One of the great roadblocks in the way of happily navigating Leviticus is forgetting to use the rearview mirror. You cruised along through Genesis and Exodus, making good time but still enjoying the sights, then you came to Leviticus and concluded that you made a wrong turn in Albuquerque. Leviticus doesn’t look like much of a town. There doesn’t seem to be a straight route through it anywhere. And it seems like all the maps are written in Chinese. Though it seems counterintuitive, the only way to move forward is to keep one eye trained on the rearview mirror.
Ok. I have squeezed all of the dignity out of that metaphor but I hope you are pickin’ up what I am puttin’ down. If we don’t understand the plot line of Genesis and Exodus, or if we lose sight of it, we won’t be able to make much sense at all out of Leviticus. Once we see how it functions as part of the story, Leviticus with all its odd bits, ceases to read like an insurance policy. To that end, I want to refresh and reflesh the story up to now.
In the beginning…
Born naked as an infant, Adam was under tutelage until an appointed time set by his Father. Created to share in his Father’s rule over creation, Adam would one day be elevated to kingship. At the moment of his birth from earth and breath he was a trainee; a servant in the Lord’s garden temple. Adam could eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, communing in abundant life with his Father. But for the time being he was not permitted to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; the tree of judgment and discernment—the tree that that would signal his eventual entrance into mature “kingly” wisdom and authority. “Taste not, touch not, handle not,” was the first lesson of humanity’s pedagogy.
The most immediate and explicit consequence of Adam’s disobedience was his exclusion from the Garden of Eden and specifically from the Tree of Life. That exclusion is the premise for the entire Old Covenant order. Outside Eden, Adam and his children were not only weak and dependent creatures, but were now delivered over to the cruel reign of sin and death. They found themselves living in corruptible, shameful, and now mortal flesh. By Adam’s sin the whole human race came under wrath. As the old grammar books have it, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” God handed over humanity to the enslavement which they chose for themselves. Cain didn’t eat the forbidden fruit but he too was exiled from Eden. According to Paul, death came into the world on the heels of sin so that death spread to all men. And wherever death spread sin spread.
From the beginning, the Garden was a unique location. It was God’s earthly home. It was a “holy habitation” because the holy God was present there. After Adam’s expulsion from the Garden, holy space became hidden space. That is, it was now off limits; inaccessible. The Lord stationed Cherubim at the gates to guard against any attempt at reentry. From Adam onward, anyone who was to enter the presence of God must first pass through the cherubic sword and fire. No man could commune in the presence of God unless he first died.
Babel added another complexity. After Babel the human race became internally divided as well as separated from God’s sanctuary. Having lost the right to commune with their Father, they now lose the ability to commune with their brothers. Their feeble attempt to bypass the guarded gate by constructing a tower compounded their curse in unspeakable ways. Literally. In the aftermath of Babel the Lord called Abraham as a new Adam to be the father of a new humanity. Through Abraham God promised to restore the human race to himself and to knit the human race back together.
Leviticus fits into this context as a step toward the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. Torah is given to Israel outside of Eden, after Babel, and it assumes the conditions of edenic and babelic curse. Torah doesn’t restore open access to the Garden. It doesn’t demand that the cherubim lay down their fiery swords. It doesn’t reunite the nations or make them one flesh with God. Simply by the fact that it is given to Israel and not to everyone, Torah establishes a hierarchy of access and responsibility. In other words, Torah is accommodated to the postlapsarian conditions of the human race.
Yet still, Torah institutes a partial recovery of Eden. The construction of a sanctuary creates a distinction between “holy” and “common” space, thereby between holy and common people and things. But the intention behind the sanctuary is frequently misunderstood. Israel’s holy places are “restricted” places, off limits to anybody but authorized personnel. But the building of the tabernacle (and later the temple) does not create the conditions of exclusion and distance, rather, the sanctuary represent a countermovement to the curse of Eden.
After Eden the Creator had no earthly home. At Sinai he moved into a tent among the tents of Israel. The Lord drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden, he invites Aaron and his sons in. For the first time since Eden a human stands before the Creator to serve. For the first time since God stationed cherubim at the gate of the Garden human beings—priests—take over the cherubic task of guarding God’s house. For the first time since Adam holy men walk upon holy ground with a veil, embroidered with cherubim, between them and their Maker. The tabernacle is holy space but the boundaries between holy space under Torah have become porous.
Having taken up residence among the Israelites, the Lord invites all of them to his house. Under the circumstances, the Lord’s hospitality must be restricted; the welcome must be a controlled welcome. So God sets up his house so that Israel can draw as near as possible. Thus, the various regulations of Torah have to be understood in this context.
Purity regulations are frequently explained as expressions of disgust—as distance-marking boundaries. Whatever they are elsewhere, in Leviticus they are the opposite. God specifies the physical conditions that make Israelites unacceptable in his presence, but then he turns around (anthropomorphically speaking) and invites them in by publishing the rituals whereby they can become clean and approach in safety. The purity regulations in Torah are prohibitions (“taste not, touch not”) but the prohibitions are imposed for the sake of limited access. The NO to impurity is for the sake of the YES of welcome. Though the purity texts do focus on the details of impurities, the telos of these regulations is to prescribe mechanisms for the removal of impurity. This means the closure of distance and the return of humanity to God.
Sacrifice is to be understood in the same way. Sacrifice is a “gate” liturgy—a liturgy of return designed for worshippers who are already excluded from full and complete enjoyment of the presence of God. Sacrifice does not eliminate that distance but it does alleviate it to a large degree.
Like the Lord’s original sacrifice outside Eden through which God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve, the sacrifices of the sanctuary cover (kippur) Israel. The worshipper himself cannot draw near to Yahweh’s table to offer himself as “bread” for God but he is able to send a substitutionary animal to represent him in God’s presence. The animal cannot get into God’s presence without suffering death at the hands of the cherubic priests with their sword and fire.
Augustine’s definition of sacrifice from City of God describes it as, “any act by which the actor desires to be united to God in holy society.” That captures the sense of levitical sacrifice. Sacrifices traverse the boundaries between profane and sacred space as the animals serve in a priestly capacity to enter the sanctuary on the worshipper’s behalf. It includes a moment of substitutionary death as the animal dies in the process of drawing near to God on behalf of another. But the death of the sacrifice does not abort the process. In actuality, the death of the substitute only constitutes half of the rite. The purpose of the sacrifice is to get into the presence of God but it would seem that is impossible since the way is impassable. A living sacrifice can’t go in without dying, and it seems obvious that dead sacrifices can’t go anywhere. That is, unless they are raised from the dead and exalted. As the sacrifice is consumed by God it is transfigured into smoke and rises into the presence of the Lord, wherein he accepts it as a substitute—dead, risen, and exalted—on behalf of the worshipper.
God expelled Adam from the Garden in wrath but in the tabernacle the Lord goes out into the waste howling wilderness to find his unfaithful bride and to bring her home. He goes outside of Eden to give a taste of Eden to Adam’s children who are living on husks east of Eden.