The shape of worship
Author book Leviticus
By Moses, the shepherd of God’s people
There is a story behind every book of the Bible, and study book Leviticus is no exception. Only a few months before, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, breaking their backs every day to serve a paranoid and despotic Pharaoh.
God had heard their cries and remembered the covenant He made with Abraham and his family, so He sent Moses to rescue them. After many miracles, the liberated slaves lumbered en masse out of Egypt and headed east toward Abraham’s ancestral lands.
But on the way, they had a stop to make. God commanded Moses to return to Mount Sinai, the place where the Eternal revealed Himself and commissioned Moses to be His emissary to the beleaguered slaves. Moses met with God frequently on the mountain and at the congregation tent, a specially designed tent, a meeting place between God and His people.
Leviticus is part of a larger dialogue where God lays down certain stipulations for the new covenant with His people, a covenant that builds upon and extends God’s relationship with Abraham’s people. These traditions begin in Exodus 25–31; 35–40, continue through Leviticus, and end in Numbers 1–10.
Understanding book Leviticus is a manual for the priests, those individuals set apart by God in order to care for and maintain the covenant with the Eternal One.
In bible book Leviticus, Priests are mediators between God and the average person. They communicate God’s grace to those who desperately need it and carry the concerns of people who live with great burdens to a loving God through offerings, feasts, and other services.
Discover Grace, Repair Lives
As we continue book Leviticus bible study, we will find that the heart of the book is worship, this is how an unholy people approach an absolutely Holy God.
This book Leviticus commentary shows us that the former slaves are fully convinced that God is in their midst and is calling them to be a different sort of people, a people chosen to bear witness to the one True God and make Him known to all the nations. But His nearness means an acute sense of sin, guilt, and impurity.
So, this portion of bible study Leviticus provides the spiritual leaders with the spiritual means by which hopelessly flawed people can discover grace and find their broken lives repaired.
The sacrifices and offerings not only please God but they provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. All the priests are from the tribe of Levi and participate in the spiritual heritage of Aaron, Moses’ brother.
With some of the offerings, God prescribes that the priests must share in the food brought by the people. By eating from their sacrifices, the priests participate in the lives of those who wish to approach God. Some sacrifices are described as “memorial” offerings to God. These are offerings that ask God to remember His people and keep them in His good favor.
In the ancient world, salt was a valuable substance. It was used for a variety of purposes: to preserve meats, promote healing, and seal friendships. When covenants were made, people celebrated with fine meals seasoned with salt and other spices.
The permanence of salt symbolized the permanence of God’s covenant with His people (Numbers 18:19). Jesus echoes this covenant practice when He instructs His followers to be salt in the world (Matthew 5:1).
In Leviticus there are many kinds of sacrifices. Some celebrate God’s covenant with His people. Some atone for sin. The peace offering is a meal in which the worshiper, his family, and the priests all participate.
Some parts of the animal become part of the fire-offering. The rest is eaten by the priests and people. In a sense, God, the priests, and the worshipers all share a common meal.
Sin is serious business; it destroys one’s relationship with God and can even endanger entire communities. So sin must be dealt with seriously.
God provides a process whereby sin may be forgiven and guilt may be set aside. It begins with admitting you are wrong and then following the requisite sacrifices. But note: these sacrifices only atone for sins committed unwittingly. There is no sacrifice offered for sins committed deliberately.
These are some cases where a purification offering for sin is required. It is important to note that sacrifice is not some magical cure for sin or its consequences. Before you come to God through the sacrifice, you must realize the error of your ways and confess it. Confession has always been act one of restoration.
Holiness is contagious. We’re accustomed to thinking about it in the negative. “A bad apple spoils the barrel,” our Western wisdom instructs us. But the Scriptures are clear that holiness, too, spreads from contact. Essentially, holiness refers to whatever is set apart for God’s purpose and use. The act of setting apart creates a reality that can transform anything it touches. Holy bread consumed in the holy place by holy priests created a holiness that could spread throughout the community.
There are three kinds of peace offerings described: (a) thanksgiving, expressing gratitude for God’s favor; (b) votive, fulfilling a promise made to God; (c) freewill, made out of appreciation but not obligation.
