The book of Leviticus is the section of scripture where daily bible reading plans go to die. We start off the year strong reading through Genesis. Our adrenaline starts flowing as God sends the plagues upon Egypt and the Israelites cross the Red Sea in Exodus. However, things start to slow down near the end of the book of Exodus with the dimensions of the tabernacle and its furnishings. And then reading plans come to a stand still somewhere in the middle of Leviticus. Usually it is after the instructions about sacrifices and clean and unclean animals. Some of us even make it through what to do when mold is found in the walls of your house. But very few make it through the commands against planting two different kinds of seeds in the same field and almost nobody reads about the stipulations for the Year of Jubilee. Before we know it, great ideas about reading through the bible in a year have been dashed against the rocks and have sunk to the bottom of the sea, never to rise again.
Why? we ask ourselves. Why read Leviticus? Why do we need to know about clean and unclean animals or bodily discharges or what to do when mold is found? Why does it matter that the only animals God wants the Israelites to eat are those who have a split hoof and chew the cud? Why concern ourselves with how long a person has to bleed before they become unclean? And even though we can all appreciate the importance of the sacrifices, is it really necessary to repeat the stipulations for all of the major sacrifices twice in the first seven chapters? Couldn’t they somehow be summarized and shortened into one?
We come up with explanations to make ourselves feel better about why these laws are here. We determine that the people didn’t know basic sanitary measures and so many of the laws were simply just ways to keep them safe and healthy in a primitive environment. We speak of them as uneducated people who simply didn’t know any better and so God had to go to extremes to keep them from harming themselves. But even if that’s the case, why make it Law? Why make it something that has to be studied for generations? When you are in a society that does not take the time to write something down and preserve it unless it is vitally important, why choose to save this information? Surely there is something else going on, some other reason for God’s commands. And if it is only about basic health regulations, why do we need to read it today? We are an advanced society, surely we don’t need these primitive laws?
This thought alone must cause us to dig deeper. There has to be a reason for this long list of laws, this long list of rules that must be followed or one becomes unclean. If we have to spend two weeks reading through the book of Leviticus we should at least try to find a deeper meaning, a reason for coming to this text.
That reason begins back in Exodus. As the Israelites approach Mt. Sinai and God prepares for the giving of the Ten Commandments, God gives stipulations to Moses for Israel to follow. God tells Moses that he is coming down to meet with the people and they must prepare for this encounter because Yahweh is a Holy God. God is so holy that one can not be in the presence of God and live unless they have been sanctified and made clean. God tells Moses to consecrate the people, to have them wash their clothes and avoid sin and other behaviors for three days. They are to spend three days preparing themselves for an encounter with God, to be in the Presence of the Almighty. After those three days God warns Moses to set up boundaries around the mountain to keep the people back because if they come near the mountain they will die. God isn’t making these stipulations because he is mean and wants to kill people, he is making these stipulations because he wants the people to live. God is so much different when compared to humanity, so much more holy and majestic, that if we were to even be in his presence we would die. We like to describe God in such grandfatherly terms that we forget that he is majestic and holy and is a God who is to be feared, not because he’s mean but because he is beyond comprehension. God even tells Moses, you can’t see my face, if you see my face you will die, no one sees my face and lives. God is trying to protect the people, he is trying to save the people, he is being gracious to the people finding a way for them to be in relationship together and still live.
Leviticus begins after the Tabernacle has been constructed. Through the Tabernacle God is planning to live inside the camp, in the very middle of the camp of Israel. The Tabernacle will be centered in the middle with the Levites around the Tabernacle and the various tribes stationed around the Levites. It was a situation with various rings of Holiness. The Tabernacle sat in the center with God residing in the heart of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies and areas becoming progressively less holy the further one went from the middle of the camp. But how can God reside in the Tabernacle, in the midst of the camp surrounded by the people of Israel and the Israelites not die? How can God, in all of his holiness, reside among an unholy people? What will prevent the Israelites from being consumed by the radiance of God?
The only way to insure the Israelites safety is for them to live holy lives and when they fail to live holy lives there must to be a way to restore holiness. That’s what Leviticus is all about. Leviticus is the framework that allows an unholy people to be in the presence of a holy God. Leviticus sets the boundaries through which the people of Israel can be in relationship with Yahweh, a holy God. Leviticus describes a lifestyle, a way of living that allows Israel to remain consecrated and holy before God. And when Israel messes up, God provides a sacrificial system to follow, not as punishment, but as a way to restore holiness, to deal with sin. The heart of Leviticus is how individuals and a community can be dedicated to holiness before the Lord so that we can all remain in relationship to God.
Leviticus is not a list of rules that has to be followed. It is not a mandate from God to punish Israel and make them conform to a strict lifestyle. Leviticus is a book of grace, it is a book of compassion. Leviticus is God saying, I want to be in your presence and this will allow me to be in your presence and for us to be in relationship together. Leviticus is God showing love to his people by wanting to be around them, by wanting to dwell with them. And Leviticus is a reminder that God is holy, that we serve a holy God, and we must always recognize him and keep him as holy.
When viewed from this light, Leviticus becomes a book that is easier to bear. While most people will never learn to love Leviticus and it will very rarely show up on one’s list of favorite books of the Bible, Leviticus does not have to be a chore to wade through containing ancient laws that no longer make sense. Instead, Leviticus can stand as a beacon of hope for those of us who long to be in God’s presence. It is a reminder of two very important truths, God is holy and God is gracious. God is holy, he is wholly different when compared to us, and he must be treated not as a common trinket but as the majestic, powerful God that he is. At the same time God is gracious because he provides a way for us, an unholy people, to dwell among him and to be in relationship with him. Holiness and graciousness each held as important in this Old Testament book.