Learning From Leviticus - No. 2

“Whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4, (NKJ)

As we read Leviticus, a rather repellent portion of Scripture, one thing is soon evident: the reader is inundated with all sorts of sacrifices – burnt offerings, cereal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, trespass (reparation) offerings, voluntary offerings.

Except for the cereal offerings, these sacrifices demanded the blood of various innocent animals – bulls, calves, goats, lambs, and even birds for the poorest folks. This ritual grew to such dimensions that by the time of Jesus the temple precincts were so permeated by the stench from bloody altars and trenches that people must have turned away from all the slaughter in horror and disgust. Many must have wondered, why all the blood, and why must it be ongoing, decade after decade, and why can’t a merciful God expiate sins once for all? The modern reader may have like questions.

But even all this blood atoned only for unintentional sins or sins committed unwittingly in ignorance. The ceremonial laws were so detailed and exacting that no one could escape some infractions. The sacrificial system atoned for such sins, but not presumptuous sins, or violent sins such as murder and rape. These sins would likely exact the death penalty, but in any case they could not be expiated by the usual Levitical sin offerings.

The more serious sins had to wait the Day of Atonement, an annual observance, designed to forgive all sins, including the sins of the high priest himself, and the nation as a whole. On that day, the greatest in the ceremonial year, the high priest sacrificed a bull and sprinkled its blood on the mercy seat for his own sins and those of his family.

He then took two goats offered by the people, and sacrificed one of them, sprinkling its blood as he did that of the bull, for all the sins of the people. He placed both hands on the head of the other goat, and confessed “all the guilt of the Israelites, all their acts of rebellion and all their sins” (16:21). He then drove the goat out into the wilderness, bearing the people’s sins away, out where the demon Azazel dwelt. The high priest had to do this every year, “rolling forward,” as it were, the sins of the people.

The writer of Hebrews makes impressive use of this point in his novel depiction of Christ as a priest after the order, not of the Levites, but of Melchizedek, arguing that “the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin.” He must have meant it could not permanently take away sin, for the sins were expiated year by year by the blood of bulls and goats. The instructions were given by God to Moses.

Hebrews 9:1-14 contrasts Jesus Christ as the believer’s high priest with the high priest of the Day of Atonement in explicit detail. He tells how the Levitical high priest went into the most holy place alone once a year to offer sacrifice for the people, and that this was “symbolic for the present time” when Christ went into the holiest place, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood, “once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”

Note two basic contrasts. Then it was the blood of animals, now it is the blood of Christ. Then atonement was year by year. Now it is once for all and eternal. The implication is that the sins of the Israelites, rolled forward annually, were not finally forgiven until the sacrifice of Christ.

So, according to Hebrews, all the bloody sacrifices of innocent animals described in Leviticus, pointed to the coming of the innocent “Lamb of God” who would be sacrificed “once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”

But all the gore, all the killing of the innocent, all the pain and misery in Leviticus revealed still more. It showed how detestable and horrible sin is in the sight of God. As if the answer to Why all the blood? was sin, sin, sin – stinking, nauseating sin and rebellion. As people would turn their faces from the slaughter of countless innocent animals, so God turns his face from the stench of the heinous transgression of his own chosen people.

Leviticus also gives us the story of Nadab and Abihu, which reveals the nature of sin (10:1-3). These two sons of Aaron, the high priest, each took his censor, put profane or unauthorized fire on it, sprinkled incense on it, and used it as sacrifice. The text says it was fire that the Lord had not commanded. A fire went out from the Lord and consumed them.

It was a willful, presumptuous sin, as if to say to God, “We will do it our way.” It was no picayune transgression, but one that assumes that God does not matter, the attitude of modern secularism. It is a warning to all those who do not take the God of heaven seriously.

We can pity poor Aaron, always a devout priest. Children do not always reflect the goodness of their parents. There is tragic drama in Aaron’s response after witnessing his sons’ execution. After Moses made an oblique statement about how priests are to glorify God, the text says that Aaron remained silent. Amidst intolerable tragedy silence is not a bad course to take.

There is also the call for holiness, as in 11:44: “You have been sanctified and you have become holy because I am holy. . .Yes, it is I, Yahweh, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God: you must therefore be holy even as I am holy.” This is a common refrain throughout the book. God delivered them from captivity in Egypt and made them his elect people. As their God was holy they were to be holy – that is, set apart and different from other nations as the chosen people of God.

This called for the “law of holiness” or “law of purity,” found in chapters 17-26, which includes sexual impurities, religious and family offenses, priestly holiness, the ritual for annual feasts. At least part of this could be seen as a code of ethics. Once interesting prohibition: “Land will not be sold absolutely, for the land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests of mine” (25:23).

They could “own” land, but only provisionally. It is a cautious word for those of us who have an exclusive view about property. We who are American Indians understand this rule. After all, the land we “own” is not really ours, but God’s. A lesson in humility.

Another one, if taken seriously by our generation, would work havoc on a multi-billion dollar enterprise: “Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians: they will defile you. I, Yahweh, am your God” (19:31). The last phrase means that they were to put their trust in God, not the priests of black magic.

We old folk get special attention in Leviticus: “You shall stand up in the presence of grey hair, you shall honor the person of the aged and fear your God. I am Yahweh” (19:32). Asians, in particular, relate to this better than we westerners. When I had Asian students from China and Thailand they would always give a small bow when they saw me. Perhaps that was because I was their professor more than my age. But Asians do usually show special courtesy to the aged.

Our Lord must have studied Leviticus in synagogue school while growing up, for he referenced it in naming the noblest ethical rule in all religious literature: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). This basic ethic called for such rules as not bearing grudges, justice in business affairs, and even “You will neither be partial to the poor nor overawed by the great” (19:15).

There was special concern for the poor and the stranger. Since God showed them pity in delivering them from Egyptian slavery, they were to show pity to the poor, the stranger, and the slave. And they were to share their wealth at harvest time by not gleaning their fields and vineyards, leaving some for those less fortunate than themselves.

All this means that there is a theology of grace in Leviticus. It was God’s grace that called Israel to be God’s special people, and it was grace that set them apart as holy. It was grace that created the sacrificial system to atone for their sins. As their sins abounded, grace abounded all the more. The commands, along with the penalties, were born of grace, so as to preserve them as a people destined to give the Messiah to the world.

And even those like Nadab and Abihu, who had to pay for their sins with their lives, were not necessarily lost forever.

It may be that most of all Leviticus teaches us to take sin seriously, and to realize its destructive nature. And once we take sin seriously we take God seriously, and come to see that his grace is greater than all our sins.