Leviticus is a challenge. To many it is legalistic, filled with bloody sacrifices, and impossible to understand. Some come close to committing the heresy of Marcion, an ancient church leader who said that the God of the Old Testament was evil and created laws just to hold people in bondage. Even though the church denounced Marcion, his attitude has lingered to this day.
If we believe the truth that “the Son is the exact representation of the Father,” we must understand that the same powerful love that characterized Christ is also that of his heavenly Father. The fact that Jesus himself was there helping inspire Leviticus should color our reading of the book!
Taking that attitude, let’s look at some broad principles for how to read the laws of the Torah:
God only teaches what people are able to understand. That means that he spoke in a way that made sense to people 3000 years ago, and he modified his style as people changed over time. In Genesis, God let Jacob marry both Leah and Rachel, and both became mothers of the tribes of Israel. But in Leviticus God gave the law that a man should not marry a woman and her sister, and later the New Testament clarifies the fact that God’s ultimate intention is that one man marries one woman.
God didn’t try to change Jacob and his culture all at once, he did it gradually over many years. This is like a parent who speaks one way to a 4 year old, and another way to a 14 year old. God was patient with his people and knew that humans can only change little by little. (Although we think we can handle all his teaching at once!) If we see what people were thinking at the time, and then what God was teaching them in the language they understood, we can see the purpose and importance of his Torah.
God is teaching inner attitudes by shaping outward action. The word Torah, which we translate to “Law,” has a negative sense to many Christians. But the word in Hebrew actually means instruction or guidance. A teacher is a morah and his/her teaching is torah. It has the sense of pointing, as in aiming an arrow to hit a target. God uses his laws to teach his people who he is, what good and evil is, and how to live life the way it was meant to be lived.
Behind every regulation is a principle of what our hearts should be like inwardly. Parents use that kind of teaching with their children too. Think of the fact that we train our children to say “Please” and “Thank You.” We aren’t just doing that to add another rule to their lives or to conform them to social expectations. As a child learns the habit of “please and thank you,” the attitude of consideration of other’s desires and gifts is also learned.
God teaches great truths about himself to these people by how he shows them to live. For instance, when God tells them to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to harvest, he is teaching them to care for the less fortunate. When he gave them the laws of the Sabbath he was teaching them to trust him to take care of them one day out of the week, they can rest from their own advancement and rest in his care. They also learned compassion for their servants, animals and foreign laborers who unable to rest unless they let them do so. Both of these ideas were radical ideas of that age, in which foreigners were exploited and resting one day out of seven was unheard of.
So what was God teaching them? Of the many things God taught them, the most important was that he is the true God of the Universe, and he is sovereign. The ancient world largely believed in territorial gods that were responsible for the fortune of the peoples who worshiped them. Religious worship was not for the sake of the god, it was to ensure fertility and prosperity of the people.
Idols were set up, and incantations were used to induce the god to enter the idol, and fertility rites used to get the god to cause crops to grow and animals to breed. Behind this is a pagan understanding that gods are able to be manipulated by the power of incantation and magic to obey man’s desire for prosperity. There was also very little thought about the god being moral and decreeing moral laws that we should obey. Their “gods” were to be manipulated into serving man’s needs, but people lived the way they desired.
The true God starts to challenge this in every encounter Israel has with him. He makes a covenant with them that they would obey his laws and not the other way around. He will not be manipulated when they set up the golden calf idol, even though they were trying to invoke his presence through it. He replaces the pagan incantations and fertility rites by giving them detailed instructions on how to make a tabernacle and objects to worship him.
While other cultures had similar forms, a revolutionary change took place: in the middle of the Holy of Holies there was no idol, but rather a chest containing his Covenant as well as evidence of his salvation in the form of manna and Aaron’s budding staff. This amazing concept of an invisible God with moral laws who would save his people was also unimaginable in the ancient world. This was a radical new way of thinking for them.
So as we read Leviticus, the challenge is to find God’s teaching that underlies the ancient laws. Even though we are not under the sacrificial system, and Jesus was the final sacrifice, we can learn from it what God felt was important and apply it to our lives. Because Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, we can tell if we have been learning what God is teaching us if our lives resemble that of Jesus more and more.
Photos: Dimnent chapel [Public domain]