Leviticus: mercy is brutal
Our church is going through a one-year Bible reading for 2014. We are just about to finish Leviticus, which historically, is when the most people stop the reading. It makes sense. You start the year with cosmic creation narratives, family drama, and faced-paced adventures in Genesis, then move into a climactic rescue of millions of people in Exodus, replete with miraculous displays of power. These book-ends are a gourmet of stories, and leave you with an expectation of greater sequels. But to your dismay, Leviticus opens with seven brutal chapters of bloody sacrifice, not sparing any details, and organized in bullet-points. After several chapters, you are mentally exhausted, and recite the remainder with the same enthusiasm of a tax planner reading a 1099 form. Is it any wonder how easily a reader can become dislodged from the rest of the Bible? It’s the Old Testament speed bump. But Leviticus (and other similar books) is not a hopeless endeavor if you know how to read it. And part of reading Leviticus, means reading it in connection to the whole story of the Bible. Leviticus, in fact, is a vital part of that story. Let’s step into it for a moment…
You may have enjoyed Genesis and Exodus, with their overwhelming escapades, but now the story that captivated your heart at the beginning is shifting into a different style, and it’s answering a conflicting question at the same time. A question that was left hanging ambiguously in the air at the end of Exodus: how can a holy God dwell among sinful people? The answer punches you in the gut with the opening chapters. The price of God’s dwelling is holiness; and since Israel had none, the cost of His dwelling was sacrifice. And so Leviticus 1-7 lays out detailed instruction for various types of animal sacrifice for any given situation.
Now the thought of animal sacrifice surely sounds barbaric to many people. Why would God need something so bloody and horrific? You may even say, “A benevolent God should just let it go.” Yet this is not what you would expect from any upstanding judge in a criminal court–especially if he’s trying a case that is particularly awful. Most decent people cannot turn a blind eye towards the evil around them; when the defenseless in their company are oppressed, they often cry out for justice! But the most glaring inconsistency with this is that no one is righteous according to the Bible (Rom 3). We cry out for justice, yet with the hope that we will be the lone exception (punish the wicked, but show mercy on me!). We know that if the Bible is true, we would not be able to withstand a trickle of God’s blazing holiness. This is what the Israelites must have felt like when Leviticus was first written. The indictment of our sin is incredibly costly. When you glimpse the mess in the opening pages of Leviticus, you are looking into your own heart.
I want to present to you another angle to the story. Consider that instead of being a barbaric act, those Levitical sacrifices are the merciful side of God piercing through our sin. That there exists a God who would rather spill the blood of animals than see people made in His image be destroyed is an act of compassion. In fact, God even makes allowance for the poor of the community (those who cannot afford the appropriate sacrificial offering) to bring a cheaper form of sacrifice: “Two turtledoves or two young pigeons,” or “whatever he can afford” (Lev 14:22). Let me summarize that one more time: God even provides the sacrifice for sinners who cannot afford it. And there lies the shadow of the greater promise…
What this means for you.
Do you ever come into a community of believers pressured to muster up enough enthusiasm to worship, yet feel increasingly like you have nothing good to offer? Do you ever feel like you’ve done all you can do just to get out of bed and show up? You may be the “impoverished” version of what Leviticus speaks of, which means that God mercifully accepts the little that you have. In heaven, desperation is greater currency than enthusiasm, and spiritual poverty is the food of God–he cannot deny it (Psalm 51:17). This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount when he opened with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). That’s why Christianity is a movement of faith, not performance. What this means for you is access to God despite your spiritual bankruptcy.
The good news.
Leviticus, it turns out, is not barbaric. It is dripping with compassion. For the God who cannot look upon evil, has found a way to look upon us–nay, to embrace us. And when Leviticus closes, you will be left with God’s empathy on your lips, yet still an empty stomach, for the blood of animals cannot wash away your sins–it can only cover them until the next sacrifice. But as you veer through the beginning stages of the story, some pieces come together, and you realize that Leviticus is also ushering you to a better sacrifice. One provided for in the New Testament, with the coming of the “Lamb,” when the Son of God Himself, no longer requiring sacrifices from afar, would come down to us, immerse himself in our lowliness, and offer His own blood as the sacrifice for our sins. This is good news. In Anglo-Saxon English, they referred to it as gōd-spell, which later turned into the word, “gospel.” The gospel is the good news that sinners have been embraced by God through Jesus Christ.
But as you can see, it’s only good news against the backdrop of horrible news. The price of our salvation is costly. God did not purchase us on sale–he paid the full price for us. He paid with his own son (Jh 3:16). So next time you read through the tedious bullet points of death and decay in the Old Testament, remember two things: your sin is costly, yet as Elvina M. Hall writes,
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.