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A Review of Commentaries on the Pentateuch. Volume 3: Leviticus

The publication of R. J. Rushdoony’s commentaries on the five books of Moses is no small matter.With the release in late 2005 of the third book in the series, Leviticus, we again find ourselves graced by the insights of the theologian who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, championed the relevance of the Law of God in the life of faithful Christians.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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The publication of R. J. Rushdoony’s commentaries on the five books of Moses is no small matter. With the release in late 2005 of the third book in the series, Leviticus, we again find ourselves graced by the insights of the theologian who, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, championed the relevance of the Law of God in the life of faithful Christians. With the scheduled publication of Numbers and Deuteronomy (both forthcoming), the reverent exposition and practical application of these neglected sections of Holy Writ will truly have reached a high point. As if complementing Spurgeon’s highly regarded work on the Psalms (The Treasury of David), Rushdoony’s five-volume masterpiece on the Pentateuch has, in effect, given us privileged access to the treasury of Moses. While it is difficult to single out any one aspect of Rushdoony’s voluminous output to represent the core of his life’s work, surely these five volumes stand alongside his Institutes of Biblical Law as supreme achievements, because both series cause oh-so-many scales to fall from our eyes as the Scriptures are opened to us.

In reference to unsaved Israelites, 2 Corinthians 3:15 informs us that “even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.” However, for the vast majority of Christians, it would be no exaggeration to say that even unto this day, when Moses is read, a glaze forms over our eyes. Just last month, I sat in on a class in which the instructor singled out Leviticus as an example of what turns people off when reading Scripture. The instructor justified his condescending impatience by citing a famous quote that “God is an uneven writer.” We were going to dutifully “plow through” this turgid, mind-numbing legalese quickly so we could get to the “good stuff,” the clear skies and pure waters of the New Testament.

That viewpoint appeared unassailable, so everyone agreed with it. My hand shot up. “With all due respect, our disdain for Leviticus says a lot more about us than it tells us about God’s holy Word,” I interjected. “That we’d be willing to justify neglect of what God says about holiness by exploiting a caricature of this sacred book doesn’t speak well for us.” Murmurs of assent rose from the room: Leviticus is no less the word of God than an epistle of Paul’s! What were we thinking when we chuckled oh-so-knowingly at those clever quips (which the instructor, to his credit, renounced)? (As an aside: when postmillennialism was declared “dead” in the last century, the critics meant that it was dead “insofar as it had no living voice to raise in its defense.” What a difference there can be when the truth has a living voice raised — humbly — in its defense.)

Thematically, Rushdoony’s Leviticus is the centerpiece of the 5-volume series. I’m tempted to say that it rescues the Biblical text from obscurity, but we must define terms here to be accurate. There are several reasons why the Book of Leviticus may seem obscure to us. First and foremost is our own dullness of hearing (which Hebrews 5:11 treats as moral failure on our part, since it is both preventable and remediable). In this sense, Rushdoony penetrates that obscurity with precision and simplicity. His expositions are both lucid and practical, causing our appreciation for this sacred text to grow as we realize how unwarranted its calculated neglect actually is. We come to realize how meaningful and important God’s revelation in Leviticus is for us today.

But obscurity can emanate from another quarter: the influence of faulty expositions of Leviticus. These inherited frameworks may involve the entire text of Leviticus, or a single chapter, or even a single verse. For example, Leviticus 19:19 has provided considerable debate: “Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.”  Prominent theologians have attempted to explain how this fits into the principle of obedience to the Mosaic Law, none with much success.1

For Rushdoony, however, Leviticus 19:19 is like a puzzle piece that fits perfectly and effortlessly in the middle of the puzzle. Critics have taken the piece back out, turned it at right angles or upside down, and then used sledgehammers to force the piece back in place.2

Of course, anyone dead-set on discrediting Dr. Rushdoony due to an existing bias would naturally beeline toward the “hot potato” texts, such as Leviticus 19:19 and Leviticus 11. And sadly, some quickly conclude, “What further need have we of witnesses?” (Mt. 26:65).  To adopt such an approach in advance of examining Rushdoony’s expositions is patent nonsense. To lose the concrete benefits of 95% of this commentary over the 5% that deal with matters of ongoing debate among theologians today would be criminal. We don’t see such supercilious gnat-straining in regard to The Expositor’s Bible of 1903, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, in which Samuel H. Kellogg’s highly regarded commentary on Leviticus appears. Perhaps the difference in reception stems from the fact that it wasn’t so controversial to regard God’s Law as relevant in 1903 as it is today.

