We are over halfway through the book, and boy have I learned a lot already. We are trying to answer the question – How does Leviticus enable God to dwell with Israel so that Israel is safe? We have already looked at the roles of sacrifices in giving thanks and atoning for their sin; the priests who offer them; how Israel needs to be clean to approach God and the centre of the book and focal point, the Day of Atonement. This section on the holiness.
As always if you haven’t Chapter 17-20 of Leviticus yet, do pause here and read it. You get the idea now, list the good and the bad things for Israel from this section, answer how this section answers our question above (How does this enable God and Israel to safely dwell together?). Then try to think about similarities and differences between Israel and us, how does this enable us to rejoice in God’s plan, and be more confident about the gospel.
What is this section all about?
This section describes a collection of laws which may feel a bit more recognisable and naturally relevant to us, many of these laws get repeated in the New Testament. The focus of these laws is moral actions and how Israel’s actions affect their holiness. Holiness is front and centre in this section, with the longest descriptions of why Israel is to be holy all found here.
Colouring – headings for good things for Israel are in green, and headings for bad things for Israel are in blue
A Holy Nation – Because they know God
The most common and striking repeated phrase in this section is:
I am the LORD or I am the LORD your God (Lev. 18:2, 18:4, 18:5, 18:6, 18:21, 18:31, 19:3, 19:4, 19:10, 19:12, 19:14, 19:16, 19:18, 19:25, 19:28, 19:30, 19:31, 19:32, 19:34, 19:36, 19:37, 20:7, 20:8, 20:24)
It is said after practically every command (and in fact continues on into the next section). This isn’t by accident, it shows that their actions are to be holy because they know God, not that they know God because their actions are holy. It is their identity and relationship with God which is to drive their actions. God leaves no doubt in Israel’s mind that it is their relationship with Him that makes them holy:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (my emphasis, Le 19:1-2)
7 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. (my emphasis, Lev 20:7-8)
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (my emphasis, Lev 19:36b)
God is telling them to act in line with who they are, and that is a people who intimately know their God: his holy character, and his desire for holiness.
It is because they know God’s character and desires intimately, they can be safe in his presence because they know how to act and don’t need to guess. He has lovingly revealed himself to them.
A Holy Nation – Because they are distinct from the nations through their allegiance to God
The surrounding nations are detestable to God, their actions show their selfish desires and hatred of God:
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. (Lev 18: 24-25, see also 20:23)
Idolatry is rife, and clearly, Israel is at risk of becoming like them, they have just made a golden calf. Here though God is really clear to be safe they must be distinct from nations. They are set apart to give their allegiance and devotion to him:
26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine ( emphasis mine, Lev 20:26)
When we look at all the laws in this section, they all boil down to one thing: Israel must be allied only to God. God is explicitly explaining in detail what the first commandment (of the 10 commandments) means and linking all the other commandments back to it. He is lovingly warning them that to put their desires first or give allegiance to other Gods, like the surrounding nations, will end in their destruction. He knows that the desire will be strong, and warns them what to expect in Canaan to prepare them and keep them safe:
3 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. (Lev 18:3)
He also warns them there is no slipping up, as the consequences cannot be ignored, to be safe they have to get it right the first time. By warning them and explaining the consequences of disobedience they are able to take their actions seriously and stay safe.
A Holy Nation – That cannot tolerate other allegiances
The fact that God tells them that they need to be devoted only to him to be safe, does leave you wondering if Israel can actually do it? Their track record says no, and while these rules are more explicit and more detailed, was their previous disobedience down to lack of understanding?
The standard is also very, very high. You may read the bit about not sacrificing children and think, sure, they can do that, but what about you shall not hate your brother in your heart? God is clear to be safe they need to keep ALL the laws:
You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Lev 20:22)
It is not enough for Israel to just keep the “easy” ones.
This uneasy feeling is compounded by the fact that the consequences of disobedience become more severe as the section progresses. You start out with being cut off from God and exiled from Israel, but in chapter 20 disobedience often means death. I mean, neither of these punishments are what you would call light, but you certainly feel that Israel will inevitably fail again somehow and that this is a recipe for disaster.
A Holy Nation – Finally fully realised in Christ
We, like Israel, are a holy nation because we know God, and belong to him:
13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. 22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:13-23)
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
It can be seen here that we too are to act in line with our identity, but now God has lovingly revealed himself through Jesus in his word (you may see that Peter picks up many other ideas that are prominent in Leviticus, why not go through them and work out what he is saying now you know Leviticus better).
We see that Jesus fixes all the worries about maintaining the high standards in Leviticus.
He was made manifest so that we have faith in God and believe in him (this means we can finally be allied to God as we are supposed to and not enemies giving ourselves to idols).
It can also be seen here that we have the security of knowing that our holy nation is no longer in peril when we act in unholy ways. We have received mercy, been ransomed by Jesus’ blood and have a purified soul through our belief in Jesus (a clean, and perfectly holy soul). Our hope is not set on our own ability to be holy, but on the grace that Jesus will bring when he returns.
There are no longer warnings of death, but reminders that God is our Father and we are his children, and that we are born again through an imperishable seed. We are encouraged to live out our identity while waiting to go home from exile, rather than being threatened with exile!
This has also broadened my view of what Jesus achieves. It not his aim alone to create a holy me, but a holy nation. This is emphasized in 1 Peter as the “your” used here is the plural, not individual, in the original text. I am to look outward to the rest of the nation in order to see him at work and love these people because they belong to God. I cannot have an individualistic faith and care only for my holiness when I realize that it was God’s plan to create a holy people, I should care and love everyone’s sanctification.
I thank God so much knowing that I belong to a holy nation, set apart for him. Knowing that it cost Jesus’ blood to bring me into this nation, makes me know that God does deserve my total allegiance. Having a purified soul, despite my own failings, is something that is more precious than words can describe. I pray that I would grow in my ability to live out my identity as a holy possession of God.
Next post I am going to look at priests again but this time about their conduct and actions so that they are holy (21:1-22:33). Again over the course of the next week, why not take a look at this section and try to answer some of the questions from the prep post (Learning to Love Leviticus Extra: How can we read Leviticus so that we understand it better?). You could use one or more of your quiet times to do this maybe?
As always, I would love to hear people’s thoughts (even if you disagree with me). I hope you now are feeling more confident in Leviticus and excited to see how it builds on Exodus and is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
(All scripture quoted from English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)