"Holiness" is a word we frequently associate with the Bible, but what does it mean? As we pick up the story from where we left off in Exodus, we find even Moses unable to enter God’s presence—and a whole bunch of laws about situations many of us have never considered. What is going on in the scroll of Leviticus? And why is it important? In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they dive into the first movement of the Leviticus scroll, where we’ll trace the theme of sacrifice.
Being near God in his holiness is like going near the sun. I want to be in proximity to the sun. And it’s good! And that good thing is at the same time dangerous—it could kill me. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s part of the nature of the sun. I modify myself to be fit to be in the presence of the sun, that is, taking on some aspect where I change my normal way of existing to live in proximity to the sun. Putting on a sun shirt makes me holy in proximity to the sun.
In part one (00:00-5:30), Tim and Jon dig into the first movement in Leviticus. In this movement, we’re tracing the theme of sacrifice and atonement, starting with a big picture look at Leviticus as a literary unit and its position within the Torah as a whole.
In part two (5:30-14:45), Tim and Jon discuss the structure of the Torah.
Bookended by Genesis and Deuteronomy, Leviticus lands squarely in the center of the Torah. Genesis ends with the patriarch Jacob/Israel giving a farewell speech to his sons from his deathbed. Similarly, Deuteronomy ends with Moses’ farewell speech to the nation of Israel, Jacob’s sons. Moses blesses the tribes of Israel as Jacob did before him, while also predicting Israel’s impending betrayal of Yahweh.
At the center of the Torah, Leviticus describes what it looks like for Israel to preserve their covenant with Yahweh, through sacrifices and rituals, personal integrity and surrender, and societal justice. Leviticus 18 is the very middle of Leviticus (the center of the center of the Torah). This key section includes a description of the defilement of Yahweh’s holy place and instructions for its restoration and purification on the Day of Atonement, a ritual at the heart of Israel’s entire sacrificial system.
In part three (14:45-55:30), Tim and Jon discuss holiness, a prominent theme within Leviticus.
The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh (and similarly, a holy place is a mikdash). Israel’s purpose, according to Yahweh, is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). Becoming holy has everything to do with proximity to the holy one—an object or person who spends time near Yahweh becomes holy. God’s holiness is both good and dangerous, so to be near him, humanity needs guidelines. If God is the sun, the book of Leviticus is the atmosphere that protects us from his brilliance.
Throughout Leviticus, the author distinguishes between what is holy and what is common. To be common doesn’t make something bad or even morally wrong necessarily. It just means it’s not holy and not in close proximity to Yahweh.
After Israel worships the golden calf, there’s an unusual incident in Exodus 40 where Moses can’t enter the tent of meeting, even though he has regularly met with Yahweh in the tent up until this point. The golden calf incident has ruptured the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, and the laws in Leviticus come as a response to repair their communion. The last time there was a broken relationship between Yahweh and Israel (when they failed to ascend the mountain of the Lord in Exodus 18-20), Moses offered his life in their place, setting up a pattern we can anticipate here as we read. When something interrupts communion between God and humanity, a blameless representative must offer their life to cover the sins of the many. So it should come as no surprise that Leviticus 1-7 is all about the sacrifices Israel must make to enter Yahweh’s presence.
Leviticus is far more than a rulebook—it’s all about Yahweh continuing to make a way to draw near to humanity. While it may seem intangible to us in a modern context, Leviticus is not just an account of things that happened in the past. It’s instructive for us today, teaching us what it takes to draw near to God.
In part four (55:30-1:04:33), Tim and Jon conclude by talking about reading the Bible sympathetically. This means we enter into the story of the Bible with our disbelief suspended. If we choose to assume the validity of what we’re reading, we will find a compelling story. This is not to say that we have to ignore the questions we naturally have when we read an ancient document from a people and culture entirely different from ours. Rather, we want to hold our questions with sympathy for the biblical authors and a desire to understand what they have to say to us.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Tyler Bailey. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by MacKenzie Buxman and Ashlyn Heise.
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