Learning From Leviticus - No. 1

God has spoken that we might believe, and that believing we might see. Our image-driven culture in the West operates as the Chinese proverb recommends: “Hearing about something a hundred times is not as good as seeing it once.” We often say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We typically give priority to seeing over hearing. Home video cameras, I-phone cameras, and surveillance cameras have caught events serendipitously and broadcasted them as part of our “reality” culture. Perhaps we are caught off guard by the Bible’s picture of God who speaks before he shows himself. At creation God spoke the worlds into existence, and at Sinai the Lord created the nation Israel by his commanding word (Genesis1; Exodus 20). The New Testament tells us that faith comes from hearing, and this hearing fosters belief in those things not seen (Romans 10:14-17; Hebrews 11:1). Jesus commended those who had heard and believed in his resurrection, though they had not seen him. “Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:9).

Leviticus begins in the same manner, giving priority to the word of the Lord (1:1). The book continues the prior account in Exodus 40:34, 35 that describes the completion of the Tent of Meeting at Mount Sinai. Leviticus begins with God summoning Moses to hear his word spoken “from the tent of meeting” (Tabernacle). What the Lord created at Sinai was a nation, formed by a covenant relationship of trust, and the manufactured home in their midst for his dwelling place – that is, “the tent of meeting.” In a word he established a relationship with the slaves who had been incarcerated in Egypt. This relationship was based on the redemption he achieved on their behalf by the blood of the Passover lamb. Salvation came before relationship. At the Red Sea the Lord liberated his people from Egypt’s armies.

“The tent of meeting” was a portable tent. It was the transient epicenter of the world in the eyes of Israel. A movable ground zero, so to speak, so that the focus of Israel’s attention was always directed toward the tabernacle that was at the center of their lives wherever they moved about. American life once made the fireplace or hearth the vital center of family life where meals were prepared and where the family enjoyed its light and warmth. Now living areas in our home have the entertainment center as the focal point. The hub of ancient Israel’s national life was the tabernacle, the visual reminder of God’s presence. It was the vital center of Israel’s experience and identity.

Before the people departed for their promised homeland in Palestine (ancient Canaan), the Lord spoke from the tent. The Book of Leviticus is essentially the message that God spoke to his people at that time in preparation for their departure. The teaching of Leviticus was both revelatory and regulatory. This message revealed more about their God and also regulated the relationship that he had established with them at the exodus. Repeatedly in Leviticus we are told the Lord “spoke to [Moses]” (l:1). Moses was the mediator of God’s word to his people. Unlike any other person, the Lord met with Moses.” “With [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:9). At Sinai the mount was enveloped by a cloud that was identified as “the glory of the Lord” from which the Lord spoke to Moses. The language that begins the book is an exact echo of God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai in Exodus 24:16: “The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” Moses actually entered into the cloud on top of the mountain and remained there for forty days and nights (Exodus 14:18).

Although the people saw “the glory of the Lord,” it was not a cloud of benevolent revelation for them. “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (Exodus 24:17). In fear they distanced themselves from the mountain (Exodus 24:17, 18). In the book of Leviticus we discover that the people, however, gladly saw “the glory of the Lord” after the priests prepared the way by instituting the first sacrifices in the tabernacle: “And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it they shouted and fell on their faces” (9:23, 24).

God has spoken that we might believe, and that believing we might see.