As hard as it may be for us to understand, being “cut off from your people” is another way of saying “death penalty.” God is tough on disobedience because sin and impurity is a contagion that can ruin and ultimately destroy His people. To deal with these matters decisively requires decisive action. Like a deadly disease, sin has to be quarantined.
There is much we do not know about the Urim and the Thummim. We do know the high priest used them to ascertain God’s will on difficult questions (see Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 14:41–42 ).
This consecration is of Aaron and his sons along with the enclosed part of the congregation tent, the sanctuary, and their objects. They are all set apart for God’s special purpose.
The glory of God is a hard notion for us. The word often translated “glory” means essentially heaviness or weight. The Eternal One uniquely is the most substantial and most significant being in the cosmos. Only God is eternal. Only God has true substance. Creation runs out, wears out, and peters out eventually.
In the Scriptures the term “glory” is used often for those unique times and places when God manifests Himself in some visible way. It is His epiphany, or manifestation, one might say. To see God’s glory is a fearsome thing. That’s why people fall on their faces and call out for mercy. Not many people have seen God’s glory, but those who do never forget it.
Now that Aaron and his sons have been set aside as priests, it is time to instruct them on one of their major duties, that is, helping God’s covenant people understand the difference between purity and impurity. Impurity is a constant challenge and threat to holiness, and God has called His people to be holy. But many actions and circumstances in life put holiness in jeopardy. God knows that His people need help figuring these things out.
That’s one of the reasons He sets aside Aaron’s family as priests and gives them these instructions. It is important to note that purity and impurity, as understood here, are much more than what is sanitary or unsanitary. The ritual purity instructions encompass nearly every aspect of social and religious life in Israel.
 Have you noticed how often faith and food come together? One of the most authentic expressions of our spiritual lives has to do with the table where we gather with family and friends to bless God for the goodness the earth provides.
These regulations recorded here helped Israel to maintain its status as God’s chosen and holy people. Kosher laws, as they are called, are unique to Israel’s covenant with the Eternal One. They aren’t God’s laws for everyone; they serve as a cultural boundary-marker indicating what kinds of meat should be eaten.
Humans suffer from many different kinds of skin disorders. Although one of the most dreaded diseases known to antiquity was leprosy, it is most likely that few Israelites in Moses’ day suffered from the disease we know as leprosy. The Hebrew word that appears in this chapter covers many disfiguring and debilitating skin diseases that certainly can be infectious.
The priests are given the challenge of making critical observations as to what is indeed infectious and what is not. The term applied not only to a variety of skin diseases, but it was also used to describe articles of clothing or buildings marred from leprous like outbreaks. By the time of the New Testament, leprosy is present in Israel. It is caused by a bacterium that can begin as a blemish on the skin; but when it runs its course, the skin is left discolored.
There are unsightly lumps and scaling, and eventually the nerves are paralyzed so that there is no feeling of pain. Without the pain sensation people eventually wear down their fingers and toes into mere nubs. It is a terrible, contagious disease that socially marginalized people from their families’ loving touch and intimate relationships.
This is the general principle: a bodily discharge produces a state of ritual impurity for both men and women. As we see in this chapter, some of these discharges are abnormal and caused by active infections or diseases. When this is the case, healing is required.
But some discharges are actually normal. For example, a woman’s period is normal, but there are conditions that cause her to bleed at odd times or too much. Again, in such cases, healing is required.
The impurity referred to in these verses has to do with ceremonial and ritual practices such as making sacrifices, going to festivals, or receiving a revelation. Men, like women, have times when they become ritually impure. For men it happens whenever they have an ejaculation. For women it happens whenever they have their period.
It’s important to note that these bodily functions are normal and natural, not sinful or evil. The ancients knew the power of such events for making them one with their wives and ultimately creating life. Through these bodily fluids men and women become partners with God in creating other humans who are made in the image and likeness of God. Such power cannot and must not be taken lightly.
There are two goats for the annual Day of Atonement. Lots are cast — perhaps the Urim and the Thummim — to see which goat is slaughtered for Israel’s purification before God and which goat is released into the desert.
The meaning of the Hebrew term Azazel is translated “scapegoat” but is uncertain; Azazel may refer to the name of a wilderness demon or a place in the desert, or it may simply refer to the goat that takes Israel’s sin deep into the desert, that is, “scapegoat.”
