Here’s why this is so key… The way Leviticus begins with this phrase “the LORD called to Moses” would be better translated from the ancient Hebrew as “the LORD continued calling to Moses.” What’s implied is that a dialogue between “the LORD” and this man “Moses” was already well underway and the Book of Leviticus is the continuation of the conversation.
In many ways jumping directly into Leviticus would be as confusing as starting Breaking Bad in season 2. Why is this school teacher named Walter White cooking meth with a crazy, often strung-out druggy named Jesse? Why is the meth blue? Why is Walter being referred to on the street as Heisenberg? Why are they scheming up a way to kill this Mexican gangster named Tuco? You see, without the backdrop and the context provided in season 1, the storyline continued in the first episode of season 2 would be really puzzling.
In much the same way, diving cold-turkey into Leviticus 1 without taking the time to consider the overarching narrative presented in Genesis and Exodus will leave you with some obvious questions: Who is this Moses character? Why is God conversing with him? What are they talking about? What’s “the tabernacle of meeting” and why is God speaking from there?
The backdrop for Leviticus really originates with the Genesis account of God creating and ordering the entire universe. Pertaining to the physical world this creation process included shaping things through separation and subsequent division. Whether it be light and darkness, the firmament above and the one below, or land and water, God would speak something into existence only to add greater distinction by dividing it from something else.
In regards to living things a comparable order ensued. Concerning plant life God structured nature so that the grass, trees, and herbs would “yield seed and fruit according to their kind.” Then in a similar fashion God filled the air with birds, placed fish into the sea, and created land animals to also reproduce “each according to its kind.” Everything had a distinct order.
Finally, while God had spoken all things into existence, creation reached a crescendo at the end of the sixth day when “God created man in His own image… male and female God created Him.” (Genesis 1:27) God’s particular order of the world was completed when He then gives to man dominion over the rest of creation with a Garden in Eden to call home.
What’s important to understand for our purposes this morning is Genesis 1-2 present for us a creation scene of a particular order and structure that yielded peace and harmony. There was no strife between God and man. And as a result there existed zero conflict between man and the rest of creation that had been charged to his care and stewardship.
Sadly though, all of this beautiful order was instantly lost the moment man decided to rebel against the one command of God by eating of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Sin not only entered the human condition creating a separation from God, but all of creation felt the effects. Order turned to chaos as creation now resisted a rebellious man.
Well, it didn’t take long for the situation to go from bad — Genesis 4 tells the story of Cain murdering his younger brother Abel — to much worse! In Genesis 6:5-6 we read that following several generations “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In fact, “The LORD was even sorry that He had made man on the earth, and was grieved in His heart.”
What resulted was a hard reset with God destroying the earth with a flood sparing only a man named Noah and his family. Tragically, even after such a dramatic judgment, it didn’t take but a few generations from Noah for man to again rebel against the commands of God!
Though God had instructed humanity to move out from the Ark and fill the earth, man instead chose to congregate and build a great city with a tower reaching into the heavens. In the end God intervened by confusing their single language, the building of the city of Babel ceased, and the human race was scattered across the face of the earth (recorded in Genesis 11).
Within the larger story of Scripture and God’s ultimate plan to provide mankind a Redeemer (first mentioned in Genesis 3:15), chapter 12 marks an important shift in the overall trajectory of the narrative when God specifically chose to work out His will through a man named Abraham, his son Isaac, and ultimately the twelve sons of his grandson Jacob. It would be through their future descendants God would eventually send Jesus to save the world.
Though I’m fast-forwarding through so much history, eventually the Genesis record closes with this man Jacob (who’s name had been changed by God to Israel) and his sons moving south into Egypt on account of a severe famine in the land God had given to their family.
While the Book of Exodus opens roughly 360 years after the close of Genesis with Jacob’s family still residing in Egypt, three notable changes have taken place. First, the sons of Israel had lots of children! On account these men were shepherds by trade and the Egyptians hated shepherds, the Hebrews lived in an outer area of Egypt known as Goshen.
As a result of the ethnic and geographical divisions, each of the twelve sons of Israel would grow into a tribe of their own with these Twelve Tribes collectively becoming a nation in just a few short generations. In Exodus 1:7 we read of this time, “The children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty, and filled the land!”
Secondly, while the Israelites enjoyed a measure of autonomy during the early years of their time in Egypt, because their numbers were swelling so dramatically, their presence started to worry the Egyptians. To combat this growing threat, in the first chapter of Exodus, we read how the Egyptians began enslaving the Jews in an attempt to curtail the population growth.
