The Heart of Leviticus

The enigmatic book of Leviticus is not a first choice for the Church to read or study, yet I’ve been taking my congregation through it (verse-by-verse…believe it or not) for our Wednesday Bible study.  Last night we covered its theological center (or heart) which can be found in chapter 16.  Lev. 16 concerns itself with the holiest day in Judaism: the Day of Atonement (in our day referred to as Yom Kippur).  As we discussed this amazing chapter last night, we conversed about the point of this fasting day for atonement in light of everything leading up to this chapter (the sacrifices, the ordination of priests and a high priest, what is “clean/unclean and holy/common”).

So what is the point?  The point can be found in a commonly used term in the sixteenth chapter (Lev.16:7, 16, 17, 20, 23, 33; and many other places elsewhere in the Torah): the tent of meeting (Heb. אֹהֶל מוֹעֵֽד).  This “tent of meeting” (or “tabernacle”) was intended for one purpose: to be the place where Yahweh, the God of Israel, met with Israel.  The presence of Yahweh was always the point.  This is emphatically stated in the first verse of chapter sixteen which reads: “The LORD said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.'” (NIV)  Yahweh made a way for His presence to remain and for the revelation of His presence in the midst of His people (without them simply being destroyed by the need to be “clean” and “holy”).

We quickly become lost in the regulations about purity and sacrifices.  We tend to think that such matters were primarily (or even only) concerned with sin.  Not so.  That was not so.  The point was presence and relationship.[1]  Yahweh longs for relationship and makes a way back for a people of His choosing who will do what is necessary to live in His presence.

This is also the point of the gospel.  The point is not about overcoming sins or being forgiven of sins.  That is only initiatory to being received into God’s presence…to having God with us (e.g., Immanuel) and even in us.  God desires a people to Himself (Rev.21:3) and has made the way to have such immediacy even in the face of His absolute otherness.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. (Heb.10:19-23 NET)

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[1] Gordon Wenham only includes the “presence of God” as one of the theological highlights of Leviticus, see his The Book of Leviticus (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 16-18; and John E. Hartley, Leviticus (WBC 4; Dallas: Word, 1992), lxiii-lxiv.

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