Finding Meaning in Leviticus

I spy a great sacrifice Many of you know that I just recently finished going through the Bible cover-to-cover in 90 days.  It was a challenge in many ways, but in another sense it was exciting and refreshing.  I don’t think that reading so much scripture so fast is necessarily the best way to study always.  I often counsel students to whom I minister to read it slowly, in bite-sized chunks, and think about it.   I did learn different things than when I’d read the Bible through in a much longer period of time, though.

As I read, I finished some books with large question marks in my mind as to some big parts of the scripture.  Sometimes it was just something that I didn’t quite understand.  Other times, I had a real problem with something I was reading.  As Luther (or was it Calvin) said, “If you read the scripture and always find it your friend, perhaps you haven’t really read it”… or something like that.

One of the books that left me questioning most (in both senses of that) was Leviticus.  I read the book with a constant question mark floating about 2 inches above my head.  The entire week that I was in Leviticus, people would approach me on the street and ask, “Are you lost?”

“No.”  I would answer.  “I’m reading Leviticus.”

They would smile uncommittedly and slowly back away.

I left that week uttering a slow Austrian-accented “I’ll be back.”

So, today I returned to Leviticus, the lost land of dead livestock and weirdly adorned clergy, and God spoke to me immediately.  Here is some of what I learned:

In the very first few lines, God commands, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…”  God says “when”, not “if”.  But even further, God does not say, “I want you to.”  God assumes that His people are already familiar with this idea, and they must have been.  All the people around them were acquainted with sacrifice, as it was a part of every pagan religion.

Does this mean that the Yahwistic faith of the Hebrews was simply stolen from their pagan surroundings?

In Rev. Richard Collins’ early 20th Century work “An Essay on Sacrifice,” the author lays out two different, and diametrically opposed, possibilities for the origin and reason for these Levitical laws:

1.     Sacrifice is a primitive attempt to understand and reach God.  Its end is reached in maturity.  This sacrifice comes from a view of seeing creation in wonder, and associating gods to those forces that cannot be controlled.  If those forces can be appeased, then the desired outcome in the natural world can be attained.  The “pound of flesh” story of Vishnu from Hindu legend is a perfect example of this.

2.     Sacrifice is an answer to primitive man.  It is human nature to selfishly horde that which is in your possession.  For God to ask you to give up that which you feel is rightfully yours requires maturity.  Its fulfillment is found in the Eucharist, but its end is only in a call to greater sacrifice.

This second choice seems to me to be the more biblically accurate.  While sacrifice was a primitive attempt to understand and reach the gods within pagan Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture, this does not necessarily equate it with Yahwistic expression.  Pagan ANE praxis was focused around self-centered outcomes.  Sacrificing your child to Molech was not something that anyone could have looked forward to, but the hope was that the outcome would be an increased crop, heightened fertility, and so on.  The Jews were not called to sacrifice for blessing.  They were not even called to sacrifice for expiation.  Sure, that was a sacrifice, but just one of many.  The Jews were called to sacrifice because they were called to rely on God, and to order their lives around His righteousness, direction, and command.  Much of the story of the Old Testament is about the Jews learning to do this.

What does this have to do with me?  It is simply that I am called to sacrifice.  I am not called to sacrifice in the “prosperity gospel” style of giving in order to receive a blessing.  I am called to sacrifice, period.  This sacrifice has not been finished in Christ.  It has been fulfilled in Christ.  True, I am no longer required to bring a bull, kill, and skin it.  Instead I am called to a constant dying to self.  Instead of giving my livestock, I am asked to give me.

I hope that I am not called to wear a ridiculous turban and a vest with funny stones.  I am pretty sure of that one.  -Ryan


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