In two rabbinic commentaries, the authors referred to the Book of Leviticus as ‘strange’. What they meant by this, is that it is foreign to us, concerned with issues which we cannot comprehend. Yet, if the Torah is the key to the Jewish Bible (it is) and if Leviticus is at the center of the Torah (it is) and if ancient literature is chiastic and gives pride of place to the middle (it does), then we can be very sure that Leviticus, however strange (or boring) we may find it, is very important to God.
Leviticus begins with an extremely detailed description of the different kinds of sacrifices which the priest was to make to God. Sin offerings and communion offerings, bulls, goats, grain are all mentioned. The repetition demonstrates that worship of God is important enough to be done right.
The sacrifices are important because of the Biblical understanding of God’s relationship to His people. This insight is as true today as it was three thousand years ago. The mechanism of this worship (sacrificing animals) is not something which makes sense to us at all; but we do well to recall that Jesus’ death on the cross is described as the fulfillment and perfection of the Temple sacrifices. [Since 70 AD they do not occur, the physical Temple was gone, but Jewish scholars began with Leviticus in their studies of Torah in the centuries after Christ because “spiritual” worship demanded it…]
The spiritual principles are still in force. The people of Israel entered the Promised Land in a covenant relationship with God. God said He would scour the land clean of the pagan practices which He abhorred. As such, the pagan practitioner were replaced by the Israelites. But God’s covenant was clear. You have been chosen because I love you, not because of anything you have done to earn it (with allusions to the promise to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). Yet, we read last week, the grace is not free; the covenant bond is an offer: LIFE and DEATH. Those who walk in His ways, love, obey, cling to God will live; those who walk away and turn to other gods and their pagan practices will die. (If you act like them you will be scoured away like them!)
Obedience to God means obedience to the Law. [Jesus’ teaching today reminds us that freedom is not lawlessness.] Leviticus makes clear that the Law consists of three interpenetrating streams: cultic/worship, personal ethic, and civic morality/social justice. The Jewish faith (and Christian) cannot accept the idea that worship and behavior are unrelated. You cannot worship if you are not living right, but living right without worship alienates one from God….
A central Biblical concern, and the primary concern of Leviticus, has to do with order. God separates and divides (we see this in Genesis 1, which was written by the same school of Priests—God divides day and night, water and land, etc.) The priest is duty driven to keep order and provide the rituals which keep the peace with God and each other.
The divisions are manifest in the dyads: holy/profane, permitted/forbidden, Divine/Human, Heaven/Earth and, of course, CLEAN and UNCLEAN.
Sanctifying time and space acknowledges our concrete existence, and our real relationship with God. The purpose of sacrifices in Leviticus includes two movements; it brings God down to us and brings us up to God. That is always the reason for worship. To commune with God, and it continues to be the purpose today!
God dwells among people of pure/clean heart. He resides among those who trust Him, love Him, and obey Him. Human sin is a God-repellant. He is pure and holy and no sin abides in Him. Nor does He abide with sin (look at 1 John which we read this week for the Christian take on that).
Because God is HOLY, we, too must be holy. (Jesus says ‘perfect’) WE receive it as a gift, God sets us aside and makes us holy; yet it is also a task, God demands that we walk in His ways and comply with His expectations. Grace never absolves us from discipline and fidelity.
Today, like then, we are a people of God, engaged in sacrifice. Ours is a spiritual sacrifice, offered in and through Jesus (or offered by Jesus in and through us, His body on earth). But to follow Jesus is not to escape the demands of Law, at least those which are still in effect. Jesus says that our dealing with others must be pure and good, self-giving even to the point of suffering. And when we suffer, He makes clear, we do not inflict pain on the other. It is an ethic of non-violent, self-denying love which imitates His ministry and Cross. Christians die for Jesus, we do not kill for Him.
So this incomplete reflection comes to an end. There is too little time to reflect on each command in Leviticus 19. Perhaps the verse we should end with is one which Jesus Himself was fond of quoting. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It summarizes everything. But that means we must read everything in order to understand what God means by the word ‘love’. Leviticus 19 is a start. The one who reads it looking for principles of behavior is a true disciple of the Jesus Matthew tells us about today. The depth of God’s intent for the world is revealed in Scripture, especially Torah. It includes right worship, right moral behavior, and right social interactions. It always has and always will; especially for us who have placed faith in Jesus.