Leviticus is a singular book in the Bible. The name ‘Leviticus’ is a reference to the Hebrew tribe of Levi, charged with priestly service. In a sense, Leviticus is a handbook containing religious prescriptions for the priesthood.
So what can we learn from the first chapter of Leviticus that is relevant for our understanding of Christian politics, religious freedom and social transformation?
Essentially, Leviticus is a legal code and is structured as such. As a political scientist, I use to find law books rather boring. However, Leviticus is more than a simple enumeration of laws, rules, prescriptions and rituals, for a number of reasons. First, because Leviticus contains both the rules and real life illustrations of when these rules are applied incorrectly (for example in Chapter 10). If only contemporary legal documents would include this kind of illustrations, this would contribute greatly to their understanding!
Second, because everything in this book is directly inspired by God Himself. Of course, all of the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but this is especially underlined in the book of Leviticus. In fact, almost every chapter in the book of Leviticus starts with the phrase: “And the LORD spoke to Moses.” This legal book is not just a set of rules designed to make society function better, which is how laws are normally designed. Leviticus is totally different: it’s God’s own Words written down by His servant Moses, giving Leviticus a deeper, trascendental meaning.
The first verse of Leviticus 1 is even more spectacular: “And the LORD called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation.” This verse is yet one more affirmation that God is a personal, relational God, who directly speaks to one of His servants, in this case Moses.
The place God speaks is reavealing too. He does not simply speak to Moses from an open field or somewhere in the desert, or any other random place. The verse says He spoke “out of the tabernacle of the congregation”, also referred to as the “Tent of Meeting” in the book of Numbers where it functions as the place for divine revelation to Moses. The tabernacle was the portable holy place of the Hebrews before it was replaced by the Temple. The tabernacle was also the place where the Ark of the Covenant was housed.
This feature reminds us that God is a God of covenants, a God of kept promises. It also indicates how society should be organized, according to God’s relational nature. The covenant between God and His people should be mirrored by other social covenants such as marriage and the family, the Church, the political community, and even society itself.
The Christian covenantal view of society – Christians politics – is radically opposite to the secular contractual view of society, which denies the intrinsically moral meanings of social institutions. In God’s plan, human relations are morally structured. Society is, or should also be, a moral commonwealth (see Kuiper, 2009). Marriage is not a contract, but a pact of commitment and love, expressing God’s love rather than a mere contractual of two people deciding to temporarily share their lives.
What makes Leviticus different from any other law book is that it embraces the relational and covenantal nature of God, and His design for society. The former also has huge implications for our understanding of religious freedom. Real religious freedom can only exist if the true covenantal nature of social institutions is respected, i.e. if society is designed in such a way that God’s relational love can be fully expressed through social covenants.
Leviticus 1 is about one particular type of offering: the burnt offering. Beyond the very detailed instructions on how to perform this ritual – God is a God of order and precision – we should never forget that offerings are about redemption and thanksgiving. Offerings were the way in the Old Testament “to make atonement”, to restore the covenant with, broken because of our sins (v. 4). Speaking of social transformation, this is a very powerful message: social transformation can only be brought about through offering, the final redemptive offering of Jesus Christ.
The burnt offering is also special because “he shall offer it of his own voluntary will” and at a specific place: “at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD” (v. 3), i.e. at the exact location of God’s covenant with us. That is how and where we can find redemption and restore this Holy Covenant for ourselves and for society. “It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD” (v. 13 and v. 17). Amen.