Why didn’t the book of Leviticus conclude at the end of chapter 26? Curses usually ended covenant documents in those days, why not here? Chapter 27 does seem in certain ways to be something of an afterthought, a kind of appendix. And, for that reason, as you might expect, some scholars of the liberal persuasion have argued that it must have been added later. There are various explanations offered in the commentaries, but since the curses near the end of Deuteronomy likewise do not conclude that book, it appears likely to me that, for whatever reason, the organizer of this material did not want the book to conclude with a long list of curses. [Hartley, 479]
The presupposition of the chapter we are about to read is that believers are to keep the commitments they have made to the Lord. In particular, these laws explain how they are to keep those commitments, whether voluntary commitments – the subject of vv. 1-24 – or commitments stipulated in the law, such as the tithe (vv. 26-33). In each case, whatever was given to the Lord went to the tabernacle to be used by the priests.
The chapter begins with vows that Israelites might make to God. Remember, a vow is a promise that one does not have to make, but, once made, must be kept.
v.2 One could promise to dedicate a person — himself or someone else – for service to the Lord. Hannah did this with her son Samuel as you remember (1 Sam. 1:11). The point was to offer oneself or one’s child as a servant of God, usually making such a promise in hopes that the Lord would do something in return for the maker of the vow. Such vows were perhaps usually made in desperation – vow-making was a custom in that culture much more so than it is today – so, it was not unnatural for Hannah to make the promise she did – and thus the law made provision for monetary redemption precisely in order to offer people a way out of a vow that at least sometimes should not have been made. [Wenham, 337] Vows are more often made in times of trouble and difficulty than in times of prosperity. It is simply a fact of human life. Louis Zamperini, the subject of the book and movie Unbroken, if you remember, made a vow to God when he had been for days in a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean despairing of his life. He didn’t keep that vow until much later in his life and only because he had become a Christian. What we say in times of desperation is often forgotten in times of calm.
v.4 The different valuations for males and females was apparently based on the amount of heavy work each could be expected to perform (“labor value” not “intrinsic value” [Sklar, 328]). [Hartley, 481] Others have suggested that the varying prices reflected the price such an individual would command in a slave market. In other words, the market determined what a person was worth so far as a monetary value could be assigned to a human being. [Wenham, 338]
v.7 The monetary value also differed according to the age of the person who was dedicated. Only in recent years have I become sensitive to the fact that this is clearly ageism and should be struck from the Bible!
v.8 Clearly the problem being addressed is that a vow had been made that the person cannot afford to pay. The vow was made recklessly, but it was made. Now what? The law was merciful. The Lord wanted his people to do the right thing but he did not want them oppressed by the requirement to do so.
v.11 Once the vow was made the maker could regret having made it. In the enthusiasm of the moment, he may have promised more than, in the clear light of day, he wanted to pay. “It is a human tendency to promise God much when we need him, but to thank him little when he meets our needs.” [Sklar, 328] But having made his vow, he was obliged. There was no getting out of it. If he offered a substitute in the place of the animal he promised, both the original and the substitute had to be given to the Lord. To keep for oneself an animal that had, by dedication to God, been made holy was, in effect, to steal from the Lord; a very serious crime!
v.13 Unclean animals (think, for example, of a donkey) could be used in other ways than as sacrifice in the tabernacle: they could be used by the priests at home or sold for the proceeds. But if the man who dedicated the animals wanted them back he must add a fifth to the market price of the animals and pay that to the tabernacle. Again, the addition of that premium was meant to discourage someone from making a vow he would later wish to take back. The point in all of this material is that it is a serious thing to make promises to God. Once made such promises had to be kept in one way or another.
v.14 Remember, homes located in walled cities could be sold permanently, they were not returned at the Jubilee.
v.15 It is amazing how little things have changed. Today as well people give real estate to the church or to a Christian organization, perhaps for a variety of reasons. They avoid the trouble of having to sell it themselves, they gain a tax advantage, and they benefit a ministry they believe in and want to support. But, today as in those days, no one knows the actual value of such a gift until it has been appraised.
