Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

By Kenneth A. Matthews
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2009). 288 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 247-250

Kenneth A. Mathews is professor of OT at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. Before going to Beeson Divinity School in 1989, he taught at Criswell College and was an adjunct professor at Dallas Baptist University. He is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention. As an acknowledged expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, textual criticism, biblical Hebrew, and the literary study of the OT, Mathews co-authored The Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus Scroll (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1985) with David Noel Freedman. He also coauthored Foundations for Biblical Interpretation: A Complete Library of Tools and Resources (Baptist Sunday School Board, 1999) with David S. Dockery and Robert B. Sloan. Mathews serves as the associate general editor for the OT in the New American Commentary series for which he wrote the two Genesis volumes (Broadman & Holman, 1996, 2002).

Kent Hughes serves as the general editor for the Preaching the Word series of expository commentaries for both OT and NT. The series engages the biblical text as the authoritative Word of God. It provides readable expositions of the biblical text that include practical application. In the preface to this volume, Mathews observes that OT scholars tend to ignore the relationship of the text to the NT’s gospel (11). Throughout this volume on Leviticus, he carefully identifies and develops that relationship without ignoring the exegesis of the text within its own context. Students in Mathews’ doctor of ministry (D.Min.) seminars stimulated his enthusiasm for this commentary by agreeing that “if a person can preach from Leviticus effectively, a person can preach from anywhere in the Bible!” (13).

Leviticuspresents a section-by-section commentary that sometimes provides a verse-by-verse treatment. Mathews covers the twenty-seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus in twenty-three expositions. The first exposition poses an introduction focusing on only the first verse of the book (15-21). The next five expositions cover Leviticus 1–7 (23-72). From that point on, each chapter of Leviticus receives its own exposition with the exception of the twelfth exposition treating Leviticus 13:1–15:33 (123-32), the fifteenth exposition (Lev 18:1-30 and 20:1-27; 155-65), and the seventeenth exposition (Lev 21:1–22:33; 177-87). Also, the author first expounds Lev 23:1-3 (189-98), then handles 23:4-44 in a second message (199-208).

The endnotes (249-63) reveal Mathews’ careful exegesis and technical resources. He has not ignored any of the major commentaries or resources, but has paid closest attention to dependable evangelical commentators and scholars. The volume concludes with a “Scripture Index” (265-78), a “General Index” (279-83), and a very practical “Index of Sermon Illustrations” (284-87).

The author limits references to Hebrew in the body of his expositions, but will not shrink from using it when he deems it necessary (e.g., 29, 47, 62). Every page exudes his passion for preaching and his careful application of biblical truth to the modern hearer. The following examples demonstrate Mathews’ skill in bringing the text to bear on the hearer or reader:

The difference between unintentional and willful sins is not so much the sin per se but the attitude of the offender toward his sin (53).

Our sin cannot be satisfied by any act of penance, sincere or not (59).

[T]he trend toward casual dress and laid-back behavior in our culture has also left its mark on the perception of how to handle the “holy” (61).

The overarching lesson is the importance of proper worship in the presence of God made possible through the gracious relationship God has with his people (123).

To confuse or reject the Creator’s design is to deny the lordship of God (157).

Holy livingbefore God and honest living before our neighbors are the two pillars upon which the whole of God’s demands rest (167).

Mathews points out that the sabbaths in the Levitical system were not Israel’s to do with as they wished. The Lord established the sabbaths for Himself, not for the people. Thus Scripture rarely refers to them as “your sabbath(s)” (meaning Reviews 251 Israel’s), but overwhelming as “my sabbath(s)” (meaning the Lord’s). “The convocations were focused on the worship of God—they are his special times” (190).

When his exposition encounters problematic texts in Leviticus, Mathews does not ignore or skip over the interpretive issue—he tackles it directly and provides a coherent and biblically faithful conclusion. Examples of such treatments include the issue of the meaning of “cutting off” (69-70), the matter of Aaron’s silence after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu (96-97), the question regarding what God designed the levitical food laws to accomplish (103-7), and determining the meaning of “Azazel” in 16:8, 10 (138-39). The author also does not hesitate to explain (in simple terms) the occurrence of a sophisticated wordplay in Lev 7:35 (71) or a sound play in 9:24 (90-91). Repeatedly, Mathews takes note of significant aspects of teachings in Leviticus that many commentators ignore—e.g., the significance of the eighth day in Levitical law and the NT (84).

Although the volume appears to be relatively free of typos and other kinds of mistakes, there is one instance of mentioning “five special items” (76) with only four being identified (76-77). Matters of questionable or incomplete interpretation occur, but rarely. In his treatment of the purpose for the dietary laws, Mathews mentions the clean and unclean categories of animals in the time of Noah. He indicates that such an early classification must be due to “an intuitive awareness of what was appropriate for an offering presented to the Lord” (104). He fails to discuss the possibility that the categories of animals came through divine revelation either to Noah or to earlier generations.

Another issue arises in the author’s discussion of the uncleanness or impurity of a woman after childbirth (114-16). Mathews contends that the issue involves the concept of perfection (114). It appears that he has not taken into account adequately that the same birthing conditions would have existed even in the woman’s perfect, unfallen state. Multiplying and populating the earth must include giving birth as the divine means. How then could bearing children “reflect an unusual condition, not her typical healthy, whole state” (115)?

Limiting the function of the Urim and Thummim to answering mere yes/no questions (137) skips over a text like Judg 20:28 that seems to indicate a more detailed response from God. Actually, no one knows for certain how the Urim and Thummim were employed. God may have granted a detailed answer to a particular question in recognition of the Urim and Thummim’s presence, rather than by using them like common lots.

Bible expositors will benefit greatly from this commentary. Pastors and teachers alike should place it on study shelves where they keep their most valued resources at hand—right alongside Allen P. Ross’s Holiness to the LORD: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Baker, 2002), Mark Rooker’s Leviticus (NAC, Broadman & Holman, 2000), and Gordon J. Wenham’s The Book of Leviticus (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1979).