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This week the readings come from Leviticus 9-26, but I want to discuss the whole book of Leviticus in this post. The Israelites are still camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where the ten commandments were given and where the tabernacle pieces (discussed last week) were constructed and first assembled. The book of Leviticus contains instructions given to the Israelites regarding how they are to relate with God and how the Levite priests are to conduct their work. Before going through some of the instructions, I want to point out what I believe is a critical explanatory passage from Leviticus 20:22-26.
You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nations that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
All the described offerings, declarations of clean/unclean things, prohibitions of immoral and idolatrous behaviors, codes of ethics, defining of festivals, and guidelines on caring for others were intended to teach the Israelites a couple of very important principles. First, that God is completely holy and cannot be approached by anything unholy. Second, that to be in right relationship with God is very costly. And third, that the Israelites represent God to the world around them and they are to be seen as being different in the way they related to their God as compared with how other nations’ religious and ethical practices. While the rules have been set aside because of the new covenant through Jesus, these basic principles still hold true for Christians.
There are three categories of items discussed in Leviticus that I want to explore a bit: offerings, clean vs. unclean, and ethics.
There are five types of offerings described in these passages: Burnt, Grain, Peace, Sin, and Guilt. Without going into detail (see the additional resources below), the offerings have several important aspects as they relate to the sacrifice Jesus made of himself on the cross. The Burnt offering was intended to be entirely burned as an act of worship, just as Jesus was completely consumed by death. Several offerings (sin and guilt) involved the symbolic transference of one’s sin onto the animal through the laying on of hands by the person while the sacrifice is made, just as our sins were transferred to Jesus as he was crucified, allowing him to represent us and us to represent him. As Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Some of the offerings involved a shared meal of the sacrificial elements between the priests and the offerers, symbolizing reconciliation and fellowship with God. Similarly, Christ’s sacrifice for us enables us to approach the throne of God and have fellowship with him, having been made holy by the blood of Jesus.
These passages also describe the Day of Atonement, which was the only day of the year that the High Priest was able to enter the inner sanctuary (holy of holies) of the tabernacle to offer an atoning sacrifice for the nation as a whole. When Jesus died, the curtain separating the inner chamber and the outer one of the temple was torn from top to bottom, indicating that God has now removed the barrier that separates us and him through the eternal atonement provided by Jesus.
Clean vs. unclean
All the teachings in these passages about activities, animals, objects, etc. which were to be declared clean or unclean may have some hygienic or health related aspects, but the basic idea is that to approach God in worship, you must be prepared and approved. One commentary I read likened this to voter registration – to vote, you must be registered. One who is registered is not better, or more righteous, than one who is not, but the registered one has the legal privilege to vote. Likewise, one who is “clean” has the legal standing to approach and fellowship with God. This has implications today in the sense of preparing our hearts and minds to worship God, rather than being flippant about how we approach him. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, Paul is teaching about worshipping through the observation of communion. He says
Whoever, therefore, eats of the bread or drinks of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
We must be discerning about ourselves as we prepare to worship God. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”
Finally, the last part of Leviticus deals with how the Israelites should treat each other. As you will recall, the last six of the ten commandments dealt with our relationships with others. A key passage in Leviticus regarding this behavior is in Leviticus 19:17-18.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
These passages speak of caring for the poor by not reaping completely from your fields, but leaving some for them to gather. It also speaks of returning purchased (e.g. rented) property to the original owner every fifty years (the year of Jubilee), and of forgiving debts every seven years. This points forward to the gift of forgiveness and restoration of life that we receive by believing in and following Jesus.
Next week our readings will come from Leviticus 27, Numbers 1-6, and Numbers 10-18.
For Further Investigation
- Leviticus video from The Bible Project
- The Levitical Offerings and Sacrifices from the Preacher’s Institute