I’m reading the Bible through, chronologically this time. I’ve just got to Leviticus: the shoal that’s wrecked a million Bible reading plans (at least, it did mine when I was a teenager). Once again, as I read this hard part of God’s word, it seeps into my skin and reshapes my insides.
There’s something beautiful about Leviticus. Sometimes, like those 3D pictures, you have to blur your eyes to see it. As you persevere through the bewildering details (split hooves? a sore with white hairs in it? two materials woven into one?) you begin to sense the outlines. Laws that protect life and relationships. Laws that forbid detestable practices and depraved worship. Laws that uphold justice and provide for the poor.1
There’s also something terrifying about Leviticus. It opens with sacrifice upon sacrifice, described in brain-numbing detail. (As I read, I feel my mind glaze over. I pull my attention back to the page.) Blood must be shed, atonement made. For in the midst of his wayward people God has put up his tent, his palace. Infinite in size, the universe his footstool, he rules from a hidden, golden throne.
To serve such a God comes at enormous cost. The disabled are excluded from the priesthood, those with discharges can’t enter God’s tent, and the diseased live outside the camp (Lev 13:1-15:33, 21:16-23). There is food that cannot be eaten, first-born and first-fruits set aside, the best of the herd given in offering (Lev 11:1-47, 22:17-25, 23:9-14, 27:26). Everything is affected: the shape of the year, mourning for the dead, a woman’s period (Lev 15:1-33, 19:28, 23:1-44). Every moment repeats,
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (Lev 19:2).
Who can live up to such a law? Who can live up to such a God? Who among us has never endangered or slandered his neighbour (Lev 19:16)? Who has never lied or stolen (Lev 19:11)? Who has never sinned unintentionally, habitually, without even noticing (Lev 4:1-6:7)? Who doesn’t put her own needs before others (Lev 19:18)? Who doesn’t allow what he loves to steal his heart from God (Lev 19:4)?
Repetitive, relentless, Leviticus drives the point home: God is holy, made of different stuff from us. To be his people, we must be holy, set apart, pure, clean, all the things we cannot and will never be.
It’s easy to forget the gospel. We’re told to be gospel-minded and gospel-hearted, but it slips away from me, time after time. I feel secure because I’m not doing a bad job of things today. I slide into despair because I can’t live up to the pathetic standards I set myself. I think of Jesus’ death, and it seems an irrelevance, a song once loved but now forgotten, wiped from my iTunes list.
Leviticus won’t let me forget. Like a dark sky that makes the morning shine more brightly, it reminds me that the gospel means something. That this holy God can’t be approached by someone like me. There’s no hope that I could waltz into his presence. What’s in store is not a welcome but a fire (Lev 10:1-20).
Leviticus helps me to see. It’s scattered with stars, small pictures of the dawn. When Jesus comes, he keeps every one of those pesky laws. He touches those who are unclean and – how this should surprise us! – they become clean (Matt 8:1-4 cf. Lev 5:2-3). He carries the sacrifice of himself and walks boldly into God’s heavenly tent, where he offers priestly prayers for my forgiveness (Heb 7:23-28, 9:11-10:25). He does what I can’t do, and I dare take it for granted, let my eyes glaze over, let it slip away.
I’m half-way through Leviticus when I take a walk along the beach. Waves pound the shore after a storm, reminding me that the Creator of all this is holy, different beyond knowing. To glance at him is to be incinerated by his glory. Even the smallest of sins keeps me from him, and sin runs through me like veins in a rock.
I taste the word “Father” on my tongue, and all at once it feels like a miracle. I barely dare say it, even as I know I must say it. For this – this passage into the throne room, this invitation to speak with God, this unchanging welcome – this is the privilege that Jesus won for me.
- This became clear to me as I was reading Leviticus chapters 18-20. The other references are from chapters 11, 13 and 19:19. ↩