v.21 There are various opinions about what precisely is being described here, but the gist seems to be that failure to redeem the land before the Jubilee was penalized. The land was lost and remained in the possession of the priests in perpetuity. Dedicating the land to the Lord and then leasing it to another was apparently a form of “sharp” business practice in which the man wanted both to dedicate the land and, at the same time, to continue to profit from it. Think of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and their use of dedication (corban) to preserve assets from the claims of even their loved ones.
v.27 The firstborn animal already belonged to the Lord and so could not be dedicated as if it were the worshipper’s free gift. Unclean animals could be redeemed, or bought back, with the usual 20% premium paid.
v.28 “Devoted” is not the same thing as “dedicated.” This term (herem) describes the perpetual consecration of something to the Lord, often but not always for destruction, usually in the case of war or crime. Jericho, you remember, was devoted to destruction in this way; so was Achan for his crime at Jericho. In this way the Lord’s judgment, as it were, “broke into human history, and Israel was the instrument of delivering his justice.” [Sklar, 331] But this act of supreme, permanent dedication could also be used of gifts given to the Lord. But when it was, the gift could not be redeemed under any circumstances; there could be no change of mind. If you remember, this is one explanation of Jephthah’s vow regarding his daughter. Instead of promising to kill her, as the text is usually taken to read, he had promised that she would be irrevocably dedicated to service in the tabernacle and could never marry as a result.
v.33 This is the first time we read that Israel was commanded to tithe, or give a tenth, though it is not the first time the practice is mentioned in the Bible. Remember, Abraham paid a tithe of his captured booty to Melchizedek in Genesis 14. It certainly appears here that the practice was already accepted in Israel, as it was among other peoples of the time. We are given the explanation in Numbers 18. The tithe that Israel paid was to sustain the work of the tabernacle and the lives of those who worked there, the priests and Levites.
It appears that the tithe was carefully structured both adequately to support the sanctuary and its priests and not to impoverish the less well off in Israel. Presumably the tithe is not of inventory – all the animals a farmer owned – but of that year’s offspring, as a tithe was calculated on that year’s crop. The procedure described in v. 30 suggests that if a farmer were poorer and didn’t have ten animals, he would not pay the tithe.
These laws with which the book of Leviticus concludes function in different ways. In the first place, they serve to secure the financing of the sanctuary and the daily worship conducted there. The tabernacle was expensive to operate, with many people at work there, sacrifices being offered throughout the day, the whole place requiring constant care and upkeep. A substantial portion of the sanctuary’s revenue came from vows and tithes, so these regulations were important for that reason. [Levine, 192-193]
The same laws served to remind God’s people that in their relationship with the Lord it was essential that they take matters seriously. Reneging, even hedging on vows was no way to serve the living God who knows both what you promised to him, whether you fulfilled that promise, and in what spirit you fulfilled it.
But these same laws were also a reminder that the Lord was a gracious God who had no intention of impoverishing his people by requiring them to worship him. Even when, in some emergency, they made commitments to him that they were under no obligation to make, he was careful to provide them a way out in keeping with their financial abilities.
We could go on and talk in some detail about all of those lessons. Today, as always before, the work of the church and the worship of God’s house requires the financial support of God’s people. Today and always before the Christian life is and must be taught to be a serious affair. “God is not mocked!” “Try that on the governor!” We are often reminded in Holy Scripture that hypocrisy and flippancy in regard to commitments made to God are serious sins! We are also reminded again and again that it is a great mistake to treat God as if he doesn’t know what you are really thinking and doing! And today as long ago it remains the case that the commandments of the Lord are not burdensome. Modern states think nothing of exacting draconian payments from the citizens, but the Lord was careful to ensure that the worship of his house and the maintenance of his kingdom never placed an undue burden on his people.
But, this evening, I thought that rather than explore the regulations of this last chapter in greater detail, I would review the teaching of the book of Leviticus and from that review summarize its great lessons for us today.
- The book began, if you remember, with regulations for the various sacrifices that were to be offered at the sanctuary every day and from time to time for various reasons: burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace or fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. They had much in common but each was distinct from the others in some way. These sacrifices made the sanctuary a place of constant activity: a fire always burning on the altar, meat and dough cooking on the fire, priests moving about doing their various jobs, ashes being removed and stored for later removal from the tabernacle, priests going into and coming out of the holy place handling the bread and the incense, people eating a feast at tables loaded with the food from their peace offerings, enjoying fellowship with the priests who had helped them, and so on.
