In a Nutshell…
Leviticus ch. 1-7
Last week we wrapped up our journey through the book of Exodus. We last left Moses and the Israelites after the incident of rebellion with the golden calf, Moses’ intervention on behalf of Israel, and God’s re-institution of the covenant. What we see in Leviticus, narratively speaking, is a continuation of the terms of the covenant.
One of the challenges of reading Leviticus is precisely that it contains very little narrative. Not much happens other than God telling Moses the laws that they are to obey. And because the laws that are passed on happen in a particular cultural context, to people living thousands of years ago in the Ancient Near East, there’s a sense in which Leviticus seems largely irrelevant to us as we read it in the twenty-first century.
However, although specific laws like, “Do not eat any of the fat of cattle, sheep or goats” (Lev. 7:23) or, 2 “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest.” (Lev. 13:2) – don’t show me your skin rash – seem irrelevant, the laws as a whole, or rather the giving of the law, remains highly significant.
So here, as an aside, I’d like to suggest that the difference between the law as it’s written or heard (i.e. content), is not where the significance is found. Rather, the significance is to be found in God’s giving of the Law – God’s entering into and establishing the terms for covenant relationship with His people.
So why are these laws important? Or what makes the laws important? In order to explore this question, I’d like us to consider just a couple of the OT themes that we’ve been discussing over the past many months: Covenant and Making a People.
I don’t want to be overly repetitive, and I hope that we all have at least some familiarity with these concepts by now. Again, God’s intention is to create a people who are called by His name in order to play a distinctive role in His redemptive purposes for creation. It’s within this context (not as a sub-category, but alongside and even above) that we find one of the major themes in Leviticus; probably the major theme: Holiness. And that’s the primary theme that we’ll find in the book of Leviticus – a book which is almost entirely a recitation of various laws. The laws are given to God’s chosen people to set them apart, in covenant relationship, so that they may be a blessing to all nations.
Today, we’re going to consider the first major section of Leviticus – laws about Offerings. I don’t have a particular scripture reference for you but, as usual, I’m going to encourage you to read through Leviticus on your own. I appreciate that many of us struggle through these kinds of passages, and I don’t think it’s necessary to dig into every detail (because of the cultural distance), but it’s always good to submit ourselves to the word of God and hear what He has to say to us.
So the parts of Leviticus that we’re considering today take us from Leviticus chapter one through Leviticus chapter seven.In these chapters, the bible outlines several different kinds of offerings instituted by God. These include:
- The Burnt Offering
- The Grain Offering
- The Fellowship Offering
- The Purification Offering
- The Guilt Offering
There is a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the symbolism, meaning, or purpose of the offerings (to various degrees). The reason for this may be that the meanings of the offerings were, to a large extent, self-explanatory. We can’t really relate today but offerings and sacrifices were likely such a common part of life in the Ancient Near East that detailed explanation was simply not necessary.
It’s possible (but not definitive) that the Israelites offerings and sacrifices in Leviticus don’t include a lot of explanation as to the purpose or symbolism because that symbolism was already so well understood. To a certain extent this makes sense when we consider that such systems were common in the Ancient Near East. In other words, the religious systems of most of the people in the area included similar sacrifices and offerings.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before. There are numerous places where we can see similarities between Israel’s religious system (for lack of a better term), or Israel’s symbols and those of the nations around them. This being the case, what we want to pay attention to is what sets them apart. In what ways are Israel’s systems and beliefs distinct from those of the world around them. There’s a certain amount of conjecture involved with this kind of thing, but we can discern a few things (inasfar as the sacrificial system is concerned:):
- The idea of direct divine revelation and theophany
- The concept of strict monotheism
- The understanding of the origin and impact of human sin
- The highly ethical and moral nature of Hebrew religion in contrast to the Canaanite fertility cult
- The holy and righteous character of Yahweh in contrast to the capricious behavior of the pagan deities
- The prohibition of human sacrifice
(Andrew Hill & John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament)
Where I want to focus today is on the first bullet – the notion that the law, and here those regarding offerings and sacrifices. What I want to suggest (and here, we are once again drifting distinctly into the realm of my personal reflections on the matter) is that offerings and sacrifices, in the Hebrew context, are significant because they are directly given by God. That is to say, they are not human constructions. And specifically, they are not human constructions or human machinations that are designed to either placate or entice a distant, disconnected, and reticent deity.
