Updated: Dec 21, 2018
My maternal grandmother kept an immaculate house. Everything had its place. As an adult with 4 children, I look back on the tidiness of her home with envy. As a young child, I looked at the tidiness of her home with fear and trembling. There was a small pond immediately behind her house. I loved to fish in that little pond, but occasionally while walking down to the pond my shoes or pants would get a little muddy. I would try to enter the house through the garage and my grandmother would yell from the down the hallway, “Take off your shoes!” And somehow, I’ve never figured out how she knew, but she would know whether my muddy pants needed to come off. My grandmother didn’t care that I found it very embarrassing to have to take off my pants in the garage, but there were rules to entering grandmother’s house. The dirty grandchild was loved but the dirty grandchild was not allowed to enter without getting clean.
The book of Leviticus, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written by Moses. It is God’s instruction for how an impure people can live in the presence of a holy God. Leviticus explains what is necessary for the sinful Israelite to live in a covenant relationship with a holy God. This is often a difficult book to understand because the ritual and the requirements stipulated in it are so foreign to our modern minds. The concepts of sin and holiness, sacrifice and atonement, and uncleanness and purity do not always find ready analogs in our lives today. But the themes presented in Leviticus are ones that re-emerge throughout the New Testament and find their fulfillment in Christ. So understanding the book of Leviticus is important if we want to understand the Old Testament background to the New Testament.
Three important themes in Leviticus are 1) the Divine Presence, 2) Holiness, and 3) Atonement through Sacrifice. The act of worship was to be done “to the LORD” (Lev. 1:2). The tabernacle of meeting, described in Exodus, was the place where this was to happen. It was the place were God would most readily manifest his visible glory (e.g. Lev 9:23, 24). The greatest delight and privilege of the Israelite is that God would dwell with them. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11, 12).
The requirement of God for his people to be in his presence was holiness. “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to by your God. You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). Man is made in the image of God. He is, in a manner, to reflect the nature and character of God. God is holy, so man is to be holy. Holiness requires an exhibition of the purity and perfection of God’s character in physical, spiritual, and moral areas. The laws about cleanliness and uncleanliness in Leviticus 11-16 are often confusing to many people. Why does the Bible have bodily discharges and mold in houses? When we understand that holiness is comprehensive to all life because holiness is based in the perfection of God’s character, it begins to be clearer. How you relate to one another, how you love one another, how you worship, and how you give of your wealth all relate to the holiness reflected in God’s perfection. All that we are comes from God. All that is in God is perfect. All that we are must conform to God’s perfection.
This demand for holiness is impossible. It was impossible for my 10 year old self to remain clean enough to enter my grandmother’s home. But my grandmother loved me. And she provided a way for me to get clean. God loves his people. And he provides a way of atonement. Atonement comes through sacrifice. The sacrificial system is described in chapters 1-7 and the role of priests in chapters 8-10. (The name of the book of Leviticus comes from the Latin which means “about the Levites.” The Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel.) The great national feasts are detailed in Leviticus 16, 23, & 25. Some of these feasts were the Day of Atonement, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Year of Jubilee. The Day of Atonement was the one day the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice for the people. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated when God separated the people from Egyptians and called them to live a holy life. The Year of Jubilee was a time when God set the people free from their bondage and slavery to various debtors. These symbols, rites, and festivals were meant to point to the redemption that God offered the people. That redemption is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is the perfect High Priest who offers up the perfect sacrifice, his own life, as an atonement for sin. Through that perfect offering, an imperfect people can dwell in the presence of a holy God.