What Leviticus Teaches Modern Priests

In Genesis, humans share the Author of Life’s garden … for a while. God later misses humans so much that He dwelled with liberated slaves in dusty tents — the tabernacle. Later, Solomon constructed a “permanent” tabernacle that was later razed. A second temple then rose, then fell.

Meanwhile, a smaller (yet greater) Temple fell … and rose again within three days.

Wild.

First-century Jewish followers of Christ were startled by the implication that the Temple now lived in them. Perhaps some adios’ed upon hearing that, similar to those who gave the “weird eye and goodbye” upon hearing they should eat Christ’s flesh.

Maybe more left after learning that Gentiles now shared their inheritance.

“Not just anyone can be a priest,” they might have said.

Gentiles: “Wait. What? Priest?”

Perhaps Peter sighed before informing Gentile converts: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Confused? We have a guide to priesthood.

Many believe that the strange rules of Leviticus applied only to the priestly tribe of Levi. The book’s original name is Wayyiqra’, which means “and he called.” What did God call the Israelites to be? A kingdom of priests. The tabernacle- and temple-specific duties were given to the tribe of Levi, but all Israelites were to behave like priests.

I know. Leviticus is among the most avoided books of the Bible. It seems boring and restrictive, and it’s been twisted to support evil agendas. It’s misunderstood.

Imperfect summary: Leviticus instructs priests how to treat everything as sacred so humans can live in the presence of The Holy.

[Jesus acts as the High(est) Priest. Leviticus taught us, “Don’t touch that.” Jesus taught us, Here’s how to touch that.”]

Followers of Christ are mini-tabernacles; the Holiest of Holies dwells within us. But I think many of us in the modern church have forgotten our roles as royal priests. Sure, the specifics like sacrifice and festivals aren’t required for Christians — and we can dwell with God much more directly thanks to Jesus — but there’s still much to learn from the priests of old to help us be the priests of today.

Leviticus emphasizes ritual. By performing all things with intention and attention to detail, priests blurred the lines between spiritual and secular. Rituals heightened this attention (and also emphasized the mystery of God). Levite priests viewed all things through a sacred lens. Today, we move too quickly and with distraction to appreciate that all things have meaning worthy of attention. Sometimes I wonder if the Protestant church has moved too far from ritual.

Leviticus emphasizes gratitude. The first three sacrifices in Leviticus describe ways of showing gratitude to and even fellowship with God. Also, the repetition of Leviticus drives some crazy, but we must remember that it was designed to be memorized, and it stresses an important line: “I am Adonai, who makes you holy, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Adonai.” I once heard that “To be Jewish is to remember.” The priests are to remember why they serve God. Do we worship Him because of what He might do for us, or because of what He has already done?

Leviticus emphasizes the sanctity of life. Life-affirming elements were treated with gravity. Women were given space after birth, semen and menstrual blood and all other blood were recognized as life forces, sex was revered as an intensely powerful force. It’s tempting to think of these matters as pure science, biology. But it is through Christ’s blood that we have been forgiven, and through sex that we become creators of life.

Leviticus emphasizes stewardship. Humans were not to ravage animal populations to satisfy desire — not even fruit trees. Death demanded respect. Leviticus even commands a Sabbath year to give the land rest from exploitation, and warns the land could vomit out defiling inhabitants! Today, we abuse the land and its creatures through mega-industrial farming and unethical slaughter, and climate change is destroying us. Shouldn’t the church take a stance? We’ve strayed far from the original charge to co-rule over creation.

Leviticus emphasizes rest. Not only for the land, but for people, too. The kingdom of priests was to rest often, reminding themselves they are humans and not only “doers,” reminding themselves that God provides, reminding themselves that this world was made to be enjoyed. Creation is not complete until it’s enjoyed.

Leviticus emphasizes peace. The sex codes helped harmonize the household and the sacrifice system defended against anxiety. In a time when other religions always felt the need to sacrifice more to appease gods — including killing their own children — Leviticus says there is no need. Sacrifices are detailed in purpose and limitations, and sacrifices don’t “sway” God or forgive sins. Today, we live in the joy of the ultimate sacrifice, but often forget how radical that concept is.

Leviticus emphasizes love for one’s neighbor, stranger, and enemy. The poor, disabled, widowed and orphaned (major deal in ancient culture), and foreigner were to be cared for. Justice was to be fair and food left out for the needy. There were specific, resource-sacrificing rituals for apologizing for an offense. Love was radical. Today, we’ve dropped our guard against the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” We also seek our own safety — personally and nationally — over the safety of others, including enemies.

Leviticus emphasizes humility. The Levite priests themselves were set apart, but their job was not fun. It was grueling and even scary, and the laws prevented them from using their positions for selfish power, plus ensured they lived with dignity. Today, we uphold many leaders as above us rather than holding them to a tighter standard. Also, we disrespect our status as priests and temples through a variety of things, including diet, lack of exercise, loose lips, etc.

Leviticus emphasizes social responsibility. Communal sacrifices and ways of mourning as a community are described in Leviticus. The kingdom of priests was shown how to demonstrate remorse for communal wrongs. How different would our world be today if we engaged in corporate responsibility for wrongs? How different would today be if we all united in beating back the pandemic?

Leviticus emphasizes time and space. Certain months and days have special meaning, and particular spaces were treated with reverence. That included entering spaces with the right headspace, as one might enter a yoga room with only “positive vibes.” This also includes the separation of some (“unclean,” “impure”) items from sacred spaces, which is not as strange as it sounds. (You don’t put a steak in an operating room. The steak isn’t “evil,” but it just doesn’t belong there.) The tabernacle was a “micro cosmos” (microcosm) of Eden, and so one entered its tents with awe and a pursuit of perfection. Do we commit ourselves to getting in a respectful mindset before entering spaces of worship?

Leviticus emphasizes mercy. At the heart of the tabernacle was the Mercy Seat; at the heart of the Levite priests’ world was mercy. Annually, on the Day of Atonement, the entire kingdom of priests’ inability to achieve perfection was forgiven. Another day — 2,000 years ago  — the ultimate atonement covered all of our sins. Amen, my dudes. Practice the same mercy for all others, as image bearers of Him.

In their ordination, Levite priests had blood dabbed on their right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe: hear Him, act for Him, move toward Him.

Let’s.