In Exodus 1:11-14 the scene is described this way, “Therefore the Egyptians set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage — in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field.” There is no question life in Egypt had become severely difficult for the Israelites with little to no hope of any kind of deliverance.
Lastly, there seems to be ample evidence from the first few chapters of Exodus that during these 360 or so years in Egypt God had been largely silent. In fact, according to the last several verses of Exodus 2, it was only when the plight of the Israelites had became so intolerable that they even felt compelled to begin crying out to God for His salvation.
Ultimately, it would be in response to their afflictions and subsequent appeals that God would break His silence, appear to a man named Moses, and say to him (Exodus 3:6-8), “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey!”
In this exchange God’s intensions were clear… He would use Moses to “deliver His people out of the hand of the Egyptians” before leading them back to the land He’d promised Abraham. Following His commission of Moses to spearhead this task, Exodus 4 through 18 records the incredible way all of this went down. In the end God would use 10 devastating plagues to force Pharaoh into letting His people leave Egypt. Then, when Pharaoh changed his mind, God would create a way for these Israelites to escape by parting the Red Sea.
Once free from the oppression of Egypt, as He’d promised Moses, God would then embark on the task of leading His people back to the land of promise. In addition to the supernatural provision of Manna from heaven, we’re told in Exodus 13:21 the presence of LORD “went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” What a spectacular sight that must have been to behold?
While making their way through the wilderness back to the land of their fathers, a significant scene unfolds beginning in Exodus 19. Three months following their liberation from bondage and departure from Egypt God intentionally leads the Israelites to the base of Mount Sinai with the instructions they take three days to purify the camp and consecrate themselves.
Exodus 19:16-20 records for us what followed… “Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went.”
From this spectacular scene proceeds 20 chapters of instructions God gives to Moses for how His people were to be ordered and society structured. What we know as the Law of Moses summed up in the 10 Commandments was given by God to the people along with very specific and detailed directives pertaining to almost every aspect of their lives.
Aside from this God also dictated the way in which His people were to interact with Him moving forward. God designated the Tribe of Levi to make up the priesthood — they’d come before Him on behalf of the people. God gave Moses the blueprint for the “tabernacle” and how it was to be specifically constructed. He even gave design specs for all of the utensils, artifacts, and furniture that was to be used in this new place “of meeting.” Once completed God’s plan was to indwell this tabernacle situated in the very midst of the camp!
The last chapter of Exodus records Moses setting up this tent following the completion of its construction. In Exodus 40:33 “Moses finished the work” only for a most awesome thing to happen… We read, “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle… For the cloud of the LORD was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.” Again, can you imagine?
This is the backdrop for Leviticus! Moses has finished setting up the tabernacle. And the presence of God has descend from Mount Sinai, filling this portable tent located in the midst of the people, before ultimately coming to rest upon the Mercy Seat atop the newly created Ark of the Covenant. “From this tabernacle of meeting the LORD now called to Moses” with Leviticus recording for us the continuation of this important conversation that centered upon how the people were to relate to their God as well as live in harmony with each other!
To this point let me give you a basic outline for the Book of Leviticus. The first half —including chapters 1-17 — discusses how man should approach a holy God. Within this first half chapters 1-7 talk about 5 different sacrifices, chapters 8-10 deal with the priests and their specific role in this process, chapters 11-15 provide instructions on what constitutes “clean and unclean” on a myriad of various issues, chapter 16 deals with the Day of Atonement, and chapter 17 addresses the handling and sanctity of blood.
The second half of the book — including chapters 18-27 — unpack how man should now live and interact with each other. Within this half all kinds of topics are covered: sexual sins, contracts, the redemption of property, lending money to others, when to take vacation, slavery, refugees, how to make appropriate restitution, honoring parents, etc.
To understand the substance of Leviticus never forget the larger purpose behind God freeing the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt… For starters, God called them out of Egypt to bring them to a Promised Land in order to make them His own special people. God desired a relationship with the Hebrew people — one of intimacy and covenantal in nature.
To do this God literally came to make His home in the middle of the camp! He had Moses build him a tent so He could live with His people. Anthropomorphically, the relationship was akin to that of a husband and wife. Israel was to be God’s bride — which explains why the very first stipulation spoke of faithfulness… “You shall have no others God’s but Me!”
Building on this… God also called the Jews out of Egypt to make them His own special people in order for this new nation to ultimately demonstrate to a sinful world there was a better way of living. You see God was looking for a body — A nation who’d embody His heart for the lost world — A people who’s lives would reflect His light into the darkness.
