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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 272–273 

Book Review


Perry B. Yoder. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017. 343 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Epp-Tiessen

In keeping with the goal of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series to resource pastors and laypersons, Perry Yoder’s commentary makes a challenging biblical book understandable to persons open-minded enough to enter Leviticus’s world of sacrifice, ritual, holiness, and purity. Yoder has extensive experience teaching the Old Testament in both congregational and academic settings, spending the last twenty years of his teaching career at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, before retiring in 2005.

Yoder is to be commended for his sympathetic treatment of Leviticus, a book generally ignored or even spurned by most Christians, especially of the Protestant and Anabaptist variety. To most Christians the detailed prescriptions for sacrifices, for avoiding impurity, and for cleansing rituals, seem tedious: irrelevant at best and distractions from genuine Christianity at worst. Through his clear and sympathetic explanation of Leviticus and its basic concerns, Yoder invites Christians to take seriously what the book can offer to Christian faith.

According to Yoder the central concern of Leviticus is how God’s people can dwell in the presence of a holy God. The detailed laws of Leviticus are not given by a wrathful, judgmental God, but by a gracious God who has liberated Israel and has now chosen to reside in her midst. The book opens by describing voluntary sacrifices, whose purpose is not to bribe or appease an angry God but to express gratitude to a generous God in whom the worshipper delights. According to Leviticus, obedience to the law is not a means to earn divine favor but a joyous response to God’s liberation and sustaining presence.

Yoder offers an insightful explanation of atonement (288–94), a key term in Leviticus. He actually avoids the term in his comments because when used to translate the Hebrew word kipper it becomes an invitation for Christians to read later understandings of atonement into Leviticus and thereby distort the text. In Leviticus kipper simply means to render a person or object clean or pure. Atoning/cleansing rituals are necessary because purity is essential for living in the presence of a holy God.

Yoder provides a helpful analogy for understanding purity and impurity, one of the central concerns of Leviticus. A person who shows up at church with greasy hands has an impurity and may spread this impurity by touching objects or other persons. Such impurity is a problem that must be dealt with, but it is not sinful. The person may even have gotten grease on their hands by stopping on the way to church to help a stranded motorist. A cleaning manual might describe the steps one must take to rid one’s hands of grease. Leviticus likewise outlines the rituals that effectively remove various forms of impurity. {273}

Despite many positive features, the commentary could engage more deeply with important issues. Yoder reads the laws of Leviticus as if most ancient Israelites adhered to them, when there is much biblical evidence to the contrary. He does not discuss the fact that many of the laws are unworkable in a subsistence peasant society. Peasants were not likely to obey Leviticus 14:43–47 and destroy their stone houses just because of some persistent mold or mildew. A number of cleansing rituals must be performed at the central sanctuary, yet most Israelite peasants lived at too great a distance to make that realistic. Yoder helpfully recognizes the importance of leadership in a faith community, but does not acknowledge the abuses that are virtually inevitable when priests are given the level of power and privilege that Leviticus prescribes. The commentary does not engage gender issues or feminist scholarship, and so there is no discussion of how uncleanness impacts women more negatively than men, or that Leviticus calls for purely male leadership of Israel’s public religious life. Similarly, the bias in Leviticus against persons with disabilities is not named or challenged.

Because Yoder is unwilling to hitch his interpretation to any particular theory regarding the origins of Leviticus, he sets aside the common scholarly view that Leviticus was compiled by Jerusalem priests after the Babylonian Exile. Thereby he misses the opportunity to reflect on what the compilers of the book were seeking to accomplish. And some important issues are not discussed. How does the tabernacle, so central in Leviticus, relate to the Jerusalem temple? Why does Leviticus project late Jewish rituals and practices back into the Exodus experience? For example, some explanation would be welcome for why chapters 8–9 portray abundant animal sacrifices when there is little possibility that destitute escaped slaves in the Sinai Desert would have had such an abundance of livestock.

Because of Yoder’s admirably positive stance towards Leviticus, he minimizes the significant ways in which Jesus, Paul, and most of the early church set aside many of Leviticus’s prescriptions regarding food, animal sacrifices, priesthood, and purity. As a result, the reader does not learn why the church headed in some significantly different directions than Leviticus.

Dan Epp-Tiessen
Associate Professor of Bible
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB

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