Now a bit about that one book...
Why is this book so repetitive?
The book of Leviticus was given to the people of Israel roughly 3,500 years ago, but it wouldn’t be for many centuries later that Israel’s scribes would actually begin to make written copies of it. Even then, these copies were very difficult to get your hands on. What did this mean for Israel? For almost 2,000 years, Leviticus, along with the rest of the Mosaic Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy) was being passed down orally. In other words, if you really wanted to know this book, you had to memorize it by hearing someone else recite it from memory.
Now, stories like those found in Genesis, Exodus, etc. are much easier to remember than your nation’s entire legal code! Thankfully, while this would have been no easy task in the slightest, the repetitive style of Leviticus made it much easier to memorize!
But what does that have to do with us? For God to give His law to Israel in this style already tells you something about His character: God assists us in our limitations as humans to work with us in such a way that we can participate in what He’s up to! Our God doesn’t simply scrap the project; rather He accommodates for our needs as imperfect creations.
Isn’t this book outdated and..you know, just for those people back then?
The world looked completely different 3,500 years ago. If we could get a glimpse into what things were like, we would quickly begin to notice that many of the customs and practices people were involved in were shockingly violent and brutal. This is the world Leviticus is interacting with, and thus it deals with many of these things. In fact, Leviticus can sound quite disturbing in its own right. For example, we find a passage that seems to suggest that we should pluck out our neighbor’s eye (assuming that they did it to us first, of course)!
You’ve probably heard the expression born out of this idea: “an eye for an eye." In fairness, it’s easy to draw conclusions from this verse that either justify avenging ourselves or make God sound like a bloodthirsty deity who condones violence, but both of these infamous reactions are missing the point.
In the ancient world, people were very tribal. Different tribes were often at war with each other. These violent conflicts could often be traced back to two original families that had some kind of dispute; perhaps it began with an accident that took someone’s life or damaged a family’s property. Things would often escalate from generation to generation until you had large scale quarreling that began as something smaller.
Leviticus makes these endless cycles of people getting back at each other, always having to get the last laugh or say the last word, impossible. Think about it; if the worst you were allowed to do is equally repay the damages someone else had done to you, how could strife between individuals and families ever get blown out of proportion? The heart behind this idea is not actually barbaric or outdated in the slightest – the modern world could use principles like this.
Isn’t it just a long book of commands? How helpful could that really be?
The earliest religions were born out of several factors, one of which was a reaction to their basic need for survival. This was especially true as it relates to unpredictable weather patterns and extreme climate conditions. The environment had to be suitable for you and your animals, and your crops were equally dependent on these external variables.
Of course, fertility is also absolutely essential to the survival of people and animals, and immunity from life-threatening diseases is equally necessary. In a world that had discovered very little of what we now know thanks to modern science, people were quick to notice that their lives were dependent on unseen forces.
Naturally, whatever you are dependent on has a great deal of power over you. You needed these forces “on your side,” so to speak. This is a huge problem, because these forces were invisible and untouchable; the best you could do was pray to them and ask them for help. But what if they didn’t hear you (and Lord knows they weren’t going to! See 1 Kings 18:26-29)? Then you might try to offer them some of your crops. And if that didn’t work? You’d move on to offering your smaller animals.
When things were going well, you still felt like you needed to thank these forces; even then, you had no idea how much they expected from you. These forces became your gods, but they never talked back to you. They never showed you the right way to relate to them.
Leviticus is entirely different. It told Israel exactly what to do and what the One True God expected from them. God not only reveals Himself to us; He makes it absolutely clear to us how we can know Him and be involved in what He’s up to in this world.
How is this book any different from the other ancient, barbaric practices?
By now, we’ve seen that making sacrifices was pretty much the norm for all ancient religions, including the religious practices of Israel. So what’s the real benefit in having a law that demands that you do things you were already doing?
For those who first received the Law, it might have been even more shocking when they noticed what Leviticus didn’t command than what it did.
In the ancient religions, people were always trying to guess where they stood with their gods based on how favorable their life circumstances were. As we’ve already discussed, they might start with a small offering from their crops, and if things didn’t get any better, they would keep offering more and more until they had even offered up their most prized livestock.
But what were you to do if none of that fixed anything? You might start to harm yourself; you might even feel like you needed to offer up your own child.
Now, if that sounds absurd to you – first of all, I’m glad it does! But try to imagine: if you were absolutely convinced that your entire family would not survive unless you offered the gods something more, there’s a chance you might take drastic measures.
This is the drama that colors the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a story about the faith of Abraham, but consider what kind of impact a story like this would have on a community that thought of the gods as bloodthirsty and vindictive. There would be no doubt that this God, the One True God, is different – He’s the God who doesn’t want me to give up my child!
Leviticus tells us the same thing about God. It does not even hint at self-harm or child sacrifice as ways to earn the favor of God. What we find in Leviticus is a religion that differs drastically from the rest of the ancient world, and this is one of its fundamental messages: it is much better to serve this God than any other, because He is the God who will never lead us into meaningless suffering and pain.
This message is still applicable for us today – very much so! The false idols that compete for our hearts are just as willing to consume us as the false gods of old, and sadly, many are willing to sacrifice their time, money, family, and even a relationship with God Himself to chase after them.
How would Israel have felt about having to follow so many commands?
One might imagine that dealing with the false gods of the ancient world must have been a nightmare. They were always envisioned as being power-hungry and cruel, manipulating humans to do their bidding. If that wasn’t already enough, there was no way of knowing what mood they were in or what to do to avoid getting on their bad side. There was a tremendous amount of insecurity in the old ways of religion.
Leviticus offered a revolutionary way of relating to God. Just by having a concrete, unchanging law, the Israelites never had to guess where they stood with Him. Certainly, there are many commands in the book of Leviticus – God wasn’t messing around! – but this would have only increased Israel’s appreciation for the Law!
Think about it this way. Have you ever been in a complex, difficult situation and wondered how God would want you to go about it? Perhaps you were wrestling with questions about where to send your kids to school, whether or not you should buy a home closer to family, or trying to make a decision about an attractive job offer (maybe this job offer came from a church you love and you were going to have to move back from Chicago to take it!). You may have carefully searched your Bible for something that spoke explicitly about what you were dealing with and said to yourself, “I wish there was a verse for this!”
Now imagine there really was a verse that told you exactly what to do in every situation. That is exactly how Israel would have felt about Leviticus! This is a book that not only shows God’s people how to be in a healthy – and holy! - relationship with Him, but it also gave guidance in virtually every aspect of ancient Jewish living.
There is a powerful message behind every word of Leviticus, and it is only made more clear, beautiful, and praiseworthy in Christ: we no longer have to guess where we stand with God. For those who are in Christ, there is absolute assurance that He is with us and He is for us!