There is the actual narrative of the Torah, and there is also, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is fond of saying, the counter-narrative, or the lesson and picture that begs to be discovered beneath the literal surface. In the counter-narrative of Leviticus is the story of God’s relationship with His people, and how He demands to be approached. It is the tension between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God, and it portrays the difficulties which are inherent with the idea of imperfect, mortal human beings entering near the presence of an eternal, perfect, Divine being.
If God were to fully reveal Himself, there is no way that man could exist in His presence.
“…for no man can see Me and live!” (Ex.33:20)
“Truly, You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, Savior!” (Is.45:15)
The Temple serves as a point of contact for God to dwell among His people, hidden behind the veil, seated upon the measureless space between the cherubim over the Ark of the Testimony, facilitated by His priests. But the counter-narrative of Temple, which is created by man through God’s instructions to Moses in order for man to draw near to God, is that God must limit, or restrict Himself, in order for man to do so. By the same token, man must restrict and limit himself in order to attain the holiness of enduring in the presence of holy space. As Rabbi Sacks says,
“The holy is where transcendence becomes immanence, where, within the universe, we encounter the presence of the One beyond the universe. Holiness is the space we make for God.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2015, pg.19)
But the space of holiness, when it comes to Temple, starts in a place, and then radiates outward. This concept of holiness is adopted by the apostles and by the Rabbis as an idea that transcends Temple, and becomes immanent in the hearts and minds of God’s people. Contrary to modern Christian thought, the idea of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God is not a Christian teaching, it is a Jewish one.
But this suggests a counter-narrative: If, ultimately, God is at home in the heart of man (by invitation), how is it that there are particularities to the holiness of the physical space and service of the Tabernacle/Temple? Particularities that are unique to that space and which don’t exist in other domains? Is holiness related to a space, or a state? Or does it pertain to both?
Further, and more troublesome, does a person, by virtue of attaining holiness, automatically make everything else unholy?
One of the main purposes of Israel, Her destiny if you will, is to be a “priestly nation” (Ex.19:6) Does the holiness of Israel (her set-apartness) render the rest of the nations unholy by default?
To a certain extent, yes, as we see evidenced by such terms as Gentiles (which connotes inherent paganism), which the Jews used to differentiate themselves from those outside the “tribe”. However, we see other boundary markers related to this idea, but which designate different characteristics, such as when Paul, in the book of Romans, discusses the Israel which lives in faith versus the Israel which is such by the accident of birth, if you will. He seems to create boundary markers which are related to the “God within” concept, and not according to the physical space of Jewish identity, even while at other points making clear distinctions between a Jew and a non-Jew in their relationship to the covenental status of a Jew under the Sinai covenant. In similar ways, the Talmudic sages separate the Jew who merits the World to Come from those who don’t in various ways and with similarly overlapping and conflicting boundary markers.
It can all become very confusing to figure out where one boundary ends and the other begins. There are, as a result, a good many debates through the centuries concerning what and who is holy, and about who and by what criterion are the people of God. But there is very little understanding of what holiness or “membership” actually is, in a biblically holistic way.
There are some who say that only a follower of Yeshua (Jesus) who is “born-again” of the Spirit of God is truly “Israel”. Of course, this can’t be true. The very term “born-again” is a Jewish term which indicates the awaking of the divine spark within a man; what is called his godly soul by the kabbalists. Does this mean that Paul was not a Jew until he met Christ? That’s what this belief implies, and yet Paul’s own testimony refutes this idea. Likewise, there are also some who contend that all Jews are exempt from the claims of the Messiah, by virtue of being Jewish. Neither the apostles nor the sages support this notion either.
Nonetheless, most evangelicals today believe with firm conviction that only a Christian who is “born-again” has a real relationship with God. No one else can. It is based upon such verses as,
“…I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (Jn.14:6)
The idea of exclusivity is a result of a lack of understanding of God’s dealings with His children. And not all children share the same slice of inheritance. But, you may reasonably protest, saying “The verse is cut and dry, Dave. Are you suggesting that there are many paths to God?” No, I am not. I am staying very close to the testimony of the Bible.
Yeshua spent his entire ministry teaching about the kingdom of God, which was and is defined by the pursuit of God, His ways and the willingness to allow Him to have rule over one’s life. The kingdom is both transcendent and imminent. It is a future hope and at once a present reality which can be “taken hold of”.
If a Jew has been blinded to the truth of Yeshua as Messiah, and yet in all ways possible truly pursues the kingdom of God, seeking with all his heart, soul and strength to love his God and his brother, as the Torah commands, how could a just God reject him?
More to the point, and less philosophically, to think such a man could be estranged from his God based on a doctrinal conviction inherited by a tradition of interpretation within Protestantism, is to violate the Lutheran creed of Sola Scriptura, and entirely ignore the eternal promises and declarations God made to His people concerning what is required of them to remain in covenant faithfulness. Yet, ironically, these same Protestants will derisively say that Judaism is a religion based on “traditions of men” and not God. The irony is satirically rich.
