If you have ever tried to read through the Bible in a year before, then you know that coming to Leviticus is like hitting “The Wall.” Many eager Christians have started on New Year’s resolutions determined to read through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Things start out well since Genesis is a fascinating story from beginning to end. The beginning of Exodus is equally exciting as we watch Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh. Things get a little cumbersome at the back end of Exodus when we start reading about the details of the Tabernacle, but the momentum of the previous readings is still carrying us along. Then it happens…WHAM! We crash head first into Leviticus! With the exception of one interesting story about Aaron’s sons getting toasted in the middle of the book, Leviticus is just one detailed Law after another. How many times can you read about burning the fat attached to a kidney before your eyes start glazing over?
Granted, Leviticus is a tough book to read, but don’t give up. There is a lot of really interesting stuff after Leviticus. However, we should not be too quick to dismiss Leviticus as a worthless drudgery. Given the right perspective and understanding of the context of this book, reading Leviticus can be a life changing experience.
This video from The Bible Project summarizes Leviticus well.
Leviticus is best thought of as “A Handbook for How Unholy People Can Approach a Holy God.” The children of Israel were a wily bunch, still in the infancy of their spiritual development. They had just crawled out of the pit of slavery in a pagan nation. God needed to establish, in concrete terms, the purity of His holiness, the extent of man’s bondage to sin and death, and the means for reconciliation between the holy creator and the defiled creation.
Leviticus can be divided into two major sections:
Sacrifice: The Key to Connecting Unholy People to a Holy God Leviticus 1-10
Civil Law: The Key to Connecting Unholy People in Holy Community Leviticus 11-27
Part 1: Sacrifice
In part one we read detailed instructions on how the priests were to perform the five major types of sacrifice: Burnt, Grain, Fellowship, Sin, and Guilt. Notice on the chart how these five categories can be divided into the vertical relationship between man and God, and the horizontal relationship between man and man.
Important Note regarding the blood and guts of sacrifice: To our highly sanitized, freeze dried, vacuum sealed lifestyles, the blood bath of levitical sacrifices seems little better than a cheap horror flick. How could it possibly be of God? There are three important things to keep in mind when reading about the sacrifices.
- In the ancient world the people butchered animals all the time. If you wanted a nice steak dinner you didn’t drive down to the Outback Steak House and make your order. You had to go out back, catch the cow, slit its throat, drain out the blood, cut it open, rip out its guts, skin it, chop up the meat, cut off the fat, then roast it. By the time you were done you were a bloody mess, elbow deep in putrosity. To those people it wasn’t disgusting; it was just part of life.
- In the ancient world talking about animals and grain was equivalent to the modern man discussing dollars and cents. In our culture, unless you are a farmer, we are far removed from the reality of crops and livestock. We deal in currency that represents actual goods. In fact, we are quickly becoming even further removed from reality in that we no longer even touch actual currency. Today we just press a virtual button on a computer screen and transfer money through light beams carried on fiber optic cable to pay for something, like a service, that we never actually touch. In the ancient world they didn’t deal with currency. They dealt with cows, goats, sheep, and grain.
- In light of number two we can make the real application point for the first section of Leviticus. When an ancient man burnt up the best cow in his herd it was like a man today taking the first $1000 of his income, piling it in $20 dollar bills on top of the grill, and lighting it on fire. How would you feel as you watched the smoke and ashes of that hard-earned money rise up to the sky? That’s the point. When God asked for sacrifice He was asking for His people to bring the BEST of what they EARNED and burn it up as a demonstration of faith and devotion to God as their provider.
Two Kinds of Sacrifice
Loving God: Sacrifice to heal the broken relationship between God and man.
The first type of sacrifice was the burnt offering. This offering was designed to atone for the sin of the person. The fire would completely consume the animal, and its blood was sprinkled on the sides of the altar. The flames of the altar were to never stop burning.
