It was such a rich experience - numbers of people commented the book came alive to them for the first time. We even had a couple of new people join us during the journey and stay - one of whom had never been to church before in his life. What an entry point!
We waded through the rules, the feasts, the laws, the feasts, the sacrifices, the feasts, the blood, the temples and some more feasts. We even had what is possibly the first and only church meeting where the topic of the morning message was about managing the hygiene of semen and menstruation. Not the most common topic on the sermon circuit for sure :)
It's a journey that's enhanced our understanding of community - and gave a fresh appreciation for the way the Hebrews lived and shared life together. We'll capture a few brief highlights from the journey here, but first - here's a brilliant video from the team over at The Bible Project that does a fantastic job of introducing the book. Enjoy!
When the law is given in the Bible, it isn't just a set of random rules and rituals from some strange, capricious god. Embedded in the procedure of God's giving the law to Israel are several key symbols that would have spoken volumes to the Jews, reminding them of their history and also the identity of their God and the relationship he began with their ancestors and is continuing with them (and now us).
Before we take a look at Leviticus, let's drop back into the last part of Exodus and take a look at the moment where God calls Israel together to confirm his covenant with them and hand down the law. It takes place in Exodus 24 where God calls Moses and his leaders to come meet with him. Before going up the mountain, Moses calls Israel to assemble and reads the Book of the Covenant to them and then sprinkles them with blood from the offerings they make. Hebrews 9:19 adds a couple of important details that aren't contained in the text in Exodus by explaining, "When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people."
These items - water, scarlet wool and hyssop - were the items the Jews used to cover their doorways in Egypt so the Angel of Death would 'passover' their doorways. It's a reminder to the Jews that the God they are about to meet with is the God who delivered them and destroyed their enemies. Moses is reminding them of this as they begin to confirm their covenant with their Creator.
From there you get this amazing passage where Moses and Aaron and the seventy elders went and "saw the God of Israel" - they saw him, "but God did not raise his hand against these leaders" (verse 9-11). Read the passage yourself - it's pretty crazy stuff. God sits over a sapphire pavement and they eat and drink in his presence.
Following that, God calls Moses further up the mountain, with Joshua and his helper. Then a cloud of glory (which looked to the Israelites like "a consuming fire" v17) settles on the mountain and broods there for six days. On the seventh day, God calls Moses to enter the cloud. These numbers sound familiar? God is reminding Israel he isn't just their deliverer, he is the author of the entire creation.
Finally, Moses enters the cloud and stays there for another familiar set of numbers: forty days and forty nights (verse 18). It's a reminder of the covenant God made with Noah. The law and the book of Leviticus are all given in the context of these reminders of who God is and the promises he is making to his people. Let's look at a couple of the highlights we found...
The idea of confession is a recurring one in scripture, but what did it look like to the Jews? Today, like many things, our dominant image of confession comes from Hollywood and their portrayal of the Catholic system...stepping secretly into a confession booth, calling someone who you don't know (and can't see) 'Father' and listing your sins. Then discretely slipping out and back into life.
One of the things that quickly becomes clear is how completely different this was for the Jews. When they sinned, the had to lead the animals they were going to sacrifice down to the temple and slaughter them with the priest. It was hardly secret and certainly not discrete. You could imagine having a particularly bad week, and the neighbours peaking through the window saying, "Oh there he goes again...wow, it looks like it was a real bad one last week!" as you lead a whole parade of animals down to the slaughter and confession.
Confession wasn't hidden because they understood in a way we've lost that sin affects the whole community. Equally though, the confession in Leviticus isn't about glorifying the sin either - like those evangelists of the 1980s who would spend 95% of their time telling you how rotten they were and the last 5% mentioning that they finally met Jesus. The confessions in Leviticus are short and direct, but very definite, and then most of the time, they eat the sacrifices together afterwards - the focus is on re-engaging and re-connecting and re-celebrating community again afterwards. Sin is a community issue, not a private one.
God held the Israelites collectively accountable for whether or not they allowed sin to take root in their community. Some of the punishments in Leviticus that appear harsh to us today - particularly for victims who don't speak out - only make sense when you understand this. If someone does something against me and I don't speak out, I am allowing their evil to remain in our community and others will suffer. As hard as it is, God is asking us all to care for our community and oppose evil, which sometimes requires real courage.
And after all that was done, the offal from the dead animals had to be carried away from the camp to the offal pits. Again, another really physical and visible reminder of the mess of sin and how it must be taken away from the community. Great stuff...and probably not something we'll see in a Hollywood movie anytime soon!
One of the other key things that quickly stands out at you when you read Leviticus, is the sheer number of feasts the Jews observed. One of the things we hadn't really noticed before was the timing of the feasts against the seasonal calendar.
One of the things we notice about ourselves year to year is that we're really active during the warm months (Sep - Apr), with swimming, camping, picnics, dinners, trips to the speedway, and other sorts of outings. But during Winter, we slow down a lot and find it harder to keep up the same social momentum.
Interestingly, this is the same for Israel. In Israel, Summer begins in May and runs through to September/October. Essentially the opposite of our seasonal calendar in this hemisphere.
That's reflected in the calendar of their feasts: beginning with the Passover in March/April, followed by the feast of unleavened bread and the feast of the firstfruits (essentially their spring harvest). The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the central feast, pointing to the Messiah, and that takes place around the end of September/start of October, followed directly by the feast of the tabernacles and then the closing sacred assembly that largely ends their social calendar of community feasting (the remaining exceptions are Purim in Feb/Mar, mentioned in the book of Esther; and Hannukah the festival of lights in mid December).
Like us, the Jews were most active in the nicer months.
Note: the Jewish calendar is organised by the cycles of nature (a lunar calendar), as opposed to the western system of fixed dates that we impose regardless of nature. This is why the dates of the festivals are approximate months.
The last theme that really stood out to us was around the Day of Atonement. This day was a special sabbath with some totally unique restrictions.
In Leviticus 22:28, God instructs Israel to "Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Anyone who does not deny himself that day must be cut off from his people. I shall destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all."
This seems extreme to us. It's supposed to be - God is making an extreme point.
This is the day on which Israel's peace with God is made each year.
Ultimately the Messiah will come and make peace once and for all.
God is being very clear that this is a task which is His alone - none of us can contribute to this.
He was making the same point with Abraham in Genesis 15, when he and Abraham slaughtered the animals and were about to walk through the aisle of blood and entrails together (an old custom that sealed a covenant together with the implied oath that 'as has been done to these animals, may it be done to me if this covenant is broken.'). God puts Abraham to sleep and walks through the aisle himself.
As the old hymn goes: "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand."
Christ alone can make the atonement. We can receive it, but we can't contribute to it.
The Day of Atonement was intended as a symbol of that and the only thing Israel was allowed to do was to receive and celebrate to the full together.
May we do the same!