Many people who read through the bible in a year arrive at Leviticus and find that looming temptation to skip reading one rule after the other that seems to have no relevance to our life today. If you are one of those people, firstly, you are not alone. But…you are also missing the point of the law found right in the midst of those rules on the very pages you are tempted to skip. The problem many of us have when we read the law is that we focus on each and every statute wondering how we would have been walking around with a big list of do’s and don’ts in our pocket. We consider a life where you are desperately trying not to forget that one rule that might be your undoing in the presence of God. Too often we read the law for the sake of the law rather than understanding the purposeful operation of the law in its context.
From Leviticus 11-20 we have laws about what is clean and unclean, food related laws, and laws about family and societal life. When you start in chapter 11, we read through what can and cannot be eaten by the people of Israel. After forty-three verses telling you what you can and cannot eat, we start wondering what would happen if we were dying of hunger on the side of the road and a stranger offered us a piece of stewed camel. At verse forty-four we then read perspective for the entire chapter. Leviticus 11:44-45 “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy."
The concentration of the law is based upon the fact that God had already saved these people out of Egypt. He brought them out of a land that had no care for the God of the universe. Out of the pure grace of God’s electing love, God made this Israelite nation his people and separated them from a world oblivious to his goodness and love. They are to look completely different to all other nations and in doing so would preach the peculiar holiness of God as he protects and cares for his own all the way through the wilderness and into the promised land. The law is not about winning the favor of God who has already given it, it is about living unto the glory of God who desires his people to be like him. In telling us to be holy like God, the law also proves our inability to reach his perfect standard. The law points us to our desperate need for his forgiveness and salvation and promise of a seed who would defeat evil once and for all.
In Leviticus we are reminded of God’s standard of holiness in the way that there is constant repetition of phrases such as “I am the Lord your God,” and “you shall be holy” and “not like the other nations.” As Israel is constantly in view of their inability to live out God’s holiness in all of its perfection, chapter 16 brings grace even within the law by setting out what must happen on the day of atonement. Within the law, there is grace in that even the law makes provision for what must happen in the shedding of blood for the remission of sin as the Priest takes the blood of a substitutionary sacrifice for a repentant people into the holy of holies to be accepted by God. Year after year Israel were expected to live according to God’s law because of who their God is and because the God of the universe is the forgiving and saving God.
Knowing this about God, how on earth could Israel even desire to live like the other nations who have no care for God’s goodness, beauty and truth? Leviticus 18:3-5 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.
It is in keeping covenant with God that Israel would always have God’s protection in a world that hates God and seeks to live according to its own standards. Leviticus 18:24-26 "Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you
The law was never given as a dictatorial act of oppression. The law was given in love by the holy God who by grace established a people as his own to love him and be like him and enjoy him in the land he was giving them. The law is not meant for the sake of law, it is meant for the sake of a holy people loving a holy God. It is meant for the people to know who they need most. It is meant to show us that we are not God. It is meant to show us that God is jealous for his own as those who are separate from the world. Leviticus 20:7-8 Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. 8 Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
At the end of the day, Israel’s constant failure in keeping God’s law also points us toward our desperate desire to see it fulfilled. Can any human meet God’s standard? Is there any hope for a people who cannot possibly be the people they are called to be? Yes. His name is Jesus. In him alone God’s covenant is kept – for all of us who have faith in him.