Our city and times are unsure how to deal with guilt and shame. In practise, we deny, rather than deal with the burdens that sour our hearts and relationships so it comes as a complete surprise that the Bible takes a nuanced, gentle and merciful approach to these burdens. When we understand the legal restitution, spiritual atonement and pyschological resolution that Leviticus recommends to fully deal with our shame we begin to understand why other biblical writers delighted in this law. Yet more, we beging to understand what it means that Christ in himself fulfills this health filled teaching. [Audio | Introductory notes on Leviticus]
For further thought
I did not expect to discover beauty and kindness in a Biblical book that Christians habitually avoid for fear of its legalism and which commentators in our culture turn to for evidence that the Bible supports ethical stances we all despise. But Leviticus is not an accumulation of timeless laws, it is part of the journey of God’s people from Egypt to the promised land, set at the foot of Mount Sinai surrounded by tribes that were practising a cruel paganism which was destroying their humanity. The laws of Leviticus were born in that context. The purpose of the Levitical laws is to mould holiness into the lives of God’s people at every level; in their loves, homes, work, health, diet and rest. As we read through the books that follow Leviticus in the Bible we see how the principle of holiness remains unchanging but the laws adapt the application of holiness to new circumstances. This means that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) set a precedent for how the New Testament interprets the laws of God. The principle of holiness remains in the New Testament but it needs to be applied to believers from all nations through the sacrifice and Easter victory of Jesus Christ who has fulfilled all the law of God (Matthew 5.17,18; Romans 10.1-4).
It is strange to find that Leviticus is a gentle rather than an authoritarian book. This is best demonstrated by it being the people’s book for, despite its name, it is the people who carry out the sacrifices, who draw near to God with their prayers and who need to know what to expect of their priests when they are unwell and distressed in their relationships or consciences. The provision of affordable sacrifices for the poor is a repeated theme, as too the sacredness of rest, family cohesion and the lives of living creatures. Leviticus takes the lives of animals very seriously. In contrast to our culture, animals are not a mere commodity, a source of protein and useful by-products. Leviticus carefully limits what animals may be eaten or sacrificed because life, and the things that symbolise it, are sacred in Israel.
In contrast to the religions of the surrounding tribes, there is no sorcery in Leviticus. The sacrifices are done quietly without incantations. The food offered is a symbol of the life of the worshipper, if part of an offering is to become food for another it is only food for the priests. It is never food for the deity for the Lord God is the source of life and does not need food to sustain life. There are none of the cruel manipulations of spiritual forces by child sacrifice, cultic prostitution, chattel slavery and daily violence that were marks of the societies surrounding ancient Israel. There were no dark fears of possession or terror from pervasive, unmerciful and random powers.
The darkest force in Leviticus is not the demons but our sin, which is the only thing that has the power to isolate us from the source of life, the Lord God. The only one to fear is the Lord, but the fear of Him is clean (Psalm 19.9) because He is gracious. He is near His people, rescues them, hears them when they call upon Him and, in this remarkable book, is the record of how He provides ways to atone for sin by faith in sacrifices that work at every level of His people’s social and psychological need. Here is beauty and kindness.
“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight” (Psalm 119.35)
Leviticus is not be a simple book to study because its meaning and ethical teaching is spread throughout the book in the details of the rituals. The rituals, in turn, are living parables to instruct and heal the people both individually and as a community. If the central question of the book from God’s perspective is how a holy God may share the company of unholy people, then the central theme of the book from a human perspective is how do we deal with our shame?
Q: At what levels do the offerings of the first five chapters of Leviticus (summarised in the talk outline below) address human shame?
Q: Leviticus has been described as a rubric – a set of instructions or rules for the people and priests (like the rubric in our prayer books) without the prayers (without the content of what was said and what it meant). Yet, we have many prayers in the Bible that we know were used in communal worship. What are some examples of these prayers?
Q: Why do the people do most of the work of the tabernacle?
Q: There are no specific prayers for the time of sacrifice, this is in contrast to the worship practises of the nations around Israel who were seeking to manipulate spiritual forces through incantation and offerings. Why is Leviticus so different?
Chapter one mentions the sacrifice is a food offering (verses, 9, 13, 17) but the layout of the tabernacle (see below) and the laws for handling the sacrifices taught the Israelites that the food was not for God but for the priests and the people. What does food represent to us? Why is a sacrifice of food an aroma pleasing to the Lord?
Q: The people under the Old Covenant offered their sacrifices by faith, that is, God promised if they did this their wrongs would be forgiven, their sins atoned for. Their offerings were the outworking of entrusting their lives to His words. Where is grace in this system of sacrifice?
Q: What does shame look like in our culture?
Q: How do we deal with shame and how does that compare to how Israel dealt with their shame? Is there grace in how our culture deals with shame?
Read Hebrews 9.1-14. If there is beauty and gentleness in the law, the shadow of heavenly realities, there is glory in the realities themselves: in silent prayer give to Christ your own shame, allow him to cleanse your conscience and declare you ready to serve him and his people in his presence all your life. Practising this may need to be a regular feature of your walk with God to remind us that our one atoning sacrifice has been made and none other is required.
- Burnt (Leviticus 1) – reconciliation (offer the whole self)
- Cereal (2) – thanksgiving for the wealth that God provides
- Peace (3) – fellowship, celebrating wholeness together before God
- Purification (4) – individual purity before God
- Reparation (5) – paying back, redeeming, for wrongs done
- The work – the people do the sacrifices (1:2-10)
- The quiet – no incantations
- The meaning – the tabernacle and the true God
- The gifts and the Giver – holiness in every aspect of life
- By faith in this sacrifice
- Unending shame
But when Christ came
- How much more
- The footstool & the throne
Ashamed no more
- Christ cleanses our consciences in order to serve the living God (Hebrews 9.11-14)