Israel had come out of Egyypt after 400 years of slavery, as God had foretold to Abraham in Genesis 15. Moses had delivered them from Pharoah with the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. God had officially made them into his chosen nation when He gave them the 10 Commandments and the Book of the Law at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19-23. They will camp at Mt. Sinai for about a year as they build the tabernacle. While at Sinai, God will give them more instructions they must follow to be his holy nation. These instructions are found in the book of Leviticus.
The theme of Leviticus is: “Be ye holy as I am holy” (11:45; 20:26). The word “holy” means “set apart”. If Israel is to be set apart from the other nations, they must observe His special laws for moral and ritual purity.
God initiated a system of animal sacrifices (Ch 1-7) that would horrify animal lovers of today. The blood of animals would “atone” for or “cover” the sins of the people. A poor, innocent animal would die for their sins. These animal sacrifices would not permanently take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4), but they would “cleanse the sins of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13), keeping them in good standing as a member of the nation. Much like our keeping of the laws of the land today. This system of animal sacrifices required a system of priests appointed by God to offer those sacrifices (Hebrews 5:1-4). A high priest would be chosen, with Aaron as the 1st, and his sons as priests. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle where the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat of God was located. The high priest would have special duties, especially on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for Israel (Ch 16). On that day, the high priest would make two trips into the Holy of Holies, the first to offer animal blood for his sins, and then the second to offer blood for the sins of the people. He would then transfer the sins of the people onto a “scapegoat” that he would drive off into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people away for yet another year.
The book of Hebrews tells the typology and symbolism of this Day of Atonement. Jesus is the High Priest in the new covenant. He entered the Holy of Holies of the new covenant, which is in heaven where God sits, to offer His own blood which would provide for the atonement of sins past, present, and future. He did not need to make two trips, since he had no sins of his own. He did not need to repeat this year after year: His offering of His blood would cover sins “once for all time” (Heb 9:12). He would be a high priest after the order of Melchizadek, not Levi (Heb 7 and Psalm 110). The Hebrew writer is showing the Jews of his day that they have a superior high priest in Jesus because, unlike their priests of the old covenant, He is not a sinner himself and He will not die and need to be replaced. That change of the priesthood required a change of the Law. That old Law of Moses was “ready to disappear” when the book of Hebrews was written in the early 60’s AD. In 70 AD, God would send the Romans to destroy the temple. They also destroyed the genealogy tables, thus preventing any priests from qualifying to be priests from then on (Ezra 2:61-63). No temple has been rebuild and no animal sacrifices offered since 70 AD. Hebrews 9:8 says that the way into the new holy place had not yet been fully disclosed while the old tabernacle (by the time of writing, the temple not tabernacle) was still standing. God, in one final act of sending the Romans to destroy the temple, would show in 70 AD that the old covenant system was done away with and that the new covenant was the permanent way of salvation, not just for the Jews, but for all Jews and Gentiles who would trust in Jesus’ offering of Himself for their sins. It is amazing to me how many Christians and theologians still look for that temple to be rebuilt in our future even though God made it clear that He was through with that system.
Leviticus 23 gives the 7 feasts that the Jews were to observe every year. These feasts commemorated their history, reminding them of God’s redemption of Israel from slavery. In the spring in the first month of their calendar there was the Passover feast (and Unleavened Bread) reminding them of God passing over their houses, sparing the death of their firstborn in Egypt. 50 days later was the feast of Pentecost where they offered their first fruits. In the 7th month was their Feast of Trumpets, or New Year’s Day for them. In the middle of that 7th month was the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles where they would live in booths for 7 days, reminding them of their time in the wilderness. These feasts were, for the most part, joyous times even though they also involved the offering of animal sacrifices and the first fruits of their harvests.
God gave them many laws for remaining holy or set apart from the other nations. Some of those laws seem to be given for health purposes and to avoid the spread of disease. There were laws for eating only clean meats (Ch 11). Jesus would later say that food eaten does not defile a man, but it is what comes out of the heart of a man that defiles him (Matthew 15). The new covenant allows eating of all meats (2 Timothy 4:1-4) even though some “Christian” groups today still don’t allow the eating of unclean meats. There were laws for the diagnosis and treatment of skin diseases and leprosy (Ch 13,14). Leprosy was a big problem back then, and could be spread. There were laws for moral purity and social justice, such as caring for the poor and the handicapped, sexual integrity, justice in the court system, etc. (Ch 19). 19:18 gives the command that Jesus quotes, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, the 2nd of the greatest commandments of the Law. They were especially warned not to offer their children to the god Molech of the Moabites. Amazingly, King Manasseh of Judah actually violated that command. Lands were to be left fallow (unplanted) every 7th year (the Sabbatical year). All debts were to be cancelled and all lands returned to their original owners every 50th year in the Year of Jubilee. In this way, Jews could “rent out themselves and their land” in hard times, and yet get to start over without losing their land. The rich would not get richer while the poor got poorer. The law for kinsman redeemer (25:25-34) would even allow a closest relative to redeem or buy back property for a relative, as Boaz did for Naomi and Ruth. You might think of the laws of the Jews as just animal sacrifices for sins, but it was a complete law system for caring for one another and social justice also.
Someone once said: the book of Exodus was getting Israel out of Egypt and the book of Leviticus was getting Egypt out of Israel. Peter tells Christians (1 Peter 1:16-17) that they are to be “holy as God is holy” just as God commanded Israel in Leviticus. God wants Christians to be set apart from unbelievers. He wants us to remain pure, to love others, and to practice social justice. He removed a lot of the rituals and replaced them with common sense principles. The best part is that we don’t have to keep the laws of the new covenant perfectly to be saved. The blood of Jesus cleanses us continually if we walk in the light (1 John 1:7). We are saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus’ offering.