The book of Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle. Many people reading through the Bible find the chapters-long details of the tent of meeting’s specs exhausting. But it’s only a preamble to the even more demanding book of Leviticus—the book that’s possibly responsible for more failed reading through the Bible attempts than any other.
Let’s be fair, it’s difficult to stay engaged let alone interested in, the details of the tabernacle’s construction in Exodus and the long chapters of ritual cleanliness in Leviticus when those places and practices are so far removed from us. We struggle to understand their present-day value to our Christian living. The easiest (and most common) solution is to chuck it all into a box labeled “things Jesus made obsolete” and get on with our lives.
But the arduous reading that is the second half of the Pentateuch equips us to read and understand the dense treatise that is the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. The anonymously authored book expects a lot of its readers—especially that we’ve read the Old Testament and have its contents firmly planted in our brains.
The opening chapters are filled with allusions to and quotes of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews wants the reader to see the book as a reflection on the foundational principles of Israel filtered through Jesus. And the theme is simple: Jesus is the better version of everything that came before.
In one sense, Hebrews helps us feel better about putting the weird sections of the Old Testament into the box of obsolete things. After all, we think, if Jesus is the better version of everything that the laws of Israel were meant to accomplish, do we really need to pay attention to it?
Yes. Yes, we do.
The question that the author of Hebrews sets up in the early chapters (how can we be sure to enter the rest that God’s offering his people) is essentially the same question that the end of Exodus asks. God intended his tabernacle to be the place where heaven and earth met—it was a recreation of the Garden of Eden, featuring all kinds of symbolism drawing the people of Israel back to the space that Adam left.
God gave the instructions for its construction and every last one was carried out to the letter (ever wonder why there’s a doubling-up on the passages describing the tabernacle?). So the big question at the end of Exodus is how? How does Israel get back into Eden? How do they enter the tabernacle? How do they return to God’s special presence?
The book of Leviticus answers that question. All of the sacrifices and stipulations for ceremonial sanctification map the pathway back into the presence of God. The book offers us hope: God’s people can return to his presence. But it also shows us a staggering reality: Admission is very very steep. The burdensome price of blood and cleanliness quickly weighs on the hearts and minds of Israel, and by the time of Jesus’s first advent, have nearly overwhelmed the people of God.
Jesus came to lift that burden, and that’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews sets out to demonstrate. The question that we as readers of the text should be asking by the end of Hebrews chapter four is also how? How do we enter the rest that God offers? How do we reenter an Eden that’s been locked for millennia?
The answer to the question involves a journey through Leviticus, but this time with Jesus in the picture. In chapters 5–7, Hebrews shows us how Jesus transcends the Levitical priesthood. Where Leviticus set up priests who had to purify themselves before they could purify God’s people, Hebrew gives us a priest who doesnt need to be cleansed at all. He purifies his people permanently because he himself is permanently pure.
The author of Hebrews continues the argument in chapters 8–10, showing how the covenant of holiness that Jesus makes is better than the one that Leviticus laid out. And just in case that connection wasn’t clear, chapter nine walks through the various rituals and proscriptions in holiness code that Jesus undoes. He undoes them by skipping the Eden stand-in of the tabernacle and goes directly to the Father’s presence in heaven to offer atonement once and for all.
Hebrews is a dense book for even the most astute readers of the Bible. But for those who’ve gritted their teeth and done the hard work of reading and connecting the books of Exodus and Leviticus together, Hebrews unlocks just a tiny bit more. The argument in Exodus and Leviticus was simply that humans could reenter God’s presence in costly fashion. The argument of Hebrews is that Jesus paid that high cost and more.
Now each of those whom Jesus claims as his has access to Eden free of charge. They’ve been purified, sanctified, and exalted to join Jesus at the foot of the Father’s throne. There they’ll find only friendship—for the old system, effective though it was, has been replaced. Jesus has come.