- Next, several chapters were devoted to the consecration of the priests for their work at the sanctuary. A man’s ordination to that office was taken to be a matter of great importance both for that man and for the people. That was followed by the only historical narrative in the book, namely the rebellion of the two priests, Nadab and Abihu, who were executed for their disobedience to the laws the Lord had given for the conduct of priestly work in the sanctuary. If anyone thought the laws touching the worship of Yahweh were mere suggestions, Israel learned better the hard way!
- The next large section of the book dealt with the purity of the people, its holiness before the Lord. It began with a chapter devoted to distinguishing between clean and unclean animals, since unclean animals could not be used for sacrifice or for daily food and contact with them could render Israelites unclean. Then followed sections on the purification of women after childbirth – a process that rendered them unclean in large part because of the presence of blood –, laws touching skin diseases and purification from them, the purification of houses and clothing from mildew, and purification from the defiling effects of bodily discharges.
- Then came the ritual of the Day of Atonement, the annual day of purification of the nation from sin. The rules for that ceremony were followed by rules for the killing of sacrificial animals and prohibiting the eating of meat with the blood still in it.
- We turned then from liturgical regulations to ethics, first with a chapter devoted to the permitted degrees of sexual relationship, or, to put it another way, who people could and could not marry. The next chapter continues with ethics, enumerating laws based on the Ten Commandments that require God’s people to keep the Sabbath, to love their neighbors, to be generous to the poor, not to steal, to be honest and so on.
- Those two chapters were followed by a list of punishments to be imposed on those who practice child sacrifice, those who consult mediums, and those who are sexually immoral; the very sins that were endemic in the culture of the land that Israel was about to enter. Nothing teaches us to take obligations seriously like reading what will be done to those who do not!
- Then we returned to liturgical regulations concerning the holiness of the priests, customs forbidden to priests, and requirements peculiar to them as the Lord’s servants in the sanctuary. Two chapters of those.
- Next followed Israel’s liturgical calendar, the stated feasts and other ceremonies scheduled throughout the year.
- In chapter 24 we were given a few other regulations for the worship of the tabernacle, regarding the lamps and the table for bread in the holy place, and some penalties for various offenses.
- Then we read of the laws of the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee.
- Last week we considered the lengthy list of blessings and curses in chapter 26 and this evening read the regulations regarding the payment of vows. The Book of Leviticus!
As we said a number of times as we made our way through the book, these regulations would not have struck the Israelite as odd or hard to understand, as they may strike us today. In the culture of that time and place, such regulations were commonplace, however altered they might have been in Israel’s case because they served such a fundamentally different theology and expressed a relationship with God utterly unlike that known in the rest of the ancient near eastern world. Some of the regulations are quite like those found in other places (the clean and unclean animals for example); some of them are unique to Israel, such as the prohibition against the eating of blood.
But taking all of this together what do we have? Well, what I think is quite obvious is that all of this material ends up to be a description of the Christian life. It is a description that fit the milieu of the second half of the second millennium B.C. near east, but it is actually pretty easy to see in that description what any alert reader of the New Testament would understand to be a somewhat detailed outline of our life as the people of God.
First, we have described in Leviticus a life defined by the worship of God. Stated worship was weekly in Israel, but the whole year was punctuated by feasts, all of which were times of worship, either the celebration before God of the good gifts he had bestowed upon his people, the great things he had done in delivering them from bondage, or days of fasting, repentance, and prayer for new grace from God. Israel’s life throughout the seasons of the year was shaped and took its character from her relationship with God, her recollection of her history with God, and her practicing of his presence with her.
What is more, the practice of that worship stood in the very center of her life. The tabernacle sat not only literally, but figuratively in the center of the nation. And no Israelite could live for any length of time without reckoning with the worship of the sanctuary. Three times a year the men at least, and often whole families, would go to the sanctuary for the great feasts. But throughout the year voluntary acts of worship, of thanksgiving or of petition for God’s help would take men and women to the tabernacle and later to the temple. Still more, and obviously, this worship was sacramental in character, shaped by rituals that communicated divine grace to God’s people in various ways.
