Drawing Near to God: An Introduction to Leviticus
Leviticus is the central book of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Not only is the book centrally placed, but Leviticus addresses the central concern of all of Scripture: God dwelling with his people. From creation to redemption to new creation, God is working to make a way to dwell with humanity.
Leviticus is distinct from the other five books of the Pentateuch, but together they reveal who the Lord is and how he works. These five books work in conjunction with one another to address these themes. As such, we begin reading Leviticus by considering how it continues in line with Genesis and Exodus to address how God will dwell with his people.
In Genesis, Adam and Eve walk with God. They dwell with him in the garden paradise, but then they fall from his presence due to their rebellion against him. Genesis 3-11 recounts how forsaking God’s presence leads to ever-worsening sin on earth. Then in Genesis 12, God promises Abraham the hope of once again dwelling with him (Gen. 12:1-3; cf. Gal. 3:14). Genesis, however, ends with this chosen family in Egypt, far from the promised land and with their patriarch dying.
Exodus picks up this account in Egypt and tells how the Lord redeemed his people through the blood of the passover lamb and through the waters of the Red Sea. He accomplished this great redemption in order that he might dwell among his people (Exod. 29:45-46).
Genesis explains the why - the reason people are no longer in God’s presence. Exodus explains the where - God will be particularly present in the tabernacle. Now, Leviticus explains the how - the way God’s people may enter into his presence.
The bookends of Leviticus highlight that God alone can make a way for his people to dwell with him. Like a good movie setting up a sequel, Exodus ends with an unexpected plot twist that leaves the reader hanging. After all the emphasis on the tabernacle and God dwelling among his people, we read: “And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). God’s glorious presence — the goal of the tabernacle — is the very thing that keeps Moses from drawing near to God. If Moses cannot draw near to God, then there remains no hope for anyone else to come into the Lord’s presence. Exodus ends with this question of how one can come before the Lord.
The first verse of Leviticus continues to highlight this separation. “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). God is in the tabernacle, in his dwelling place, but Moses is outside. The Lord calls to Moses from inside the tent and begins to explain the way into his presence: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock” (Leviticus 1:2). From here, the Lord makes clear in Leviticus that he must be approached on his terms: through sacrifices and the priesthood that offers them. And, the Lord’s people will be a holy people, distinct from the nations around them.
On the other side of Leviticus, Numbers 1:1 highlights the difference that God’s gracious provision of a way to him makes. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1). The Lord now speaks to Moses in the tent of meeting. The tabernacle is no longer just God’s dwelling, now it is the tent of meeting, where the people can draw near to him even as they journey in the wilderness.
As Leviticus describes how the Lord makes a way for his people to meet with him, two key themes emerge that reinforce the need for and the graciousness of God’s making a way: holiness and atonement.
Holiness. God’s holiness speaks to both his distinctiveness as the one true God and to the purity of his moral character. He alone is God, and he always does what is right. In his holiness, God is like a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Like the sun, God’s holiness is both powerful and pure., and like the sun it gives life but consumes anything that comes too close. God desires to dwell with his people, but the tension is that his holiness consumes the impurity of human sin. In our sinfulness, we all are like Moses, waiting outside the tent lest we be consumed by God’s holy presence.
Atonement. The resolution God provides to this tension of his holiness and his desire to live among his sinful people is atonement. The various sacrifices outlined throughout Leviticus serve as means of atonement, and the center of the book in chapters 16-17 is the great yearly feast called the Day of Atonement. The central goal of atonement is reconciliation. Atonement brings “at-one-ment” between the Lord and people. Leviticus sets forth how God reconciles humanity to himself as he uses sacrifices as the means of atonement. The Lord sets up these sacrifices as the way to pay for sin, to appease his wrath, and to purify from sin. God’s people are called to hear his word and respond in faith by offering the sacrifices described in Leviticus.
The Lord speaks the words of Leviticus to Moses shortly after the construction of the tabernacle. This occurs during the first year of the Exodus while the people of Israel are camped at the base of Mount Sinai. In Exodus, the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, but now the tabernacle has replaced the mountain as the place where God dwells with his people.
The New Testament affirms that Moses wrote Leviticus. Generally, the New Testament points to Moses as the author of the whole of the Pentateuch. More specifically, Luke cites legislation from Leviticus and refers to it as the Law of Moses (Luke 2:2). Paul cites Leviticus 18:5 and attributes it to Moses (Rom. 10:5). Jesus himself refers to regulations in Leviticus as being from Moses (e.g. Matt. 8:4).
Leviticus details a number of sacrifices as the way God gave the Israelites to draw near to him. As Michael Morales explains, “Worship through sacrifice was a journey into the Presence of God. . . . The term ‘offering’ (qorbān) is built from the Hebrew root qrb, which means ‘to draw near.’” Worship through sacrifice is about drawing near to God. In the first seven chapters of Leviticus, the Lord gives Moses five sacrifices that the Israelites should offer: ascension (burnt) offering, tribute offering, peace offering, purification (sin) offering, and reparation (guilt) offering.
Ascension (Lev. 1:3-17) - The entire animal is consumed by fire, showing full consecration to the Lord. A ‘sweet aroma pleasing to the Lord’ rises from this sacrifice, pointing to the appeasement of God’s wrath (Gen. 8:20-21; 2 Sam. 24:24-25; 2 Chrn. 3:1).
Tribute (Lev. 2:1-16) - This was a grain or cereal offering that expressed thankfulness and a desire to obey.
Peace (Lev. 3:1-17) - This is the only offering where the sacrificer joined in eating with the priests. This was a meal of communion in God’s presence.
Purification (Lev. 4:1-5:13) - This sacrifice was about cleansing from the defilement of sin. The spreading of blood was central to this rite.
Reparation (Lev. 5:14-26) - This sacrifice signified the payment for sin. It demonstrated the satisfaction needed for sin.
The goal of these sacrifices is reconciliation with God. In these sacrifices, we see that God gracious allows a substitute in place of those who sin. The substitute must be without blemish, which signifies the moral purity needed to be with God.
Blood is another prominent feature in many of these sacrifices. In Leviticus 17:11, the Lord says, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” This principle of the life being in the blood is key to understanding the role of blood in these sacrifices. The language of atonement speaks of both ransom and purification. The blood signifies that the sacrificer is offering one’s very life to God. Because life is in the blood, blood also serves as a cleansing agent. Sin brings death, but the life that is in the blood purifies from death. The sinfulness of humanity means that there can be no atonement without death.
New Testament Connection
Leviticus is about the holy God making a way for his people to dwell in his presence. In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the way to the Father. God the Father provides God the Son as the way for his people to draw near to him by God the Spirit. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice that reconciles the holy God and people. As people trust in the work of Christ, God reconciles them to himself and indwells them by the Holy Spirit. The truths foreshadowed in the tabernacle, sacrifices, priesthood, and purity laws all come to fulfillment in Christ.
In 2019, Lakewood Baptist Church (Gainesville, GA) is reading through portions of the Old Testament together. This article is part of a series of introductions written for each book. For more information, see the Lakewood OT19 Page.