Why Should I Read Leviticus?
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves and I’m the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF. Today’s episode is actually a little bit of an odd one if you are thinking about the title, Where Life and Scripture Meet. Or I should say it this way: picking the topic of Leviticus is probably not the first place that people think about life meeting Scripture. If anything, it’s probably the opposite, right? Nobody gets to January 1st and says, “Okay, I’m going to read through the Bible this year,” and then puts on their calendar: “The day I get to start Leviticus,” right? That’s not how most of us tend to a function. Of course, if you have read the entire Bible, you have a sense that the book of Leviticus is quite important. The way it lays out the centrality of sacrifice to what God is doing in the process of salvation, the way it talks about the need for holiness amongst God’s people, holiness in the priesthood. There’s all these very powerful and important ways that Leviticus points forward to the coming of Jesus Christ.
However, most of us today in the 21st century do find reading through the book of Leviticus rather more painful than getting, you know, some of the highlights from say the book of Hebrews. So what I want to do is, if you will, perhaps the best way to put it is give a little life hack for reading Leviticus and for having it really put down rubber on the road of your life and engage it perhaps in a bit more direct way than most of us tend to be able to do. So that’s our plan, a little bit of thinking about Leviticus, a little bit of thinking about how does Leviticus touch down in my life. There’s tons of examples that I could pick. I think I’ll just start with the very first verses of the book of Leviticus. So we’re going to read Leviticus 1, and I’ll read through about verse 9, and then just make a couple comments and draw out a couple points for us. Before I do that, let me say just one more thing. I suspect that by the time you’re done this podcast, you’re not going to be thinking, “Leviticus is boring,” because instead you’ll probably be thinking, “Yikes, Leviticus is kind of gross and I’m feeling a little uncomfortable right now.” So let me give you a reason to stay with me through the discomfort. There is something profoundly important about the way God is caring for you and me right now that we’ll be likely to miss if we don’t hang in there through the visceral discomfort of opening our minds, and even our imaginations, to Leviticus. In fact, the particular example I’m going to read and talk about has really helped me value and rest in God’s forgiveness. When I walk in my neighborhood each morning and see the early morning sunlight, and draw breath deep into my lungs, these are little tastes of Him giving me a life I don’t deserve. So without further ado, Leviticus 1:1-9.
Leviticus 1: “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting,” which I should pause here just for a moment and say, that’s your connection back to everything that has happened before. The tent of meeting is extensively described in the book of Exodus, which you’ve just finished as you start the book of Leviticus. And it is the place where God meets His people. And in fact that God would even meet His people at all after what has happened in the book of Exodus, where God has worked this incredible deliverance for them, and then they have run away and worshiped the golden calf, and they have complained and grumbled against Him and made accusations against his character. It’s been a grim picture of what the human heart can do and how quickly we forget how good God has been to us and look at the needs in front of us and say, “Well, He can’t be good if I don’t have all the things I want.” But that’s a side note, all that to say, the fact that Leviticus is even being written is a really good, good sign of God’s grace and mercy, that He’s still talking to His people, that there is still a tent of meeting, where we have conversation, where the Lord speaks to Moses so that the people will have words from Him for their life, for a relationship with Him.
But anyhow, having said that, let’s hear what the Lord has to say. Here’s what he says to Moses: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, when any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting that he may be accepted before the Lord. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord. And Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall put fire on the altar and arrange the wood on the fire. And Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. But its entrails and its legs, he shall wash with water and the priest shall burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.”
He goes on in verse 10 to say if the burnt offering is from the flock, and goes on to detail, very similar things. If it’s birds, in verse 14, go on to say more and you get repetition of this sort of thing repeatedly throughout the book of Leviticus. Now if you are listening to that, one thing that might hit you is like, wow, this is kind of graphic. But what I want to zoom in on is actually slowing down a little bit on the experience that is being described here for us, and not only described, but actually prescribed. We are to do this. If you are an Israelite, we, I should say, I speak the we of the people of God throughout all of history, that the people who are being given this law, that those living amongst the people of Israel under the law of Moses are being told to do something. And let’s just think for a minute here about what it is that is happening. And there’s many things we could draw out, you know, the fact that the offering is to be without blemish, just as Jesus was perfect. What I want to focus in on here is thinking about what is it like to actually go through this process.
So let’s look at this, you bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting. Now, if you have a herd or a flock, you may be quite wealthy and have many, many animals, but certainly most people wouldn’t have had vast numbers. And even if you do have vast numbers, you would’ve spent some time with them, or your children would’ve spent time with them, caring. You’d have had some interaction here with these animals. Some of them would’ve had, you know, just a few animals and would’ve probably had names for these animals. You are walking with this animal, and even if it’s an animal that someone else has raised and cared for and fed, and you’ve never really had any interaction with this particular lamb, or bull, or whatever, without blemish, you are walking with this animal who is about to die through the camp, however many tents of your neighbors and fellow tribe members that you have to pass through to get to the tent of meeting at the center of the camp. You’re walking with this animal. What’s it like just to look at this animal and know what is going to happen and know that it is happening for your atonement? What’s it like then in particular, in verse 4, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering.” What a profound moment that must have been, to take your hand, your warm hand with its heartbeat, and to lay it on the head of this animal, to feel the animal’s wool or hair, to feel the warmth of the animal, to perhaps have the animal turn and look at you. Or perhaps have the animal begin to nuzzle grass as it’s waiting in line.