Another way to say this is that, perhaps, these laws surrounding offerings are about relationship. And I say that in the context that what we are seeing, I hope, in the Old Testament story is that God, who is intimately concerned and involved in our earthly history, in his purpose to overcome sin and death (death, as we have seen is the natural, logical consequence of sin), has purposed to create a people, with whom He enters into covenant, in order to redeem creation.
By this, I also mean specifically to contrast Israel’s relationship with God (YHWH), and thus the nature of the sacrificial system, with those (whether in the Ancient Near East or not), who view a relationship with a deity, and thus their interactions with that deity, as essentially transactional.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain this too much, but there is a way to view God, and a way to view religion or spirituality (or whatever word or concept you want to use), as essentially transactional. God exists to give us the things we want or need and to prevent those things we want to avoid. Sometimes that means sacrificing an animal to ensure good crops or good weather; it could be so that you could gain wealth or fame or so that you can have a boy child instead of a girl. Sometimes it means attending Sunday service, reading a certain number of chapters each day, praying loudly or quietly or spontaneously or with the saints. Regardless of the methodology, when we use God as a means to our human ends, it really amounts to little more than a transaction.
So perhaps it’s instructive that the offerings and sacrifices listed here, aren’t about getting something or avoiding something. It seems to me that the sacrifices are really about relating in a right way to the one saviour God. Now don’t get me wrong, we can treat any of these things transactionally, and I think that’s precisely what the Israelites would wind up doing, but I believe that it would be precisely there that we go wrong.
So What Now..?
So we may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with us today? You may have noticed that I haven’t made any mention of tithing or offerings as we tend to practice them in Sunday worship services. Part of the reason for that is that tithing is a distinct concept from the practices that we see listed here (it’s related, but distinct).
But the other reason is that, when we think of offerings and sacrifices solely in terms of giving (and giving up) money, I think we’re missing what’s going on in the sacrificial system. Especially because, with tithing, we’re dealing with money, it’s harder to separate from some sort of transactional activity – even if we don’t strictly think of it that way.
Inasmuch as, and if, the laws regarding offerings and sacrifices that we find in the book of Leviticus are primarily relational (and not transactional), then the kinds of offerings that we see discussed in the book of Leviticus are insightful and instructive, and perhaps even convicting, regarding the nature of, or what should be the nature of, our relationship with our God.
- Do we recognize the sovereignty and uniqueness of God?
- Do we desire peace and right, whole relationship, with God and one another?
- Do we recognize that we are sinners before a holy God?
- Do we desire to be made right, to stand righteous before God?
These things have nothing to do with what we “give” to the church. They are not really even about what we “give” to God – they simply are not transactions.
We simply don’t do offerings like this any more. Through Jesus Christ, we don’t need priests and temples to mediate our relationship with God. We simply don’t have the time to go into it, but perhaps passages like Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and Paul’s imagery that we, the church, and sometimes individual Christians, are the temple of God, give us a lot of insight into the why. The point being that the temple system, the sacrificial system, no longer operates in our lives.
But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t desire for us, and call us to, relationship with Himself. And there is still a right way and a wrong way to relate with God – or to view that relationship. And it’s not through gifts and acts and sacrifices of our time and money. It’s through the one sacrifice, the last sacrifice, the only way that we can stand before God face to face – the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And because of Him, we can indeed stand. We can come to God as His true children, with Him our true Father, as we seek to be together, His people.