell about him as the Messiah promised to the fathers and awaited since the fathers.
Exodus is an entirely different book than Genesis. We discover this not only after we have taken the trouble to become thoroughly familiar with its contents; we see it immediately when we compare the structure of Exodus with the structure of Genesis. Exodus is arranged differently. It does not contain anything like the division into the ten toledoth that we find in Genesis. In this regard it looks a lot more like Leviticus and Numbers, which are books with similar content.
Opening the Scriptures is not a new series of technical commentaries that explain the Bible word for word, although this series of volumes does rest upon careful exegesis. Nor is it a collection of sermons, although now and then the authors shine the light of Scripture on our modern world. Actually, there is no familiar category of Bible studies that serves as a suitable classification for Opening the Scriptures. This series has a unique character. It offers devout church members a series of popularly accessible primers, with no display of scholarly expertise, so that the average churchgoer can easily grasp them.