But it is even more than that. All of that worship cost a great deal to underwrite. A priesthood was required. It had to be supported. The sanctuary had other operating expenses. And so Israelites were required to tithe to support her liturgical life. The tithe may not have been so much in comparison with the taxes we pay today – I remember a comedian describe the Eifel Tower as the Empire State Building after taxes – but a tenth of one’s income was not chump change then any more than it is now.
And is this not our life today? Our weekly round includes both stated worship on the Lord’s Day, perhaps Wednesday night, and private acts of worship. Is not our worship likewise climaxed by a sacrificial meal? We too observe the clergy/laity distinction, even though it costs us a great deal of money. We too observe an annual calendar of feasts – somewhat less elaborate than Israel’s, but not so different – and our feasts like her feasts have different characters. Good Friday is not Christmas; Lent is not Easter! Easter is not Pentecost.
Christians can sometimes wonder why we put so much stress on going to church every week, why we measure a man or woman’s faithfulness to God in part by his or her faithfulness to God’s house and worship on a weekly basis. George Barna decides in his surveys who is a certain kind of Christian by how often that person goes to church. There are several important reasons why we do so, but whatever those reasons may be, it is worth observing that it has been so from the beginning. The regular round of divine worship has always been the routine of believers in the living God!
Second, we have described in Leviticus a life defined by sin and redemption. Among those things that are uppermost in the worldview of Leviticus is the reality of our sin and God’s forgiveness. The sacrifices, at least most of them, were means of atonement, that is, means by which God extended his forgiveness to his people. Many of them were enacted confessions and absolutions. In the case of sacrifices brought voluntarily to the temple, sacrifices individuals offered in addition to the ordinary round of daily and festal sacrifices, these were often brought precisely because of his or her sense of conviction of sin and desire for pardon and cleansing. And the great one day festival of the year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, was a festival of confession and forgiveness of Israel’s sin.
Americans, including American Christians, may worry about many things more than they worry about their sins and God’s forgiveness of them, but from the beginning it wasn’t so and in the times of the church’s spiritual health it has never been so. First and foremost in the godly heart is the reality of our sin and God’s forgiveness of that sin. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus once asked rhetorically, “if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?”
All of that animal death, all of that blood, shed and splashed on the altar, both the scape goat and the entrance of the high priest into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, it was all about the forgiveness of sins.
And so it is today, or ought to be. We do not gather for worship on the Lord’s Day without confessing our sins to God and receiving the forgiveness of them and without eating together a sacrificial meal, the meal that follows the sacrifice of our substitute on the altar of God! For that is what the Lord’s Supper is: a sacrificial meal, a meal provided by the substitute whose blood was shed in our place for our sins.
Third, we have described in Leviticus a life hemmed in on every side by our obligation as God’s people to reflect his holiness in our behavior. “Be holy for I am holy,” says the Lord. The whole book of Leviticus is about how God’s people are to be holy precisely because they are God’s people.
In other words, while Leviticus lays great stress on the life of divine worship, it also makes very clear that the daily behavior of God’s people is intimately related to that life of worship and must be consistent with it. Social and private behavior is not separate from or unconnected to the worship of God’s people on the Sabbath day and in the sanctuary.
The comprehensiveness of the demand for holiness was impressed on the Israelite mind by a variety of what we are wont to call ceremonial regulations, such regulations as are found in Leviticus. But what do they teach us? From the bedroom, to the kitchen, to the dining room, to the farmer’s field, God’s people are required to be pure and holy before the Lord. But by no means only in regard to such matters of ceremonial or ritual purity.
The same holiness was required of them in their conduct toward others. They were to be chaste in their sexual lives, generous in their concern for the poor, honest in their dealings with their neighbor, scrupulously fair to their workers and especially their slaves. And because God is God, it was never enough that they should offer such obedience only outwardly, so far as it could be observed and measured by others.
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not bear a grudge…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [19:17-18]
God’s holiness requires purity all the way down, purity in the motives as well as that of the actions. The measure of a truly holy man or woman is that he or she would do what was right even if no other human being were ever to know what he or she had done!
