Book Reviews

Book Review: Leviticus (SGBC), Jerry Shepherd

I’m always interested in academic application commentaries on Leviticus. There aren’t very many of them (this volume and Gane’s NIVAC volume spring to mind). Since they are so few I try to get them when I can. Leviticus is already not an easy book to understand on the surface. After you understand it’s theology, what are the connections to Jesus, the NT, and for the modern Christian? Jerry Shepherd, associate professor of Old Testament at Taylor Seminary, hit the mark with his connections from Leviticus to NT interpretation and then to modern day theology.


Regarding the introduction, Shepherd writes that he does believe there are different strands of sources running through the five book of Moses, though he doesn’t explicitly state if he believes these strands are JEDP (and H), how many there actually are, etc. Rather, he believes there were sources and editing that happened. Yet his specific beliefs on that point don’t make a difference to his interpretation. Shepherd writes that he is “convinced that these different sources actually existed and that an editor or editors took these different sources and skillfully wove them together into a narrative whole” (5). The passage in 2 Timothy 3:16 about the Scriptures being inspired by God speaks of the words of Scripture themselves. This allows there to have been both an original author (or authors) and editors (6). Shepherd interprets the final form of Leviticus that we hold in our hands, not some shaky, unknown pre-history behind the text.

The book of Leviticus was not for the priests and Levites alone to know. Being written for the people, Israel was to at least be aware of this information to understand the rituals as well as to hold the priests accountable for performing those rituals correctly before a holy God. This was important because, as Shepherd writes, “Their lives depended on it” (9).

In regards to style, Leviticus is fairly un-ornate and repetitive. So, boring. There are no aesthetics or literary artistry at the level of individual sentences. But at the macro-level, there are times when a word appears exactly seven times within a passage or that certain rituals consist of seven ritual acts/instructions. Sometimes a section can be divided into seven smaller sections (such as the curses of Lev 26:14-45). Leviticus also employs inclusio (or “bookends;” e.g., Lev 1-3 and 27 as presenting voluntary offerings) and chiasms (Lev 25-27) to make its points clearly.


In the event of Nadab, Abihu, and their use of “unauthorized fire” which resulted in their deaths (Lev 10), Shepherd suggests five different options on what the “strange fire” was. He leans toward this term referring to fire “taken from a place other than the fire that is already lit on the altar of burnt offering” and/or “incense that has not been made according to the prescribed formula” (144).

What is perhaps even stranger is that Aaron’s remaining sons were not allowed to participate in the customary mourning rites for Nadab and Abihu. (Lev 21 already didn’t allow the high priest to mourn over the deaths of close family members, but normal priests could.) By using Ezekiel 24:15-24 as a reference, Shepherd observes that both the high priest and the normal priests was to be “imitatio Dei, an imitation of the deity” (146). The priests physically mirrored the character and actions of God. To display any outward emotions or actions of mourning could have indicated that they disagreed with what God had done.

He offers a possible chronology of actions by the priest in Leviticus 16, and helpfully explains how the term ‘aza’zel likely refers to a “wilderness-dwelling supernatural being,” a demon or sorts. The first goat is for the Lord, and the second goat is for ‘aza’zel. Why would a goat be sent to a demon? Shepherd writes,

“[T]he live [is] goat bearing the impurities and sins of the Israelites back to where they came from in the first place. Azazel is not being presented an offering, rather, he is being forced to receive back the impurities and sins for which he himself was responsible, reaping what he has sown. (213)

Shepherd connects the Day of Atonement with Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 3 and 13–14. As well, he connects this day to Jesus and his baptism and his time in the wilderness when he met Satan. On top of that, he shows a bit about how the book of Hebrews pulls heavily from the Day of Atonement to show what Jesus accomplished through his death outside the camp.

Shepherd doesn’t tone down the law. He emphasizes its importance in the lives of Christians. In the NT, Paul doesn’t say that we need the gospel, not the law. They serve two different purposes. He notes, “The gospel is the god news of redemption in Christ Jesus. The law, on the other hand, is the precious gift of God to assist the Christian in the process of sanctification and conforming to the image of Christ” (245). Shepherd does acknowledge that there are laws we don’t keep today, such as the ritual laws dealing with sacrifices and the tabernacle. But, looking at how Jesus interprets the law, the laws should have an even great effect on Christians today.

Shepherd is clear about what Leviticus 18 and 20 state about homosexuality (that is it a sin), and he believes it is a “condemnable act of… malpractice” when pastors say that God approves of someone’s homosexual behavior (248). 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is clear (as are Rom 1:24-27 and 1 Tim 1:3-11).

Shepherd believes capital punishment should still be enforced, although he does acknowledge “contextual considerations that must be taken into account,” dealing with injustice, prejudice, and wrongful convictions. While the church doesn’t carry out capital punishment, it should not “denigrate the right of the state to do so” (271). This will sound offensive to some, but he notes places where Jesus agreed with capital punishment. The church is not a political entity. The church excommunicates those who don’t repent of their sin (329). Just as Aaron and his sons were in solidarity with God about the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, so the church “should not be seen as in some way objecting to the righteous judgment of the Lord against the excommunication” (329). This kind of discussion doesn’t take up the whole of the book, but it is helpful for conversation when it comes up.


There is only so much I can cover in a single review. Shepherd’s handling of Leviticus 25-27, especially the application and contextual sections, was really interesting. Leviticus is a text embedded in an ancient Near Eastern culture, and the Lord dealt with Israel as the ANE people that they were. At the same time, God’s word is eternal (Ps 119:89). It takes work to discern how this text applies to Christians in different cultural contexts today. Shepherd’s commentary succeeds at showing the main idea of each chapter and section and of showing how even a book like Leviticus can be applicable to Christians today.

In a work like this, not every stone can be turned. For further study, pair Shepherd’s work with folks like Sklar (TOTC, ZECOT forthcoming), Gane (NIVAC), Wenham (NICOT), and Richard Averbeck’s book on the OT law and the life of the church. Jesus fulfilled the law, but he didn’t abolish it. Leviticus is the centerpiece of the Pentateuch, and God’s law/commands/instructions cover a large part of four of the first five books of the Bible. We need to have a handle on how to read, understand, and live out these texts. Shepherd gives us a proper foothold on which to walk and understand Leviticus.


    • Series: The Story of God Bible Commentary
    • Author: Jerry E. Shepherd
    • Hardcover: 416 pages
    • Publisher:Zondervan Academic (July 6, 2021)

Buy it on Amazon or from Zondervan Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from Zondervan Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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