Review: Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (NSBT) by L. Michael Morales
Leviticus is a difficult book. The Levitical land is littered with detailed and verbose laws concerning cleanliness and uncleanliness, priestly garments, proper and improper food, bodily discharges, and the proper way to kill an animal. What’s more, scattered across the landscape are bodies of well meaning poor souls who resolved to read the Bible in a year. As difficult as the Bible can be at times, I am a firm believer that the books that demand a little more patience and hard work from their readers are always rewarding. Such is the case with Leviticus, a book that – along with 1 Maccabees – is often the punchline response to, “hey, what are you preaching from this Sunday?”. However, as with many foreign lands, Leviticus is in fact a rich and beautiful place once you begin to understand the accent and customs. L. Michael Morales has journeyed long in Leviticus and lived to tell the tale, and he has written a guide for us interested travelers through this treacherous terrain. This book is Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (hereafter Who Shall Ascend) in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series; a series that is as excellent as its covers are bland.
As is the case with other Bible books in the NSBT series, Who Shall Ascend is not a commentary on Leviticus per se, but rather a “theological entry into Leviticus in the context of both the Pentateuch and the New Testament” (p9). As such, more space is in fact devoted to Leviticus’ placement and impact in the canon (ca. 180 pages) than walking through Leviticus itself (ca. 100 pages)! Though I was first suspicious when perusing the table of contents, I now see the error of my ways. By concentrating on the context around Leviticus, Morales strikingly reveals it to be a theologically foundational book to the message of the Bible. Indeed, as D. A. Carson reflects in the preface, “[Who Shall Ascend] promises to give us not only a theology of Leviticus, but also a richer theology of the Pentateuch and finally of the whole Bible” (p8) or in Morales’ words, “[our] understanding of Leviticus is foundational for grasping the story of the Bible in its depth and beauty” (p9).
The structure of Who Shall Ascend is simple enough. In Chapter 1, Morales finds Leviticus’ place within the Pentateuch, arguing provocatively that Leviticus is not merely the middle book of the Pentateuch, but that Leviticus is the very centre of the Pentateuch; “the very heart of the Pentateuch’s narrative” (p27). What’s more, the Day of Atonement (chapter 16) is “the book’s literary centre” (p27), and thus the very apex of the Torah, as without atonement, entrance into Yhwh’s presence is impossible. Next, Morales establishes Leviticus’ narrative context by tracing the theme of God’s dwelling in Genesis (chapter 2) and Exodus (chapter 3). Far from a appetiser preparing the way for the Levitical meat (lamb, of course), the chapters on Genesis and Exodus are a hearty meal in themselves. Whereas, Genesis is seen to tell a story of journey from “fullness of life to death”, and “alienation from the Presence of God” (p74), Exodus records Yhwh’s redemption of Israel from a place of death to a place of life, achieved through His very Edenic presence in the tabernacle.
Next, Leviticus is divided into three chunks that represent key narrative stages in the unfolding of its theology: Leviticus 1-10 (chapter 4), Leviticus 11-16 (chapter 5), and Leviticus 17-27 (chapter 6). Leviticus 1-10 is seen as the “dramatic resolution” (p113) to Moses’ inability to enter the tabernacle in Ex 40:34-35. If Israel’s mediator cannot enter Yhwh’s presence, then what can be done to turn His dwelling place to a meeting place? Following the commands given in Lev 1-10 opens the way to experiencing Yhwh’s Sinai presence in the climactic Leviticus 9:23-24. Unfortunately, Nadab and Abihu reverse the climax of chapter 9 by defiling the tabernacle in chapter 10. Leviticus 11-16 then answer this crisis through providing the answer to two relevant questions: 1) how can the sanctuary be cleansed and 2) how near may one approach Yhwh’s presence. Leviticus 17-27 further develop the response to Nadab and Abihu’s sin, recognizing the limitations of the ritual system and that “authentic holiness” is the only “lasting safeguard” in the presence of Yhwh (p186).
The next two chapters follow the reverberations of Leviticus in the remainder of the Old Testament (chapter 7) and then in the New (chapter 8). The Old Testament reflects the journey from Sinai to Zion and Israel’s expulsion from the latter. Hopes of return to Zion are presented as a return to Eden, where God will complete His plan to dwell unreservedly in a new heavens and earth. The New Testament chapter investigates the death, resurrection and ascent of Christ, as well as the descent of the Spirit, through the light of all that was seen in Leviticus, revealing that “[until] heaven descends to earth, [Jesus] has opened the way for earth to ascend into heaven” (p259).
Once in a while I will run into a book that feels like a revelation. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission (also in the NSBT series) was such a book; Who Shall Ascend is without a doubt another. Though the two overlap at a few points, both must be read. In fact, they could be seen as companion pieces. If Beale’s is about the dwelling place of God throughout Scripture, Morales is about what God has done to enable us to dwell with Him!
I had high expectations from a study of Leviticus and Morales did not disappoint! Every page is filled with multiple insights, some of them profoundly impacting. Morales revealed so many insights that it quickly became apparent that we all – scholars included! – have a deficient understanding (or none at all!) of Leviticus and its impact on the Bible’s theology.
One such eye-opener, though not stated directly in the book, was realizing the significance of our being raised with Christ (e.g. Col 3:1), the meaning of which having long eluded me. How can we be raised with Christ (Col 3), and yet we are waiting to be raised (Rom 6)? What does that even mean? The theology of Leviticus makes this clear. The Levitical High Priest would pass through the clouds into the Holy of Holies, “ascending to heaven” as it were, and, as their representative, bring the people of Israel into communion and worship in Yhwh’s presence. Jesus, our new High Priest, has done the same in His ascension (Dan 7)!
Though Morales is thoroughly scholarly and clearly an expert in Leviticus, he also writes with a devotional and pastoral heart, wanting Who Shall Ascend to cause “a renewed glorying in [one’s] heavenly access to the Father through the new and living way” (p9). This content just crying out to be preached. Yes, as sermons. Yes, at church! A cleansing and renewing soak in all the Scriptures is just what our church needs today.
The NSBT series is of very high quality – although several recent volumes were quite disappointing – but Who Shall Ascend sits alongside Dempster, Beale and Rosner as one of the absolute best (am I missing one?). Who Shall Ascend has the potential to revolutionise one’s reading of the Bible, and cause a hereto obscure book become understandable, even treasured. One can forgive Morales for pursuing a few (most interesting, some fascinating!) side-trails loosely related to his main points, as an excited tour guide is wont to do. At the risk of overstatement, Who Shall Ascend was so impacting that my reading of the Bible has been forever changed. Do yourself and Moses a favor and read this book; who knows, maybe next year we can survive the journey and bring others too!
Many thanks to IVP UK, and SPCK for providing a copy of this book for an unbiased review.