Notice that this sacrifice is set apart from the other four. The Burnt offering atoned for the sins. On this side of the cross we realize that Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross was the once-for-all sacrifice that healed the rift between God and Man. The eternal flames of the altar are burning in the Spirit of God as the Sacrifice of Jesus is an eternal sacrifice. We no longer have to make that sacrifice and bring something to the altar to receive salvation.
However, the other four types of sacrifice still exist. Don’t misunderstand. I am not referring to the specific ritual of the Tabernacle and the Levitical priests. I am referring to the spirit of the sacrifices and the vertical and horizontal orientation of the sacrifices.
Loving God sacrifices.
There are two types of offerings that God requires of His people. The Grain Offering represents the firstfruits. When the people would bring in a harvest they were to bring the first portion of that income to the tabernacle. A portion of it was burned and the remainder was used to feed the priests. God still asks His people to bring the firstfruits of their income to their place of worship. We call this the tithe, or 10%. From the tithe the needs of the community and the spiritual leadership can be met. The tithe demonstrates a trust in God as the ultimate provider.
The Fellowship Offering was an opportunity to go above and beyond the tithe and show to God how much He is loved. The fellowship offering was like having a dinner party with God. Because we love Him, we want to share what we have with Him.
Loving Others: Sacrifices to heal the broken relationship between people.
The two remaining sacrifices have to do with human relationships. When we sin against each other we must sacrifice our own pride and confess our sins to each other and be reconciled. When we take something from another, then we need to make restitution and repay the offended party with more than we took. These offerings remind us that if the church is going to be a whole and holy community it will require self-sacrifice to achieve that end.
Part 2: Civil Law
The key phrase to the second half of Leviticus is “Be Holy.” As human beings we are born into this world completely self-absorbed, focused on self-preservation. If we were left to our own devices the world would be a very scary place. People would be fighting over property, spreading diseases, stealing food, killing to get what they want. Hey, that’s sound like our world today! If our world, which is full of laws, is struggling to not annihilate itself, can you imagine what a completely lawless world would be like?
God established the detailed laws of personal cleanliness, sanitation, property rights, and sexuality in Leviticus not because He really enjoyed watching His people suffer under the burden of the Law. No. God gave them civil laws because He loved them. He knew that without these laws the people of Israel would kill themselves off in a matter of weeks. They would be sexually promiscuous (because every culture at that time associated sexual activity with the worship of the fertility gods), get infectious diseases, spread those diseases among innocent people and children, and wipe out the nation. God put hard and safe boundaries around His children to keep them from being infected both spiritually and physically.
Here are two things to keep in mind when you begin reading the laws about human interaction.
1. It was always about worship. The laws about uncleanness were designed, first and foremost, to protect the Tabernacle. God could not allow anything unclean to come into the Tabernacle. Why? Was it because He was harsh and not compassionate toward hurting people? Just the opposite. God rigidly protected the sanctity and purity of the Tabernacle because He was teaching the people, and us, that keeping the worship of God exalted to the highest priority and center of our lives is the ONLY way that we will be healthy. The worship of God is not just a fun option for religious people to do on a free Sunday. God is our source of life. Relationship with him is the core of our existence. If we do not hold that relationship in the highest regard and “guard our heart” then we will be cut off from the flow of life and will begin to be infected by all sorts of maladies both spiritually and physically. Simply put, it’s the overflow principle. If we want to have holy and healthy relationships then we need to start with a holy and healthy relationship with God. If that is in place, then our human relationship will flow naturally.
2. When sin and infection (which in the Hebrew mind were viewed as one in the same) entered the camp it had to be isolated. The most compassionate thing the priests could do to an infected person was to send them outside the camp into isolation. There they could heal, and there they would be guarded from infecting the rest of the community.
As you look at the chart, notice all the areas that God was concerned with in the lives of His people. God cares about our lives, every little detail. He wants us to be holy and healthy. Knowing that we, under the New Testament, are not bound by the details of the Law, still pay attention to the spirit and motivation of the laws that you read this week. Ask God to expose you to places in your heart that are infected, that need a time of isolation, healing, cleansing, and reconciliation to Him and to the community.