The Purpose of Leviticus

Leviticus serves as the maintenance cycle for the covenant established in Exodus 19 through 32. It follows a pattern already rooted in the Torah from the beginning. In the beginning you have the seven days of creation, followed by humanity, dwelling in the garden. There the first priestly couple served the LORD who walked among them. Then there is a breach in the relationship between God and humanity by disobedience to God’s command.  God, kills animals, dresses the couple in the skins of the first death, and places them outside the garden, blocked by the cherubim. 

In a similar way, Rosh Hashanah is the new year, or the week in which the world was created, followed by a short period of time culminating in the annual atonement at Yom Kippur.  The newly created world is followed by a cataclysmic breach that needs setting aright.  The success of Yom Kippur is not that the high priest remains in the holy of holies. This success of the ritual when the high priest comes out and stands outside the cherubim. In other words, even though atonement is made the best thing that we can hope for in the current time, our conditions that exist immediately after the garden.  Our highest aim, as things stand, is that on occasions, we, in the guise of one exceptionally called an exceptional prepared, may pass through the holies place and return to the mundane alive with news of peace with the Holy One.  So, the problem remains how God’s presence can walk among his people. The problem that remains is how God ‘s presence can rest and remain among an unholy people.

This is the problem post in Exodus 33 through 40. Immediately after the creation of a new people, as the friend of the bridegroom was bringing the Ketubah down from Mt. Sinai, the Bride was laying with a golden calf.  She was caught in idolatry on her wedding night. Though just days before the elders of Israel feasted beneath the pavement of His glory at her engagement banquet, God‘s presence is no longer in the midst of his people, and Moses must pitch a makeshift tent outside the camp and go out to it to speak with the Lord. The tension is entirely built upon a single point,  how does a covenant people remain a covenant people? How can we be the resting place, even for a moment, for the presence of the Holy One.   And so, Leviticus was “added because of transgressions “.

Leviticus functions in two phases. At the end of the book of Exodus, the consecrated tabernacle is the resting place of the holy king of glory and lord of Israel.  This seemed impossible in Exodus 32, “Then the Lord smote the people because of what the did with the calf which Aaron made.”

But now, after much repentance, and sacrifice, and labor, after the Moses and the people did everything the LORD commanded, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”  God was once again in the midst of His people.

How does it remain so? It will involve first of all a consecrated priesthood.  Even before the tabernacle was constructed and the sacrifices designated, the priesthood of Aaron was corrupted.  Could the forger of the golden calf be the mediator between the LORD and his people? 

It will also require a cycle of offerings that allow God’s people to have forgiveness of sins, removal of uncleanliness, and constant remembrance of their relationship with God. And so, atonement consists of these three threads, one of which is often forgotten, these are forgiveness of sins, cleansing of impurity, and remembering the covenant. All three of these are deeply tied together, braided together in the book of Leviticus. This is why we not only have laws and sacrifices, but we also have a calendar of holy days. This is why we not only have offerings for atonement, we also have a grain offering for a memorial. Much as at the Christian table the green offering is also done in remembrance.

But this is simply the first stage of the matter in Leviticus, because the problem comes about what happens when the people sin. But at Leviticus chapter 10, we are raised with a problem what happens when the priesthood sins. What happens when the blood needs to be smeared, not simply on the brazen altar, and not simply on the altar of incense, and not simply sprinkled on the inner veil. What happens when the blood must be sprinkled on the mercy seat. The annual atonement answers additional questions, what can be done for sins that are too grave for the perpetrator to come to the altar?  What happens when the sin in the camp so stains the community that it also stains the Tabernacle.  Is there a way to cleanse the cleanser? Leviticus 16 answers the question of how we maintain God‘s potentially lethal presence among a potentially unholy people even an unholy priesthood. A priesthood that must offer sacrifices for themselves before they offer sacrifices for the people.

Yes, the book deals with righteousness, the goal of righteousness is being the kind of people upon which the righteous God can rest. And though the book is a lot about holiness, it is truly about being a people upon whom the holy God can rest. And though it is about ritual, impurity and purification, it is about being a people upon whom the incorruptible God can rest. Leviticus is a book that makes distinctions, as Leviticus 10:10 says.  Be these distinctions are for the purpose of us being holy.  It is a provisional means by which the holy God can rest amongst sinners without destroying them. The only hope for the sinners in the presence of the holy God is that God can destroy sin them while sparing them themselves. And this is complicated and ultimately can only be achieved by God, taking on flash and dwelling among us.

The background of Leviticus and the thing that’s necessary in the thing that many interpreters seem to forget is that it is fully rooted in the reality of the covenant. It is not a set of laws, detached from the covenant. It is a set of laws dependent on the covenant. Apart from the covenant, the laws not only cannot be accomplished, they don’t make any sense. There is a relationship, and then there are the rules for the relationship. There are 2 ways of breaking the relationship, one is by doing the relationship without the rules. The other is doing the rules without the relationship.

One of the ways that we know this is true, is because of the presence of public adjuration in Leviticus (Leviticus 5:1, and the whole of the Torah. Later Temple practice will include the reading of the books of the scrolls on the holy days. Apart from those, public readings are readings of the law. And many of the laws are contingent upon someone hearing a public adjuration and realizing that they have seen. Similarly in Deuteronomy 6, meditation, teaching, and  conversation is meant to be around the words of the law. Similarly, Deuteronomy commands that when there is a king that he shall write for himself a copy of the law and keep it before him continually (Deuteronomy 17:18). All these things point to the goal that yes, Leviticus is meant to be formative. It’s meant to live inside the hearts of the people. But it’s meant to live inside the heart of the people so that they can be a people among whom the holy God can dwell. Because this is crucial and not entirely effective, the profits promise a day that is coming, when the law will begin in the hearts of the people. This will allow God‘s presence to be more uniformly, continually, closely upon and among his people.

Jacob Neusner says that the goal of the oral law is the re-establishment of Eden. In a way we can say that the goal of the written law is the re-establishment of Eden. Granted because of sin, the tabernacle barriers, progressive in severity needed to be maintained lest the presence of the Lord break forth upon them. But at the same time it allowed for a restoration of the ability for God‘s people to sustain his presence among them.

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