Ironically, the priestly and sanctuary laws of Leviticus have been slandered in church history as burdens given to an obstinate people to fill their lives with misery. The Epistle of Barnabas (not by Barnabas, of course), written somewhere around 100 CE, quotes every verse that can be taken to mean that the sacrificial system of Israel was not God’s true will and intention. “Barnabas” says, “He wants us to seek how we may approach him, rather than going astray like they did.” In 16:2 he criticizes the Temple service itself as being too similar to pagan worship in temples, saying, “For they, almost like the heathen, consecrated him by means of the Temple.”
Likewise, Justin Martyr, slanders the sanctuary worship of Leviticus in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (written sometime after 150). He says the law was given to Jewish people “on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts” (XVIII). Of the sacrificial system in general he says “it was for the sins of your own nation, and for their idolatries and not because there was any necessity for such sacrifices” (XXII). He says, and he is able to quote Ezekiel 20:25 as a proof-text, that God gave many of the laws to the Jewish people as a burden and punishment and also because Jewish people were capable of less faith than other peoples and required elaborate physical systems of symbolism (XXI).
I say that this slander against the purity and sacrifice laws of Leviticus is ironic because in them there is so much grace. Yet instead of seeing grace, the newly forming church from the nations imagined these laws were the “ministry of death” referred to by Paul (2 Cor 3:7). Actually, the purity laws are anti-death.
The sanctuary laws of Leviticus are grace because God wants to dwell with his people.
The sanctuary laws of Leviticus are grace because God overcomes the barrier between humanity and deity.
The sanctuary laws of Leviticus are grace because God teaches people to draw near and makes it possible.
The sanctuary laws of Leviticus are grace because God condemns violence, evil, lying, and all kinds of harm.
The sanctuary laws of Leviticus are grace because God lets it be known that death may not come near to his Presence.
Grace means “favor” and the priestly and purity laws are signs of immense favor for humanity from the Eternal. The sanctuary service is beautiful. Moderns might object to the slaughtering of animals or denounce the Temple as bloody. But people slaughter animals anyway. The Temple service gave meaning to the slaughter of animals for food and for worship. You could even say that the Temple service teaches the coming end of all slaughter, a day when death will disappear for humans and for animals.
As for the idea of ritual, while some moderns may object to ceremony and regulations about how rituals are to be performed, this prejudice against sacrament is far from universal. Most societies have elaborate ceremonies and rituals. Even the very non-Jewish churches which “Barnabas” and Justin saw forming were ritual-heavy (making their denunciation of Jewish ritual even more absurd). The mass of the Catholic church had its origins early and is very ceremonial, based (ironically) on Leviticus.
We ought not read Leviticus the way Justin or “Barnabas” did. We should learn, rather, to see the Presence, the redemption, the union with God, the denunciation of all evil, and the proclamation of the end of death and suffering that is inherent in the Temple service.
More to come…