We do not, of course, observe today all of the ceremonial or ritual requirement laid down in Leviticus, but it is very easy to show that we are just as obliged to obey the spirit of them in our lives as Christians today. The Apostle Paul was simply providing a short summary of the ethical teaching of Leviticus, both ritual and ethical, when he wrote: “Whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all to the glory of God.” That is just a New Testament way of saying “Be holy for the Lord is holy.”
“Holiness is the moral excellence of God in its awesome, transcendent dimension. Holiness, along with love, is an ultimate attribute of God. It is the full expression of God’s character. Through it, God makes Himself his own standard and the standard by which we must live our lives.
“When the holiness of God is understood and taken into account, then and only then does human character have its divine North Star to guide its direction. Then and only then does virtue know its content… In contrast to God’s holiness, whatever is purely convenient, rationalized, and hypocritical is exposed; whatever is simply relative, compromised, and second-rate is ruled out.” [Os Guiness, When No One Sees, 209-210]
Fourth, and finally, and summarizing all we have said so far, we have described in the book of Leviticus a life lived coram Deo, that is, in the presence of God. It is not simply that God’s people were and are to participate in his worship and obey his commandments. The entire worldview described in Leviticus rests on the conviction that Yahweh dwelled with his people. The reason they were required to live as they were, the reason they had to live holy lives, the reason they had to reckon with their sin and seek God’s forgiveness, was that God was in their midst. He was here! He was not some absent power to be served in certain ways; he was a loving presence in the midst of his people. And his presence was what separated them from all other people; it was their blessing, their strength, their hope for the future. If God is with us and for us, who can be against us!
The fear, made explicit in chapter 26, is that if Israel, if God’s people were careless of God’s presence, treated it lightly, ignored it, or dishonored it, Yahweh would remove himself from his people and with his presence would go his blessing and his favor. How many times did that happened in the history of Israel and how many times has it happened in the history of the church?
The Bible makes very clear that the realities of God’s presence and of the withdrawal of that presence are no different today than they were in the days of Moses. In the last book of the Bible we read the Lord threatening one of his churches – that in Laodicea – that if they didn’t take his presence and holiness more seriously, he would “spit them out of his mouth.” In a day as complacent as ours in 2015 America, Leviticus ought to be for any and every well-instructed Christian, bracing realism. God is not mocked, though you would be hard-pressed to prove that Christians believed that in our day. As one modern theologian observes:
“Theology is a ghetto activity as insulated and uninteresting as the Saturday religion pages of the local paper. God knows it’s hard to make God boring, but American Christians, aided and abetted by theologians, have accomplished that feat.” [Stanley Hauerwas, cited in Os Guiness, When No One Sees? 209]
God is taken for granted even in the church. No faithful Israelite who took the instruction of Leviticus seriously would ever do that! On the other hand, it also remains true that the supreme blessing of God’s grace is simply that of his presence with us. What does Paul say in Ephesians 2 is the ultimate condition of the unbelieving? They are without God. We have him; they do not. He is with us; he is not with them. How many times did we read this in Leviticus: “I am the Lord your God.” No wonder faithful Christians have always been jealous to preserve God’s presence with them and careful to do nothing to jeopardize it; and, if they have, to confess their sins and seek forgiveness quickly and earnestly. Is all of this not Leviticus? Is that not the life that it describes, and is that not your life and mine?
I just finished a fascinating book. I devoured it over a few evenings and a Saturday afternoon. It is the story of two World War II pilots, a German fighter pilot and an American B-17 bomber pilot. The B-17, with its rookie pilot and crew, all fellows in their late teens and early twenties, was on its very first mission, a bombing run over Bremen a few days before Christmas in 1943. It was very severely damage by flak, lost one engine, suffered damage to another, and fell behind the formation as the bomber stream made its way back to England. A sitting duck, it was then attacked by German fighters. One crewman was killed, another terribly wounded, and the plane was shot to pieces. All but one of its guns were out of action, gaping holes in the nose and the fuselage were slowing the plane dangerously and affecting its trim. It was losing altitude but, though its captain, just twenty years of age, gave them permission to bail out over Germany before the plane reached the North Sea, the crew of very young men was unwilling to leave their unconscious comrade. So they flew on, the pilots struggling to keep the wounded bomber in the air, nobody really knowing what was going to happen next. It had been left for dead by the fighters that had damaged it so severely.
