Three Things I’ve Learned from Leviticus

Our pastor told us last Sunday that he was reading Leviticus and Numbers. And with all the stuff about sacrifices and so forth, he asked himself, “What can I take away from this?” Unsurprising point to reach, and our pastor’s conclusion was not a bad one: “God wants our very best!”

I too have been reading Leviticus, as part of my goal to read the Old Testament right through in the Hebrew. It has been a life-occupying surprise to find out how long that takes! I started when I first took Hebrew in 1998, and in 2015 I have a substantial portion to go. Hope I don’t die before I get the Septuagint read.

I haven’t minded reading about the sacrifices. I feel as if I’m slowly gaining a feel for the meaning of ceremonial purity and orthopraxy. But on reaching chapters 17-19, I feel as if I’ve gained a much clearer appreciation of three things:

Leviticus 17: I’ve appreciated how starkly the power of the sacrificial system was tied into the value attached to the blood of the animal. “The life of all flesh is its blood (Lev 17:14 NET Bible)” is the clear principle, and here in Leviticus, not only is blood not to be eaten, but for domestic animals at least, there is to be no such thing as ‘secular slaughter’. While a game animal or bird caught in the wild may be eaten so long as all of its blood is spilled out on the ground, the same is not true for a herd animal:

Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, (4) but has not brought it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD. He has shed blood, so that man will be cut off from the midst of his people (Lev 17:3-4).

So blood is a holy thing, and as far as possible to be avoided in any ordinary animal slaughter. You may notice that by the time Deuteronomy’s sacrificial laws come along (significantly later, we are led to think), there is such as thing as ‘secular slaughter’:

If the place he chooses to locate his name is too far for you, you may slaughter any of your herd and flock he has given you just as I have stipulated; you may eat them in your villages just as you wish. (22) Like you eat the gazelle or ibex, so you may eat these; the ritually impure and pure alike may eat them. (23) However, by no means eat the blood, for the blood is life itself– you must not eat the life with the meat! (Deut 12:21-23).

It is this sanctity of blood that makes sense, within a Jewish and more general ancient world context, of the death of Christ as our New Testament authors explain it, while that death, in turn, paradoxically explains why no sacrificial system is needed any longer! The perfect sacrifice has come; there is no longer any sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:26)!

Leviticus 18, especially its initial verses, struck me as particularly programmatic for the book:

Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the LORD your God! (3) You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes. (4) You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God. (5) So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the LORD. (Lev 18:2-5 NET)

Interestingly, the remainder of the chapter is devoted to sexual ethics, particularly surrounding acceptable degrees of consanguinity. The implication seems to be that sexual ethics were lacking in the two cultures against which Israel could distinguish herself culturally and religiously, Egypt and Canaan. I had never made the connection between sexual ethics and the programmatic Pentateuchal statements about obeying Yahweh’s standards. Maybe it is important for how we understand books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy!

Leviticus 19 early on offers us an even more central statement for the meaning of the book: “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2 NET). It is interesting what a mingled statement of principles follows in that chapter, combining Ten Commandments-style statements with statutes about ceremonial purity, sexual ethics, and Deuteronomy-like principles protecting the rights of the socially vulnerable. We are inclined to see these as very separate categories of life. It is interesting that being the people of the LORD involves holiness of diet, holiness of ethics, holiness of ceremony, holiness of sexual practice, Sabbath-keeping, avoidance of seances, indeed a wide range of interpenetrating spheres of life!

All that with vocabulary I don’t remember seeing elsewhere in the OT. There is interest in every corner of the Bible, read on its own terms.

Samaritan Korban Pesach Wikimedia Commons

Oh, on that vocabulary note, and so that you finally get a pic, here’s a picture of the ‘Korban Pesach’, the Passover ceremony still conducted annually by the Samaritans on old Mt. Gerizim, where this has been done for at least 3,000 years. ‘Korban’ [קָרְבָּן], ‘sacrificial offering’, is a word very distinctive of Leviticus & Numbers, which feature 78 out of its 82 OT occurrences, beginning in Lev 1:2.

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5 thoughts on “Three Things I’ve Learned from Leviticus

  1. Ahh, I had not previously picked up on the differing treatment of wild animals and livestock. Intriguing. That which is nurtured or raised seems to have an inherently greater significance or value.

  2. It wouldn’t surprise me if you had seen some things in people’s attitude to their livestock in the African cultures you saw that might have helped you understand some of these kinds of Torah principles better???

  3. The most obvious one I noticed related to the New Testament more. (Are we allowed to talk about the NT on this blog?!) I had always wondered why it was a task for the Son of Man to separate the sheep from the goats in that parable. You try and hide a goat in a flock of merinos and it is kinda not difficult to pick the odd one out. But northern African sheep and goats are remarkably similar in colouring, build, texture and size. You can tell the difference, but in a mixed herd they aren’t simply distinguished. So it makes much more sense now of the parable that the Son of Man has to go “Yep, my sheep, my sheep, my sheep, nope goat, my sheep.” It would actually take some discernment. To an Aussie it just made no sense before.

    • I did remember being told this before, and I thought it had been from you! Just wasn’t certain. Yes, that’s quite helpful. We miss so much from this distance in time and culture.

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