Don't Diss Leviticus
- Created: Friday, 26 March 2010 17:00
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“Leviticus used to be the first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue. In the modern Church, it tends to be the last part of the Bible anyone takes seriously.” (Gordon J. Wenham)
The book of Leviticus is indeed strange territory for us. Many believers in Yeshua/Jesus just cannot relate to it. We struggle with the morality of animal sacrifice. We struggle with a priesthood. We struggle with the prohibitions in the so-called “Holiness Code,” where for example homosexual acts are called “an abomination.” Even Messianic believers struggle to find more value in Leviticus other than the famous “Life is in the blood” verse of Leviticus 17:11.
It isn’t that we don’t like the book of Leviticus. It is just so very hard to relate to the book and we struggle to find how it applies to us today. Yet upon futher inspection, we see it is very applicable after all.
The earliest followers of Yeshua, Jews who were more than familiar with the sacrificial system of the 2nd temple period, likely did not struggle with Leviticus as much as we do today. For them, many concepts in Leviticus were on display in their new-found faith in Yeshua. After all, Paul reminds Timothy that all Scripture, including Leviticus, is profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Let us take a look at the sacrificial offerings to show that Leviticus is not as far removed from our faith as we might think. We “get” the idea of the sacrifice of Yeshua for our sins (this is, after all, a cornerstone of the Gospel). But there were other sacrificial offerings in Leviticus too, and exorbitant detail is provided for them. The most general view of the offerings can be grouped as: (1) the burnt offering (Leviticus 1), (2) the grain offering (Leviticus 2) and (3) the peace/fellowship/thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 3). Let’s look at the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:1-17) to get some ideas.
One of the first things that jumps out is that the burnt offering was quite messy (rated “R” in some ways). We are sometimes squeamish at the sight of blood, but slaughtering an animal was ghastly business and a necessary one at that. And because the blood was not offered on the altar, exsanguination had to be performed (see for example Leviticus 4:7). Why is this sacrifice so graphic? There are many theories, but upon reflection I cannot help but think of the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:14 (i.e., Yeshua, just to be clear) who was so disfigured he did not look human. If you have ever seen the swelling and scarring resulting from a violent trauma … well you get the picture. Our sin upon the back of Messiah was graphic and painful.
Another thing that kind of leaps out is that there were clear roles for the priest and for the worshiper. For example, Leviticus 1 informs us that for the burnt offering the worshiper must (a) select the animal, (b) lay hands on the animal, (c) slaughter the animal, (d) skin and cut the animal, and (e) wash the remains of the animal. In contrast, the priest must (a) sprinkle the animal blood on the altar, (b) prepare the fire for the altar and (c) burn the animal on the altar. The notion that the priest did all the work is false. You had to slaughter your own animal and then watch "fluffy" go up in smoke. This reminds us that there is indeed a price for our sin and a price for our restitution. The entire process was rather hands-on.
Thirdly, these verses in Leviticus remind us of the necessity of atonement. It is popular in some circles to reject the idea that God would accept sacrifice and substitution. Yet the worshiper was accepted by God only if the offering was proper (Leviticus 1:3). Further, God used the process to make atonement for the worshiper; the offering was accepted on his behalf (Leviticus 1:4). We also learn that the burnt offering was a “fragrant aroma” to the Lord (Leviticus 1:13) … this may disturb you but realize that God does not have nostrils. It is really hard to see Leviticus for anything other than substitutionary. Even the JPS translation (a Jewish one) speaks of expiation, that is, extinguishing the guilt of the worshiper via sacrificial offerings. There is a price to be paid for sin, and your credit card is not going to cover it.
We could go on but I hope you get the point by now; there is a rich history and significance to the book of Leviticus and I want to encourage you to study it. Now perhaps when Paul tells us that Messiah was a “fragrant offering to God” you will know what he means (Ephesians 5:2) just a little bit better.