I never enjoy getting to Leviticus in any systematic reading, just too much weirdness going on for me, and far too many questions that I have no answer to. I am ever so glad that we have a New Testament! Sacrifices are very central in Leviticus, and it could be easy to read the instructions there as informing us that God demands sacrifice otherwise there will be no forgiveness, maybe even to push it further in our thinking that God needs to be appeased. That is a not uncommon perspective in religions that are outside of the Judeo-Christian faith, and probably sneakily creeps into our own hearts at time, with a ‘how will I get on the good side of God’.
Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure (Heb. 10:5,6).
God does not desire sacrifices! It is certainly possible that God never put in the sacrificial system that we read of in Leviticus (we do not have ‘I command you to do this…’ but a more gentle ‘when you do this…’); it is possible that given the ancient culture God is accommodating what they were already expecting culturally to do, thus with that reading God would be using something already in place but adjusting the content in a direction more fitting. We see this with Paul’s use of the patterns from the day of the ‘household codes’, where he addresses (as other authors do) the male head of the household who is the husband, father and master. He does not abolish the culture but injects meaning into the structure that was already culturally set for every household. If this be so we can go a little easy on ‘God demands sacrifice’. (The Septuagint, in use in Jesus’ day, has in Leviticus 4 the introductory word ‘if’… if anyone brings a sacrifice, suggesting that an offering will be brought, and any instruction that follows is to modify and clarify, rather than to stipulate that an sacrifice is to be made.)
Most of the sacrifices have nothing to do with any form of ‘appeasement’ for sin. They are celebratory of fellowship with God. We do come across, though, the sin offering in Leviticus. The sin offering that Mary, mother of Jesus made in the Jerusalem Temple! A sin offering by the mother of our Lord, that sin offering being prescribed for post-birth (Lk. 2:24; Lev. 12:8). Where is the sin that needed to be forgiven in the conception, carrying of and subsequent birth of the Holy One? That should alert us somewhat that we should not be thinking ‘bad deed done’, God not happy, make an offering, God now happy again!!!!
Many scholars, and now a few translations, move right away from the word ‘sin offering’, and go for something along the lines of ‘purification / cleansing offering’. Ancient worlds are not our world, but it would seem cleansing is the real issue. Child-birth is messy, it is bloody, and common with all bodily discharges there was the need for some cleansing, almost some ‘spiritual detergent’ needs to be applied.
Jumping to the New Testament we read that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through being cleansed:
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us (Acts 15:8,9).
Peter was no longer to call unclean what God had cleansed and his fellow-Jews rejoiced that,
God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18).
What a lovely phrase… a repentance that leads to life. Cleansing meant that they could receive the Holy Spirit and come on to the life path. No more labouring unsuccessfully on the ‘right / wrong’, ‘I will do better’ path. Life is opened up for the Gentiles also… the necessary element being that of cleansing.
Hebrews 9:22 read a little more carefully lays this cleansing element as being necessary and that blood was (is) the way for that cleansing to take place. If not read carefully we read that forgiveness is not possible without blood, and that can lead us down the line of ‘God demanding sacrifice’. Forgiveness (and here I pull on the ‘being loosed from something that ties us down, refusing to allow us to progress’) requires that we are cleansed. Here is the text:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
No forgiveness of sins, without blood… but why? Because blood purifies. The Old Testament use of blood has a cultural element to it, but the purification through the blood of Jesus goes ever so deep:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb. 9:13, 14).
How does the blood of Jesus purify? That might be something very hard to grasp but the depth of the cleansing that comes through the cross is very real. The blood of goats and bulls purified the flesh, the blood of Jesus purifies the conscience. A deep cleansing, a healing of the soul, something that offers us a new heart, a new core to our being, the Holy Spirit within, a door open to walk the path of life.
He died that we might live, truly live. God does not demand sacrifice in order to forgive; we need the sacrifice, the self-giving of Jesus, the self-giving of the Triune God to break the cycle of death and sin, we need that sacrifice to cleanse us within.