Broadly speaking this was one of the main reasons for the Law — including Leviticus. God gave specific instructions for how His relationship with Israel was to function and He established a distinct way in which their lives were to be ordered. The plan was for Israel to present to the world a blueprint for how God always intended life to be lived.
One of the criticism of Leviticus with all of these ancient rules, laws, and regulations is that they appear to be regressive. The problem with such a perspective is that it fails to consider God’s intended purpose. For several years I’ve coached my son Q in U6 and U8 soccer and in these age brackets there really are only two rules: (1) Don’t use your hands, and (2) Don’t kick the ball at your own goal! In “pack-soccer” you always push or progress the ball upfield.
What’s interesting about this is when you watch an Atlanta United game kicking the ball back to your own goalie is not only an acceptable act, but it’s actually done for strategic benefits.
When an offensive attack fails and a team is finding their ability to progress the ball upfield problematic, you’ll notice the players will intentionally kick the ball back to their goalie in order to reset the offense. A movement that at first appears to be regressive is actually done with the express intention of progressing the ball forward in a more successful manner.
In many ways what might seem, on the surface, to be regressive in the way Leviticus aims at structuring society ends up actually being God’s way of resetting the order of things so that society can now more efficiently progress forward in the way He originally intended.
Don’t forget the original creation had been the result of the perfect order of God. And yet, this beautiful order was instantly turned to chaos by sin. In the end humanity was separated from their Creator. What makes the “tabernacle of meeting” so significant is that for the first time since Eden the presence of God was again in the midst of humanity.
In many ways this conversation God has with Moses — which is continued in Leviticus — intended to harken back to the original creation narrative. In a sense God was intentionally kicking the ball back in order to establish the way forward.
For example… God’s order in creation necessitated separation and division. It’s interesting that after liberating the Jewish people from Egypt — but before He embarks on the process of re-ordering their society — God first proceeds to separate them from the rest of the world.
While we have 7 days presented in Genesis in which God created, it’s worthy of pointing out there were also 7 lengthly sections of Exodus in which God documented how 7 pieces of furniture was to be created for the tabernacle. (The Altar of Sacrifice, Laver of Washing, Golden Lampstand, Table of Showbread, Altar of Incense, the Ark of the Covenant, and finally the Mercy Seat.) Aside from this 7 days were eventually required to consecrate Aaron and the priests and 7 days to sanctify the altar for use (Exodus 29).
Beyond this, the very language used throughout the process intended to establish this important connection back to Genesis. In Exodus 39:42-43 we read, “According to all that the LORD had commanded Moses the children of Israel did. Then Moses looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it as the LORD had commanded. And Moses blessed them.” This word “blessed” is the identical Hebrew word we find repeated often in Genesis 1 when after creating a living being “God blessed them” and said “be fruitful and multiply.”
In Exodus 40:33 — when we read “Moses finished the work” of setting up the tabernacle before God descended — we find the same word used in Genesis 2:1-2, “Thus the heavens and earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and rested on the seventh day.”
In the creation account of Genesis everything was initiated with the phrase, “And God said!” From His word came order and structure — creation operating according to His design. Do you think it’s an accident the Book of Leviticus opens, “Now the LORD said?” In fact, the Hebrew title for this book is one word translated as “And He Called” or literally “God said!”
Amazingly, what is taking place in Leviticus is a re-creation of sorts. After calling His people out from the world (separation), God now intends to re-order what sin had destroyed, the chaos brought into the world because of man’s rebellion. In this conversation with Moses the LORD will define a new way of living in direct contrast to their experiences in Egypt.
Within the pages of Leviticus you will find God’s crafting of a new societal structure for His people — a new way to be human! You might say God is intentionally kicking the ball all the way back to the very beginning by intentionally invoking creation-language.
Keep in mind, while God’s people, the Israelites has just been liberated from slavery! There is no question Egypt — this picture of a sinful, worldly, fallen society — had a particular way of ordering things. With a hierarchy of human value (halves and have nots) this social order devised by a sinful man was rigged. Inequality and injustices were rampant.
Imagine what it must have been like to experience liberation and freedom when you’d only known a life of injustice and bondage? It’s only logical a nation of slaves would naturally grapple with the existential questions of what it means to be human. New challenges emerge — how should society be ordered and who has the right to decides such things?
The Hebrews had been freed from Egypt and God wanted to teach them the right way to live and the best way to interact with each other. And yet, God knew the only way for that to happen was for Him to first come and dwell with them. Leviticus doesn’t present the edicts of a God perched in heaven, but an appeal from a God dwelling in their midst.
