Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven teaches us that "sometimes words have two meanings." Never has this been more true than in the book of Leviticus.
Depending on your point of view, Leviticus paints a picture of a God who is primarily concerned with either
Pretty big difference, right? Whether Leviticus is focused on institutions here or individuals hereafter majorly changes what people believe the book is saying about God. Holiness, sin, uncleanness, abomination, redemption, even life—the words may all look the same in every tradition, but they don't always mean the same thing.
The roots of these two different approaches lie in the struggle to figure out how Leviticus can be relevant to today. And not just today today, but the rapidly modernizing ancient world.
Setting the pace for the community-based interpretation is a 5th-century CE collection of reflections on Leviticus in the Talmud, an authoritative collection of early rabbinical commentaries. The name of this collection is—wait for it—Leviticus Rabbah (source).
According to Leviticus Rabbah, Leviticus was designed to provide an instruction manual for Jewish communities not just in the time of Moses, but throughout history (source).
How does the book accomplish this massive feat? By working on two levels.
(1) The laws have a literal meaning, which the Israelites followed centuries earlier.
(2) But the laws also functioned as timeless metaphors and analogies adaptable to "modern" Jewish life. Even though the Romans and the Canaanites were long gone, Jews could use Leviticus to learn how to strengthen their communal bonds through mutual aid and distinguish themselves from other dominant communities (like Romans and Christians).
Another ancient commentator just a couple centuries before Leviticus Rabbah provides the model for interpreting the book as a spiritual allegory for personal salvation. The writer is a Christian theologian named Origen, and he, too, gives a series of sermons riffing on the text.
Origen is the Leviticus Everyman. He observes:
[P]rovide someone with a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices! (Source.)
Let all the people say Amen.
Origen gets around this problem by finding another layer of hidden meaning besides literal and moral interpretations. The book's spiritual meaning enables it to go beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community it originally served. Instead, Leviticus becomes a divinely inspired prophetic revelation of the sacrifice of Christ and the redemption of believers.
Whatever side you take—or don't take—one thing's for sure: Leviticus is ripe for interpretation.