Recently, I have been reading and listening carefully to the book of Leviticus. For most of us, this book does not rank high on our favorite Bible book list. It is also the subject of unnecessarily heated debates about biblical authority. I’m not one whit interested in the debates. I simply want to share some fairly surface-level observations from my recent experience.
In a powerful way, Leviticus applies Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Yahweh is the Lord’s name. There is no other god and Israel will have no other gods.
The Lord’s people, obviously, belong to the Lord. Whatever else we might conclude about specific statutes on particular situations or conditions or relations, Leviticus makes clear that one of the central purposes of those regulations is to remind Israel of who is the Lord and that they belong to him. Some harsh language is reserved for the ones who prostitute themselves with other deities, like goat demons. The same vision applies to us. However we work out how to understand the Law in relation to the New Covenant, Leviticus reminds us, “Remember to whom you belong and don’t slip into looking like all the surrounding nations. If you’re going to enter into covenant with the one true God, then stay focused on God’s mission and don’t fall prey to aping the nations.” This exhortation seems especially apt for us Christians in this season.
Being God’s people means absolute loyalty to God because being God’s people means serving God’s mission. Idolatry is not simply a breaking of some arbitrary rule. It is a repudiation of our identity. It quite literally points to the impossibility of saying that we are God’s people then acting like we’re just like all the other nations. If there is no discernible difference between God’s people and those who are, as Paul says, “earthly minded,” then we fail God’s mission and deny our identity. One gets the sense, as one reads Leviticus, that so much about purity and impurity, clean and unclean, have to do with loyalty to the covenant. There is always the danger of aping the practices of pagan nations. God’s people need to be set apart to serve God’s purposes and the more we look like everyone else the more serving the mission becomes impossible to maintain.
Justice is proportional. We find the famous lex talionis in Leviticus – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so on. If you read that verse in context, you get a very clear picture that this law limits justice and seeks to eliminate revenge.
The Lord is a forgiving God. This is a major feature of the book and it is easy to overlook in all the trying to figure out the meaning and significance of all the instructions about sacrifice. Various kinds of offerings are enjoined precisely so that the people experience forgiveness. God seems determined to stay in relationship with a people who are known to be stiff-necked wanderers, just like us. We may find the specific instructions strange or hard to understand, but that forgiveness is the goal is unmistakeable.
I recommend careful, prayerful reading (and listening) to Leviticus. Of course, I would say that about every book of the Bible, but it seems like an extraordinarily good time for Christians to re-visit the Torah and to meditate on these statutes. In so many respects American Christianity has lost its way. We are not “a peculiar people,” as we are supposed to be or, maybe it’s better said, some of our peculiarity is downright sinful. Being God’s set apart people in the right way is of utmost importance. If we give it time and space in our hearts, Leviticus helps to light the way.