The book of Leviticus is biblical flyover territory for a lot of us. We love to skip over Leviticus, because it has this problematic blend of bizarre and boring. Like a crazy uncle, our usual first approach is to ignore it as much as possible. When that is no longer an option, we answer the question of what to do with Leviticus by insulating it from affecting the rest of the Bible as much as possible.
Instead, let’s see what Leviticus is really about. When we do, we’ll see that it fits perfectly with the rest of the Bible, because Leviticus is really about holiness. Most of us understand holiness as a special Bible word that means moral goodness. This is our first stumbling block for Leviticus, because holiness really means something more like ‘distinct,’ ‘set apart,’ and ‘unique.’ We experience this stumbling block when we encounter all of these clean vs unclean lists in Leviticus and ask “Why is this thing clean or unclean?” It seems really arbitrary to us, and that bothers us. After all, we know that one kind of animal isn’t any more or less morally good than another kind of animal. So, why should one kind be clean and another unclean? To resolve our inner tension here, we need to let go of our understanding of holiness as moral goodness and recognize that holiness is more about being exceptional and unique.
We should also remember that Leviticus is situated right after Exodus, and that location is not arbitrary. The location of Leviticus after Exodus reminds us that the Israelites had only recently escaped from slavery in Egypt and are now walking through the wilderness in tents. The LORD who brought them out of Egypt made a covenant for this new nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and arranged to live in their midst. As Christians, we probably don’t immediately recognize the enormous problem this presents. We imagine this ancient scene through the only later realized solution of Jesus Christ, and so we tend to miss the radical rearrangement of reality that would be required to have the holy God of heaven live in the midst of a tent city of wilderness wandering Israelites. Leviticus is primarily about solving this problem of how to live with the holy.
The problem of holiness
Leviticus tells the Israelites how God graciously provides a way for them to live with God in their presence and not die. Imagine that you live with a nuclear power plant next to your neighborhood. Your primary experience when relating to the reality of this nuclear power plant is probably one of fear. You will need a way to internalize and live with this existential fear that still enables you to have your normal life. This fear is embodied by the specific contours of the nuclear power plant with its cooling towers and concrete buildings. That implies that your experience of this fear is situated. There would be a gradient of fear that would make you keenly aware of boundaries and distance. You probably would internalize a mental map of how far away from this specific nuclear power plant you need to be to escape its dangers. If you ask someone who has actually lived with this experience, they will probably tell you that to cope with this reality, they had rules of what to do, where to go, and where not to go.
Imagine the existential angst someone would endure in this reality if they had no mental map and no idea about what to do. Parents and teachers give mental maps and rules to children in areas that live with looming existential risks like nuclear power plants, forest fires, and hurricanes to help them cope. We need a way to live with an overwhelming power we cannot control.
Leviticus is God’s gift to Israel for how to live with Him in their midst and not die. This solution manual is organized around the three related solutions of ritual, priests, and purity. The book itself is organized almost like an apple. The outer chapters at the beginning and ending of the book are like the skin of an apple. Inside of those like the flesh of an apple are the chapters about priests and their role as mediators between the holy LORD and the sinful nation of Israel. Inside of those chapters is the apple core chapters about purity, and at the very center of the book in chapters 16 and 17 is the apple seed about the day of atonement.
Chapters 1 through 7 cover the five main types of ritual sacrifices for Israel. Grain and fellowship offerings are about showing gratitude to the LORD. Burnt, purification, and sin offerings are about confessing sin to the LORD. In them, an animal that the LORD graciously provides through healthy herds atones or covers for their sin, dying in their place. These are vivid practices that show how the LORD’s gracious forgiveness is reconciled with his awesome justice.
In chapters 23-25, there are instructions for the seven annual ritual feasts. Each of these retells a part of the story of the LORD redeeming Israel from Egypt, bringing them through the wilderness to the promised land. These would have embedded the memory of this communal experience into Israelite consciousness.
Chapters 8-10 cover the ordination of the priests, Aaron and his sons the Levites. Chapter 10 tells the very cautionary tale of what happens when you violate the LORD’s holiness by not following those rules. Two of Aaron’s sons do the ancient Israel equivalent of walking into the nuclear reactor chamber without following any of the safety rules. Chapters 21 and 22 focus on priestly qualifications. As mediators and representatives between the people of Israel and the LORD, these Levite priests were held to a higher standard of ritual and moral holiness. In a nation of set apart people, Levites were especially set apart to communicate the LORD’s life-giving essence to the people.
Chapters 11 through 15 are about the ritual purity laws. Chapters 18 through 20 are about the moral purity laws. These purity laws would help the entire nation of Israel, including the foreigners, migrants, and displaced people among them, also become holy. To be near to the presence of God requires that a person, animal, or thing be pure or clean. All of the impure or unclean stuff would need to be away at a distance from God.
Why? As you read, for example, through the ritual purity laws notice that the ways a person became unclean were all associated with mortality and death. That is movement away from the LORD, the giver of life. Touching blood or mold, for example, made a person ritually impure, but doing so was not sinful. It was a normal and temporary part of ordinary life, but you would definitely not want to carry these symbols of death and decay into the presence of God. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is really not as bizarre a concept as we sometimes make it out to be. We wouldn’t wear a greasy work shirt to our wedding, nor would we carry a bucket of worms with us as we sat down to dinner.
Within these laws, there were built-in ways to move from unclean to clean by doing something like taking a bath or waiting for a period of time. Taken together, they provided Israel with a set of cultural symbols that made it crystal clear that every square inch of life from birth through death was the LORD’s purview. The moral purity laws expand on the comprehensive cultural impact of the ritual purity laws by providing the people with examples of how to be holy and set apart from their neighbors. There are visible and practical ways to live differently by caring for those in need, by having very high sexual integrity, and demonstrating social justice.
Day of Atonement
In chapters 16 and 17 is a description about the Day of Atonement that was one of those seven annual feasts. Administered by the priests, this special ritual feast was about atoning for or covering any impurity or sin that had been overlooked by any of the ordinary sacrifices or rituals. Thus, a purification offering of an unblemished goat covered for the sins of Israel. This feast was also about removing sin from Israel. To that end, a second goat, the scapegoat, would escape sacrifice by having the sins of Israel confessed and placed on him. He was then cast out into the wilderness.
The most important thing to notice about the day of atonement is not specifically mentioned in the text, but would have been understood by the ancient Israelites as well as by anybody today who raises livestock. The LORD provides the goats. Even today, we are unable to guarantee the production of healthy unblemished livestock. The God of all creation decides to move in with the sinful yet chosen Israelites, and He provides them with not only with instruction but the means of atonement as well.