Mark Scarlata’s A Journey through the World of Leviticus: Holiness, Sacrifice, and the Rock Badger is a compact guide to some core principles for understanding the Book of Leviticus. He addresses important themes like holiness, sacrifice, and purity that have often been misunderstood or reduced to overly simplistic glosses. This book, intended to be a “theological travel log” and “lay book on Leviticus,” is an excellent entrée into an overlooked and underappreciated book of the Bible.
Drawing upon the work of Jacob Milgrom, Ellen Davis, Dru Johnson, Mary Douglas, Matthew Thiessen, and others, the author explains the significance of the text for both its original and contemporary audiences. He identifies striking point after striking point on topics such as the classifications of clean/unclean and pure/impure the materiality of sin, Jesus’ power to abolish impurity, and Christ’s seemingly scandalous invitation to drink His blood (and sacrificial blood at that!). His analogy, in chapter three, of the tabernacle as a nuclear power plant is also ingenious. Such a picture conveys God’s holiness as raw energy that offers blessing when approached properly but danger when approached improperly. There is also an excellent application of the dietary laws, which should remind us to submit all of our appetites to God’s authority.
One subject of contemporary relevance that resonated with me was Scarlata’s discussion on the Sabbath. He makes no calls for Christians to observe a sacred day. Instead, he urges us to take a rest from the distractions of technology and media. He keenly observes, “We no longer give ourselves the space to reflect or to think long and deep on subjects without being distracted” (91). This is one of many helpful observations found throughout this book.
My assorted constructive criticisms and questions are as follows. I’m not sure why the priest, in Scarlata’s fictional narrative depicting the purification offering, slaughters the animal in light of Leviticus 4:29, which seems to depict the offerer carrying out this task (25–26). More importantly, Scarlata contends that God’s wrath was not a factor in the atonement equation (32–34). But God’s wrath is not merely emotion; it’s better understood as a “settled opposition of his holiness to evil” (Treier and Elwell, 955). Nadab and Abihu present a prime example of this, but Scarlata claims that God’s judgment of Nadab and Abihu does not focus on God’s wrath. I also found the argument, in chapter three, for a link between the tabernacle and Eden speculative and tenuous, but it did pique my interest in the question (40–42). And, to me, it felt a little hokey to read about the supposed sacredness of “cathedrals, or places marked by the lives of saints” (58).
This book is thought-provoking and engaging. It points us towards Leviticus to recognize that God is holy and God wants His people to be holy. Any pastor or student interested in the world of Leviticus would benefit from this book, but the primary audience is a lay audience. It would make for a great little paperback a small group could read and then meet to discuss. At the back of the book, you’ll even find five solid discussion questions for each of the book’s eight chapters.
Note: If you want to hear Mark Scarlata discuss his own book, I recommend his interview on this episode of OnScript. Listening to him speak about Leviticus is what prompted me to seek out a copy of this excellent book!
Special thanks to Cascade Books for a review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts in any way so far as I know.