Christianity, with its heavy emphasis on dogmas and creeds, cannot allow for shades of gray, insisting on the confession of the “magic bullet”, the name of Jesus, for entrance into the exclusive club. In most Christian expressions, sadly, it has little to do with one’s behavior, worship practice, personal holiness or intent to follow God. It’s all about believing the correct information, knowing the correct verses, and following the correct traditions.
But, if replacement theology (such as the Reformed tradition) has any grounds at all to stand on (and a scriptural argument can be made for it, although not successfully), it would need to then take on all the obligations attendant to that state as well as the promises which come along with them. This means that the Church, if She has truly replaced Israel in terms of the kingdom hope and positive promises of the covenants, then God should do away with Israel and with Judaism, in the same way He saw fit to do away with the Levitical worship system, shouldn’t He? (I speak facetiously).
Yet, Judaism continues on as strong as ever, as does Israel, as now, in these last days, we have seen the miraculous rebirth of the nation of Israel and the flourishing of God’s people within the land.
There is something curious and also wonderfully mystifying about the whole affair.
A purist’s view of a restored Israel is not unlike a purist’s view of the kingdom of God, with a vision of all the inhabitants of the nation being devoutly and fastidiously Torah-observant and to the obedience of God’s commands, just as the purist’s vision within evangelicalism is for the “whole earth to be covered by the gospel”, with worldwide Revival being the gold ring which the Evangelical Movement ever seeks to grasp.
The reality is more sobering, and honestly, more in line with the biblical testimony.
What we actually see in Israel is a democratized miracle. A tense miracle which aches for peace and progress in human affairs, that is strained at times to the breaking point by its enemies without and within, and yet which makes space for all to successfully flourish within her borders. The Sabbath is enjoyed by the secular and religious alike, in their own distinct ways, and the land enjoys prosperity; a prosperity that shines upon the “good and bad alike”.
Because the apostles saw the followers of Yeshua Messiah as a type of humanized Temple on earth, it is common to view the particularities of holiness for a believer as some type of replacement for the holiness we see represented in Leviticus. But this would be a wrong way to view it. God, by sending His Son, did not render all else besides Him unholy. He simply created space for us to draw near.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph.2:13)
Drawing near to God through His Son does not make the place you came from non-existent. It simply changes your place.
You may fairly wonder at this point in the essay if I really know what I’m trying to say and perhaps wondering if I will ever get around to saying it. And yet I already have, if you’re paying attention.
To bring the point home, I want to highlight a passage from the Haftarah portion of Vayikra,
“The prince must neither seize (land) from the common people’s portion, nor rob their holdings. He may give his sons an inheritance only from his own holding, in order that My people will not be dispossessed of their holdings.” (Ezek.46:18)
This passage is part of a long narrative detailing the building of the Third Temple in the Messianic Age. It is of particular note, regarding this essay, that the Prince is not to overstep his boundaries in this matter, though he rules over all.
Because God has made promises to all His people, and has also made promises to the nations outside of Israel as well. However, the covenants and the oracles and the scriptures and the revelation of God Himself has been given to Israel, and to those who have been brought near to Israel by proxy through their association with and allegiance to the King of the Jews.
At the intersection of property boundaries on the Temple Mount, the inheritance of Benjamin and Judah collide, directly at the place where the Bronze altar stood.
But this does not diminish the importance of Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Reuben and all the other tribes of Israel. Nor does it diminish God’s love and concern for all the nations of the earth and the space He has blessed them to inhabit.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn.3:16)
It was God’s express desire and plan to raise up a nation set-apart for the work of the kingdom, to teach the nations how to draw near to the One True God.
The goal of the kingdom of God is not to make everyone into Jews, nor is it to make everyone into Christians. The goal is to teach the nations to forsake idolatry and wickedness and to align themselves morally and ethically in such a way that there is peace and goodwill toward all men. The Messiah is necessary because he makes up the difference in what we lack in terms of equipping towards this end.
But make no mistake: The point of the gospel is not to make everyone like you! And thank God for that. One of you is enough; just ask your family. But you are desperately needed just the same.
You have found a place in the kingdom, if you seek it with all your mind heart and strength. But remember that the other great principle in the Royal Law is to love your neighbor as yourself.
It is a powerful thing to consider that at the center of Leviticus, the book of holiness and distinction, is found the central pillar of ethical principles related to those outside the realm of our immediate circle of fellowship,
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”. (Lev.19:17-18)
“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex.23:9)
When we mature in our walk with God, we become aware that God has asked us, as servants of Him, to love and respect those who disagree with us. He asks us to serve those who don’t share our perspectives or even our values. He asks us to love even our enemies.
Leviticus is a journey of particulars, of specifics, of holiness. But it is, at the core, an education in drawing near to God, not in leaving others behind.
We have found a place before Him, but this is not a displacement of others who also belong to Him, too.
“I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.” (Jn.10:16)