There you are putting your hand on the head of this animal. The power of that physical touch connection as you stand there preparing for this animal to be slain so that you might be forgiven. Here is your hand on its head touching the very being that is about to die on your behalf. And there’s all this language about what happens to the blood and the blood being splashed against the side of the altar. Even just imagining what is the visual of that like. Then you have the arranging of the fire and the wood, presumably meaning coal, something to get the wood started, so there’s going to be this fire on the altar itself. They arrange this animal and pieces and they’ve cut it into pieces. And in particular, I think that perhaps the most affecting part of the whole process would be this line that the fat is in particular being segmented out here. What happens when you put fat in fire? Have you ever cooked bacon for breakfast? And my apologies to all you vegetarians out there who have been trying to forget about that smell or that sound, but when fat goes in fire, there is that snapping, crackling, popping sound. There is that scent and aroma. There is a bright intensity to the flames. All of these things that you are taking in so viscerally. The sight of the flames of the blood, the feel of your hand on the head of this animal. The smell in the air of meat roasting, of fat crackling. The sound that, that popping sound. And what’s going to happen the next time you sit around the fire back at your tent with your family and you guys are having meat, which of course would’ve been a much less common experience for most people in the ancient world, especially in the time here where you’ve got Israel living as refugees in between Egypt and the Promised Land. But wherever they are, however many years later, if part of what the Lord is calling you to do here is to have this incredibly tangible experience of the process of substitutionary atonement, which means that something or someone is being substituted to make you right with God, to bring you forgiveness and peace, and to restore the relationship violated by your sin.
Here’s this incredibly vivid, tangible experience that Leviticus lays out. And I think for most of us, when we read this, you know, blasting through the book of Leviticus as quickly as we can to get on to the things that maybe interest us more, we might come away with a sense that it’s a bit gross, a bit graphic, but certainly by the seventh or eighth time, you’re reading similar instructions, you tend to just kind of gloss over and move on past. And we forget that this was designed to be an experience. This was designed to be something that you would walk through and that it would have profound impact on your memory, that it would shape eating meals, eating meat for the rest of your life, because of the intensity of the memory that is being created for you here of this is how deeply God has gone to the efforts to forgive and to pardon, and to make us right with Him. And this is how deeply and intimately connected into my life. The very act of eating food is being connected in my memory forever to the atonement of God. And I think He knows, you probably even heard or maybe read studies about how smell in particular, has a profound link to our memory and our capacity to remember things. And certain smells from 20 years ago can instantly evoke a profound sense of vivid reentry into a memory, right? And the Lord knows this about our physiology and about how our brain chemistry works and is using that even here to drive home the message, I love you, I forgive you. Sin is serious and there is a way forward. There is a hope for sinners who have violated my laws, to remain in relationship with me.
So let me just make, perhaps three comments then, about what we might do with this. Comment number one is when you read Leviticus, and please do read Leviticus, one thing you might think about doing is just slowing down and engaging your imagination rather than trying to move quickly through it, or simply abstract what is the moral lesson here, or even, how does this point forward to Christ, which are all good things to be doing. Slow down and just let the scene play out in your mind’s eye. Join as best you can, an ancient Israelite waiting in line, standing there placing their hand on the head of a sheep, or a bull, or a goat, knowing this is the incredible connection of my sin to the shedding of blood for the hope of forgiveness. So, read Leviticus with your imagination fired up and ready to go. And that’s thought number one.
Thought number two is to recognize that every time you take communion, every time you’re at church and you are feasting on the body and the blood of Christ, that there is something profound happening. And even as you taste it on your taste buds, as you hold it in your hand as you’re waiting to put it into your mouth, as you chew, as you swallow, that there is this incredible profound way that God knows we need physical reminders of His love, of His atoning work on our behalf. So, let the physicality of communion be something that draws your mind and your heart to the cross and to the love of God displayed, of Christ giving His body and His blood for you.
Lastly, and closely connected to both of these two: let there be other times in your life as well, for you personally, where are the physical, tangible, concrete, “I can touch it, I can smell it, I can see it, I can taste it, I can hear it” kinds of reminders of the goodness of God, of the realness of God. And they’re all over the place, right? Every brush of the breeze against your face or through your hair, every time that you walk barefoot through the grass, every time you sit in a chair made by one of His image bearers— there’s an endless supply. Even staring at a computer screen, which had to be designed, have all the raw materials assembled, and then be put together by someone made by God, using their brains and their hands, with the strength and innovation He gives, even that is a tangible experience of God’s world. Every little bit of human creativity and ingenuity you ever encounter is a signpost to God’s majesty and His glory, because our creativity reflects and points to His. We are far too easily able to keep our relationship with God in the purely cognitive realm, under appreciating the gift He’s given us of a world we can touch, and taste, and see, and smell, and hear. Everything you do is connected to the God who made the universe and who has given you so many things. And each of them, every single one of them, is a reminder that He is good, that He is a Redeemer, that He takes seriously our plight, he takes seriously our sin, that he desires to remain in a relationship with us. So where are the places that you can have concrete, tangible reminders of who God is, what He has done, and who you are in His presence?