The Story of the Torah, part 3—Leviticus

God took the initiative to provide a way to reconcile his relationship with rebellious Israel. He invited them to live in his holy presence despite their sin, through a series of rituals and sacred institutions. Leviticus is all about God’s grace!

  • The purpose of the laws isn’t to show people how to earn God’s favor.
  • The purpose of the laws in the storyline of the Torah is to show that Israel is unable to follow them.
  • God allowed the blood of sacrifices to substitute for the life of the human who offered it.

The Book of Leviticus is a solution. So what is the problem it’s solving? Remember that the Torah is one big story, not five separate books. The problem is presented by the entire second half of the book of Exodus: God had wanted his glorious presence to live in the Tabernacle in the midst of the people in a reboot of the Garden of Eden. But just like in the Garden, the people’s sin damaged that relationship and even Moses could not enter the tent (Exodus 40:35). The book of Leviticus is the answer to that problem. It’s about how God graciously provided a way for sinful, corrupt people to live in his holy presence.

The Book of Leviticus presents three main solutions to the relational rupture between God and Israel: rituals, priests, and purity laws. The sections are arranged symmetrically (rituals, priests, purity, purity, priests, rituals) with the important Day of Atonement festival in the center of the book.

The purpose of all of these laws is to make people holy, just like God is holy (11:45 and 19:1). If the people can obey these laws and allow themselves to be shaped by them, they will become holy. This is a new method to accomplish God’s original plan, when he shaped human beings out of dirt to be his image. In Leviticus, God is doing another act of creating human beings in his image to be his people.

When we use the word ‘holy’ in English, we are usually speaking about someone’s moral behavior, and it’s often derogatory in everyday speech. But in the Bible, ‘holy’ just means ‘to be separate’ or ‘to be distinct.’ God is holy because he is the ultimate distinct being in the universe—nothing else is like him. When God shows up in person, the space around him becomes holy and set apart because it’s filled with his own life, power, and purity. Sin is destroyed in God’s holy presence, also destroying whatever is carrying the sin along with it. Somehow, Israel has to get the sin off of themselves before they can come into God’s holy presence.

Part I: rituals

Rituals are symbolic behaviors packed with religious meaning. Leviticus tells about two categories of rituals: sacrifices (killing animals and performing symbolic actions with their blood) and festivals (setting apart certain days to retell stories about their relationship with God).

Ritual sacrifices (ch. 1–7)

There were five types of sacrifices. The grain offering and fellowship offering were voluntary acts of worship to say “Thank you” to God. The sin offering and guilt offering were mandatory acts of atonement for specific sins to say “I’m sorry” to God. And the burnt offering was in the middle. It was a voluntary way of saying “I’m sorry” and showed commitment and complete surrender to God. The three animal sacrifices were for atonement, resulting in the forgiveness of sins (4:26).

Atonement is a Bible word that we don’t use in everyday life. It’s the process by which two parties who are at odds with each other become resolved to each other. They are set “at one” with each other. The Hebrew word is the picture of covering over or wiping something out. Let’s say we’ve gone to dinner together but you forgot to bring your debit card to pay for your meal. I say, “No problem, I’ll cover you.” That’s atonement.

But how does the bloody death of an animal atone for sin? It’s a substitution. Just like I came between you and the restaurant for the purpose of wiping out your debt, so God allows the life of the animal to pay for the life-debt of the sinner. It seems barbaric today, but the gravity of the sin that we have unleashed into the world is serious. It’s a matter of life and death.

This is the main New Testament picture for the way we are forgiven. Any talk of blood comes right back to the Book of Leviticus, so it’s unfortunate so many Bible readers skip right over this book because of its difficult cultural context.

Ritual calendar (ch. 23–27)

Israel was also to keep a full calendar of sacred days, all of which were designed to help Israel remember who they are and who their God is. Each of the seven yearly festivals retold a different part of the story of how God redeemed Israel and led them through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

Part II: the priesthood

God’s plan was for the nation of Israel to be a kingdom of priests, that is, mediators between God and the rest of humanity. But they had already demonstrated their own failure to keep the covenant with God, so they needed their own mediators. Israel became a kingdom with priests instead. These were unique people set apart to enter God’s holy presence on behalf of the rest of Israel.

Ordination (ch. 8–10)

Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons were chosen by God to be these priestly mediators and were ordained in an elaborate ceremony that marked them as holy (ch. 8). But then there is a story about two priests who violated God’s holiness and were destroyed (ch. 10), a reminder of the seriousness of the problem of carrying sin into God’s holy presence.

Qualifications (ch. 21–22)

The qualifications for being a priest involved a higher degree of moral integrity, kind of like the way we expect people in certain professions today to behave a cut above everyone else. The priests were always “on duty” in that sense.

Part III: purity

All the people themselves were also to be a “cut above” the behavior of the surrounding nations. When other people looked at Israelites and knew they were worshipers of Yahweh, God wanted them to get a glimpse of himself through the Israelites. The purity laws were symbolic and moral guidelines that marked Israel as unique among the nations, set apart for God’s purposes (18:1–5).

Ritual purity (ch. 11–15)

Some of these purity laws were ritual, symbolic practices that reminded Israel that every part of their life was lived in God’s holy presence, not just when they came to worship. They could be near God’s presence when they were in a pure condition, but not when they were in an impure condition. They needed to know which condition they were in at any given moment.

Any contact with things connected to death (like dead bodies, skin disease, blood, or bodily fluids) rendered a person impure, and thus not able to enter God’s holy presence. But being impure was not a sin. Impurity did not require sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. An impure person usually just had to wait a few days, take a bath or wash his clothes, and then was pure again. What was wrong, however, was barging into God’s holy presence when in an impure state. These are all conditions for coming into God’s holy presence, just like the U.S. Secret Service has certain conditions before someone can be in the same room with the President.

Moral purity (ch. 18–20)

Some of these purity laws were about moral integrity, calling the people to a higher level of behavior that set them apart from the other nations. They focus on sexual integrity, social justice, and right relationships within the family and community.

Part IV (ch. 16–17): The Day of Atonement

At the center of the Book of Leviticus is the most important ritual for Israel, the Day of Atonement.

Throughout the year, the people were supposed to atone for all of their sins with sacrifices. But, odds are, not every sin was going to be covered in that way, so the Day of Atonement was for all those unconfessed sins. The priest took two goats and symbolically placed all the sins of Israel on them. Then one was killed and its blood brought directly into God’s holy presence in the Tabernacle to atone for all the sins of all the people. The second animal was cast out into the wilderness, taking the sin of the people with it. This one was called the “scapegoat.”

These symbols are explained in chapter 17. These sacrifices were not Israel’s efforts to appease an angry God, like the way the pagan nations made sacrifices. Rather, they were given by a gracious God who loves his people. He wanted to show Israel just how serious and destructive their moral corruption really was as well as just how much he wanted to save them and restore his relationship with them. God’s desire is to remove sin and its consequences so he and human beings can live together in peace.

The book of Leviticus began with God calling to Moses from the Tent of Meeting. Moses couldn’t enter because the sin of the people had created a barrier between human beings and God. The next book, Numbers, begins with God speaking to Moses in the Tent of Meeting. The solutions in the book of Leviticus worked!