Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the book of Leviticus
L. Michael Morales
(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2015, 347pp.)

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord (WSA) is a compelling study that explains the significance of the book of Leviticus and does so with a view to the theme of God’s dwelling with His people. L. Michael Morales moves from Eden, to the tabernacle, to Zion’s temple, and finally to Christ and the Spirit to demonstrate the overarching concern the book addresses: Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord (Ps. 15:1)?

Morales provides the thesis of his study in chapter 1, “The primary theme and theology of Leviticus (and of the Pentateuch as a whole) is YHWH’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine Presence” (23). The book is essential reading for pastors and theological students.

In chapter 1, Morales deals with the theological structure of the Pentateuch where he argues that Leviticus holds the central position. And of course, central to the book of Leviticus, is the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), which “makes possible life in the divine Presence” (31).

In chapter 2, Morales sets forth the larger narrative context of Leviticus, namely the book of Genesis with its emphasis on Eden as the dwelling place of God among men. (Readers will be helped with some prior understanding of the function of temples in the Bible, cf. for instance, G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, but even without such a background, Morales’ work will prove greatly beneficial as he painstakingly demonstrates the temple motif in Scripture.) That dwelling place was forfeit through Adam’s sin so God undertakes to bring about redemption to breach the chasm between the holy God and sinful man.
In chapter 3, the focus narrows as Morales considers returning to Eden with a consideration of Exodus as the narrative context of Leviticus.

Morales shows that the people of God are redeemed by the power of God with the specific purpose of worshiping God. Israel is brought to the Mountain of God (Sinai) and given detailed instruction through the mediator Moses on constructing the house of God so that man can dwell in the presence of God. The “return to Eden” theme is effectively summarized in the conclusion of chapter 3,

The maker of heaven earth, who had once walked among humanity in the mists of the olden days before the flood, returns once more – now – in history, through a covenant relationship with Israel mediated by Moses. When the glory of YHWH descends upon the tabernacle, therefore, a historic cataclysmic event takes place: the God of heaven in all his thunderous majesty has arrived – the Advent of YHWH – to dwell with his people on earth: Eden regained. (106)

Chapters 4-6 treat Leviticus specifically: chapter 4 is concerned with approaching the house of God (Lev. 1-10); chapter 5 deals with cleaning the house of God (Lev. 11-16); and chapter 6 focuses on meeting with God at the house of God (Lev. 17-27). In chapter 4, Morales notes the twofold significance of the tabernacle: the tabernacle is the dwelling of God and the tabernacle is also the way to God’s house (109). This twofold significance creates a tension at the end of Exodus which is resolved in Leviticus.

In Exodus 40:35, we read “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The dwelling place of God among men (Exod. 25:8; 29:45-46) has been realized, but no one (including Moses, the covenant mediator) is able to enter the tabernacle for the very reason that “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:35).

Because of man’s sinfulness, the dwelling place of God has not yet become the meeting place with God; hence the necessity of Leviticus with its emphasis upon sacrifice and priesthood as the means by which sinful man is able to ascend the mountain of the Lord. Morales writes, “While Exodus had closed with the inaccessibility of God in his dwelling, Leviticus opens with divine legislation aimed at allowing Israel to draw near, this approach through the sacrificial cultus” (124). There is a detailed description of the various sacrifices of Lev. 1-9 in chapter 4 which confirms Morales’ statement on p.124: “The way to God, then is through a bloody knife and a burning altar.”

With access to God provided through the bloody knife and burning altar, chapter 5 is concerned with the ongoing cleansing of the house of God. With the appearance of the “cultic bridge of communication between the sacred and the profane” (145) opened, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 shows that while that bridge of communication is open, there is also “the possibility of muddling the division between them” (145), hence the need for cultic cleansing. His discussion concerning Nadab and Abihu’s (145-151) sin is stimulating and compelling and necessary as it is a contextual key for a proper understanding of the day of atonement (see Lev. 16:1-2).

The importance of atonement is underscored when Morales writes in summary: “Atonement is at the heart of the Pentateuch, because atonement is the doorway to life with God” (184). In chapter 6, Morales highlights a consequence of the day of atonement: “Israel is now able to participate in God’s holiness – a prospect with a view to full and lasting communion with YHWH God” (186). Pastors will be helped by the discussion in chapter 6 on Israel’s call to holiness (Lev. 17-22) as this section of Leviticus oftentimes puzzles the new covenant people of God.

Chapter 7 is concerned with how “the cultic theology of Leviticus pervades and gets developed in the rest of the Old Testament” (221). Morales deals briefly with the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy in light of the preceding emphasis on the tabernacle in the book of Leviticus. He then moves to a discussion of Zion, the mountain of God as Israel’s inheritance and develops this theme and various subthemes through the history of Israel up to the exile and restoration. Morales’ treatment of the David material (230-236, “The temple: Zion as the city of David”), including the covenantal promise of 2 Samuel 7:11-4 and the ensuing discussion concerning kingship is most helpful.

Chapter 8 is a fitting capstone of the whole study and is concerned with “entering the heavenly house of God: from the earthly to the heavenly Mount Zion.” The focus here, of course, is on the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Morales introduces the discussion:

How does the Son make possible our entrance into the heavenly abode of God? the twofold answer, which will comprise the outline of this chapter, is that (1) Christ’s humanity must ascend into the heavenly reality, and (2) Christ’s Spirit must descend to earth, in order to unite us to him in that heavenly reality. (260)

In treating the incarnation, Morales applies the twofold significance of the tabernacle (from chapter 4, referenced above) to Christ: “Having taken our humanity upon himself, the Son became the new tabernacle, the Presence of God on earth veiled in flesh. He is in himself all that the temple signified: God’s house and the way into that house” (260).

In conclusion, it is difficult to capture the thrust of Morale’s work in a brief review. Suffice it to say, the book is excellent. It is exegetically sound, theologically satisfying, and pastorally practical. It also constantly affords hope: hope that in Christ, sinful men and women will ascend the mountain of the Lord and dwell in the presence of the true and living God. Toward the end of the book, Morales writes –

The fellowship with the Godhead we taste in the present age, through our union with Christ, must only be increased to the fullest measure and degree possible in the eschaton, when all flesh itself will be spiritual and, as it were, spiritized – when we will know beyond our present understanding the joys of divine hospitality, know that by the Spirit we dwell in the Son and through the Son in the Father, and that by the Spirit the Father and Son indeed dwell with us and sup with us. (305)

It is hoped that D.A. Carson is correct in the Editor’s Preface when he wrote: “I predict this volume will spawn some excellent sermon series on Leviticus” (8). God’s people desperately need the message of Leviticus.

(This review was published in the 2017 Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and used with permission. For more information about the Journal, go to Reformed Baptist Academic Press at www.rbap.net.)