The book of Leviticus has been the death of countless millions of well-meaning Bible reading resolutions. If the second half of the book of Exodus drags, with its detailed descriptions of the furniture of the tabernacle, the book of Leviticus is the sequel that bombs, a volume devoted to arcane minutiae about the sacrifice of animals, cleansing after sexual discharges and ancient skin diseases, agricultural feasts, and ceremonies for installing priests into office. Much of the book is given over to details about sacrifices that seem totally irrelevant to us: What animal should be offered? What sex must it be? What age? Who should offer it? When? In what manner? How should it be cut up and divided? How should the pieces be arranged? What shall be done with the blood? How should it be cooked? Who shall eat it? Where shall they eat it? Within what period of time should it be eaten?
When you actually start to get to grips with the symbolism of Leviticus all of these details slowly begin to make more sense, and Leviticus can even become a profoundly fascinating book. However, before we do so, there are still some very broad and incredibly important lessons to draw from it. Perhaps one of the greatest of all of these is that God is a god for whom the body is important.
For the God who gave us the book of Leviticus, skin diseases, genital emissions, blood, flesh, items of furniture, buildings and architecture, harvests and the cycles of the seasons, geography, garments, the shape of animals’ hooves, cooking utensils, the way that men trim their beards, and the like are all charged with meaning and symbolism. Far from the god of abstract and elevated theological truth that we were looking for, we find the God for whom the sweating body and the dust that cleaves to it are of inescapable significance, the God for whom word always becomes flesh.
Many Christians over the years, discomforted with the raw physicality of the book of Leviticus, have characterized the emphasis that it places upon bodily rites as a mere accommodation to the spiritual dullness of man: deaf through sin and human frailty to elevated divine truths, God had to descend to the weakness of fleshly men in mute gestures, a rough body language conveying truths that would otherwise elude feeble minds of clay. Now that we have reached a greater maturity in Christ, we can largely dispense with such physical ceremonies and deal with God’s truth more immediately. We still have sacraments, but in an ideal world, things would be otherwise…
I believe that such an understanding is misleading.
The body is the location where world and self meet. It is at once both subject and object, the fragile interweaving of inside and out. As bodies we are always embedded in and expressed by a world and culture that precedes us, single threads in a vast fabric of cultured physicality. The body is the great site of meaning, the means by which we are inscribed into a world and culture, and related to others. The body is the place where desire answers call, where nature is cultured, where other and self interface. A truth that doesn’t embed itself in the world of the body, in the gut, the bones, and the memory of our muscles, is not yet a truth for us at all.
In the book of Leviticus, God addresses his people in the world of their bodies and materiality, declaring his presence among them and catching their bodies up in a ceremonial choreography. He reveals himself to be a God who dwells in a world of skin and sinew, of place and thing, rather than merely in an airy ‘spirituality’ and lofty theological notions. For this reason, the book of Leviticus is an anticipation of the incarnation: that a God so concerned with flesh should become flesh in Jesus Christ is at once the most surprising yet fitting truth of all. Immanuel – God with us – not just in ‘spirit’ but in very human flesh.
Stand up and become aware of your body: its weight and balance, its heartbeat and rhythms, its movements, its appearance and clothed presentation, its frailty and strength, its private and public aspects, its internal and external sensations, its varied forms of perception, its appetites and desires. This is the reality to which God addresses his truth. This is the nature that the Son of God took to himself.
In the book of Leviticus, the presence of God is known and encountered in the physical and material world of the body. The most spiritual truths are embedded most firmly in the corporeal. God’s way of acting hasn’t changed. God delivered us from our sin through a flayed and bloody body nailed to a wooden cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem, a pierced corpse laid in a garden tomb, a body resurrected from death to new life, and a stone rolled away from the entrance to a grave. God brings us into his family by washing our bodies and claiming them as his temple, the place of his presence. He welcomes us to a table, where he feeds us bread and wine, offering us the flesh and blood of his Son.
Yet so often our bodies are disengaged from our Christian faith. We have little sense of a truth that strikes down into the very core of our flesh, which claims that flesh for a future resurrection, and which calls us to devote the service of our bodies to him. The water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Supper are not seen to invite our bodies into the life of the kingdom that, resurrected, they will one day taste in full. Instead they become pictures of ideas, a divine flannelgraph for theological truths.
It is here that the book of Leviticus has much to teach us. It is a statement of intent by a God who wants to take flesh to himself, who wishes for the world of our physicality to be flooded with the life of his presence and to be ordered to his worship and truth. The fulfilment of the animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus is not mere spiritual intent or abstract truths about the atonement, but the offering of faithful human bodies in Christ, washed and brought near to God’s altar, divided by the two-edged sword of God’s word, one day ascending to God’s presence in the smoke of the Spirit.
‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.’ – Romans 12:1