(This week, it is my privilege to welcome a guest blogger to The Oasis, my good friend and Leviticus expert, David Matthews. There is no one I know who has a more fluid knowledge of this central book of the Torah.
The morbid descriptions of animal sacrifice in Leviticus seem to have nothing to do with our future, or our hope. The best we hope these texts can do for us is to help shape our understanding of the world that was, and possibly give an appreciation for the world that is now.
In more simple language, we think to ourselves: “Thank goodness Jesus came, otherwise we would have to actually do these burdensome, horrific things.”
Yes, this is our attitude, which is driven by a lack of understanding; even a lack of sympathy. We don’t seek to relate to these texts. Rather, we seek to distance ourselves from them. At the least, we are uncomfortable considering them. But, if we would pay attention, we’d find a rich narrative pouring out of them that would connect to our very day to day life.
One reason we lack sympathy or understanding is because of a descriptive element that is lacking in the Hebrew Bible itself: a critique of Israel’s ability (or lack thereof) to keep up with the demands of the sacrificial system. There are a few, such as in Malachi, where the lambs being brought to the altar are blind or lame (Mal.1:8).
More often than not, any critiques of this system in the Bible are generally centered upon God’s displeasure with the nation offering sacrifices to other gods, or in the wrong manner, and not in the way the sacrifices themselves were performed. In other words, it’s about offering too many sacrifices, and not too few!
Other critiques of the system, familiarized within the various form of Replacement Theology, are found in the Bible in which the sacrificial system is contrasted with the people’s failure to obey other commandments, such as doing justice, honoring the poor, or violence against one’s brother.
In other words, when it came to God’s commandments, the sacrifices were not the hard part. The hard part (as it still is today) is living rightly in our day-to-day lives. Being generous, kind and just was equally difficult for ancient Israel as for us.
The performance of ritual is certainly easier than walking in righteous conduct. Nonetheless, these rituals are still very important.
Through rituals, we embody the story we want to live to enable ourselves to be/live better. This is something that we an all relate to: both the importance and relative ease of our own habitual systems, and the difficulty of living those core values out.
Looking at the text itself, for instance, we see a detailed explanation of the shelamim offering, or the “well-being” offering in both Leviticus chapters 3 and 7. The specific details focus on the parts of the animal that belong to the altar or to the priests as well as the procedures of the ritual. However, the text doesn’t tell us how the person offering the animal would have felt about bringing it to be slaughtered. Yet, this is a critical detail to know if we are going to understand what part sacrifices play in the life of the people, generally.
Even if sacrifices are the “easy part of the commandments”, does this mean that the people enjoy them? To find out, we need look elsewhere in the Bible.
In the book of Exodus, when Pharaoh and Moses are negotiating the release of the people to perform sacrifices to the God of Israel in the wilderness, Pharaoh describes the people as “lazy” (Ex.5:15). This is a profound insight. Those who are about to sacrifice are characterized as relaxed, and not loaded down with work, stress, guilt or fatigue. This is because sacrifices were not burdensome; they were welcomed as a delight.
In the contest between Pharaoh and Moses, sacrificing is regarded as a family affair. Moses required that the entire family be together in order to celebrate this feast to the God of Israel. He would not settle for only the men going out to celebrate. Nor (as it follows) would it make sense for all the family to arrive without flocks and herds. They had to have food (mmm…lamb…tasty) in order to enjoy the celebration.
Moses refuses Pharaoh’s conditions.
A community-wide celebration without sacrifice is like a family Thanksgiving without a turkey. It just doesn’t work.
In fact, this is the best way for us to relate to Leviticus today. July 4th with hamburgers and hot dogs. Thanksgiving and turkey. Sunday potluck with the folks in the neighborhood. These modern traditions in our culture carry the same elements and cultural weight that the Levitical sacrifices would have carried. Good food, friends and family bound together with common tradition.
Obtaining and sacrificing the shelamim offering was not a burden in its day any more than obtaining a turkey for Thanksgiving is considered a burden today.
There’s a cost to it that is unique to the occasion, and even a level of inconvenience, but a burden? No.
In other words, the offerings are far more relatable to what we do every day as human beings than we have probably ever thought of. Even though we commonly outsource the labor of preparing the “offering” (we go to the supermarket for our turkey, which a butcher has already prepared for us), the same process of inspecting, obtaining, and preparing is in view. And ultimately, they both serve the same foundational purpose: connecting with the LORD, connecting with each other, and even with our culture in ways that are sustained over the centuries.
Not only are these things from Leviticus relatable to today, they also bring hope for our future. The prophetic testimony on this is astoundingly vivid. Zechariah, for instance, draws a bustling image of Jerusalem in full party mode:
“And on that day, there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the LORD”. The pots in the house of the LORD shall be as the bowls before the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the LORD of hosts so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them.” (Zech.14:20-21)
Why are the bells on the horses marked with “Holy to the LORD”? Because they will be transporting the meat out to the suburbs of Jerusalem and throughout all of Judah. These are the delivery services that carry meat from the Temple to the place a family is staying outside of the city. Jerusalem is so full that most have to get a place way out in the suburbs and into the cities nearby. The Temple is so full that the worship celebration extends into the outer environs and the cities surrounding Zion.
This is not a small gathering. These are (we must see this) the communities of the world taking turns assembling in Israel for a constant, ongoing party; a messianic July 4th, if you will, a messianic Thanksgiving, and international family event. It represents a profound state of peace and unity under the God of Israel.
Jesus died to ensure the fulfillment of the vision we see here in Zechariah. And consider this:
“….And there will no longer be a merchant (some versions say Canaanite) in the house of the LORD of hosts in that day.” (Zech.14:21)
According to the gospel accounts, when Jesus arrived for his final week, he came to the Temple and purged it of merchants. He overturned their tables. He made a whip and chased them out. He loudly complained about their presence, which had perverted the very function of the space. And this act, the crowds brought the blind and the lame to Jesus for healing.
Over the following days, Jesus was questioned intently by a variety of groups: the priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees. The question: By what authority did he do this?
The cleansing of the Temple of the money-changers by Jesus resonated with these men. They recognized that he was claiming to be able to initiate the vision of Zechariah, removing merchants from the Temple, and initiating a period of unprecedented prosperity and unity under God…the Messianic Era.
“…Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn.2:19)
The connection to the death, burial and resurrection is obvious. But we must not ignore the connection his words have to the Temple itself. Jesus warned of the impending destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans. If this destruction is symbolic of all of Israel and enacted through the death of Christ, then the resurrection of Christ also points to the restoration and rebuilding of the Temple as well, in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy.
The destruction of the Temple and its service without the hope of its restoration is equivalent to the death of Christ without a resurrection. The two ideas cannot be separated.
The death of Jesus is celebrated by believers not because he died, but because the grave could not keep him. He rose again. We cling to this vital truth as a guarantee of the full restoration of all things: our communities, families, even our health, and yes, even the ability to “barbecue” with the Most High.
We need to learn to relate to Leviticus, rather than be repulsed by it. This revitalized approach to this central book of the Torah is a path forward from the text to our own humanity. It’s a profound way of understanding and appreciating its story and the connection to our own.
Without that connection, we lose out on the scope of redemption itself and the bits of that redemption that we can taste now.
Above: David Matthews and his lovely bride Jessica