Activists recently unveiled a new altar they intend to place on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and use to offer animal sacrifices. Thus far the Jerusalem municipality has not let them slaughter an animal in a public park. What is the appeal of this archaic religious ritual, and why did the Old Testament implement it in the first place? Animal sacrifice has been around as long as there has been religion.
Sometimes people even offered human sacrifices. They wanted to know where they stood with the gods, and so they endlessly offered sacrifice after sacrifice to appease them. The Hebrew people were born into a world with this understanding of religion and sacrifice.
The book of Leviticus is the instruction manual of ritual, moral and legal practices. It instructs the people to limit sacrifice to a lamb, never a child. It puts limits on sacrifices and lets you know your standing before God. Even the word sacrifice in Hebrew means “to come near.” Leviticus shows people their sinfulness and offers terms of peace with God. They had been freed from slavery in the Exodus, but Moses quickly realized it is a lot easier to get the slave out of Egypt than Egypt out of the slave. They needed to be introduced to a life with God through rituals and systems. This was a huge step forward in how people thought of God.
Leviticus is a lot like military school. In military school, you will be told when to wake up, how to knot your shoes, how to make your bed, what to eat, what songs to sing, and what to wear. They are inserting disciplines into your life so you can work, individually and as a team. The very people who resist a regimented life are usually the people that need to implement one. Imagine an entire race of people whose whole existence was shaped under slavery! Leviticus gives them a framework for life and faith that slowly helps unravel the chains of the dehumanization they experienced in Egypt. The Levitical sacrificial system is a baby step before they can start taking leaps forward. Perhaps animal sacrifice in the Old Testament was not about appeasing God but rather giving people a ritual to help them take some spiritual baby steps.
Leviticus slowly introduces the Hebrew people to how the people of God actually behave. If you want to become the people of God, then do not pick to the edge of your harvest. This puts a limit on greed. Can’t the needy have the crumbs that fall from your vines? Leviticus reminds bosses to pay their workers on time. It tells people not to make fun of deaf people or trip blind people. This is helpful instruction for people who were born into a culture without conscience. It is frustrating that Moses had to write it down, but if he did, then it must have been a problem.
New Testament Christians want to know what this has to do with our faith. If you want to teach people how to love their neighbors or enemies (as Jesus taught), then you first have to put limits on slander, hatred and revenge. The Old Testament system teaches us to put down the knife before we learn to hug. In Leviticus, holiness is not some saintly crown, but how we act in everyday places and relationships. The rules of Leviticus teach us to live more generously and deal more honestly with people in our lives. God took them out of Egypt, and now it is time to take Egypt out of them. Just because they were freed from slavery does not mean they learned to live freely. You have to teach justice and fairness before the New Testament introduces a life bathed in God’s grace. Holiness is not the way to salvation, but it is salvation’s way of life.
Leviticus dares God’s people to change the world. If we all begin to be truly kind, honest and generous with each other, how would that feel? Would other people notice? This is the way to be a light to the Gentiles. Jesus takes Levitical justice and moves it one step farther. The Law tells you “do not steal.” Jesus tells you to give away more. The Law tells you “do not slander.” Jesus tells you to help someone build up their reputation with others. The Law tells you “do not murder.” Jesus tells you to protect the innocent. The Law tells you “do not even covet your neighbor’s belongings.” Jesus tells you to help your neighbor install an alarm system and throw him a party when he gets a promotion.
The Leviticus lifestyle is a moral and reasonable code of life, but it is not the Jesus way. The Jesus way treats people better than they deserve with the hope that the Spirit of God will pull them forward. The rituals of Leviticus are a mother’s milk to a baby that is still developing. They help get Egypt out of the slave. The gospel is spiritual meat, a filet mignon topped with a delicate French sauce
Temple sacrifices required sheep that shepherds raised in the fields near Bethlehem, the same place Jesus was born. Instead of people coming near to God, God now dwells with them. We know Jesus to be both sheep and shepherd. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Good Shepherd who gave up His life for His flock. For centuries, shepherds raised sheep that were eventually killed for the shepherds’ own sins. Now the sheep have a Shepherd who is willing to be sacrificed for them. This is what the New Testament means when it proclaims Jesus is the final sacrifice for the sins of the world. This is why Jesus’ final word from the cross was “finished.” Today we light grills not to appease the gods but to invite our neighbors to a feast. Altars become tables. This is the Jesus way.
James L. Mueller is a pastor in Hurst, Texas, and the creator of The Digital Catechism (thedigitalcatechism.com). He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration from the University of Texas, a Master of Divinity degree from Concordia Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Portland Seminary.