Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leviticus 16-22: Atonement and Holiness

I'm covering a lot of ground in one post here, and if you look at the chapters you might think, that's a lot of different subjects, but the more I've been reading and thinking, the more I see a very strong connection between them. I apologize if this is a little disjointed; unfortunately, it seems that I have the most difficulty articulating the most profound concepts.

In a nutshell, chapters 16-17 talk about Atonement Day, when once a year the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place and make a sacrifice to cover the sins of all the people, as well as sacrifices the people had to offer to the Lord. Chapter 18 lays boundaries for sexuality. Chapter 19 starts off talking about idolatry and then goes into a bunch of miscellaneous laws. Chapter 20 goes back to the immoral relations and then introduces the idea of clean and unclean animals. Chapter 21 is about how priests are supposed to be clean and the things they have to abstain from, and chapter 22 goes into more rules for priests and what they're supposed to do with certain offerings.

Some of the little things that stuck out to me:

God makes a connection between certain sins - human sacrifices and sexual immorality, namely - and the land. He says that the land became defiled when the pagan people did all these things, so it "spewed them out" - kind of like in Genesis 3 when God said that the ground was cursed because of Adam and Eve's sin. Paul says somewhere that the whole world is groaning, as if waiting for the day when it too will be redeemed.

There's a debate I've had on the Circle a few times over whether it is moral to lie in order to protect someone's life (think about Jew-smugglers during the Holocaust, or members of the Underground Railroad). The Bible says not to bear false witness or lie, but in Leviticus 19:16 it says "you are not to act against the life of your neighbor." That's kind of like "you shall not murder" expanded - even if you're not the one killing somebody, anything you do that acts against the life of your neighbor is sin. Regardless of your position on this particular argument I mentioned, I think this verse really shows that morality isn't always as clear-cut as we wish it were. And I think that points to the fact that really, it's about your heart even more than it's about your actions. If your heart follows God, then your actions will be right. So in that sense, it's really more simple than we think it is. Sort of a paradox I guess.

Certain sexual sins got the death penalty, whereas with others it says something like "he will bear his guilt" or "They will die childless" or "they will be cut off from among their people." The latter two are a little more self-explanatory, but I wonder what it means by simply "he will bear his guilt." And I do think it's interesting that we like to say sin is sin, it's all equal - and in a sense that is true - but the Bible also implies otherwise, that some sins deserve to be punished more than others.

Now, the thing that struck me the most while reading this whole passage, and later when I read through Matthew 4 and 5, is just the sheer complexity of this whole law system. Some of the rules seem a little weird, like don't cut your sideburns and don't mix two different kind of cloth. The priests especially had to stay away from a lot of things - they couldn't even touch a dead person unless it was an immediate family member.

A guy at my small group said once that the ceremonial law was really about making a distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, a way of showing what holiness is. I think he had a point. The word "holy" means literally "cut off" or "separate." And when God brought Israel out of Egypt, He had to show them that they were no longer to live like Egyptians, nor like anyone else. He wanted them to be different, different in a very noticeable way.

God seems to have a thing against mixing. Don't mix fabrics, don't mix with other nations, don't mix different species in breeding. I wonder if the point of all that was to show that righteousness and sin don't mix. There is perfection, and there is sinfulness, and the two cannot go together. A lot of these things seem to be metaphors - not that the laws weren't literally followed, but that they existed to point to a spiritual truth. In this case, maybe they were pointing to God's nature as holy and separate from the world, from sin. He was calling His people to be separate too, not just for the sake of being separate, but so that the entire world could see that God is radically different from humans, unlike the petty humanoid deities they made up. You see, as much as people say that Jews didn't proselytize, I wonder about that. I think God was trying to make a statement about Himself to the world through His dealings with the Jews. Why did God send the plagues on Egypt? So the Egyptians would know He was God. What did Moses say when God said he was going to destroy the Hebrews? The other nations would see it. I think God was globally minded, even from the beginning.

Now, when I read Matthew 5, Jesus was talking about the importance of the Law and how nothing in it would be abolished, and how the people had to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees in order to see the kingdom of God. In light of all the rules and regulations in these chapters here, that seems pretty insurmountable. But I think that, with the New Testament, we can see the bigger picture of what was going on: all those laws were there to show us how holy God is and how different He is from us. Jesus came and He kept the law, but more than that - He made it possible for us to have access to God. Under the old covenant, only priests could come before God, and only if they were flawless. The point is that none of us is really flawless, but Jesus opened the door to us all anyway. He kept the law in our stead, because there's no way we could do it all.

That's what atonement is all about. It's about Jesus doing what we were incapable of in order to make peace with us. So chapters 16 and 17, which are all about the blood of the atonement, serve as a picture to show what would later happen, how Jesus would cover our sins with His blood in order to make us holy. You see, God called the Israelites to be holy in what they did, but Jesus makes His followers holy by His own proclamation. That was the point from the very beginning, but the Old Testament was a picture, foreshadowing what was to come. We have to know who God is, have an idea of the infinite gap that separates us from Him, and understand what it was that Jesus saved us from, what it was that He accomplished by living a sinless life.

The Law is holy because God is holy. It shows us God's character in that His perfection is so complete, so utterly impeccable, that we can't even understand all the ways in which God is unlike us (perhaps like we can't really understand all the ways God demanded the Hebrews be different from the world). It shows us that God's demands are beyond our ability to reach - it shows us that we cannot meet His demands. We need a scapegoat to take our sins on Himself, and we need a sacrificial lamb to cover us with His righteous blood. So when God says to us, "Be ye holy, for I am holy," it is not our actions which accomplish this, but His. That was just a picture; the reality is that Jesus separates us and declares us righteous by the offering of His blood which wipes away our sins.