In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
We have been walking our way through Leviticus but, unlike other books we’ve looked at, we’ve been doing it topically rather than (mostly) systematically. So we’ve explored a couple of the major motifs: Offerings and Sacrifices; and Priesthood. Today, we’re going to take a look at the motif of Holiness, which is probably the largest over-arching theme of the book. In other words, all of Leviticus, in some way, has to do with holiness. And holiness has to do with being the people of God, set apart for His redemptive purposes for creation.
There’s two major sections of Leviticus that are left. The first part (ch. 11 – 15) has to do with ritual cleanness – that is, certain things would make one “unclean,” and so these laws had to do with the avoidance of those things or the purification from uncleanliness. The second part (ch. 16 – 25 approx.) has to do with laws specifically about holiness, sometimes called the holiness code. These laws seem to do mostly with how to live in society.
So what we are going to do today is to focus on this passage about the Day of Atonement, sort of as a unifying theme. So as we said, we want to think about, through the lens of the Day of Atonement, what do the laws have to do with holiness, and what does holiness have to do with us?
First, let’s talk about the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement happens on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar and is also known as Yom Kippur. If you remember from the early part of Leviticus, there’s a whole system of offerings and sacrifices, several of which have to do with the removal of sin and guilt from the people. It was a fundamental part of the temple/tabernacle system. Yom Kippur, which happens once a year, serves to cleanse the sanctuary from all of the sacrifices by the year (cleanse from impurities, not blood, for example). Essentially, the temple (particularly the Most Holy place) would become tainted because of the sins of the people which were expiated throughout the year. Once a year, the High Priest would cleanse the Most Holy place.
In addition to the cleansing of the tabernacle, the Day of Atonement also involved the ritual of the scapegoat. As part of the ritual, two goats were brought for Yom Kippur. One was sacrificed and its blood used in the cleansing that we described. The second was taken by the priest and he confessed the sins of the nation over the live goat and released it into the wild. This symbolically transferred the sins of the nation onto the goat and the goat and the sins were released.
Now this entire ceremony should be placed alongside the story that we looked at, very briefly, last week. At the end the section on priesthood, we get the passage about Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron. The bible tells us that they offered “unauthorized fire” before God, and both subsequently died. In the context of Leviticus, where the main theme is holiness, Nadab and Abihu, contrary to the instructions of God, essentially tried to take matters into their own hands – the ‘matter’ being the sacrificial system. It seems to me that what they did was try to take a divine grace and turn it into a human mechanism.
And the entire incident, again in the context of Leviticus, highlights the importance of holiness. Specifically, it is a serious thing for sinful humans to come before the presence of a holy God. If we’ve been paying attention to the story of the Old Testament, especially the stories in the early part of Genesis, this should be no surprise to us. We saw repeatedly that the consequence of rejecting God is death.
So the sacrificial system was, in part, a means of mediating that sin. And the Day of Atonement, the cleansing of the temple and the scapegoat, were a way of mediating that sinfulness that wasn’t covered by the regular sacrifices – all those sins that were either forgotten, ignored, or accidental. So, Yom Kippur was primarily about atonement – the forgiveness of sins.
As a bit of an aside, remember back in Exodus when we talked about the Passover. Like Yom Kippur, Passover is a highly significant time on the Hebrew calendar. As we know, Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Yom Kippur celebrates or represents deliverance from sin. In terms of God’s work of redemption, the two ideas are intimately related.
Now this is something that we’ve talked about before, but it seems significant that deliverance comes before atonement. Israel was freed from Egypt, before there was ever a tabernacle or sacrifices (in the tabernacle). I think this is important for us as we consider holiness. And, in a nutshell, I want to disabuse us of the notion that we need to be holy in order to be accepted by God.
I don’t want to get confused. The traditional Evangelical formula for “getting saved” is to ask for forgiveness for one’s sins and then you become a Christian – a part of the people of God. And I don’t want to get confused because there’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m in no way denying that it is indeed sin – lack of holiness – that keeps us from God. From knowing God; from his presence.
I simply want to pause and consider that Israel was chosen first, delivered first, and then they were called to holiness. Their deliverance wasn’t dependent upon their goodness. God delivered them (for His purposes) and then called them to appropriate response. And I think that response is the point. Holiness is not a prerequisite but the proper response for being the people of God.