Then, suddenly, another German fighter appeared. All he had to do was stitch the slow moving bomber with his cannon and the plane would plummet to earth. He had a full load of ammunition; indeed, he had just landed to rearm and refuel and had seen the bomber passing over the airfield and had taken off after it. But the fighter had approached the slow moving plane from the rear and the pilot could see that the tail gunner was dead. He had come around the right side of the plane and, flying slowly alongside, could see through the gaping holes in the fuselage that some of the crew were kneeling over a wounded man, trying to help him. He moved forward until he could be seen by the pilots in the cockpit. He motioned for them to bail-out but they did not respond, as it turns out because they didn’t understand what he was telling them to do. He pointed to Sweden, telling them to try to make it there, only some 20 minutes away, but they didn’t understand. They were nearing the coast where German anti-aircraft batteries were certain to see the bomber and could scarcely miss a plane so large, moving so slowly, at such a low altitude.
So the German pilot, Franz Stigler, flew in formation with the stricken bomber, knowing that the German gunners would not fire when they saw next to the B-17 the familiar silhouette of a Messerschmitt 109. Whatever that plane was doing, they would know it was one of theirs. So he escorted the bomber over the antiaircraft batteries, out over the sea, saluted, and returned to base, fully aware that if what he had done – allowing the enemy bomber and its crew to live – were to become known to his superiors, it would be regarded as an act of treason and he would in all likelihood be stood against a wall and shot. He didn’t imagine that the bomber could make it all the way back to England in any case. But it did. And the young pilot, Lt. Charlie Brown, survived 26 bombing missions and the war. Later in his life, as he began to suffer from his recollections of wartime service and by his nightmares at night, Charlie wondered about that German pilot: why he had done what he did, whether he had survived the war. Very few of Germany’s fighter pilots did. As an old man he finally decided to investigate. In a happy turn of events he found Franz, then living in retirement in Vancouver, B.C. Their reunion was the climax of the story, as you can imagine.
Why does a man risk his own life to spare the life of enemy soldiers? He was under oath to do his duty as a soldier. He had already shot down another American bomber that same day? But Franz Stigler was able to distinguish, even in the heat of battle, between the killing that combat requires and murder. He would do the one; he would not do the other, even if it meant his own life. I did not know this, but the German air force was the only German military service in the Second World War that was never accused of a war crime. German pilots after they had shot a plane down would often land and make their way as quickly as possible to the downed airplane to make sure that any surviving crewmen were captured and not murdered by any citizenry who might have got there first. Charlie Brown was a Methodist; Stigler a devout Catholic. But both men demonstrated in their own way the realization that there is a God and because God is God, there is a higher standard to which human beings must conduct their affairs; all their affairs, come wind, come weather, whatever the consequences may be. The book, alas, does not, with any sophistication or detail, explore either man’s theological motivations or the practice of his religious life.
But Christians know, or should, that this life of ours cannot be lived rightly or safely – for time or eternity – without reckoning with God in all things, whether we are alone or in company, at home or work or play in calm or in crisis. Many human beings understand this at some level – whether or not they can explain why or justify this conviction – but Christians should understand it in depth and apply it comprehensively and constantly to every aspect of their lives: thought, word, and deed. God is all and is in all. God has made this world; it is he who judges this world and the life of everyone in it. So every day, at every turn we are to think and act accordingly. God’s holiness and God’s love are, at last, the only things that we must remember, that we must honor, and that we must make our first priority. The divine nature and the divine will must shape, define, and control our lives in every way.
To know God’s presence, even as a sinner, is the supreme privilege of human life. To lose it or never to find it is the supreme catastrophe. And because that is true, living so as to preserve God’s presence in one’s own life and to communicate that presence to others is the great calling of a Christian life. This is the reason you have been given breath, the reason you have been given new life in Christ. And that is the message of Leviticus.