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. On this day the high priest enters into the holiest chamber of the congregation tent, the place where the covenant chest resides. Here, in God’s immediate earthly presence, he makes reparations for the sins of the people.
Chapters 17–26 are often referred to as the “Holiness Code.” The words “holy” and “sacred” are repeated over and over again throughout these chapters. God reminds His people to be different from the rest of the nations for He chose and set them apart for a special purpose. They are to be holy for He is holy.
God allowed His people to eat meat, but He had concerns about how and where these animals would be killed. The commandments can be summarized this way: every time an animal is used for food, its death must be treated as a sacred event.
That’s why God tells the people to present it to Him in the sanctuary. Whenever one of God’s creatures gives its life for one of our meals, that life is to be respected. Blood is central to life. It makes life possible. That’s why blood is so significant to the sacrifices, and violating any of these laws results in severe penalties.
People and their land are connected. When people engage in disgusting practices, it affects the land, pollutes it, and makes it sick. But when people live by God’s rules, the land is well.
God’s care for the poor is clearly reflected and codified in these verses. Those who have are to leave something for those who have not. No one is charged to make them care for the poor; God’s covenant people are to do this in obedience to His commands.
But the poor have a responsibility as well. They are to go and gather the grain left in the fields and collect the clusters left in the vineyard. In this way, they join with the landowners and farmers in caring for themselves and the earth.
Genuine faith manifests itself in the way God’s people treat others. While some may dishonor aliens or take advantage of outsiders, God’s own must live differently. The law of love guides them to treat others as they wish to be treated and to extend hospitality to those who look and sound like they are far from home.
God reminds them: you were once strangers and outsiders, too, in Egypt. You of all people should know what it is like to be aliens in a foreign land. Likewise genuine faith shows up in the marketplace. True believers conduct business with integrity. Whether they are buying or selling, they insist on proper weights and measures, hard work, and honesty.
Since God has pledged Himself to Israel as a husband to his bride, marriage becomes a powerful symbol of the loving, faithful relationship between God and His covenant people. Marital infidelity then — both adultery and prostitution — signify what happens when His people go after other gods.
In our world, these rules are hard to understand. But remember, it has only been in recent years that Western society has shown concern for people with disabilities. In much of the world today, people who suffer deformities or disabilities are treated differently — as somehow imperfect. Less than a century ago, “little people” and other “freaks of nature” were in circuses for the amusement of the rest of us.
So we must be careful not to judge people who lived 3,000 years ago by our modern standards and sensibilities. That would not be fair. The logic is clear: just as the sacrifice must be pure and unblemished, so must the priest who offers the sacrifice be whole in body. Disabled priests are mercifully included in God’s provision because they are permitted to eat the consecrated bread.
Sin causes damage in ways we do not easily recognize. It damages our relationship with God, other people, and the rest of creation. But we should not forget that sin damages us too. We are damaged goods.
The Day of Atonement provides the people of Israel with a regular opportunity to recognize how broken and flawed they are, to repent and turn to God, and to seek His healing and forgiveness.
The Feast of Booths takes place after the fall harvest is in and the people can take some time off. In this feast, God’s people are called to remember how He provided for them, particularly how He provided for them when they wandered in the desert, living in tents or booths, for 40 years.
The year of jubilee is a far-reaching idea in the ancient world. In the 50th year, land that has been sold to pay debts during the preceding 49 years returns to its original owners.
Israelites who had to sell themselves into slavery to pay debts are set free. All debts are declared “paid in full.” The jubilee is a regular reminder to God’s covenant people that every acre of ground, every soul belongs to God, not to those rich enough to buy them.
Actually land cannot be sold; it can only be leased in 50-year increments, from jubilee to jubilee. So God’s law protects the welfare of future generations by preventing the permanent transfer of land and wealth outside the control of the family.
Now there is nothing to suggest that God requires His people to make vows; but when they do, they must be taken seriously.
So if a person pledges to give God something in exchange for His help or blessing on a matter, then that person is bound to keep his promise. It would be better not to make a vow in the first place than to make it and not fulfill it.
Animals that are unclean according to the law are not be donated in fulfillment of a vow because they are not acceptable as sacrifices. They are taken to the market and sold; the money gained from the sale supports the priests and their service.
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