Rushdoony launches his Leviticus commentary with an exposition of the prophecy of Zechariah 14:20-21. Every subsequent word in the commentary radiates from this key passage, which predicts the worldwide extension of the domain of holiness to every square inch of the earth, embracing even the most trivial aspects of existence (e.g., ornamental bells on horses). In this light, the contemporary relevance of Leviticus becomes exceedingly clear. Rushdoony unfolds the multi-faceted picture chapter by chapter, whereby we see the inestimable worth of the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.

Barely a chapter goes by that Rushdoony doesn’t expose pertinent examples of humanistic thinking opposed to the sacred text. He points out the supposed “conspicuous waste” represented by the sacrifices, duly calculated by a cynical lecturer in Berkeley, California with regard to destroyed food.3 “He spoke of this as an outrage: think of how many poor people could have been fed with this food!” Think also of the wasted productivity imposed by Sabbaths and Jubilees.4 But Rushdoony nails the core issue: “To regard the sacrifices of food and time as conspicuous waste is to think humanistically, to think without God… such ‘conspicuous waste’ is a recognition that it is not our doing and planning that prospers us, but God’s government.” Man cannot live by bread alone (Mt. 4:4) and cannot have life on his terms without disaster. “What appears to others to be conspicuous waste is in reality evidence of life and freedom. It means giving ourselves to life rather than to death. Where men withhold themselves from giving their time, money, goods, and selves to God in Christ, we have the clearest instances of conspicuous waste.”5

It is shocking to realize how aggressively the attack against the texts of Leviticus continues to be waged. Where the texts aren’t explicitly defied, Rushdoony illustrates how they’ve been artfully transposed into humanistic contexts. His observation that blasphemy is no longer taken seriously against God is instructive. Blasphemy is enjoying new vigor in our age of political correctness, as university thought police zealously pursue blasphemers based on new, rapidly evolving definitions and criteria.6

Concerning the social and economic implications of the Jubilee, Rushdoony notes that “the concern is holiness, not society’s goals. We must minister to men because God requires it for His Kingdom, not because men see it as a humanistic cause. The purpose is a holy community, not the kingdom of man. Hence we are told by Paul and the apostolic fellowship, ‘Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (Heb. 12:12-14).”7

Some scholars claim that Leviticus points to tribal land divisions in old Israel, and that such distinctions have long since expired, obliterating any legitimate venue for its diverse regulations. Rushdoony holds that while some statutes may have expired with old Israel, the remainder are upheld in light of Zechariah 14:20-21, in recognizable form. In favor of Rushdoony’s view, we could cite Isaiah 27:6, which prophesies that Israel shall bud and fill the face of the earth with fruit. Zion is transnational (Ps. 87), and Isaiah evidently regards the entire surface area of the earth to one day be, in a divinely appointed sense, Israel. Perhaps far from expiring, some of the Levitical regulations are intended to stretch over the earth as far as Israel will extend: namely, over all of it. If so, this powerful volume, so needful for the equipping of today’s serious Christian, may one day prove more relevant than any of us could have possibly imagined.

1. For example, as the controversy over theonomy developed into consecutive volleys between Reformed camps in the early 1990s, Leviticus 19:19 was singled out by Dr. Vern S. Poythress as “the test case” (see Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Effects of Interpretive Frameworks on the Application of Old Testament Law” in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, p. 110, as quoted in Gary North’s “The Hermeneutics of Leviticus 19:19 – Passing Dr. Poythress’ Test,” in Theonomy: An Informed Response, edited by Gary North, Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991, p. 256. Dr. North offered up 40 pages in reply concerning Leviticus 19:19 (North, pp. 255-294), seeking to explain why theonomists rejecting the validity of Leviticus 19:19 have not abandoned their core principle concerning Mosaic Law (in a phrase, mandatory unless modified in the NT, in contrast to the antinomian mantra, repealed unless repeated in the NT).  Dr. North has written thousands of essays that are clear and tightly argued.  This isn’t one of them. His elaborate hermeneutical roadmap (see North, pp. 292-294) reads like the logician’s old chestnut, “Why Fire Engines Are Red.” Next to North’s roadmap, Rushdoony’s exposition of Leviticus 19:19 is a model of laser beam clarity (see Rushdoony’s Commentary on Leviticus, pp. 227-230). Of course, Rushdoony’s allegedly naïve view is rejected by Poythress and North, but Poythress implicitly admits that Rushdoony’s position is (1) consistent and therefore (2) doesn’t require the kind of fancy footwork North feels obliged to choreograph (see North, p. 257).

2. About a week’s worth of sledgehammering, taking Dr. North at his word (see North, p. 293).

3. Rushdoony, p. 14.

4. Rushdoony, p. 15.

5. Rushdoony, p. 15.

6. Rushdoony, p. 338. Noteworthy in this connection is FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), a secular group in the frontlines of defending individuals against these newly defined “crimes of blasphemy.” See their website at to see how serious this trend has become.

7. Rushdoony, p. 354.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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