Lessons from Leviticus

This past summer, my Bible reading plan took me through the book of Leviticus. Initially, I wasn’t too thrilled to read what I considered to be a dry book of rules and regulations, but I had committed myself to reading (not skimming) God’s word, which happens to include books like Leviticus. And, while I won’t tout it as a riveting summer read, I will say that in His mysterious ways, the Lord is able to use even the seemingly monotonous parts of scripture to speak directly to the heart of His people today (Hebrews 4:12). He did for me and here is what I learned:  

I am not God

This may seem obvious. It is not. While we, as Christians and non Christians alike, will readily say we aren’t God, our lives certainly reflect otherwise at times. We like our plans, our things, our lifestyle and we have a difficult time when those get a bit messed up. Most Christians understand the Lord is lord of all, but we have grown accustomed to a certain way of being. The Israelites certainly did. So much so, that several times they regretted their decision to follow God, saying they preferred Egyptian cruelty or even death to wandering in the desert (Exodus 16:3, Numbers 14:3). They, like us, had a tendency toward what is familiar. They, like us, struggled with wanting to call the shots for their own lives. And so the Lord needed to teach them, through time and repetition, a very important lesson about who is in control.  

One of the ways He taught His people the distinction between Him and them is through what we now read as Leviticus. Among other things, this book contains extensive descriptions of the various types of offerings given to the Lord, explanations of a myriad of different laws for the people, and even a detailed outline of the duties and dress of the priests. This is preceded by multiple chapters in Exodus just devoted to the building of the temple! Through the inclusion of such involved descriptions, we are reminded of the sheer holiness of God, His purity, and His perfection. We are to understand and accept there is a distinction between Him and us.

As the Lord was teaching His people that He alone is God and what that looks like when compared to man, so we are to recognize this distinction and accept His supreme authority over our own lives. We are not God. We don’t have a right to this life. We don’t have a right to a certain income or career or home. We are not obligated happiness or safety or comfort. What we have, be it manna or meat, is under the control and decision of the almighty Lord. And He has every right to that.  

God does not change

Countless times while reading Leviticus, I found myself starting to think something like, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to serve that God.” I thought of the rituals and sacrifices the people were required to bring and it all seemed so serious, so formal, scary even. I struggled to feel comfortable with the God of Leviticus. But if James 1:17 is true (which it is) then I do serve the Levitical God, for the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New.  

It occurred to me then that the Israelites had been in bondage in Egypt for hundreds of years. Before God rescued them, they had been slaves and it was all they knew. Imagine the mental shift that would have to occur within anyone whose life (and cultural history) took such a traumatic turn, especially when that turn was laden with unbelievable miracles. Before the Lord would lead His people into the Promised Land, He needed to teach them, recalibrate them. This is partly what the time spent in the desert was for and another reason why we read such specifics in the book of Leviticus. Among other things, these people needed to learn how to be a people of God and not a slave to man. What good parent would raise his children without specific rules meant for their good (Proverbs 22:6)?  

To see in Leviticus a serious and imposing God is to see only part of Him. A needed part, for we must see Him this way or we lose the awesomeness that is God. We must read about this side of Him, remembering that it is part of the character of the same God who freed His people, walked before them as fire and cloud, forgave endless infractions, and made a way through ritual sacrifice to cleanse them of their sinfulness. We need to remember the description of Himself that God gives to Moses in Exodus 34:5-7: “’The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’”

The God who deserved and demanded worship and loyalty and love from His people in Leviticus is the same God who deserves and demands it from me now.  

Obedience is paramount

What good is learning anything if you either don’t remember it or don’t practice it? The book of James puts it another way: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (1:23). The Lord is taking the time in the desert to teach His people to be His people and all the ins and outs of what that looks like. He wants them not only to know how a people of God should act, but He wants them to actually act that way.  

If you’re a Christian, especially if you’ve been brought up as a believer, you probably understand this and wouldn’t argue it. A lot of Christians are fairly good at abstaining from the “big sins.” But what about those sins that no man can see? What about the sins of the heart that dictate our actions and make one thing acceptable for someone while making it completely unacceptable for someone else? And what about the sins that we justify because they’re culturally and socially acceptable today? Every one of these types of sins is addressed throughout the first few books of the Bible and God is very clear on where He stands: none of them are acceptable.

Even before we get to the lengthy laws outlined in Leviticus, God instructs Moses to tell His people not to make a covenant with the people from other territories. Neither are the Israelites allowed to let them live in their land because, God says, “they will make you to sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you” (Exodus 23:32-33). The One who created us knows our hearts, including our propensities toward sin, and seeks to protect us from making decisions that will lead us into disobedience. Not only does this outline God’s desire for total obedience from us, but it also underscores the importance of surrounding ourselves with other like-minded believers so that we are encouraged to keep on in our obedience to God.  

What began for me as a less than enthusiastic reading of the book of Leviticus became, with the help of the Holy Spirit, something far greater. I discovered not only the reasons for why Leviticus was written but why it’s also extremely relevant for me today. The rules and routines of God’s people back then became real lessons to live by for a child of God today.