Leviticus: Chapters 1-7
If you've ever taken the time to read Leviticus then you will notice right out of the gate that God's instructions to Moses seem rather odd given that they are stranded in the desert. Every time I read Leviticus, I cannot help but think that God's instructions to the people are a little misplaced. It hasn't been that long ago that they were fleeing from captivity in Egypt only to find themselves camped in the desert nowhere near their final destination--the land that God promised Abraham and his descendants.
God established a sacrificial system with Moses, one where the people are required to sacrifice animals, grains, oil, and herbs. Each sacrifice is proscribed for a specific atonement: sacrifice of well-being, unintentional sins both personal and communal, lack of civic duty, the touching of unclean objects, deceit of a neighbor, lying, bearing false witness, robbery, fraud, guilt, thanksgiving, and more. Sounds like a daunting list. All of these activities were meant to mitigate the sinful nature of man and remind each of their responsibility to one another and to God.
What do we make of this system, though? After all, we are talking about the sacrificing of a lot of animals. Sheep, goats, bulls, rams, oxen, turtle doves, and pigeons. The text doesn't just tell us to sacrifice these animals in certain circumstances, but provides graphic details on how to slaughter the animal, what to do with the blood, the entrails, and more. And so, when I ask the question, "What do we make of this system?" I do not ask that question lightly.
What does this system say about God? What does this system say about the devotion of the Israelite people to a God that would require such a system? And, most importantly, how do we reconcile the mandate from God to sacrifice animals in Leviticus with later proclamations from God to NOT sacrifice animals. Isaiah 1:11-14 states -
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[b] who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more! 13 Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
The writers of the Hebrew text are capturing a profound shift in the way in which God is portrayed in each age. In forming the tribes of Israel and bringing them out of Egypt, the writers of the text show God as a disciplinarian. God is instructing the people in what it means to be holy, to be set apart from all that they once knew in the land of Egypt and what they will come to know in the land in which they are headed. As time goes on, what God is more concerned about than the letter of the law is the spirit of the law. It is one thing to sacrifice animals as an act of contrition, but if this act does not change the heart of the one making the sacrifice, then it is of no use.
By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, God is instructing the people of Israel to change their hearts. God is saying, "I don't care anymore about your festivals, about your sacrifices, about the stench of blood that I smell coming up from the altar in the temple, what I really want to see are your lives changed. I want to know that you are a compassionate, kind, people who care about others. Are you feeding people? Are you clothing people? Are you caring for widows and orphans? Are you gathering to you the resident aliens that live among you?" These questions get at the heart of what God tried to teach the Israelites through the sacrificial system; what their hearts could not fully comprehend.
In many ways, the sacrifices made by the people became such rote behavior, much like our response to the question, "How are you?" Response: "Fine, and you?" In our hearts we no longer believe that anyone really wants to hear how we are actually doing, it is a question we ask out of politeness. I don't know that God wants us to be polite. Instead, I think God is asking us to be transparent. When we strip away all the excess, all the armor that we drape on ourselves, all of the masks that we like to hide behind, then we come face to face with the reality of who we really are. All the laws that God sets forth in Leviticus are designed to bring this level of awareness to the individual. It is only then that we are able to change how we live; to be transformed.