Rethinking Leviticus

Why everyone missed the point


Every year, people read the Bible from cover to cover. At least, they say they do. They power through Genesis with great stories of creation, the fall of man, Noah and the Ark, the global flood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Hundreds and thousands of people have dramatized (or satirized) the stories in all manner of art: the Sistine Chapel to VeggieTales. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produced “The Bible” miniseries. And let’s not forget the Broadway production – “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.

They start Exodus and read the ten plagues of Egypt, the Ten Commandments… and they reach the part about the construction of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. Some might even remember Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” – the epic 6 hour movie.

So far so good. Then they reach Leviticus. They powered through the first three chapters with all the burnt offerings, the guilt offerings, the grain offerings. If you are like most people, reading this part of the Bible feels dry. I don’t blame you. After all, it can be like reading the Code of Federal Regulations on the categorization on cabbage.  But at this point, I would offer an alternative view.

Let’s not forget the whole point of laws and guidelines; they govern relationships. We consider laws to be impersonal between citizens and the government. But what if God wants a personal relationship? He calls himself Father and thus all believers are his children. He also calls us friend.

From a certain perspective, even friendships are governed by “laws.” Think of the following:

  1. Friends are interested in each other’s lives – from personal preferences to hobbies to favorite dishes and movies.
  2. Friends put each other’s well being and happiness first. Like deciding where to go eat; they take turns deciding.
  3. Friends do what they can to not offend their friend. If a friend knows the other does not like a certain behavior, he will do his best not to behave in that manner. Like using profanity or smoking or being late to engagements.

What if we applied those principles to our relationship with God? That’s what my friend Bill J. said during a sermon in 2008. And what happens when we violate those laws of friendships? How do we make amends?

  1. We ask for forgiveness verbally.
  2. We promise never to repeat that behavior
  3. We offer restitution.

And how does Leviticus fit into this? What if we consider Leviticus as the book on how to make amends? We have all sinned against God in big and small ways. We all have to make amends. Before Jesus came and died on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice and atonement, the Israelites were under the same rules. They had to make amends one way or another. God has ordained in what ways he will be “satisfied”. As I read through the book, there were certain things that were very evident and offered new insights.

Principle 1: It ought to be a happy time

…it shall be a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

This phrase “… it shall be a pleasing aroma to the Lord” is repeated multiple times throughout the book. Can you imagine that? As bulls and chickens are offered on the altar, it smells like burning meat – the smell of burgers. You see, that smell is a great smell, especially just before lunch and dinner. I love cheeseburgers, BBQ chicken, BBQ pork, BBQ beef ribs, and hot dogs. It makes the meal even more enjoyable. If the smell of grilled meat is pleasant, then arguing from the lesser to the greater, God must be pleased too. After all, He created us in His image.

You could say that we are not meant to be bored by this ceremony.

 Principle 2: It is meant to be a messy time

… without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin.

The bulls, goats, turtledoves, and other offered animals are all butchered completely. Their throats are cut, their entrails are spread, and blood is splattered against the altar. Why the mess?

  • It is to remind us that sin is a gory mess. You might use the “consenting adults” arguments. You may say “it hurts no one.” And you will be wrong.
  • It is to remind us that there is a cost. Each family has to offer up a male bull without blemish. That’s money and wealth. And what about the emotional costs? Consider the sin of adultery. It messes up the other partner and their kids in both families. Thanks a lot, Ashley Madison. You just screwed over 4-8 people.
  • It is to remind us that sin kills. Something died when people offend each other.

Principle 3: The sacrifice is not the end

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,

Let’s say Bob and Bill are best friends. Bob has done something to offend Bill. Bob makes some gesture that Bill finds touching and forgives Bob. But what if the next time it happens, Bob makes the same gesture. In fact, he does it almost mechanically every time, like mortgage auto-payment from a bank account. Now at that point, that gesture means nothing. What if the Israelites showed up and went through the motions? What if the priests got bored doing the same sacrifice for the next 1600 years?  It has always been the heart and intent behind the gesture that determined whether an apology is accepted. It was never about the bull or the goat.

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