Because man could not enter the throne room of heaven on account of the separation of sin, God brought the throne room of heaven down to earth! According to Hebrews 8:5 this “tabernacle of meeting” was literally patterned after the throne room of God and was designed specifically to be “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”
While the presence of God in the midst of His people was an essential component to this new way of living He was about to institute, the people also need to understand there was a right and a wrong way He was to be approached. Leviticus will address such things. I have to say it, but this is a lesson largely forgotten in our present Christian culture.
Ultimately, this explains why Leviticus begins with the sacrificial system of atonement — another example of kicking the ball back. Following the original sin of man it was God who established a precedent when He offered the very first sacrifice by slaughtering a lamb to provide skins as an effective covering. It’s clear from the events of Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel presented offerings that the precedent God had set was not to be trifled with.
It’s also worth noting that following the Flood we read in Genesis 8:20-21 that when Noah departed the Ark he “built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma.” All throughout the first 7 chapters of Leviticus the same language will be used!
Though God had liberated them from Egypt, declared them to be His people, and chose to dwell in their midst, the sinful condition of man still created a fundamental and unavoidable hurdle. Because “the wages of sin is death” the sacrifice of an innocent substitute had to be required for any sinful man to approach a holy and perfect God.
Next week we’ll begin working our way through the 5 offerings presented in the first 7 chapters of Leviticus. And yet, this morning I want to leave you with one more concept essential to your understanding of all that we’re going to be discussing in the weeks ahead.
Everything we’ve looked at by establishing the backdrop and the context for Leviticus indicates God’s had a distinct purpose behind His handling of the Jewish people. He graciously freed them from their bondage in Egypt when they could not free themselves and He made them His people by dwelling in their midst… So that they would naturally demonstrate to the lost world around them the life God intended for all of humanity.
But don’t miss this… While God kicked the ball back for good reason, the Levitical system only intended to established the framework for how the ball would be successfully moved forward. In fact, by design, the Levitical system could never progress the ball anywhere. Things like the sacrificial system, priesthood, tabernacle of meeting, and the Law only intended to establish a precedent for the way God would accomplish His plan.
For example, the sacrificial system only reinforced the consequences of sin. The death of an innocent substitute was required for both the atonement of sin and purification from sin. But even then the blood of animals was woefully inadequate to move the ball forward because these sacrifices lacked any type of permanence necessary for genuine righteousness.
The formation of the priesthood intended to emphasize the necessary need of sinful man to have an effective mediator through which they might approach a righteous God. And yet, even the priests fell short in what they could accomplish on account of their own sin.
While the tabernacle of meeting articulated God’s desire to have a loving relationship with His people, the entire structure only highlighted the separation that existed because of sin. The people could see God’s presence in the camp, but their access to Him was severely restricted and as a result God remained largely unapproachable.
In the end, though the fundamental purpose for the law was to illustrate what genuine holiness looked like by defining this new way of living and how to treat others, the law also failed to move the ball forward because mankind zero assistance. Sure, while the law command us how to live, it then left us on our own to figure out how to live that way!
Understand, as part of God’s design and ultimate plan to free people from bondage, in order to make them His own by dwelling in their midst, so that their lives would be a light unto the world, the only way that ball could be successfully moved forward would be through a work of Jesus taking place within the framework God establishes in Leviticus.
In the end Jesus came and moved the ball forward when He willingly offered Himself as the permanent sacrifice to atone for our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. While every sacrifice established in Leviticus proved to be ineffective, they were all successful in setting the framework for the sufficient work of Jesus on the cross to deliver us from sin.
Because of the acceptance of His work at Calvary and status in heaven, Jesus can now act as our High Priest in heaven effectively mediating for us a new covenantal relationship with God and granting us access to the throne room of God. How amazing to consider… In Jesus we are now the people of God — not by having Him physically dwelling in our midst, but by having His Spirit indwell within our hearts! The ball moving forward.
And what manifests from all this? Well, it’s where the ball always intended to land! Because of the work of Jesus, the life of Godliness described in the law is now attainable through the natural manifestation of His Spirit working in our lives thereby changing how we live — which in turn finally enables His people to effectively represent Him to the lost world.
In the end the key to unlocking Leviticus is not to view the book as a list of things you should be doing, but to instead see it as (1) God intentionally setting up the framework for the work Jesus would do for you, and (2) God explaining how that work should then naturally influence the way you live and order your life! You see, Leviticus is God establishing the precedent for grace as well as the ways in which His grace really does change everything.
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