Whenever you read through Leviticus you surely will notice what an odd book it is. In Leviticus you will read detailed accounts of which animals are clean and can be eaten, which are unclean and should not even be touched. You’ll read specific instructions about which parts of the calf or goat are to be turned into smoke after they have been sacrificed and which parts are to be roasted and served to the priests and their families for dinner. You’ll read the descriptions of the High Priest’s ceremonial clothing; even his linen underwear! And you’ll read lots and lots about blood.
Why on earth does the church of the 21st century read this odd and ancient text? How on earth is this the “Word of the Lord” for us?
The New Testament church asked the same questions in their day and New Testament theologians grappled with the challenge of understanding the connections between their faith from ancient Israel and their newfound faith, informed now and changed forever by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their faith sought understanding – that’s a good definition of theology: faith seeking understanding.
And now, here is our faith – still seeking to understand. Still asking: what does this mean? What does this mean for us?
The Leviticus rituals gave – and still give – witness to God’s atoning work on the behalf of God’s beloved people. They tell the story of a people in process, a people whose faith was constantly seeking deeper understanding. The practices and pronouncements of Leviticus certainly sound strange to our ears, but for this ancient people, many of the images intended to picture (in some way or another) God’s presence and saving grace. Now – as Christians – we can look at those images and see how they picture the presence and saving grace of Jesus the Christ.
The Hebrews writer certainly did this. When you read the letter to the Hebrews, you may notice how he taps into Greek philosophy and Platonic notions of substance and shadow, of type and prototype, of sketches and reality.
Everything on earth, the Hebrews’ theologian would say, is a shadow of a reality in the heavens. Everything on earth is patterned according to something in the beyond.
And so the faith of this Christian community of the Hebrews (as it sought understanding) saw the Christ patterned everywhere they looked in their Hebrew Scriptures.
Christ is the ram who is the perfect sacrifice offered on behalf of humanity. Christ is the ram who carries the sin of humanity far, far away into the wilderness. Christ is the high priest who presents the ram as sacrifice and enters the holy place to make atonement for the people. Christ is the multivalent, polyphonic reality.
These faithful, bold Jewish Christians re-read their Scriptures and re-interpreted the ancient priestly system, sacrificial system and tabernacle system as signs that pointed beyond themselves; signs that bring to light God’s saving work that finally reached its climax in Jesus Christ. Through faith, the Hebrews came to understand that God’s work of atonement had been perfectly completed and fulfilled in Jesus their Messiah.
Each autumn, our Jewish cousins experience Yom Kippur. On this high, holy day, both the devout and the secular will gather and will hearken back to this very portion of Leviticus and will hear the ancient summons to share in the Day of Atonement. Worshipers dressed in white will confess their sins, will recommit themselves to good deeds that participate in the repair the world; and – as their parents and grandparents and great-great-great grandparents have done – they will hear the deep, piercing call of the shofar – the ram’s horn.
These modern worshipers will present themselves and celebrate this ancient ritual now without sacrifices, without priests, without a Temple. And that’s all right. Because they understand (as I believe many of their Leviticus ancestors probably understood) that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Rather it is – and always has been – God’s work of saving grace.
These worshipers understand that it is not some magic incantation at the Ark of the Covenant Mercy Seat that makes a difference. Rather it is – and always has been – mercy firmly seated in God’s own being that has the power to change a human life. I think they understand it is not external rites and rituals that effect reconciliation. Rather it is what God is doing – transforming the human heart, mind and conscience.
This has always been the grace of God’s covenant with God’s people. And this continues to be the grace of the renewed covenant made new in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so may our own Christian faith continue to seek understanding – a deep existential understanding of God’s remarkable love and acceptance and welcome. And because of our experience of unimaginable grace – may our faith continue to move us to offer that love and acceptance and welcome to others.
Living in The Story reflections for Week 14: Leviticus 1-16; Psalms 2, 100, 110; Luke 1; Hebrews 1-5.