Back to the Book of Leviticus (but no prize)
Now that the prize has been won (and several good answers given), I will play nice and complete the theme I began on Wednesday. In a nutshell the problem at the end of Exodus is how can this holy God live with the people he loves (and who love him) and not kill them? The Lord told Moses that if he were to live with these people and go with them to the Promised Land he would kill them (Exod 33:5). Moses quickly convinces God to come anyway and God agrees that “My presences will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exod 33:14). So the people build God a tent to “live in” (Exod 35-40) and God moves in (Exod 40:34). But how God can live with these people and not end up killing them has not been solved.
Once we understand the problem – Leviticus unfolds itself in meaningful thought-units, even if the cultural details are more than a little strange to us. How can the Lord live with these people? How can the relationship ever work? Back to the nutshell, God finds/makes a way possible by using the practices and symbols already present and potent with meaning in Israel’s world. For example, in Israel’s world blood was recognized as a ritual detergent. It was like bleach that cleansed ritual stains left by sin on the people and on God’s tent. In Israel’s world typical human activities also caused ritual stains, for example: touching corpses, childbirth, some types of skin diseases, and mold growing in a house or in fabric. None of these are sinful, but in Israel’s world they caused ritual stains that only blood could cleanse.
So how does Leviticus respond to the crisis at the end of Exodus?
The first seven chapters of Leviticus have to do with sacrifice, three of which are for the purpose of cleansing the ritual stains caused by sin or normal human activity. Later in Leviticus the Lord makes it clear that the life of the animal from which the blood comes is not owned by any human. Rather, the life-blood of every animal belongs to God. Look carefully at Leviticus 17:10-13, especially verse 11:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar. (NRSV, emphasis mine)
God gives the blood he owns to humans so that the tent and the people can be kept clean – and God can continue to live with them. We call this salvation by the grace of God. Yes, the people must claim it, but grace is not a new idea in the New Testament: it’s the way God has always made relationship possible.
The other sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 have to do with other aspects of God’s life with the people, a life that is by no means only about keeping God’s tent clean.
Leviticus 8-10 addresses the next most obvious need: if God is going to live with these people in a tent and sacrifices will help keep the tent clean, then someone has to help mediate this relationship: we need priests. So Leviticus 8-10 sees to the appointment and official installation of priests to work at the tabernacle. (We leave Nadab and Abihu still alive in Leviticus 10 for discussion another day.)
Leviticus 11-15 then takes on the problem of human “uncleanness” that pollutes the tabernacle and what to do about it. Again, this “uncleanness” has nothing to do with sin, and everything to do with being human (not gods): things in Israel’s culture that stain God’s tent and pollute the person. At the end of this section we find this statement purpose:
Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. (Lev 15:31, NRSV emphasis mine)
Next, the most important place in the tabernacle, God’s throne room (also called the holy of holies, or the most holy place), must also be kept clean – but only at great risk. No one, not even a priest can just barge into God’s throne room and live to tell the story (which takes us back to Nadab and Abihu; see Lev 16:1-2). Leviticus 16 provides instructions for how the high priest can do what must be done to cleanse God’s throne room (and still live). But don’t miss it – the instructions for this special day include everyone in Israel, not just the high priest (see 16:29-32).
Finally, if these people are going to live with this God they need to know what the Lord looks like – not in physical appearance, but in attitude and action. They need to become like their God. So God tells them what they need to do and become (to be like God):
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (19:2 NRSV)
Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the Lord your God. (20:7 NRSV)
You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (20:26 NRSV)
Scholars refer to this final section of Leviticus as the “Holiness Code” because it teaches the people how to live holy lives so that they are like the Lord. In this way they can live with the God they love and the Lord can live with them.
So that’s it. Leviticus really is this simple, clothed in ancient Near Eastern culture. God finds a way for relationship when there is no way forward for the people. Amen! Hallelujah! And one more big problem (do you see it?). This problem threatens to undo everything Leviticus has said and everything God has provided. (See it yet?) It’s a demand in the Holiness Code: In order to live with God we must live holy lives, to be like the Lord. But? If we could live holy lives there would be no problem when God moves in with his people (at the end of Exodus) and we wouldn’t need the book of Leviticus.
So much for solving the problem – we’ve just created the same problem all over again. No matter how hard we try, we fail to be like our God – we fail to be holy. So if the solution Leviticus presents depends on God’s people living holy lives – we just as well forget the whole thing now because they can’t, and we can’t. So in typical fashion God steps into the problem again. Look carefully:
You will keep my rules and do them; I am the Lord, who makes you holy. (20:8 CEB emphasis mine)
You will treat the priests as holy, because they offer your God’s food. The priests will be holy to you, because I am the holy Lord, who makes you holy.(21:8 CEB)
You must not make my holy name impure so that I will be treated as holy by the Israelites. I am the Lord—the one who makes you holy. (22:32 CEB)
Do you see it? God knows the people cannot make themselves holy. They cannot live and act just like God. So what does God do? God makes them holy. God works in their lives to make them holy and God views them as holy. Incredible. And the result? God makes what was impossible, possible:
I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Lev 26:11-12 NRSV)
So much for the mystery of Leviticus - and the mystery of how relationship with God is possible even today: God provides a way when there is no other way.