As a counterpoint to this, I also want to say that sin matters. Or, to put it another way, sin cannot be ignored. In a manner of speaking, it isn’t enough to be accepted, we also have to be acceptable. God’s purpose wasn’t just to deliver us – He also wants to be with us. So God made it possible for sin to be dealt with, for us to be blameless and pure before a holy God, so we could be restored to the life, a God-filled life, that He meant for us.
So here, I want to say a few words about holiness. What exactly do we mean by that? What is the picture that we’re getting in the book of Leviticus? Firstly, what I want to suggest is that holiness is not the same as morality. I think morality or ethics is contained within holiness, but I don’t think they’re the same thing. I can’t say if this is how everybody understands holiness, but when the word is used, my tendency has been (or used to be) to think that it means something along the lines of being good or not doing anything wrong. In other words, that holiness is something like a line in the sand that one, as a Christian, is not allowed to cross. By the same token, the inverse would also be true: If I have done something wrong or not permissible, then I am not holy – or at least, I am less than holy.
Now, passing by the fact that “what is wrong” is often highly defined by the society we live in, let’s take a quick look at the way the word is used throughout the bible because what we see is that this can’t (simply speaking) be the case.
Exodus 3:5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 16:23 he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’ ”
Exodus 29:33 They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration, but an outsider shall not eat of them, because they are holy. 34 And if any of the flesh for the ordination or of the bread remain until the morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire. It shall not be eaten, because it is holy.
Leviticus 10:10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.”
Romans 7:12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
There are a lot more passages that talk about holiness – too many to do anything comprehensive here. Further, when we look through the book of Leviticus – in particular, the holiness code – there seems to be an awful lot there that has nothing to do with morality or ethics, at least as we tend to understand it. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of it does, but that’s not all that it talks about. So again, I think when we talk about ‘holiness,’ we are talking about morals, ethics, and “being good,” but holiness also seems to be a lot bigger than that.
So the second thing I want to suggest to you is that holiness is, for us, largely about relationship. In particular, holiness is about relationship with God. It’s not about a standard or a criteria. But it’s about the presence of God, or lack thereof.
Fundamentally, holiness is a characteristic of God – God alone is holy. As such, those passages that talk about the ground, or temple, or offerings being holy have fundamentally to do with whether or not God is present. And I think the same could be said about us, in a manner of speaking. Holiness is primarily relational. (You’ll note that we said the same thing about offerings and sacrifices – that they are relational, not transactional).
What I mean is this – that holiness is not some abstract characteristic that exists that we try to measure up to. Rather, holiness is, in some way, located in (and only in) God Himself. So its not something that we achieve and then God allows us into His presence. Rather, it’s something that can only be found in His presence. It can only be “achieved” by living in relationship with God; by living in covenant relationship with God.
So What Now…?
Kathleen Norris says this. Though she is talking about righteousness, it is instructive for us as we think about holiness:
The word “righteous” used to grate on my ear; for years I was able to hear it only in its negative mode, as self-righteous, as judgmental. Gradually, as I became more acquainted with the word in its biblical context, I found that it does not mean self-righteous at all, but righteous in the sight of God. And this righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care for the most vulnerable people in a culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor.
Much of the fabled wrath of God in the Hebrew scriptures is directed against those who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the lowly; someone who won’t pay a fair wage, for example, or who mistreats an immigrant laborer.
(Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith)
God says numerous times throughout the book of Leviticus, “Be holy because I am holy.” I think maybe it doesn’t mean, “be holy, because I can only accept you as my people if you’re holy.” At least, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I don’t think it can mean that because God has already called and claimed Israel. By the same token, I don’t think the offerings can be to make the people “sinless” enough to be the people of God – because they’re already the people of God. The sacrifices are, in a sense, a grace. They are a grace because through them, symbolically but still, the people can live out and through the grace that they have received. In a similar way, I think the call to “be holy because I am holy,” is more akin to “live as the people of God, because it is God that has called you.”
And we know, on the other side of history, that the sacrifices which were, in some way (not completely) symbolic for the early Israelites, became real through the sacrifice of Jesus. What was pointed at, foretold, in the sacrifice of the goats and through the temple system, was made real in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In him, all our sins are forgiven and forgotten. So that we all may enter into the presence of the most holy God.
Now don’t understand this the wrong way. I’m not saying that we can run around and do whatever we want and “it doesn’t matter because God’s going to forgive me anyways.” Holiness matters. Sin matters. And righteousness matters. Goodness and mercy matter. They matter because God is holy, He is righteous, He is good and merciful and His grace endures forever. And if we claim to be His people, then we should live as His people.